May 6, 2005

Free Amusement, Help from the Opposition, A New and Exciting Applicant, More Stickers, I Want This Bumper Sticker, Those Unmentionables Again, More Jomanda, Norwegian Test of Homeopathy, Do It and Win, Hot Cold News, Welcome Gratitude, A Hex Up for Fixing, A Succinct Comment, Correction Correction, and Science — Church Style....


Table of Contents:


FREE AMUSEMENT

Here's a site at which you can enter in an ailment and receive — free! — a homeopathic suggestion for relief! Have some fun at www.abchomeopathy.com by entering in your problems. I entered in "doubt" as my symptom, and I was informed that a dilution of Agnus castus would relieve — in their words — "doubt that something exists" and/or "doubt about self-existence." I'm not troubled by that latter one, but I have serious doubts about the existence of homeopathy. I'm sure you don't doubt that I doubt that...

By the way, Agnus castus is a flowering weed that homeopathy says is supposed to bring about the opposite effect of Viagra. Go figure....


HELP FROM THE OPPOSITION

Reader Mark Graham sent me a site to look at, the "Magi Society." I did so, and immediately recognized just how valuable it is to us at the JREF. Click in on www.benevolentdesign.com/astro_genetics/astrology_genetics.htm, look it over — until nausea starts to set in — and then read this note I sent to them:

Thank you! The lengthy article titled, "Benevolent Design," provides us with an excellent example of collective naivety. The abysmal misunderstanding of science, rationality, and logic that is expressed there, could not have been better organized nor stated.

I'll provide a link to this text, so that my readers may better understand the depth of ignorance to which believers in astrology have descended, and will perhaps be able to see more clearly the difficulties that the JREF faces in trying to overcome the medieval approach employed by these purveyors of nonsense.

You'll note the technique here in the "Benevolent Design" article of dropping in "big" names and important genuine discoveries in science, to provide a veneer of authenticity — which peels away as soon as the author tries to apply his argument. It's very much the way the "creationist" advocates try to sell their case, and this may be another approach of the "intelligent design" gang; consider the title of the article... And there's another technique used here, as well. Consider the following seven statements contained in this long — 2,318 words — article:

1. ...what scientists are really telling us is that if we do not have great genes, then our children are screwed because they will not have great genes.

2. This would mean that unless we have great genes, our children would not be very talented.

3. If genes were as important as scientists assert, it would mean that all average parents are screwed because average parents would have no chance of having super talented children.

4. And children of average parents would also be screwed.

5. You see, what the scientists are really saying is: IF YOU DO NOT HAVE GREAT GENES, THEN YOUR CHILDREN WILL NOT HAVE GREAT GENES — AND YOUR CHILDREN ARE SCREWED.

6. Scientists never put it that way but that is what they are really saying when they say that we are the product of our genes.

7. How sad that would be! That is a horrible message but that is what scientists are really saying when they say we inherit our abilities from our parents' genes.

I admit that I played a trick on you here. All these seven statements are not only exactly the same statement differing merely by the arrangement of the words, but they occur all written together in the text in exactly this sequence, as shown! That's all one 164-word repetition of an assertion that is, in itself, wrong. Science does not say that we are only "the product of our genes." The many and varied influences — environment, education, nourishment, experienced events — that are brought to bear on the basic human mechanism, determine much of our characteristics. Not to in any way devalue it, but the DNA pattern is only that — a basic template upon which a human being shapes up.

We also find this canard stated in this exceedingly naïve article:

Scientists are convinced that the key to our individuality and abilities lie in the 10 thousand or so genes that are in our chromosomes.

Just five paragraphs after the repetitious sequence quoted above, we find yet another re-statement of the error! But here, even the number is wrong; there are 20,000 to 25,000 genes in the human chromosome. And, as I've written above, the pattern is one thing, the finished product another.

You'll find other outrageous errors and lies in the article, but you should reflect on the simple reason why it was prepared and published: the astrologers are besieged by reality. Every day brings another example of the failure of this ancient claptrap, and the practitioners are increasingly panicked as the facts close in on them. It's true that there will always be a fraction of the public who will continue to embrace the myth, but Darwinian principles encourage us to be assured that those who do so, are not as apt to survive and reproduce as those who meet and handle the reality. Hold onto that....

