June 11, 2004

The Same Old Same Old, Astrology for the Kids, The Fabulous QXCI Quack Machine, More Sleep Paralysis, A Change of Direction, Positive Proof, Geller the Healer, Where's That Damn Camera, Blue Vibrations, Scientific Feng Shui in Wales, Beam Me Up in Seattle, A Century Ago in Spiritualism, and In Conclusion….

Table of Contents:


The book Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds was produced in 1841 by Scottish author, editor, musician Charles Mackay (1814-1889) and has been republished — under slightly varying titles and with varied additions — many times since. It's a remarkable production dealing with the foibles of the public and the disasters brought about by general lack of knowledge of how the world works. Ever the unbelieving skeptic, MacKay concluded about "animal magnetism practitioners" — a pervasive quack notion of the day — that their ideas of a mystical "magnetic fluid" that was said to flow through humans, was nonsense:

And here it should be remarked that the magnetisers do not lay claim to a universal efficacy for their fluid; the strong and the healthy cannot be magnetised; the incredulous cannot be magnetised; those who reason upon it cannot be magnetised; those who firmly believe in it can be magnetised; the weak in body can be magnetised, and the weak in mind can be magnetised. And lest, from some cause or other, individuals of the latter classes should resist the magnetic charm, the apostles of the science declare that there are times when even they cannot be acted upon; the presence of one scorner or unbeliever may weaken the potency of the fluid and destroy its efficacy. In M. Deleuze's instructions to a magnetiser, he expressly says, "Never magnetise before inquisitive persons!" Yet the followers of this delusion claim for it the rank of a science!

Sound familiar? The same sort of alibis that are still being used today. The M. Deleuze he refers to, had published in his instructions to would-be quacks, Historie Critique du Magnetisme Animal in 1813:

  1. Forget for a while all your knowledge of physics and metaphysics.
  2. Remove from your mind all objections that may occur.
  3. Imagine that it is in your power to take the malady in hand, and throw it on one side.
  4. Never reason for six weeks after you have commenced the study.
  5. Have an active desire to do good; a firm belief in the power of magnetism, and an entire confidence in employing it. In short, repel all doubts; desire success, and act with simplicity and attention.
  6. Remove from the patient all persons who might be troublesome to you.

And: Never magnetise before inquisitive persons!

This should give us a pretty good idea of the modus by which this scam worked, obviously right from the mouths of those who originated it! Of course, we cannot find any indication here that Deleuze was a conscious fraud. These rationalizations are resorted to by true believers, to maintain their belief despite the failures and paradoxes that they constantly encounter. It can all be found at: www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/relg/socialeccltheology/MemoirsofPopularDelusionsV3/chap47.html, courtesy of Australian reader Brian Miller, member of the Australian Skeptics, and the World Wide School Library.


Reader Martin D. Brazeau, with the Redpath Museum, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, directs us to a responsible web site that he happened upon, but which at first glance rather dismayed him. He writes:

I became quite alarmed when I noticed that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website www.cbc.ca was running a feature for kids: "CBC Kids Scop'z — Don't fight the future! Let our horoscopes show you the way!" You can link directly to the Flash-animated feature at www.cbc.ca/kids/scopz/ Nevertheless, I checked it out to see what it was all about. To my surprise, I thought it was a rather hilarious treatment of horoscope-casting.

Martin, I only hope that careless and/or naïve readers will not fail to see that this is a joke; I've seen "real" horoscopes that don't look that much different, or any less silly…!


Excerpts from a message sent by reader Alan Poulter:

One of the most valuable things you guys [JREF] do is to provide people like me with an information source from which to quote facts, studies etc, when confronted with sincere people believing loopy things. Being able to gently quote where studies were done, by whom, and what they really tell us, is a great weapon to have in anyone's skeptical armory.

An extraordinary site came to my attention. It refers to an electronic "QXCI" gismo invented by "Professor" William S. Nelson (Bill) that can cure everything, it seems. See www.qxsubspace.com/QXCI_eng/main.html It's a very well-put-together website, but the content certainly strains the imagination. The sad thing I felt when reading through this stuff, is that I would not be surprised if he sincerely believed in what he is claiming his electronic doodad can do. One intellectual alarm bell on his website rang loudly regarding this statement: "Rather than to deal with the politics of health in the US and the FDA, Bill Nelson moved to Budapest in 1993."

