June 24, 2005

Silly Book Review, Different Points of View, Politics in Science, Flattered by Imitation, Texas Bum Steer, Science at Work, Another Boring Claim, Totally Convinced, Every-Day Stuff for the JREF, "Animal Planet" Taken to Task, Help, That Law Again, The QXCI Again, and In Closing....


Table of Contents:


SILLY BOOK REVIEW

I have at hand a copy of "Animals on the Other Side," by Sylvia Browne. Says the star of the Montel Williams' Psychic Promotion Hour in this book, "It goes without saying... that when an animal dies, its spirit goes Home just like ours." How comforting.

Sumer Jarvis of The Learning Tree bookstore in Sumter, South Carolina, informed us about this book that she says "makes for a good laugh." But, she adds:

I refuse to sell this book in my store. By peddling to children, Sylvia Browne is stooping even lower than her usual tactics of preying on the elderly, ignorant, and those who are mourning.

Ms. Jarvis kindly sent her sample copy of this $16.95 hard-bound book by Angel Bea Publishing to the JREF library, where it joins volumes on quack medicine, fortune-telling, witchcraft, scientology, and UFOs. We put it in a special section so those other books wouldn't get contaminated.

I note that in "Animals on the Other Side," we don't see the phrase "in heaven," but "at Home." That's only one of the cutesy items she strews throughout the book's 32 pages. "Totems," she says, are animals who come here "from the Other Side to watch over us and protect us." Sylvia's personal totem, she avers, is an elephant. So don't mess with Sylvia, or her totem will flatten you!

Writes Sylvia:

All God's creatures exist on the Other Side with only one exception. The only living things I have never seen at Home are insects. I am not sure exactly why that is, but I have never seen a spider, fly, or any other type of insect...

Readers are assured that on the Other Side all is "natural, unpolluted, unspoiled beauty." All seven continents are there, we're told, plus two bonus items: Lemuria and Atlantis. And...

[All animals] exist on the Other side... animals that have existed throughout the history of the world are there as well, such as dinosaurs, unicorns, griffins, and other species...

Sylvia, you've really got to get an updated taxonomy! And you forgot angels, ewoks, Harry Potter, and Smurfs — might as well get all the way silly.

We're edified to know from this valuable reference book that Home is

...always a perfect 78 degrees with no rain, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, or lightning flashes.

Well, I certainly hope so, but that'll be a burden to everyone who's not American, because that's 172 degrees to all those folks who've been using the Celsius temperature scale; they might as well have gone Down Below.... And we're told that while there is "some" snow in heaven, Sylvia's son Chris — who co-authored this wiz of a book — reveals that this celestial variety of snow is "not bitter cold or frozen." No, he writes, it's "warm and fluffy." How nice.

We're also comforted to know that Home is adorned with "countless places of worship, like churches and synagogues." What, no mosques....?

But there's a basic problem with animals that Sylvia and Chris have to slickly eliminate: what about the conflict between predators and prey, all stuck together cheek to jowl — so to speak — on the Other Side...? Do tigers and antelope just ignore one another? Ah, it's all solved by the fact that at Home — on the Other Side — no one eats — or gets eaten! How boring.

What would seem to be another problem — communication between human and animal spirits — is also banished by the impeccable logic and reason Sylvia offers. Says she,

On the Other Side, we can communicate with animals telepathically... without even opening our mouths.

What a relief! Still, we have to wonder whether people — or animals — lose all their bad habits when they "pass." Do they still smoke tobacco — or other substances — on the Other Side? If not, when she "passes over," Sylvia will probably have an everlasting nicotine I.V. put in place....

This book has only been out for a few months, but I note that the price has already been reduced from $16.95 to $13.95. Not only that, but a highly-touted "Collector's Package" was offered by the publisher; it consists of a personally-signed edition of the book, a color print of a tiger painting, eight "note-cards," and a real Certificate of Authenticity (!) all at $149.95 plus $9.95 for mailing; that irresistible bargain is now being offered for a mere $99.

Perhaps kids are a bit smarter than Sylvia thought them to be....?


DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW

The Tulsa Zoo — via their Park and Recreation Board — will soon add a new display featuring the Biblical account of creation, following complaints to the city about other exhibits with religious significance that they have on show, such as a statue of the Hindu elephant-god Ganesh outside their elephant exhibit, and a marble globe inscribed with an American Indian saying: "The earth is our mother. The sky is our father." The new display will depict the myth of God's creation of the world — 6,000 years ago — in six days and his rest on the seventh, as told in Genesis. This is all science at its best, Oklahoma style.

The Tulsa Zoo is a taxpayer-funded scientific institution, but that fact was ignored. Tulsa mayor Bill LaFortune called it "an issue of fairness." Rumors are that Bill is also supporting a move to teach in Tulsa schools that the Sun revolves around the Earth — which was created 6,000 years ago — in fairness to an aboriginal tribe in New Guinea — some of them Christians — who hold to that belief. Two members of that tribe just moved into Tulsa. Only a rumor, but..

While the new display will include a disclaimer that says that the creationist exhibit represents "only one point of view," city attorneys have also advised that it be accompanied by other cultures' views of creation. Wow! That's going to be a crowded exhibit. Just for starters, they'll at least need to include:

  1. An Australian Aborigine display of the Rainbow Serpent creation myth.
  2. The Hindu creation story that begins all over again at the end of each "kalpa," brought about by flames from the fangs of Sesha, a serpent.
  3. The Maori idea that New Zealand was dragged into existence from the bottom of the ocean.
  4. A Shinto display showing that the world began with a "giant reed from chaos" that became the god Kuni-Toko-Tachi, followed by Yin and Yang, the "Fertile Pair" who peopled the Earth.
  5. The Hindu creation story of the World Egg.
  6. Another Hindu myth, that the giant Purusha was killed by other gods, and his various body parts became continents of the Earth.
  7. The Greeks said that Nyx, a giant bird with black wings, was impregnated by other gods, then laid a silver egg, and that gave us the Earth.
  8. In old Egypt, there suddenly was a really big Cosmic Egg from somewhere. Who knows?
  9. The Sumerians believed that at a drunken party, Nimnah — Mother Earth — fashioned humans out of clay.
  10. The Christian idea that their god made the first human from dust and turned one of his ribs into his wife. Neat trick.
Tulsa Zoo exhibit curator Kathleen Buck-Miser has estimated it would take about six months to research and organize the exhibit as originally agreed to, but maybe after seeing this partial list, she'll make that a lot longer.

Wait a minute! That same exhibit in Tulsa that has elephant-god Ganesh, also has the Republican Party's elephant symbol! "In fairness," I demand that an equal weight of donkeys be included! That's about 50 to 60 Democratic representatives, depending on which elephants and which donkeys will be used in making the calculation. You see just how complicated Political Correctness can get? But the mayor's on my side!

Reader John Ruch of Boston, Massachusetts, has a far more important breach of PC and an outrageous example of denial of Biblical inerrancy to report. He wrote me:

I'm sure you're getting mail about the Tulsa zoo story. I thought I would point out an interesting sidelight: the zoo continues to contradict holy scripture by housing bats and birds separately (as far as I can tell), when Leviticus 11:19 clearly says that bats are a type of bird. I wrote to the City of Tulsa demanding that this situation, which obviously implies Biblical fallibility and thus insults Christians, be rectified by housing penguins and bats together, as that will fulfill Biblical requirements without the animals getting in each others' way too much.

I find a tongue in cheek preferable to a sinking heart.

Good defense, John. Reader Nathan Hendrickson acted by sending this letter to the City of Tulsa:

I visited the Tulsa Zoo a month ago and had a good time. However, I was sad to see that the continental drift exhibit, which I think is in the arctic building, was not operating. The sign next to it says that it was created using information from Carl Sagan's book, "Cosmos." I sincerely hope that you get it back up and running again before work starts on the proposed Creationism exhibit.

Perhaps the city council and the mayor should read "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan before further embarrassing the State of Oklahoma any more than you already have. The proposed Creationism exhibit is a bad idea and stereotypes Oklahoma residents as backwards and uneducated. Creationism also happens to be bad science. Who wants to have bad science displayed in an otherwise good zoo?