Some two centuries ago, an English printer and philosopher had a good take on the fuzzy thinking involved in acceptance of such ridiculous ideas as astrology. He wrote:

Mythology is the natural measure of the unenlightened mind; it contains the aspirings of the soul after higher objects, which are beyond its reach, and its efforts to realize the dim images faintly formed in the mind, as the man wandering in darkness strives to give shape to the objects indistinctly seen to connect them together. — Richard Taylor (1781-1858)


A NEW AND EXCITING APPLICANT

Our hearts went pitapat when we received the news that the purveyors/inventors of the LifeWaveTM Patch were all set to snap up the JREF million-dollar prize. This involves a stick-on patch that is said to produce dramatic physical changes in the human body without actually delivering any substances to the system. Look at http://lifewave.com/main to see their product described. They make some characteristically inane and sham-science statements that clearly mark their claims as quackery. Try these three on for size:

....the LifeWaveTM Technology in the patches communicates with the body through the human magnetic field. This is known as frequency modulation and resonant energy transfer.

There's no "human magnetic field." "Frequency modulation" is a broadcasting term and a technology not in any way related to biological processes. "Resonant energy transfer" is sheer technobabble — and not even good technobabble. Next:

The patches contain a patent pending blend including amino acids, water, Oxygen and organics applied to a polyester substrate and sealed inside a polymer shell.

Okay. If it's all sealed up, it appears that these magic ingredients work by "vibrations," which we knew had to be invoked somewhere in the process. No surprise there, at all. And, if these folks were presented with twenty kilos of "amino acids" in a bucket, they'd not know what they were looking at. Then they say:

This is a completely new science and new approach to energy, performance and stamina.

Yes, it's always something that all those bumbling, uninformed, real scientists haven't yet chanced upon, but which has been developed to a high degree by these brave pioneers. One thing I can tell you: it's not "new." It's the same old claptrap supplied with a different name and a different selection of buzz-words. The promoters also say:

LifeWaveTM has been clinically tested at major universities. Double blind placebo controlled studies prove that LifeWaveTM gives you increases in energy and stamina in as quick as the first use.

Ah! Here we have the heart of the matter! I promptly inquired of the proprietors by e-mail:

To Mr. David Schmidt & Dr. Steven Haltiwanger, MD, CCN, of "LifeWave":

Before going further, I note that you make this statement: "LifeWaveTM has been clinically tested at major universities. Double blind placebo controlled studies...." I am very interested in knowing which "major universities" have conducted "double-blind placebo-controlled" "clinical tests" on this invention, and how I might view the results of their tests. Please inform us — and thereby our readers.

To quote from a comment by Mr. Schmidt in the posting just sent to me:

...when LifeWave is proven by Mr. Randi to do what we claim we will be awarded a cash payment of $ 1,000,000, we will be happy to accept this challenge (I will make the assumption here that this cash award will be placed into an escrow account to be released to LifeWave by a third party attorney upon completion of the agreed upon tests).

This statement, Mr. Schmidt, does NOT express the terms of the JREF challenge. I suggest that you READ the terms, and not try to dictate to us the terms that you would prefer. First, nothing has to be proven BY me, nor TO me; read the rules. Second, the payment would not be in cash; the circumstances of awarding the prize are CLEARLY stated in the challenge statement — so that ANYONE should be able to easily understand them. Your "assumption," as stated, is only an assumption; there will be no "escrow" provision, no "third party attorney" will be involved, and in any case, the preliminary test must be completed successfully before any arrangements for the formal test will be discussed. READ THE RULES.

This is ALL CLEARLY STATED, MR. SCHMIDT! You appear incapable or unwilling to read clearly-written rules and provisions. If you continue to display your unwillingness to understand and comply with the terms, we will ignore further postings from you until you recover from that state of recalcitrance. Is that clear?

It would appear that you are looking upon this challenge as some sort of whimsical matter. It is not. We are very serious about it, and we treat it seriously. Please do the same.

DO NOT RESPOND TO ME, PERSONALLY. YOU WILL DEAL WITH MR. KRAMER — kramer@randi.org — from now on. Inform Mr. Kramer of your answer to the question above, before any further correspondence.

James Randi.