Evidently, according to his web site, Bill was "identified as a genius from an early age." I'll let you judge for yourself, weighing these statements from his site, with what your readers know about physics and the way the world works. All the spelling in these quotations is exactly as in the original.

As a young man, [Nelson's] interest in quantum physics and electronic engineering led to his work for General Motors and his contribution into the "Gyro" navigation on the Apollo Space Project. . . . developing his system, Bill Nelson has integrated the sciences of mathematics, quantum physics, electronics, naturopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic, energetic medicine and computer programming. He has also incorporated his knowledge of metaphysical subjects to bring a unique synergistic perspective to natural healing. He has studied psychology, science, business, computer science and international law. He has also mastered the difficulties of creating the software to integrate the many healing modalities he has programmed into the QXCI system. His unique knowledge of subjects such as fractal dynamics, subspace theory, a tri-vector system and others, has made this energetic feedback system possible.

Can anyone translate this please? I know what the words are, I just don't know what they mean in this context. And, boy, did the spellchecker go mad on these sentences. Continuing:

The patient is attached [to the gismo] by mean of a head harness, ankle straps and wrist straps to a small digital box connected externally to the computer in the serial port. This small box is known as the interface box and is connected to the same port where you would normally connect the printer. By means of an automatic computer callibration, the patient's electrical parameters are measured. This is known as the "handshake" between the computer and the patient. This provides the QXCI with a baseline from which to begin the test.

From these calculations several other ramifications can be surmised. The bioresonance of the system can be measured. The reaction of the body to nosodes, isodes, allersodes, sarcodes, classic homeopathic, herbals, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, hormones, bacteria, fungus, parasites, nerves, vertrabrae, muscles, and thousands of other compounds. The resonance of the system is measured by determining the evoked potential or reaction of the body to these compounds.

The QXCI system can also perform intricate therapies, such as, electro acupuncture, rife, Mora, Bicom like, bioresonance, scalar, color therapy, NLP, etc. The cybernetic link of therapy and diagnosis makes this the QXCI the truly complete energetic medical system of the future.

Then comes a warning:

This new dramatic jump in technology may seem threatening to some. It might be like a person one hundred years ago seeing a computer or a television. It might be hard to believe, but let me assure you this new technology is real and here to stay. Competitors have cultivated many rumors and lies about the device but we hope that the intelligent doctor and therapist will investigate for themselves. The QXCI device is not a random number generator.

This system is calibrated to measure the very line and subtle electrical and subspace reactions to a group of biological and medical substances. The sensitivity is set so fine so as to pick up the earliest sign of disease and distress. Therefore the results might be below the client recognition. The readings should be evaluated by trained staff. No claims are made on the system or the results.

The last sentence says it all.

An additional hoot, is that he has a "prayer wheel computer program" that allows your computer to pray for sundry things. And this comes with the satisfaction that of approximately 300 studies relating to the Prayer Wheels, "One of these showed a significant (10% plus) improvement in approximately 500 people whom were not." (???) Here are some of the extraordinary claims made for this wheely thingy:

The program induces an indeterminacy field in the computer, which is superimposed as a "Tibetan Prayer Wheel." All the test matrix energies from the QXCI are in the "24/7 Prayer Wheel Program." (That's reassuring.) It contains some enhancement features such as patient's DNA, voice pattern saving, picture saving, and bifacial saving. The 12 steps in the program are equivalent to 12 different dimensions. If it's successful there are no error messages. Negative energy can be checked for. If the device finds a negative energy it will display an alert; if no response is given within 15 minutes it will attack the negative energy itself. Experts in each of the creeds used in the program have submitted prayers in their respective religions.

The retail price of the program is 300 USD for 'QXCI' owners and 500 USD for no owners.

Alan, it's evident that "Dr. William Nelson, MD, PhD" merely looked up all the technical and scientific "buzz words" he could find, and assembled them into sentences, without any regard for continuity or usage. The naïve reader can easily accept this sort of language to be superficially similar to what he would find in any really scientific article — though used in that fashion, it would make sense — and thus it seems to be acceptable. I'd not be at all surprised to find this scam artist obtaining a patent of some sort — which as we know will convince many that there must be some merit to his gibberish — and thus induce them to invest money in his scheme. It was ever thus….