If you disagree with me on Creationism, that is your choice. Just remember how it makes us look nationally. However, if you sincerely believe that Creationism is good science, you may be eligible for the $1,000,000 prize from the James Randi Educational Foundation. That would more than pay for the Creationism exhibit and greatly benefit the Tulsa Zoo. It would be wonderful publicity for the Tulsa Zoo, the city of Tulsa, and the State of Oklahoma if you could claim the prize.

Nathan provided them with all the contact data for the JREF, but strangely, we haven't heard from them yet....

Nathan also reminds us about the influence of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko [1898-1976] of the former Lenin/Stalin Soviet Union, who was a follower of "Lamarckism." Some politically-sensitive Soviet geneticists had decided that biology should be subject to the laws of "Dialectical Materialism" and Marxism, and not to those of lesser disciplines such as physics and chemistry. Everything else, they maintained, should be discarded. Soviet biologists who disagreed were imprisoned, and the genetics community in that part of the world was almost destroyed and has never fully recovered.

Warns Nathan, even today there have been published news reports of scientists and researchers all over the world — and here — who are afraid to get into certain areas of research for political reasons; areas such as stem-cell research, and male-female differences come in for special mention. In this country, the next step could be that Creationism-believing politicians or college Deans will be harassing researchers because their findings do not coincide with a 6,000-year-old Earth created by Intelligent Design....

Impossible, right?

This is a possibility that will be entered into by experts at The Amaz!ng Meeting 4, "Science in Politics & the Politics of Science," next January, which will point out just how much pressure is brought to bear on scientists who otherwise could produce valuable findings. And, speaking of politics....


POLITICS IN SCIENCE

The Washington Post June of 18th has an excellent article by Ellen Goodman which dealt with the recent autopsy report on the Terri Schiavo case, which we would think had brought the whole matter into focus for everyone; but the "faith-based" among us cling to their delusions about the truth of this sad event. The whole Post article can be viewed via www.washingtonpost.com — though you'll have to "join" and supply lots of good material for marketing people to savor — and use. Here are excerpts:

This [Schiavo] case was never solely about medicine. But the question on the TV screen ["Does This Change Opinions?"] illustrated the times we live in — times when facts can exist in a separate universe from opinions. And a country in which science is seen not as a matter of black and white but increasingly as a matter of red and blue.

The Schiavo case is not the only example. The climate is equally apparent in the struggle over what the Bush administration calls "climate change" — and everyone else calls global warming. The only way to justify doing nothing about global warming now is to deliberately muddle the science. It's not an accident that Philip Cooney, the White House official caught editing reports on greenhouse gases, left for Exxon Mobil, which has indeed funded doubts.

So, too, the struggle over evolution is no longer overtly between scientists and religious fundamentalists. It's between the science establishment and the handful of front men with PhDs who support "intelligent design." Their credentials make it seem as if evolution were also a matter of genuine scientific debate.

At the close of her incisive article Ms. Goodman asks two critical questions, which all thinking citizens of the United States of America have also been asking — answers to which have not yet been addressed by the Bush administration:

But what happens when science is seen and even skewed as partisan? Is one scientist's fact given no more weight than another's opinion?

Folks, science is not, and never has been, a matter of opinion; it is a matter of evidence and facts. Religion is entirely a matter of opinion and personal preference. And fear of the facts.


FLATTERED BY IMITATION

Reader Matt Hunt sends us to the Catholic Apologetics International [CAI] site: www.catholicintl.com/epologetics/articles/science/geochallenge.htm, where we find a pale imitation of the JREF challenge which begins:

The Geocentrism Challenge

CAI will write a check for $1,000 to the first person who can prove that the earth revolves around the sun. (If you lose, then we ask that you make a donation to the apostolate of CAI). Obviously, we at CAI don't think anyone CAN prove it, and thus we can offer such a generous reward. In fact, we may up the ante in the near future.