This was sent at 9 a.m. on May 1, 2005. We will inform you of any responses....

Curious about the qualifications of Dr. Steven Haltiwanger, MD, CCN (the latter a nutritionist degree), listed by LifeWave, I found that he'd studied under Dr. Hans Nieper, a German doctor/oncologist who described certain varieties of cancer as the result of "tachyon field turbulence of the geopathic zone," and ran on endlessly about "energy fields" and "harnessing useful energy from space," which he referred to as the "tachyon field." Dr. Haltiwanger prescribed extracts of mistletoe and Dionaea muscipula as remedies to treat cancer; that last substance is the Venus Fly Trap plant....

Looking for the accompanying photo of Dr. Nieper, I went to the site http://quanthomme.free.fr/energielibre/chercheurs/CHERCHEURS2.htm, where I found him in such esoteric company as Harold Puthoff and Andrija Puharich (both sponsors of Uri Geller) and Eugene Mallove, Tom Bearden, Evan Soule and Jean-Louis Naudin — these last four deeply involved in "free-energy" machines. I'm sure you can find many other quack-artists in that population.

A month's supply of LifeWave goes for US$89.95, and consists of 30 patches, 15 white and 15 tan-colored, that color selection obviously provided to meet the needs of the fashion-conscious. What you do about the extra day in January, March, May, and four other months, it doesn't say. To obtain more information on this wonderful scientific discovery LifeWave, click in on www.worldwidescam.com.


MORE STICKERS

I wrote last week about an alternate textbook sticker I'd composed and suggested, at www.randi.org/jr/042905some.html#2. Reader Rodney Busch sends us to a site run by Colin Purrington, who teaches evolutionary biology at Swathmore College, and has other similar disclaimers to suggest. Some are disclaimers of disclaimers, says Rodney, a wonderful selection of reductio ad absurdum of the creationists' "scientific" mindset. Go to www.swarthmore.edu/NatSci/cpurrin1/textbookdisclaimers/textbookdisclaimers.pdf

Some great sticker examples you'll find there:

This textbook suggests that the Earth is spherical. The shape of the Earth is a controversial topic, and not all people accept the theory. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

This book discusses gods. The existence of entities with supernatural powers is controversial, and many believe that myths, especially other people's myths, are fictional. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

This book discusses evolution. President George W. Bush said, "On the issue of evolution, the verdict is still out on how God created the Earth." Therefore, until 2008 this material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Adds Rodney:

Though I'm afraid the battle to keep pseudoscience out of school texts will continue long after 2008....

But read this next item....


I WANT THIS BUMPER STICKER

If you want one, too, you can go to the Internet and purchase one, thereby helping to support the Bioliteracy project. The link is http://spot.colorado.edu/~klym/bumper.htm and look in on http://bioliteracy.net while you're there....


THOSE UNMENTIONABLES AGAIN

Re my recent comments on Mormon undies, I received an objection from one of that faith....

I have always really admired your pursuit of the sham artists and helping the gullible people of life. I have visited your website frequently and noticed your MORE UNDIES section (about Mormon Under Garments which directs the reader onto a factually incorrect webpage about the use of the symbols and what they represent). I would love to reply to this and say what these symbols mean but as a Mormon I have taken a covenant and cannot reveal what these mean. If the majority of Mormons who take this covenant keep it, so they cannot talk about it which, this leaves a massive void to be filled. This void is happily filled by those who insert sensationalism and far fetched scenarios which are eaten up by conspiracy theorists and hardened skeptic scholars like yourself. Mormons cannot directly address the incorrect facts you raise as it would mean breaking the covenant so the myths keep on rising. For a man who prides himself on research I really thought this website www.luciferlink.org/mugarments.htm was beyond you, but you have no qualms about just listing it and taking it's content as research as fact. None of these people have been to the LDS Temple and have no first hand knowledge of the garments or what they represent (or the symbols for that matter) so how did they become experts all of a sudden? There are many Ex-Mormons who don't value these covenants and have revealed what these symbols mean (try exmormons.com) for your research. I gather that people have faith in anything you say is 100% true, but I'd like to encourage you to confirm all your facts before backing up the rants of self appointed lunatics who are really just a pack of cheap occult busting hacks.