Ask about those degrees….


Reader Crystal Moore of Carbondale, Illinois, continues the ASP discussion:

I've just read the bit about Aware Sleep Paralysis in your latest commentary, and I had to write. My boyfriend suffers from this condition, and as a teenager attributed his experiences to supernatural causes — to the point where he had come up with some grand explanation of the whole thing that he's now too embarrassed to share with me, though he did mutter something about evil forces traveling back through time.

Like Grant [web page correspondent from May 21 on the subject], he finally figured out what was going on from consulting the Internet. Incredible as it seems, he had never told anyone about what was happening to him. If he hadn't discovered the cause online, I shudder to think where he'd be today, or what beliefs he'd be espousing, especially given that the rest of his family's bent towards religious lunacy. He, like me, is now an atheist and skeptic — although I fear he'll fall back into faith someday, given how sad he seems to find the idea of no afterlife. Me, I find the concept immensely cheering.

When I learned about his condition, I immediately thought of how many ghost stories, UFO abductions, and other accounts of the paranormal started with "I woke up and..." After all, the range of experiences that this condition provides, fits quite nicely with the range of accounts of the paranormal. My boyfriend has experienced people he knows screaming in pain and clawing at his bedroom door, as well as phantom assaults, evil voices calling to him from other rooms in an empty house.... I'm sure many people are driven to embrace irrational beliefs based on such experiences, never knowing their true cause.

I myself have been interested in such stories since I was quite young, reading large Time/Life books full of them at grandma's house. I admit I was a full-fledged believer as a youngster, getting more skeptical as the years went by but always maintaining a strong interest. The subject is charming, in its wide-eyed way, and as my family was irreligious it fulfilled that childlike need for a hidden world full of mystery and excitement.

I had begun leaning towards the idea that some kind of phenomena, mostly subjective but partially objective, led to reports of all kinds of supernatural events, from UFOs to religious visions, to fairies and so forth. Little did I realize that the phenomena are often simply the results of erratic human perception. The more I learn about the unreliability of simple perception and memory, the more amazed I am that so many accept such preposterous crap as fact. It's very easy to fool the eye and the mind, but most people consider their perception infallible.

I credit you with my turning point — more specifically, with a copy of Flim-Flam that my local used bookseller had filed in with all the supernatural hooey. It was a most entertaining read that motivated me to look for you online. Since then, I get more skeptical every day. I've particularly enjoyed your tearing into John Edward and Sylvia Browne. I wish I believed in a rewards-based afterlife, because they would surely get their just desserts...

Enough rambling, I think. Thank you for all you've done to further the cause of rationality.

Crystal, you mention "the unreliability of simple perception and memory," but most folks out there have a very difficult time accepting that our senses are often unreliable in some ways. True, most of the time the input we get is correct — or at least accurate enough to act upon; this is an important survival need. As for my own way of handling this, rather than saying, "The car was red," and "There were four persons," I tend to say, "I believe the car was red," and "I recall four persons present." Though I'm somewhat better equipped than most, to handle vagaries of sensory input, I don't trust my own perception to be faultless, ever.


Reader Curt van den Heuvel offers these additional observations on this same subject — one that has attracted a lot of attention here:

In your May 21 commentary article, a reader brought up the subject of Sleep Paralysis. I thought I might relate an interesting tidbit regarding this phenomenon. My wife suffers from this disorder. She describes it in terms that should sound very familiar to all the "UFO abductees" out there. It begins with a feeling of complete paralysis. Although completely aware of her surroundings, she is quite unable to move or make a sound. This is followed by a powerful feeling that there is a malevolent presence in the room, just out of visual range. Occasionally, this state is followed by various visual and auditory hallucinations.

Randi comments: Curt, the "UFO abductees" will never accept this; their delusion is far too valuable to them. Even though this phenomenon explains their experiences very aptly, they prefer and will maintain the UFO angle because it gives them status. It's not just a common psychological event. Incidentally, your wife is describing here classic hypnagogic or hypnopompic experiences, commonly referred to as the "old hag" phenomena, in which victims often hallucinate that a demon of some sort is perched, sitting on them and causing breathing difficulties. This has been a part of folklore for more than a century. Curt continues:

Now for the interesting part: when I first met my wife some fifteen years ago, we were both Christian believers of the Fundamentalist variety. She related that many times the malevolent presence would resolve itself into an unmistakable demonic figure, moving towards her with (no doubt) extreme malice in mind. She further related that she was sometimes able to rid herself of the figure by reciting the Lord's Prayer.