You can submit your "proofs" to our e-mail address cairomeo@aol.com. We will then offer a response. Both your "proof" and our response will be posted on the CAI science page at our website. If you do not want your actual name listed, we will change your name, but your contents will be posted. If you do not want either your name or your contents posted, then you are not eligible for a reply from CAI nor the $1,000 reward. CAI will be the sole judge of whether you have successfully proven your case. But since CAI is built on its reputation of honesty and truthfulness, rest assured that if you do indeed prove your case, you will be rewarded the money.

And of course, it runs on and on, with their na´ve notions of science and reason. I'm sure that you can anticipate my response....? Here it is:

JREF will write a check for $1,000,000 to the first person who can prove that the Sun revolves around the Earth. (If you lose, then we don't ask any donation to the apostates at the JREF.) Obviously, we at JREF don't think anyone CAN prove it, and thus we can offer such a generous reward. In fact, it's so large, we don't have to up the ante in the future.

You can submit your "proofs" to our e-mail address jref@randi.org. We will then offer a response. Both your "proof" and our response will be posted on the JREF website. If you do not want your actual name listed, that's tough. If you do not want either your name or your contents posted, then you are not eligible for a reply from JREF, nor the $1,000,000 reward. JREF will never be the judge of whether you have successfully proven your case and JREF will not depend on "its reputation of honesty and truthfulness" in acting as a judge of whether or not you have successfully proven your case; tests, as always, will be independently designed and conducted by neutral agencies. If you do indeed prove your case, you will be rewarded the money.

My math tells me that this offer is at least a thousand times as good as the Catholic Apologetics International offer....


TEXAS BUM STEER

Reader Michael Bragg from Texas reports:

Hello, and profuse thanks for helping keep rationality alive in the new Western Christendom. I just wanted to write and let you know that fundamentalist superstition is alive and well in West Texas. In case you're unaware, my hometown of Lubbock received one of Texas Monthly's annual Bum Steer Awards for battling pagan idolatry:

After the Texas Department of Transportation installed "Windy Man," a cast-concrete image of a bearded face exhaling a blast of air, along a short stretch of freeway in Lubbock, dozens of residents complained that the image was pagan.
(Texas Monthly, Jan. 2005)

Subsequently, someone unidentified destroyed the image with a sledgehammer. None of the churches in town have claimed responsibility, which seems odd to me, as our local houses of worship are not above taking credit (indirect, of course) for bringing rain through prayer.

I feel that this vandalism surpasses the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution.

I am thankful that modern technology has given me access to JREF, Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, and Penn and Teller's BS. Keep up the exemplary work!


SCIENCE AT WORK

A reader has sent us this set of the LifeWave Patches that we've referred to here recently. Note that they're to be applied to specified different sides of the body; you wouldn't want to misdirect the powerful forces unleashed by this advance in "nanotechnology"! Besides, this combo cost $6.66 — that surely can't be a coincidence!

There's some sort of slimy goo sealed into these adhesive plastic discs, and I don't want to know what it might be; my curiosity about pseudoscience only goes so far....

At www.randi.org/jr/052705a.html#5 I mentioned that Dr. Meyya Meyyappan, Director and Senior Scientist of the Center for Nanotechnology at NASA Ames Research Center, California, had been cited by LifeWave as endorsing their technology. That made both Dr. Meyyappan and NASA look as if they had fallen for the LifeWave scam, and they were appropriately incensed when I informed them about this. Just today, along with a thank-you note, I heard from NASA that they had sent a formal cease-and-desist demand to LifeWave, and that spurious reference has now been removed from their ads. We have to wonder whether anything LifeWave offers, is genuine.

Every now and then, a small victory....


ANOTHER BORING CLAIM

Some of you have inquired about a very noisy man who has taken the "scam name" of "Prophet Yahweh." He was originally Ramon Orestege Watkins of Las Vegas via Los Angeles, a 52-year-old man who has promised to make "UFOs" appear in the skies over LV. We've been asked by readers whether his claim is eligible for the JREF prize, and of course the answer is, yes. He was recently a novelty item on one local TV show there, and the commentator was flabbergasted when a tiny white spot floated by in the sky. I have to wonder if a mediocre card trick would give that journalist an attack of the vapors, or even worse.