I wrote this man:

I will publish your comments (without your name, if you prefer) in order to clarify that matter. In any case, this is magical content, which has questionable value no matter what it turns out to be.

At first, he gave approval for the use of his name, then fired off this reversal to me:

Actually, I think removing my name from this may be a good idea... I think I may have revealed too much.

I honored that request, of course. However, I called a friend of mine in Toronto, Canada, who was once a prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and left it some 20 years ago. He's familiar with the "luciferlink" website, and told me that the site's association of the mystery underwear symbols with Masonic "magic" is correct — though the Mormons vigorously deny any such connection.

Gee, I'd love to "confirm all my facts" about these mysteries, but they're buried in those "covenants." Consider the secrecy of this mystical religion. At least Catholicism tells everyone that they believe wine becomes human blood and bread becomes human flesh — if you doubt that, look it up under "transubstantiation." In any case, I hope this ends my involvement with enchanted undies talk. I'm now officially bored with it, and I'm sure you are, too!


MORE JOMANDA

Reader Mario Tamboer, The Netherlands, adds to the sad Silvia Millecam tale:

On the Millecam/Jomanda case, I see Gard Simons will try to translate the official report for you. If you get it and read it, you will see that one of the most damning conclusions in the report is that the family doctor where she spent her final weeks gave no palliative care, none at all. No pain killers, no sleeping pills or mild sedatives, anything for her edema — nothing. If you do an update on the case, you might want to know one fact that isn't in the report, but which one of the doctors involved in the end said on television: part of Silvia Millecam's tissue near her tumor was necrotic when she was brought in — this means part of her body was dead and rotting. This happened while she was in the care of a real MD, the family doctor she spent her final weeks with, who also runs (or ran) an alternative medicine practice. What I did learn from this case is that it's wise to check whether your regular doctor is doing alternative medicine on the side. If he/she does, stay away!

Another piece of information that might interest you is Jomanda's "MO": people would bring so-called "gifts" to Jomanda's sessions. Not gifts for Jomanda, but personal belongings in giftwrap paper. The person bringing the gift did not have to be the owner of the item. In Millecam's case, she was eventually too sick to attend herself, so she sent friends over with "gifts." They were put on a pile and Jomanda would then take a package in her hands, contact "the other side" about it and would then put the package on another pile with other packages. Jomanda had different piles for different ailments — a pile for allergies, one for cancer, one for bacterial infections etc. Millecam's package was — or so people around her claim — never put on the pile for cancer patients, but always ended up on the bacterial infection pile.

Of course, everybody involved swears Jomanda never knew which package belonged to whom. They say she picked them up randomly from the pile where all packages were put initially. My guess is she picked them up about as randomly as the random card a conjuror like yourself would let me pick from a deck of cards. She's got more tricks up her sleeve than just one, this I'm sure, but this is the one which is mentioned — briefly — in the Millecam report.

Reader Dr. Zoran Pazameta, Associate professor of astronomy and physics at Eastern Connecticut State University, straightens us out on the real physics behind this quackery:

One of the "therapies" Ms. Millecam allowed the quacks to inflict on her involved, "[A] machine that is said to produce magnetic pulses which were supposed to result in cold fission of the potassium in the body into sodium and oxygen..."

First, the term "cold fission" is meaningless because, unlike fusion, fission is not temperature-driven. The never-duplicated "discovery" of cold fusion refers, of course, to an entirely different (non-)phenomenon. Second, assuming the fission process described above was possible (and I'd be very surprised if it were), messing with the body's biochemistry like this can't be good for you — the free oxygen atoms themselves can do a lot of damage. So if all it took was magnetic pulses to split a potassium (or any other) nucleus, we'd have an awful lot of people dropping dead during MRI scans!

Third, a small correction: Stars and supernovae are, as you say, objects featuring immense temperatures and pressures. However, it is fusion, not fission, that operates within them.

Thank you for the clarification, Professor. I'm always happy to have additions or corrections, even to pseudoscience or quackery! I should mention that reader Robert Spikol also offered his input:

The usual controversy surrounds "Cold Fusion," an alleged method of fusing hydrogen into helium at room temperature. Fission, unlike fusion, does not occur in stars or Supernova. It occurs in radioactive elements and it occurs very rapidly in atomic bombs. Cold Fission happens all the time at a very slow pace — it's called radioactive decay. I believe that all isotopes of potassium are stable and therefore would not undergo radioactive decay!