Fast forward about ten years. Over the course of that time, we both lost faith in religion in general, and became, to all intents and purposes, enlightened atheists. What is interesting is this: while the frequency and emotional impact of her paralysis sessions did not abate, the content of her hallucinations did. No longer was she faced with demons and supernatural evils, but with more mundane (though no less terrifying) visions. On one occasion, she related that she clearly saw our (then) two-year old son running through the room with a large kitchen knife. She screamed at him to stop, but to no avail. When she did awake, she discovered Jared fast asleep in his cot, with no sign that he had been loose.

I'm no medical expert, but my research has led me to the following suspicions. Sleep paralysis is (as your correspondent pointed out) somehow caused by different parts of the brain waking up at different times. When faced with this condition, the higher brain functions invent situations in an attempt to explain the inability to move. Usually, these "explanations" take the form of the patient's deepest fears. Thus, when my wife was a firm believer in the supernatural, the hallucinations would consist of malevolent, demonic figures. When she lost faith in the supernatural, these archetypes no longer held the power to cause fear, and so the hallucinations were replaced by different content, in this case a mother's fear that her child was in imminent danger of hurting himself.

Randi again: Curt, it's believed that most regular dreams are also due to this situation-inventing process, that extraneous noises and other peripheral sensory perceptions are incorporated into dream-stories so that there need be no conscious rationalization of this input — though the mind does process the sensory impressions to evaluate them for possible danger content. This would also support the change of attribution — from religious to family-needs — that your wife made. Curt continues:

She did eventually visit a physician, who related that the phenomenon was quite widespread, and the subject of much medical research, although it is still poorly understood. He also related another interesting fact — the sufferer almost always experiences a sense of time dilation. Although the paralysis event may subjectively seem to last a long time, research has in fact demonstrated that the experience usually lasts only about thirty seconds to a minute. He also said that sleep paralysis occurs most often when falling asleep, or waking up. In my wife's case, she realized that her sessions occurred almost exclusively after she fell asleep again after waking up in the morning. Since then, she has made a point of getting out of bed after waking in the morning — as a result, the episodes have almost completely disappeared.

Here we have the two experiences I mentioned above — hypnagogic or hypnopompic, falling asleep or awakening, respectively. Also note that most regular dreams go through this "time dilation" process. Even what appear to be long dreams are known to take place in about thirty seconds or so. I find these parallels to be very interesting!


"L.K." from the UK tells us:

I have a friend who believes in everything "alternative." Currently one of her children is suffering from OCD — Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The child's quality of life is being hampered by the "touching" rituals that she has to carry out continually. It is also stopping the whole family going out. Having looked at web sites and a book I gave her on conventional help for this disorder, she told me it wasn't worth trying the recommended therapy as the statistics indicated a low success rate. She was, however, trying "distance healing," meditation and "color therapy." It was only when I got home that the rebuttal "There are NO statistics for these therapies," came to mind. I must try Ginkgo bilbo (whatever) for my memory!

She then contacted the mother of a child who also had OCD, who first asked her the birth sign of the woman's daughter. It was Virgo, the same as her child. She now thinks this proves that Virgos have a predisposition to OCD, because of their desire for perfectionism. What a stunning conclusion, after checking on a whole two people! You can see how believers use statistics whichever way suits them.

This is another instance of the unhappiness and despair that people go through trying to get something out of quack procedures because they're just not well enough informed. The following item is another example….


Just a year ago on this page, I reported that a UK stripper known only as "Jordan" had approached Uri Geller's daughter Natalie at what was proudly trumpeted as "a glamour model's Pimps and Prostitutes-themed 25th birthday party." She took Natalie aside and asked her to talk to her dad about curing her year-old baby Harvey's blindness. The child was born blind and doctors say that he will never see; he's missing the nerve that sends the message from the eye to the brain. It seems that Uri's record on psychic healing hadn't reached Jordan. Well, now she claims that the spoon-bender has helped to cure her son of blindness, working miracles just by touching the child's head.