I'm not about to spend a lot of my valuable time on Mr. Yahweh, whose record in general indicates that he's a full-blown con artist. Suffice it to say that he has formally made application for the prize, and as soon as we go through the usual efforts to get him to actually read the rules and follow them, we'll answer him appropriately.

Understand that these would-be media stars will do anything to get some TV or newspaper coverage, and flailing about with the JREF is one way they hope to achieve that goal; we're not about to give "Prophet" any such advantage. His application arrived here with a long list of conditions he insists on. He signed the form as "Yahweh," rather than with his original name, but said he'd provide us with documentation of his name-change. And, sure enough, some paper arrived showing that on June 1st, 2000, the Los Angeles Superior Court granted him a name-change to Prophet Yahweh! I wonder if I could get my name changed in Los Angeles to "Wizard Harry Potter," or maybe "Almighty God," if I asked....?

You know, if I were an aspiring con artist who wanted to get a UFO passing by for the credulous media, I'd go to a party-supply store and invest in a small helium tank and several white balloons. I'd have a confederate stationed up-wind, available by cell phone, and prepared to release a balloon or two on cue. Gee, that's a good plan, don'tcha think...? Of course, I'd have to insist that my UFO would appear at a specific site, so the balloon-man would know where to be situated. Oh, I just noticed: in his application, Mr. Yahweh specifies that he

...will conduct [his] summonings only at [his] summoning site.

Hmmmm.

Yes, we're prepared to test Mr. Yahweh's claim, under proper conditions, with any possibility of cheap trickery properly blocked. As soon, that is, as he gets around to figuring out how to fill out the application. Instructed by the rules to provide two short paragraphs, he gave us 825 words in 71 paragraphs.... Along with the conditions he demanded, he mentioned that he was

...in direct telephatic [sic] contact with [his] space being friends.

and that they

...have revealed that they will send UFOs, within a four day period of [his] asking for them to appear, on [his] cue until July 15th.

I think you can see just how fuzzy these terms are. In any case, we'll keep you informed.... At this present time, the plan is to test his claim at The Amaz!ng Meeting 4, in January. However, that date prompted Mr. Yahweh to warn us that by that time, the attention of the whole world would probably already be upon him, and we'd have lost the opportunity of being the first to extol his abilities. I courageously answered him, "We'll take that risk."

As one reader commented, this man Yahweh could escalate his nonsense into another "Heavens Gate/Hale-Bopp Comet" tragedy or a Sai Baba type of movement that uses religion and trickery to get people to give him money and fame, and to follow him as a leader...


TOTALLY CONVINCED

To see just how convinced dowsers are about their personal delusion, go to the discussion at www.practicalmachinist.com/cgi-bin/ubbcgi/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic;f=1;t=012327 and you'll also see how well a knowledgeable skeptic can try to get them straightened out. Of course, the "true believer" will ignore any and all evidence that he/she doesn't prefer to exist — such as the JREF challenge — and such efforts are of no avail against willful ignorance, but occasionally one of the deluded will come about and face the facts. That's what we try to accomplish....


EVERY-DAY STUFF FOR THE JREF

From time to time, I receive a note that just needs to be posted here, so that you will recognize the depth of our problems at the JREF and how discouraging it can be when we can't do anything positive to help those who appeal to us. Exactly as received, spelling and punctuation intact, this is an example from a person who is the perfect potential victim of some guru or quack who will exploit his naivety:

Dear Mr.Randi

I am 20 years old and my hole life ive been told im the devil child. I was suffing the net and came acrossed your challange and i have to say Good idea but i agree there are many hoaks and many frods out there people claimin things they have no idea nor expieranced in. Now i dont know what i am or if i really psychic but seence i was a child ive felt others pain and always seemed to know how to cheer them up and to know whats bothering them and i have moments that i can control fire and i have moments i see the future. Mr. Randi im sorry to waste your time but i do have to say you are right we all have visions in our dreams but the way you were talking about how psychics are just as amazed when some thing happens to them yes we are but thats not how it works or what i have come to believe. Its much like your imagination noone has ever told you you cant dream becouse it cant happen noone can see your dreams noone can know your fantisies with out you tellin them. Now i know you are alot smarter then me by a long shot but im just sharing what i have learned in my time of learning my "gift" "powers" what ever you would call them. I have found that you have verry rare acounts of seeing your own future. And as for a psychic to predict death its not right nor is it proper noone should have control of that info. I thank you for your time and im sorry to waste your time. Feel free to reply if not then im sorry thanks again