NORWEGIAN TEST OF HOMEOPATHY

Reader Heriberto Prado-Garcia writes:

I am a recently graduated PhD from Mexico City. I've been a recent reader of your commentaries, thanks to the books of Carl Sagan and your friend Martin Gardner. I've enjoyed your site and the info it provides; it has helped me to become a more informed skeptic and to be more critical in my thinking.

Maybe you'll be interested in the following article recently published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, vol. 59, pages 447-55 (2005). The abstract can be found in PubMed [the National Library of Medicine's search service]. Basically, it's a study that compared the use of homeopathic medicines for treating upper respiratory tract infections in children versus a placebo. The study was done in Norway and the homeopathic medicines (in C30 potency) were chosen from among those most frequently prescribed by Norwegian homeopaths.

The results were those expected, at least if one has enough brains to realize that homeopathy is quackery:

There was no effect over placebo for self treatment with one of three self selected, ultramolecular homeopathic medicines in preventing childhood upper respiratory tract infections... this can be due to the lack of effect of the highly diluted homeopathic medicines or the process of selection and type of medicines.

I think that they were very cautious in this last remark. This is not anecdotal evidence, it's a double-blind randomized study conducted by people from the Department of Public Health and General Practice at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, but I suppose that the homeopathic industry will continue with business as usual, won't they?

Though this is good news, I also inform you that here in Mexico we have our Institute of Quackery — I mean the National Politechnical Institute (IPN). It offers the career of "Homeopath Surgeon Physician." You can visit the web page at www.ipn.mx/index.cfm?varURL=ecus.cfm, in Spanish.

In this career study one can find subjects like "Homeopathic Pharmacodinamy" and "Scientific basis of homeopathic therapy". What's next? "Applied Alchemy"? "Basis of Chiromancy"?

There are also subjects that are common in any medical career. Of course, if homeopathy doesn't work, you can always revert to science-based medicine. It's disappointing, to say the least, seeing that an Institute — that in many other respects conducts serious scientific studies — surrenders to this type of quackery.

Did you know that Coral Calcium helps you to prevent Alts Heimer [sic]? Yes, the TV spots that sell this fraud in Mexico are proud to write this on TV, I don't know if it's sheer idiocy or mere contempt for the public.


DO IT AND WIN

A reader named Brock Trunzo writes concerning a device we discussed at www.randi.org/jr/12-08-2000.html and at www.randi.org/jr/12-22-2000.html. (Do a search for "Afilani" in each.) Says Brock:

I've actually used an Electroscope by Thomas Afilani, and it worked very well. Maybe you need to learn how to use it properly... I'm not sure why you feel as though he needs to be sued for a product that is patented?

I responded to Brock:

In the USA, patenting means nothing as far as "working" is concerned. They've issued patents for perpetual-motion machines, and none of them work....

If you can operate the Electroscope, you will win our million-dollar prize. See the application form at www.randi.org/research/index.html. "Inventor" Afilani has refused to accept the challenge. He will not answer mail we send him.... I wonder why? The inventor and vendor of the Electroscope will not apply to win the million dollars! Look at our references to Afilani — above — and you'll see how he has carefully avoided us.

Seriously, send in your application and we'll test you. If you can actually detect something — ANYTHING! — with the device, you will win our million-dollar prize. But before you accept, read www.randi.org/library/dowsing.

We're waiting!


HOT COLD NEWS

Wondering about a puzzling label on a product that claimed to be homeopathic, I wrote to the company. Here's that correspondence. (The designation of dilutions can be written as "1X" or "X1," according to different books):

Chuck Phillips
Subject: RE: Cold-Eeze Nasal spray

A question: Cold-Eeze Nasal Spray is labeled as "homeopathic," yet the "X1" concentration would indicate that it has one part in ten of zinc gluconate — not anywhere near homeopathic dilutions. Why is this?

