May 23, 2003

Chiropractic Crackup, Talking to Water, Sylvia Emerges!, Bidlack's Lumps, An MS Miracle, and a Korean Magic Stone...

UK reader Dave Nesbitt tells his story, then asks a pertinent question:

I just wanted to add to the current debate about the British & alternative medicine. I'm British (English actually), like to think of myself as reasonably intelligent and (now at least) a skeptic. However, I have tried alternative medicine. Does this make me stupid? Listen and judge for yourself.

For many years I have suffered with back pain that my GP couldn't seem to help with. I would be woken in the early hours of the morning with pain and stiffness between my shoulder blades and down my back. Trips to back specialists didn't seem to help at all. The only remedy offered was anti-inflammatory drugs which run the risk of stomach ulcers if over-used. So, in desperation, I decided to take the advice of several friends and relatives, all of whom claimed miraculous results had come from the services of osteopaths and chiropractors. I actually didn't understand, nor was I especially interested in, the specific claims of how chiropractic works (or, rather, doesn't) — I just wanted my pain to go away. So I decided to try a local chiropractor recommended by a friend.

The alarm bells rang immediately upon entering his clinic. I was flicking through some of the leaflets that seemed to be implying that "crunching" a child's spine could cure bed-wetting, amongst numerous other illnesses. Now, as a father of 3, I don't consider bed-wetting to be an illness, just a normal part of growing up. My suspicions grew further when I noticed the chiropractor styled himself "Dr." but didn't seem to have the right credentials or a medical degree. Nonetheless, I endured his "treatment" which consisted of his telling me I had one leg longer than the other and several "subluxations" (whatever they were) in my spine. Luckily, he could cure me by making my back "crunch" (a strangely enjoyable sensation, I must confess).

Several days later, my chest (as well as my back) began to hurt. I went back to my GP who sent me to a rheumatologist, who eventually diagnosed Ankylosing Spondylitis — a form of rheumatism of which I had all the classic symptoms, and — this is the crux — this condition is made worse by manipulation....

So, not only did the "Dr." of Chiropractic miss my classic symptoms of Ankylosing Spondylitis, he made my condition worse by pressing down on my back and stressing my ribs, causing them to become inflamed. They still hurt now, more than four years later on.

So, was I stupid? I think, with hindsight, that I certainly could have spent more time researching the claims of Chiropractic, but we humans are trusting creatures and my friends and family were insistent that I would be helped. Also, the wheels of the UK National Health Service can sometimes grind very slowly and I felt rather let down by my GP. Finally, I was in pain and sometimes when we're in pain, we don't always take the time to check out all the facts.

So what now? I'm still in pain and most likely will be for the rest of my life. I take stronger anti-inflammatorys, try to eat a balanced diet, and exercise as much as possible. You see, science hasn't devised a cure for my condition yet — but at least it admits this fact and prepares you to come to terms with it — rather than making claims of a cure it cannot sustain.

Dave, your last sentence here, tells the whole story. Medical science isn't perfect, nor does it claim to be. But quackery such as that you underwent, not only claims to have a solution for every problem, but also claims that it is superior to real medicine. No, you're not "stupid." You were desperate, and though your GP can be faulted for not simply saying, "We have no solution for your problem," and for failing to warn you away from the quackery, real medical science is the only way to go.

I myself would certainly not be alive if it weren't for real medicine….

A UK homeopath named Liz Miller fancies that she has discovered why the BBC tests of that quackery were negative. She writes:

I think you will be amazed at the pictures on They show that as in homeopathy, water can take on energy from our thoughts. This proves that in the BBC program on homeopathy, Mr. Randi's thoughts could have influenced the outcome.

I answered her: "Unfortunately for this theory, (a) I was not present when the BBC tests were done, and (b) I was not even aware that they were being done…." Then I looked at that site she'd touted. Amazing.