This is evidently a sincere person wanting to know more about his personal experiences, and how to evaluate them. These are difficult inquiries to respond to, but we do what we can. Of course, along with these genuinely inquiring postings come the nasty, threatening, angry ones that show we're annoying some folks who are challenged by the reality to which we expose them. My response to the writer above was:

It appears that you're a person who is sensitive to others and their problems, a trait that many of us also experience. That's not really unusual; as humans, we're able to pick up on subtle signals that other people put out, because we need to know how they feel and what their intentions are. That's built into us from the beginning, and learned by us as we pass through life, and it's a very useful set of abilities, I'm sure you'll agree. However, we often have to wonder just how these instincts work, and when we cannot understand them, we tend to think they're perhaps "magical." Believe me, they're not; they're just wonderful, and they're natural.

And, I don't believe for a moment that I'm "a lot smarter" than you, at all. If we were to meet, we could quickly find out, for example, that while I may know more about geometry than you do, I couldn't fix the carburetor in my car if I were given all the best tools ever made and a month of fussing about — while you might be able to do that in five minutes with a popsicle-stick! You see, we're all "smart" in different ways, and sometimes our skills don't often look obvious to others, though they're certainly there.

As for your ability to "see the future" sometimes, think about that carefully. Yes, every now and then we make a guess that's right — but that's often based on good common sense, not on some psychic power. And, you have to keep a record of all the guesses you make; you might be surprised at just how few are actually correct....!

And, no, you certainly did not "waste my time." Responding to folks like you is why the JREF exists; it's our job to try bringing a little more understanding into the world. I welcome your inquiry, and I urge you to keep reading our web page, so that you'll see how so many other folks out there have similar puzzles to solve, and seek the same kinds of answers. Often, what we observe is more easily explained by ordinary solutions, and not by supernatural ones. Our world is not any less beautiful by being regular and explainable. Scratch the ears of the next puppy you see, and go nuts looking up into a night sky. That's reality, and you can learn about it and so many other wonders, just by asking.

I'm flattered that you chose to ask me. Thank you.


"ANIMAL PLANET" TAKEN TO TASK

Reader and "Bright" Jeffrey Scott Simmons of New York City is rightly annoyed by a TV presentation he saw recently. Here is his rather long commentary, from which I chose not to edit a word, because it's so important and pertinent to our work. Reader Eric Rapp and a few others also had comments on this show; they'll forgive me for using only Jeffrey's entry:

On Sunday night the Animal Planet cable TV network aired the much-ballyhooed special, "Jane Goodall: When Animals Talk." It was a disappointing amalgam of piffle. I cite my criticisms in the letter attached below. Sadly, it did a disservice to Jane Goodall's reputation, making her appear credulous and less than her uncompromisingly intellectual self. I don't know who to blame for its inception, although as a consumer of Animal Planet programming, I am justified in calling the channel to account for airing this embarrassment.

I have emailed and snail-mailed the mentioned letter below. However, not having a great deal of faith in any cable channel's viewer relations process, I offer it to you to post, excerpted as you see fit, as an open letter to the channel, the program's producers and to any unsuspecting neophyte to such programming (Ahhh... remember the "In Search Of..." series? Classic stuff, that) who might not know how to spot the cynical tricks of a well-edited tabloid documentary.

Every thanks for your crucial, ongoing efforts.

Jeffrey's letter:

I am writing to express my disappointment with Animal Planet's presentation of "Jane Goodall: When Animals Talk" last night, Sunday, June 12. I am a great fan of Dr. Goodall, her work, conservation in general, and all the natural sciences. I am also an avid Animal Planet viewer. My criticism of this program concerns its credulous and scientifically disingenuous presentation of a number of its segment topics.