"Uri said, let me feel his head, so I did and now Harvey can see so much more from a distance. . . . I don't believe in anything like this but I swear he can see so much now, considering he's supposed to be blind," she told the press.

"So much more"? "From a distance"? I think I need clearer statements than those before I'll go into raptures over this miracle….


A magician buddy, Chris, reports:

A friend of mine was talking with Uri Geller about a month ago. He told me that he saw some video where Geller was caught bending a spoon with his hands, and when asked about it, his response was, "I was just checking. If I can't bend it with my hands, I can't bend it with my mind."

Now, that's a great line….

I agree, Chris, and I can just see the Master of Chutzpah saying this with a perfectly straight face. I've attached here a video file that shows the man doing what I call a trick, but that he describes as a genuine psychokinetic feat — the changing of the time on a watch-face. Warning: the video file is over 2 MB and requires Apple Quicktime to view. The first segment, titled "BEFORE" shows Mr. Geller taking the host's watch — in both hands, as if it were very heavy (?) — handling it in an interesting fashion, and offering it to a camera for a close-up shot, so that the time can be seen on the watch-face.

Pause: I should tell you that this RAI-TV studio where the show was shot, is unique in one respect: no cameras are visible, being at a great distance from the stage area, using very powerful lenses to provide images. There are no "tally lights" visible, either — the red "on" indicators that normally show that a camera is the one actually taking the "live" shot — so the performer cannot tell where to face, or where to direct an action. It appears that Mr. Geller was at a disadvantage during this session, since he's seen looking around to try presenting the best view — for his needs.

But that allows us to clearly see in the close-up that now the winding-stem has somehow been pulled away from the body of the watch — perhaps accidentally? — as a result of all that two-handed action. The time on the watch-dial is seen to be 12:13.

What follows then is the watch suddenly goes completely off-camera briefly, then there's a 52-second procedure of Geller gesturing magically over the face-down watch, while appealing to viewers to chant, "move!," disclaimers of "Look, there's no magnet, I don't touch the stem!" and then the denouement shown here in the scene labeled "AND AFTER," in which the winding stem is seen to have been pushed back into place — somehow — and the time is shown to now be 12:55.

A miracle….


Reader Karel de Pauw comments:

It's not often that the blurbs on "health" products slip up and make actual testable predictions. So congratulations to Blue Water "Natural Detoxifying Alpine Drinking Water" of Liphook, Hampshire, UK. The water "has so much energy it can literally energize your body. One way of demonstrating this unique property is to do the "lemon test."

And what would that be? "Squeeze the juice of one fresh lemon into two glasses. Place one glass next to the bottle of Blue Water. Keep the other at least 5 feet away. Wait 5 minutes. Try the "closer" juice first. Most people notice an amazing change caused by the natural energy of Blue Water. Seeing is believing. Tasting is knowing."

Now, if they'd just let us amend that to a proper double-blind trial, we would be really impressed.


From an anonymous correspondent in Wales:

Below is excerpt from e-mail sent to staff at University of Wales Aberystwyth and is part of a staff development course. Some city types may be used to moving the furniture around for a bit of spiritual enlightenment, but frankly we scientists can't cope with it. However I have requested "Feng shui in the laboratory" for us research technicians or possibly "improving your psychic powers" so that we could commune with dead scientists — or some of the live ones. I'm worried that the chi might hit the fan.

We are holding a Secretarial/Clerical Conference on Friday 9 July (9:15 — 3:00) to be held in Penbryn Hall and arranged in conjunction with Coleg Ceredigion. There will be guest speakers and sessions on emotional intelligence, office organization, communication and using Feng Shui in the office.


Reader Dan Green:

Early Thursday morning a meteor lit up much of Washington State. Our local paper, The Seattle Times, included in its coverage a list of quotes from eye witnesses. One person gave the following embarrassing response:

I was on my way to work this morning at 2:40 and a yellowish, then greenish, then white then blue-white light like I have never seen before came over me. At first, I thought I was being beamed up, but no gauges on my car changed, so I knew I wasn't being "taken." It was very scary, as I live in the country and the moon disappeared, the light was so bright.