The first response I received:

In actual fact our titration lies between X1 and X2 but due to the Homeopathic laws of the USA, the higher titration, X1, is used for labeling. You cannot label parts of a titration. From an allopathic point of view, I conducted a small experiment for you and I weighed two squirts of spray. That would be one per nostril for one dosage. Two squirts weigh .241gm or .1205gm/nostril. We label our percentage to help people understand dosage and 3.36% of .241gm is .0040gm.

I hope this helps you.

Chuck Phillips, EVP/COO/The Quigley Corporation

My reaction:

No, my question dealt with the fact that homeopathic trade usually uses dilutions of X3 and "up" (X10, X30 and X100 are common) as acceptable concentrations. I've never seen an "X1" dilution used in homeopathy. My question really is: Can the dilution you use qualify as homeopathic in degree?

Mr. Phillips wrote back:

I started the process of digging through the HPUS and then remembering you are perhaps one of the most famous individuals from Missouri, I have decided a practical demonstration is right down your alley. Please open the link below and find a selection of X1 preparations of Homeopathic drugs from many of the largest manufacturers in the world. Now you will have seen X1 dilutions.

Glad to be of help, Chuck Phillips

Though this anything but a "practical demonstration," the link Mr. Phillips provided (www.homeopathyhome.com/services/rshop/vshoppe/topicals.shtml) was an eye-opener indeed! Apparently Boiron, Boericke & Tafel, BHI, Standard Homeopathic, and Natra-Bio — the leading manufacturers of these "remedies" — have have been brazenly preparing and selling such X1 dilutions for years! Here's my reasoning in this respect:

As an example, for a homeopathic "insomnia" pill I have on hand here at the JREF, the contents are listed as, Coffea cruda (coffee) X7, X9, & X12, and Argentum nitricum (silver nitrate/AgNO3) X6. That means the deadly, corrosive, silver compound is diluted to one part in a million — certainly something you'd not notice. The coffee — yes, coffee in a sleeping pill! — is diluted in three operations, giving one part in ten million, one part in a billion, and one part in a trillion, so it's not really there, either. As we know, homeopathy doesn't have any actual substance in it, just "vibrations." All of the recognized homeopathic reference books we have in our JREF library (there are eleven of these) specify that C3, C6, C9, and higher, are the standard, preferred, dilutions. (Yes, C3 is the same as X6, but they're prepared differently; this is a very complicated form of pseudoscience.) So that you can relate these dilutions to reality, that means what you see in the illustration shown here.

So, it appears that Boiron Pharmaceuticals and the others have been making their own rules! An "X1" dose of zinc gluconate is certainly a regular medicinal preparation in the concentration and dosage prescribed by real doctors, so it seems obvious that Cold-Eeze Nasal Spray is a fake homeopathic substance; it should really work, thus giving the impression that homeopathy itself actually works.


WELCOME GRATITUDE

Occasionally, I'll share with readers the words of folks who are simply glad the JREF is here. Reader John Wick — from a rather weird e-mail address — thanks us:

First, let me explain my e-mail address. I am the co-owner of a small press publishing house in California that specializes in fantasy/sci-fi/horror games. I have no religious or supernatural affiliations (or claims!). Second, please allow me to thank you for your website and your work. Not only are your tireless efforts to bring reason to our superstitious lives remarkable, but your style and humor make it a helluva lot of fun to watch.

Just recently, I shared information I got from your website with a friend suffering with a serious, chronic illness. It's been distressing for me because I live so far away from her and I worry, especially when it comes to charlatans who hope to charm her from her money. My friend is not stupid. She is an educated woman and an avid reader whose generosity is well-known among her family and friends. I worried she might turn to such nonsense, because as you've taught me so well, intelligence can quickly be swallowed by fear when the threat of illness and death rears up.

Because of your work I was able to speak to her intelligently and convince her that any such action would be a waste of her time, money, and (frankly) a waste of her precious life. She's ditched any such notions of pursuing these crooks and I owe that hour of conversation to you.

I wanted to say "Thank you" one more time, sir. If I can help the Foundation in any way, I will. Our small publishing house doesn't make a lot of money, but if I can, is there a way I can help, even if it is a small contribution? Thank you for your... well, for just being you.