Try this on for credibility: A Dr. Masaru Emoto, who boasts certification from the Open International University of Alternative Medicine (???), has made remarkable discoveries about "the concept of micro cluster water." Floating along in his muddy stream of awareness, Dr. Emoto began to study the effect of altering water by various factors of "vibration" and "consciousness." These words are immensely popular with quacks, though they've no notion what they mean. Are you ready? He studied water that had been altered by music — healing music, classical music, heavy metal music, and so forth.

And he has "crystalline pictures" that reveal how water responds to these influences! As he says, this begins to reveal that water is alive, that it is conscious, and that it responds to applied force by a rearrangement of its inner crystalline properties. Wow! Ah, but that only got him started. It gets better….

Inspired by these revelations, he decided to study the impact of human consciousness on water and its crystalline order. Dr. Emoto believes he has demonstrated that human thoughts and emotions can alter the molecular structure of water. Now, for the first time, he says, there is physical evidence that the power of our thoughts can change the world within and around us.

We can see the distinct difference, for example, between crystals formed under the influence of the word, "prayer," and nasty hard rock music. How can we doubt?

Dr. Emoto found that water that had been consciously altered by the simple imprinting of a "word of intent," would change. Water that was imprinted by "love," "gratitude," and "appreciation," responded by the development of complex crystals — essentially "snowflake" crystals obtained by evaporation and cooling — and an excellent effect was produced by combining the words "love" and "gratitude," as any fool can plainly see in the illustration. But water that was mistreated by negative intentions became disordered and lost its magnificent patterning. In fact, it often took on grotesque forms of resonance, he says.

Then he really got into the swing of pseudoscience, simplifying matters by just writing words — in any language, of course — on pieces of paper and taping them to a clear glass container to see if anything happened. Positive words like "love" and "thank you" produced beautiful and delicate crystalline patterns, we're told. He tried "You Make Me Sick. I Will Kill You" and he observed distorted, frightening, muddied patterns. We show here the pattern produced by this last phrase. He even experimented with names like "Gandhi," "Mother Teresa," and "Hitler," and the same kind of results occurred. Wow, again!

And, not to our surprise, Dr. Emoto discovered that the water crystals dutifully form up in response to different ethnic versions of the languages impressed upon them. Here's the expression "thank you" in both Japanese and English. You can see the distinct variations, can't you?

Well, if that didn't convince you that Dr. Emoto might not have both oars in the water, try this, a quotation from him in answer to his thoughts on what the crystals are: "I came to the realization that these crystals are spirits." Okay. Where's the door….?

Let's spend a moment to wonder about how such a view can be brought about. Dr. Emoto might very well believe that he's doing science. But he's not. He does no double-blind procedures, for one thing, which dooms these amateur efforts, right from the beginning. If he were to be blind to which words were being used to influence the water crystals, his search through the results looking for confirmation, would be inconclusive. I'll risk the JREF million-dollar prize on that statement. If Dr. Emoto wants to win the prize, let him agree to perform his tests in a double-blind fashion, and I predict he'll get fuzzy results that prove nothing.

Ah, but he'll have to get in line behind Sylvia Browne! Yes, she's baaaaack!

On Friday, May 16th, the unsinkable Sylvia Browne appeared with Larry King — yet again! — and something odd happened. The careful process of screening of phone calls from listeners apparently broke down, and Dr. Bryan Farha of Oklahoma City actually got through with a question that Sylvia and Larry have been avoiding for the past 89 weeks. We had to wonder what Sylvia would come up with, after first claiming that she didn't know how to contact me (a psychic can't use the phone book or Google?) and then veered off by saying she didn't want to deal with a "godless" person like me. She swerved and skidded into another tailspin when she handled this one:

From the transcript of that encounter:

Dr. F: Sylvia, 620 days ago on Larry's show, you agreed to take James Randi's one million dollar paranormal challenge, and on a later show you even agreed to the specific terms of the test.

Sylvia: Yeah, but let me tell you something: I've also found out that he won't put it into escrow. He won't put the money into escrow.