Yes, she's taking an event she saw in a bad movie (UFOs affecting car instrumentation) and using it as a guide for negotiating reality. On the positive side, I'm going to try to interest auto makers in putting an alien abduction warning light on new cars. There could be a market for this.

Too late, Dan. My patent application is already in….


David P. Abbott (1863-1934) was a prolific inventor of magicians' illusions, a performer himself, and the author of "Behind the Scenes with the Mediums" (1907) a thorough exposé of the methods used by the fakers of the day. I give you here the opening paragraphs of the book, in which the situation of a century ago can be seen to be little different from today:

It is probably due to the scientific training of the present age that there are those amongst us who cannot accept the promise of immortality on faith alone. Such as these require something in the nature of a positive proof for any belief which they may entertain. They seem unconsciously to realize that the chances of any unproven proposition or statement being untrue are vastly in the majority.

Such persons seem to feel that if a race of thinking beings were slowly evolved upon a flying world, the majority of ideas which such beings would evolve in their minds, if unproven, would not correspond with objective facts; that only those which could be proven in some manner would possess a value; that the chances are greatly against the probability of the truth of unproven ideas of things and existence in general; also that minds which could in a superstitious age evolve and believe in such superstitions as witchcraft, sorcery, etc., might in the same age evolve and believe in other superstitions that are unwarranted by the facts, although pleasing to the individual.

Such persons as these would solve the mystery of mysteries by the power of their intellect alone. Such as these would unlock the lips of nature and rob her of her secret, but to such as these no answer framed in words of hope has ever come.

We ask, yet nothing seems to know;
We cry in vain-
There is no "master of the show,"
Who will explain,
Or from the future tear the mask,
And yet we dream and yet we ask.

Is there beyond the silent night
An endless day,
Is death a door that leads to light?
We cannot say.
The tongueless secret locked in fate
We do not know, we hope and wait.

The above quotation was taken from Declaration of the Free, by Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), prominent US agnostic, lawyer, and orator, but it is not thus attributed in the Abbott book. Abbott continues:

"If a man die, shall he live again?" This question of questions still appeals to the human heart with the same strength that it did in the days of old. Many solutions to this problem of problems have been offered, many times has man answered this question; yet it ever and ever repeats itself in the human heart.

If the structures which are our bodies must dissolve at death, does the innerness of these structures which is spirit vanish utterly? Does death hold for us but the promise of the same unfathomable gulf of blackness out of which we came at birth? Is the eternal future to be to us the same as was the eternal past? Is life but a temporary abode on a peak that is touched by the fingers of light for a day, while all around yawns an infinite, shoreless gulf of impenetrable darkness, from one side of which we appeared and to whose other side we hurry to meet our destiny?

We feel certain that both our material and spiritual parts are actualized by elements eternal and indestructible. But does that something, other than these elements — that which they actualize, that creation which appears as a result of their combination in a special form, that something else which is ourselves — vanish utterly with the dissolution of the elements which temporarily actualize both our bodies and our spirits?

Much to my surprise, though Abbott was so very much aware of all the tricks used by the mediums to fake communication with the dead, and was in fact one of the greatest experts on the subject, in this book he does not declare his personal convictions of whether or not there exists proper evidence for survival after death. It appears that he had a weakness of reasoning in some respects connected with this field. As interested readers will eventually find out, in the book that Teller — of Penn & Teller — is now working on, at least one clever operator befuddled him, and he harbored a belief in at least the possibility of telepathy and other doubtful phenomena.

I will keep readers informed on the progress of the Teller book, which should be very interesting indeed.


If you've not yet gone to join-skeptics@lyris.net, and subscribed free to their on-line magazine, why haven't you? Shermer's got something strong and valuable here — and the price is right. Free. Click now.

Also very well worth your attention is www.sas.org/tcs, if you're not already a regular visitor….

Go to our links page — www.randi.org/education/links.html — to see other places you should be dropping in on….!

Error! The quotation ascribed last week to Homer, was actually from Horace, as Dan Milton tells me. Love both Homer and Horace…. And thanks, Dan.

Next week, another video clip from that same RAI-TV program, this one involving the difficult art of bending keys when you can't tell when or if you're on camera…! And, another befuddled applicant, plus the one-and-only Rolling Baba! Not to be missed!