Mr. Wick, the JREF is always open to receiving donations of any size, and since we're a 501(c)3 charity under the law, all gifts are tax-deductible. Frankly, I'd like to know that you'd prefer to attend the next Amaz!ng Meeting, January 26th to 29th in Las Vegas, and make your contribution in that way. In a week or so, we'll be announcing the stellar lineup of that conference, again being co-offered by Michael Shermer and the Skeptics Society. Stay tuned!

And thank you, sincerely, for your welcome words....


A HEX UP FOR FIXING

In the town of Paisley, Scotland, the 308th anniversary of a witches' death — by execution — is coming up. Her grave had a horseshoe impression set into the road junction, where witches are preferably buried to confuse the devil who would come for revenge and wouldn't know which path to take, you see. The horseshoe was placed there to prevent resurrection; sounds like the proper procedure to me. A Victorian council of Paisley, when realigning some of the roads, had decided that the story was a silly tale and they dug up the horseshoe. Well, that resulted in half of the town council dying within six months, which got everyone else's attention. It was decided to replace the horseshoe, and it or its impression has been there ever since and is always replaced when the road is resurfaced.

The horseshoe, which dates back to the seventeenth century, was somehow lost again in the 1970s and some believe Paisley has been plagued by misfortune ever since. They blame high rates of violent crime, hardship and natural disasters — including flooding in the town — on the loss of the horseshoe. That's perfectly logical and probably true. Now the trust has applied for a grant for almost £2,500 from a local council to recast a brand new stainless steel horseshoe in the hope that it will bring back good luck to Paisley. They want to get it all done before the anniversary of the witch's execution comes up, of course.

And the tourist dollars this will bring in is nor lost on these canny Scots, I'm sure. Maybe they can get a connection with the Da Vinci Code admirers, for I'm sure that Jesus and Mary Magdalene stayed overnight in one of the local hotels, don't you agree?


A SUCCINCT COMMENT

Reader David Crawford has directed my attention to a well-thought-out web page, and I now direct your attention to it: www.400monkeys.com/God/


CORRECTION CORRECTION

Following up on my recent BBC item, I've been firmly chastised by one reader for stating that the "Beeb" is a UK "government agency." It's not. It's entirely separate and independent from the government, a corporation licensed by Royal Charter. It merely enjoys a special position — one with which we in the USA are unfamiliar. I apologize for my presumption. But that's not all. Another reader was highly indignant:

I cannot believe someone with your intelligence saw fit to publish this in your weekly column. I work as a director for the BBC in documentaries and factual, and I am immensely proud of working for one of the last bastions of rational, unbiased journalism in the world. Perhaps you feel your readers should switch to Fox News if they want the real story?

He goes on:

Your words sound like some ludicrous "Men in Black" conspiracy theory. They are lurid, fatuous, and complete and utter nonsense — perhaps you might wish to forward them to Eric Von Däniken for his next book?

After a few heavy gulps to absorb this uncharitable criticism, I responded to the sender:

Well, I lived in Rylett Road [London] in the 50s, and we were familiar with black cars looking like SUVs sporting rotating loop-antennas, touring the streets. I'm now informed that these were only sham spy vehicles, yet the tales we heard back then about citizens being fined after detection, floated about.

Aside from that, I must agree with your complaint. I'd accepted the opinion of the reader/doctor who evaluated the BBC piece as naïve, and a careful re-reading of the article shows me that the proper modifiers and attributions were in place.

My apologies will appear on the next web page.... [That's THIS web page]

The reader continued to make his case:

One story reflecting the wide spectrum of British lifestyles does not mean the BBC as an organization promotes homeopathy — the fact that the organization is funded by the public requires us to reflect a broad spectrum of public opinion — but always with an unbiased, rational approach. One tiny story on one of the world's largest, most viewed, websites does not reflect in the slightest on the BBC as a whole.

The BBC works extremely hard to make sensible, serious, unbiased broadcasting, in the face of enormous political and institutional opposition. You, yourself, have worked with, and praised, the BBC on numerous occasions — dating back, at the very least, to your praise of "Horizon" (or Nova) in "Flim Flam."

Because it is publicly owned and publicly accountable it strives to remain balanced and fair, and comes under constant attack from privately owned media outlets as a result. If we did not have the BBC in this country the standard of broadcast journalism would fall apart. We already have "Most Haunted," Fox News, and John Edward on cable here but, thanks to the BBC, uptake of this garbage, and all the other rubbish, advert-delivery, brain-candy masquerading as television, is relatively low.