Early in the show I realized this was not to be an in-depth exploration of scientific breakthroughs in animal/human communication research, as I had hoped it might be. I understand it was assembled as a breezy omnibus of enchanting and thought-provoking accounts of animal/human interactions, meant to inspire wonder and affection for the animal cousins who share our planet. And, as far as it goes — while not entirely my cup of tea — that's fine. However, in a number of segments, scientific method was fraudulently invoked to validate anecdotal trivia. This was a disservice to the audience, to true critical scientific investigation and to ongoing efforts to broker a legitimate, beneficial coexistence with the animal kingdom and the natural environment we live in.

I will point out just three examples of how the program betrayed and ruined its own scientific legitimacy.

First are statements made by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake concerning N'kisi, the African gray parrot in New York and its wonderful relationship with its human owner, Aimee Morgana. The parrot is credited with uncanny and unprecedented language skills, as taught by his owner. Fine. Then, quite awkwardly, this "human/bird connection" is extended as a hypothesis into the realm of telepathy. Sheldrake proceeds to conduct what he claims to be, "...a series of controlled [scientific] experiments." The only example shown is a version of the time-tested (and flunked) exercise of remote viewing of photographs, once (and, I guess, still) a favorite with researchers attempting to prove human telepathy. To an innocent audience, the test as presented is proof-positive (A) of abstract human/animal communication and (B) the existence of telepathy. But, to someone who has been disappointed by more than a few such wild claims, the telltales of a very UN-critical, UN-scientific exercise abound throughout the sequence.

More than once it is mentioned and sub-titled how the human target viewer (Aimee) is fifty feet away from the bird... in their own home. The implication is that no pedestrian form of information could possibly be exchanged between bird and viewer over such a "long" distance, but there is no evidence to support this. My wife and I communicate perfectly well over this distance in our own apartment. Which, not-so-incidentally, I would never characterize as a proper laboratory environment for testing telepathy — but I digress. There is NO provenance given for the target photographs, other than that, "Aimee has never seen them before..." "Before" what? And has N'kisi ever seen them? Have Aimee and N'kisi ever practiced with photos of similar subject matter? Further, there is no indication of the sample size other than Aimee's admission, "He did choose to participate quite often..." "Often" compared to what? What was the data generated in instances when the parrot did not "choose" — as subjectively adjudged by the "experimenters" — to "participate"? We are told that, in preparation for the making of this show, the bird was shown many examples of Jane Goodall's work, including a video tape. Was it similarly prepped for the telepathy "experiment"? Perhaps not, but this is not the point. The point is that Dr. Sheldrake is presented as an expert and that the process he conducts with the bird is "science," good science. And it is not, by a long shot.

Secondly, fresh from his "victory" with the clairvoyant parrot, Sheldrake moves on to validate dog owners' convictions of their own pets' telepathic abilities. We are shown an example (which no one appears to test) of a pair of whippets, Buffet and Shiraz, who "know" when their owner is coming home, ten minutes before he arrives — when, we are told, he is still in the subway, presumably un-smellable and un-hearable by his loyal dogs. Sheldrake states that he has conducted a survey that shows 5% (!) of dog owners report such 10-minute prescience among their canine companions. Based on this statistically insignificant data, Sheldrake states, "We can be fairly sure it's not from hearing familiar sounds." This "authoritative" statement implicitly allows for no other natural explanation such as: humans reporting positive hits for an endearing behavior while ignoring false alarms when owners don't arrive home; a long list of shorthand tricks and cues that dogs, bred and raised to obsess over their owner/pack leader, use to anticipate their arrival after an absence; a combination of these and other circumstances surrounding the reports of dog clairvoyance.

And this is the most nagging aspect of the canine telepathy segment. Dr. Sheldrake sees scientific proof in a survey of reports and seems uninterested in performing a thorough, controlled scientific investigation of those reports, which thus remain the only evidence that the phenomenon even exists. Yet, somehow, this man is presented as a "scientist" (under the quasinym "biologist") and his cursory level of investigation as meeting the threshold required of scientific method. For shame.