Randi comments: It's actually 808 days since Sylvia agreed to do the JREF test, 627 days since she agreed to the specific parameters/protocol. Directly quoted from the Application — "JREF will not entertain any demand that the prize money be deposited in escrow, displayed in cash, or otherwise produced in advance of the test being performed. JREF will not cater to such vanities." Sylvia can read this, as well as anyone else, but we must remember that she's desperate to avoid taking the test. Back to the program:

Dr. F: You agreed to the terms of the test...

Sylvia (cutting him off): No, I won't. Not until he puts the money into escrow. I mean why would I do it when the money can't be validated?

Dr. F: Have you contacted James?

Sylvia (eyes widening): I don't wanna contact him. I already know about this Russian person who the lawyer contacted and said he won't put it into escrow.

Dr. F: Ok, so you agreed 620 days ago to take a test...

Sylvia (cutting him off): Yeah, but why — I'm not gonna do that — I (stutter) I'm not gonna do that if he ca- doesn't have the money.

Dr. F: If I can arrange for James to come up with the money, would you take the test?

Sylvia opens her mouth wide.

Larry King: You said you would.

Sylvia (nodding her head): Yeah, yeah, I will, but if he won't come up with it with the other girl, why would he come up with it with me?

Larry King: Well, if you come up with it, sir, she'll do it.

Sylvia (overlapping Larry): Yeah.

Dr. F: And will you arrange for that, Larry?

Larry King: Sure.

Dr. F: (pleased): You got it.

Larry King: Be happy to do it.

So there it is. She'll do it! But let's look at her fabricated excuses here. On our web page, in the official JREF challenge application, appears this notice:

One million dollars in negotiable bonds is held by an investment firm in New York, in the "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account," as surety for the prize funds. Validation of this account and its current status may be obtained by contacting the Foundation by telephone, fax, or e-mail.

Had Sylvia Browne or Larry King troubled to read the application, we would have promptly provided just the assurance sought, in the form of a current financial statement on that special account. Sylvia is well aware that we are not about to place such funds in escrow just to satisfy her whims; that would suspend the earnings of the account, but if Sylvia — or anyone — would agree to make up the loss to the JREF, we would certainly consider doing this. Also, we have never before been asked by anyone — Russian or not — to place the fund in escrow. That is a simple lie — another one — by Browne.

In summary: Sylvia Browne appeared on the Larry King Live TV show on May 16th, 2003. She offered, as her excuse for having reneged on her acceptance of the JREF million-dollar challenge, that she required us to place the prize money in escrow — which we are most decidedly not going to do. She also stated that she had no way of telling whether the prize money existed, in spite of the very clear, plain-English text on our web page — which she chose to ignore — telling her exactly how to receive assurance of that sum's availability.

On May 19th, I sent certified mail # 7003 0500 0002 3034 8133 to Sylvia Browne with the following letter, and a certified copy of the letter to Larry King as well:

Ms. Browne:

Though proof of the JREF prize money is easily available on request, you have not made any such request. Your May 16th appearance on the Larry King Live TV show, seemed to indicate that you were ignorant of the facts, and since we are an educational foundation, we therefore enclose a notarized copy of the account status showing the balance in a special "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account" in excess of one million dollars. Also enclosed is a formal statement from the agency holding these assets, verifying that the funds are in place. I'm sure that you are aware of the grave legal consequences that would result against the JREF, if either of these documents were to be found false or altered.

As you are also aware, we have legally committed ourselves to awarding this prize money to anyone who successfully passes both the preliminary and then the formal test, as agreed to between the applicant and the JREF. This is described on our web page, which also clearly states all the conditions for assuring that the prize money will be awarded if the conditions are met. Since you have already heard and accepted the terms and protocol of the test, and your understanding and agreement have been broadcast across the world via CNN, it only remains for you to give us a date upon which we can conduct the test.