Okay. Again, my apologies. I think that my basic respect for the Beeb brought me to over-react when I read the reference in question. Sorry. But my reader had one parting shot, bringing up an interesting point that had me wondering back in 1955 or so when I saw the vans doing about 5 m.p.h. in the residential streets. The reader asked me if I'd

...care to explain the conundrum of how a van parked outside a 25-story towerblock containing several hundred television sets works out who is watching a TV and who isn't. (Bearing in mind that people in council towerblocks tend to be the least likely to purchase a license.)

Yes, back in the 50's, we'd discussed that, but we figured that the vans only toured residential districts, where homes were easily picked out individually. And yes, detecting and determining the sources of the radio-frequency signals emitted by both radio and TV receivers can certainly be done....

As I was "going to press" with this page, I received a posting from my irate critic, suggesting that a current BBC article is evidence of their pursuit of truth. I agree. Look at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4508597.stm

Have I now eaten a sufficient serving of crow for this week...?


SCIENCE — CHURCH STYLE

We hear that a formal college course on exorcism is being offered at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University (UPRA) a Catholic university in Italy just outside Rome. The course features studies of psychology, law and the history of Satanism. It's labeled, Exorcism 101. Serious students from across the world in black cassocks and dangling crosses file to and from classes, but they're not entirely back in medieval times. Computers and microphones, PowerPoint presentations and videoconference links enable other students in three other Italian cities to follow the details of the Theology of Demons.

Most of the students are priests who deal with those of their flocks who feel that they have a problem of demonic possession. The basic problem facing these savants is how to determine whether any case is really supernatural or just a psychological problem. The instructors at UPRA are experts on demons and Satanic worship. One of them claims that Satanic cults are on the rise, with up to 100,000 young people involved, though he offers no proof to back up the claim.

Understand: Catholics are taught that the devil is a real, very powerful entity and not simply a symbolic representation of evil. And detecting the Evil One has certain steps and signs. For example, heavy aversion to religious objects such as a cross, crucifix, rosary, or holy water, indicates that Satan is in charge. Also, signs of super strength, mumbling in other languages without having studied them before, or knowing the future of others, are indicative. Considering that last sign, we can be assured that Sylvia Browne and Uri Geller are not possessed.

Since the use of the drug "angel dust" — PCP/phencyclidine — would not only provide the user with the "super-strength" feature, but also the irrational behavior that we're told demons bring about in the possessed, we can appreciate all the more how difficult it can be for students to differentiate between reality and superstition. It must be faith-based....

One expert at UPRA sees the threat clearly. Says he,

You have a lot of instability if you have two souls in one body.... Possession is when a devil actually takes control of the person and the person does not have its own free will, so the devil is using the person to speak and act without the person freely consenting to that.

The course teaches that the afflicted are often not directly responsible for allowing Satan into their bodies. Says an instructor, one of their parents could have dedicated a child to Satan when it was born. This points up yet another problem facing students.

However, there exists some difference of opinion being expressed in the Church about these matters. One Father Gerry O'Collins, a theologian at the Gregorian University in downtown Rome, says there's a danger that Catholics could focus too much on demons, reminding the faithful about the witch hunts of the 16th century as an example of how people can get carried away — pun intended. Says he:

Certainly official church leaders don't want freelance priests and others to play games. They want a wise old priest who's the official exorcist and who's skeptical and who knows what he's about and I think that's a happy situation.

I think that finding a "wise old priest" who's also officially appointed to chase out demons, might be difficult. To me, the attribution "wise" should carry the requirement that medieval misconceptions be looked upon as replaced by rationality and relegated to the back of the trash bin where we've tossed the Geocentric Universe and Tooth Fairy. Of course, Father O'Collins firmly believes that demonic possession can happen; he's a Catholic. But he believes that only a tiny percentage of suspected cases are genuine.

A rumor is circulating that Hogwarts School of Wizardry & Witchcraft (HSWW) is calling in legal advice concerning copyrights on exorcism and possession-by-devils they believe they hold; their case seems doomed, since the Church has held these notions for many centuries, and has in the past burnt heretics by the hundreds to cast out various demons.