One caveat: several of the persons who responded more than a year ago to our request for suitable subjects — one of which would be chosen at random — have since died. It would be necessary for us to re-issue the request, of course, and that would mean that a suitable date would have to be set sometime in July, but no sooner.

Now that this issue of the prize money has been resolved, and there can no longer be any impediment to your involvement, we anticipate hearing from you with a renewed acceptance of our challenge. Of course, if you are afraid of taking the test, or you are aware that you cannot pass a simple double-blind test of your claims, you may wish to further obfuscate the matter by producing more excuses and problems. That's entirely up to you.

Since Larry King has agreed to "arrange" that you be assured of the existence and availability of the prize money, a copy of this letter is being sent to him for his information.

Let's see what takes place now. I may be able to retire the "cricket.wav" file on our web page! I'll keep you regularly informed...

John Kiprov, of Melbourne, Australia, informs us:

Ian Evans from Australia (Commentary, May 9th 2003) was wrong in saying than Pan Pharmaceuticals did not make prescription drugs. Just look at the top of the Travacalm packet, and see the words "Pharmacy medicine." If that ain't a prescription medicine then I don't know what is. Pan actually make a VERY large proportion of Australia's prescription medicines, upwards of 50% I've read here in Oz. Funny how only the Alternative medicines were recalled (rightly so) when the prescription stuff was made in exactly the same uncleaned containers.

John, just because I read something on a box, doesn't mean that I'll believe it. However, I think you're right, and I thank you for the correction.

Reader and JREF member Paul Schultz, of St. Louis, has thoughts on last week's page:

This week's commentary citing the 6 reasons that homeopathic claims are paranormal made me think again about last week's comments about the Skeptical Deist by Hal Bidlick. Religious beliefs, despite Hal's claim otherwise, also meet all those 6 tests. Why theistic belief should get a free pass not afforded other paranormal claims is beyond me. That "need to believe" that Randi so often cites seems to be the only reason.

Also the comment from reader Fabio Meneghetti that Western "morality" is deeply founded in Judaism/Christianity is backwards logic. The creation and success of those religions depended on their ability to resonate with pre-existing moral notions, not the other way around. He also suggests ridiculously that in atheist philosophy "ultimately you have nothing to stop you from just acting as you please." Actually, that more accurately sums up the religious approach. Ultimately each person's choice of r. Theistic morality is determined by arbitrarily self-selected faith, not subject to reason or validation. Thus, the most heinous and unquestionably "immoral" acts in history are committed by theists, not by atheists. From 9/11 back thru the Inquisition and many more abominations before and since, theism has left a shameful record of human behavior.

Hal Bidlack responds:

My concern is that the folks who have posted/written in, etc., and insist that I cannot be a "true skeptic," miss an important point, I think. To argue that there is only ONE true and correct view is to commit the same sin as those they would condemn. If I were claiming, say, to be a TMer who can "fly," I would certainly think it reasonable for that claim to be testable. But to have some sense that there is a cosmic clockmaker that uses the laws of science, that never interferes, seems to me to be a different sort of thing.

Again, I admit this is a significant irrational belief, and plead guilty to the charge. But I'm not quite sure it makes me totally unable to function as a skeptic.

Hal closed his comment there, but went on to observe to me:

And thanks again for taking a chance on my column. If nothing else, it did create a certain buzz and discussion.

Yes, Hal, it did. And that's one of the intents of this page. The more fuss, the better...!

Hal was cheered by a comment received from Fred Durant, an old friend of mine, former head of the Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. Fred was an enthusiastic attendee at The Amaz!ng Meeting, where he met and heard Hal. He comments:

Your column substituting for Randi's I have just read and am delighted to sample again your splendid prose. Further, I, too, am a non-denomination believer in God AND a skeptic. I was particularly pleased to read Randi's comments. His remark about "resounding" was true to form. Too much emphasis on accepting your premise, would lead a reader to the conclusion that this was his Personal position.

En passant, The Skeptical Inquirer, which I read regularly, appears to have a fixation concerning any mention of acceptance of personal faith or religion. . . .

I hope our paths may cross again, perhaps next year at the Amazing Meeting.

At a remarkable and vigorous 87, Fred is a feisty advocate of real science and skepticism. With allies like this, Hal has little to fret about….

Reader Dave Mackey tells us:

An interesting thing happened the other day, four days before this writing. My wife has MS. She is about 70% paralyzed below the waist, and about 10% in the hands. She shuffles around the house using a walker, and needs a wheelchair away from home. We were talking about her condition and how much we missed just going for a walk around the block. We also talked about the latest research with human stem cells (no longer done in the US, thank you Mr. Bush) that has such promise for MS sufferers. We talked about our hopes for the genome project.

In the pencil cup on the nightstand is a toy magic wand, a little padded star on a stick with ribbon and a bell. I took the wand, tapped my wife on the forehead with it and proclaimed in a deep voice, "MS be gone." Beyond belief, within an hour most of her paralysis was indeed gone. She can feel and wiggle her toes for the first time in five years. She can stand unaided. She can walk with only a cane. Complete bladder control has returned. Two days later, she and I took a mile walk, hand in hand. I didn't know I had such powers. According to my brother the "born-again," it's an answer to prayers. My neighbor tells me it's the magic of the wand combined with my psychic aura.

Well, it certainly is good news, but I don't think magic wands or benevolent deities had a hand in this.

About ten years ago my wife was in an auto accident. She was hit from behind while stopped for traffic. The accident caused some back problems for which she received therapy, but they were never completely resolved. About five years later, the numbness in her lower extremities began and she was diagnosed with MS. What happened the other night was this; just after I zapped her with my magic wand, I took down the exercise machine and she began her nightly regimen of stretching. A few minutes later there was a loud "pop" and my wife yelled out in pain — and then shouted at me with excitement that she was having a massive flow of blood into her legs and feet. She had somehow realigned her hips and improved her blood flow. Not stopping to thank any gods or psychics, we rushed to see her neurologist, who has scheduled some MRI's to look at her back from a different perspective.

By the way, I would be willing to part with the magic wand — for a mere $10,000. Or am I asking too little for such a powerful talisman? Maybe on E-Bay….

Again, keep up the good fight for the scientific method and some amount of reason in the world. Send the pseudoscientists off to pseudohell, I say.

Just think what a "believer" would say about this fortuitous event. With a little encouragement, it would find its way into the tabloids, "scientists" would ponder over it and start looking for grants to investigate the wand, and maybe a new religion would be born. Thanks for being rational, Mr. Mackey. And we're very happy for you, Mrs. Mackey.

Kerris Ellis, architect of Vancouver, BC, tells us that a large housing project there was stopped in mid-construction to do a search for plywood patterns in installed doors, that might offend buyers. Here's a photo of one that certainly would alarm me. Yeah, sure….

Maybe I left South Korea too fast. We're told that North Korea is now mass producing a "stone'" it has developed, that when heated emits "infrared rays'" that are good for the human body, as the state-run Korean Central News Agency reports. They say that the rays can remove smells, be used as a sterilizer and as a treatment for heart disease, hypertension, arthritis and other illnesses.

Well, any heated stone will emit infrared, but those curative powers sound a bit far-fetched. No, they sound like simple quackery. "The long-wave infrared rays emitted from the stone penetrate deep into the human body, giving no side effects to the heart, and help the human body absorb energy,'' said an official N. Korea report. They said that the stones were being "mass produced'" in various sizes, colors and patterns, branded with the name "Kumgang" [diamond].

Let's remember that North Korea's communist government is cash-strapped and has even been accused of resorting to selling narcotics and missiles to raise money. Seeing that quackery is not only easy to sell, and popular as well as lucrative, and knowing that health care in N. Korea is poor, the government there has taken a leap in the direction of capitalism by bringing in the moola with pseudoscience. Hey, it works everywhere else!