Thirdly, and in the same vein, is the segment about animals "predicting" natural disasters; in particular, the 2004 tsunami. The statement is made that, "Nearly all of [the land animals in the region] saved themselves by fleeing the coast for higher ground before the tsunami hit." This is an unproven, non-falsifiable, and rather preposterous statement made without qualification and served to the viewer as fact. It is offered and repeated amid unrelated, anecdotal statements by animal owners who believe their pets and livestock have warned them of other impending disasters. Most disappointing of all is the editing into sequence of Dr. Goodall's affirmation that China has known about this phenomenon for years and officially uses it in their national earthquake defense planning. Is this so? No Chinese official is offered to confirm it. How successful has this program been which (presumably) monitors animal behavior en masse, twenty four hours a day, waiting for a stampede to... non-quakable ground? How many human lives has it saved? I am particularly irked by this segment because it portrays Dr. Goodall in a rather credulous, unflattering light. Being a critical viewer, however, I choose to blame the producers for the context in which her statements are placed.

I have no illusions about commercial television programming. I accept there will be exploitative shows, paraded as "scientific documentary," that speculate on the thinnest hypotheses, with nary a shred of supporting evidence. But last night represented a great opportunity. Millions of people, hungry for knowledge and entertainment, tuned in to Animal Planet for two hours because they were given to believe that Jane Goodall would present important — and, yes, affirming — news about our close relationship with our non-human brethren. You don't get a bully pulpit like that very often. It was a chance to show the real, important, exciting science being performed, even as I write, exploring human/animal communication. Instead, this show trotted out feel-good mystical pap for pet owners under the reflected glow of a true luminary in the naturalist field, and blew a great chance to make real natural science attractive and accessible while rendering humanity's relationship with non-humans truly meaningful.

I had hoped a channel such as Animal Planet, whose bread-and-butter is an audience craving informed awareness of our natural world, would know better.

Gee, we offered to test one of Sheldrake's wonder dogs, but the owners decided they didn't like me, and declined. They also declined the million dollars.


HELP

A correspondent, who claims to work for Shell as a "Principal Electrical Engineer," has sent this to me as a statement about the principle of homeopathy that he challenges me to disprove. If he's the best that Shell can do, I'm certainly not investing in Shell stock....

Water doesn't have a memory but matter (including water) does, the matter itself acts as a memory for its own production from the vacuum as the planet moves forward in its orbit.

Okay....


THAT LAW AGAIN

Paul Walker-Bright of Chicago — along with several other readers — has prompted me to clear up a point of which I was well aware, but failed to mention last week:

In your commentary of today's date (June 17, 2005), you discuss creationists' claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics should negate evolution because evolution is the creation of order from disorder, while the Second Law states that ordered systems tend to break down over time (this is very loose paraphrasing of the Second Law, I know). I know that you know this, but I thought you might like to mention to your readers that not only is it possible for nature to create ordered and organized systems, but also that the creationists' argument is based on a false premise.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics really only applies to closed systems, in which there is no more input of energy to keep the system going. The Earth is not a closed system, as we are constantly exposed to a massive influx of energy every second of every day, from that big ball of glowing gas in the sky, the Sun. It is quite a wonderful process how organisms have evolved to use this energy and thus can continue to evolve. No supernatural explanation necessary.

Thanks, as always, for fighting the good fight and keeping the public informed.

Paul has contributed useful comments previously, at www.randi.org/jr/121903lins.html. I thank him for keeping me alert....


THE QXCI AGAIN

At www.randi.org/jr/061104the.html#3 — which I suggest you read before the rest of this item — I bombed on an obviously stupid device, and that action of mine has alarmed an anonymous reader — "J.B." — who apparently believes that the "QXCI" (Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface) — a kind of electronic prayer-wheel — is the salvation of our species. He wrote me a detailed critique of my stance. I'll present it here sentence-by-sentence, followed by my observations:

I can understand as a skeptic why you would be inclined to discredit and make a fool of Professor Nelson, however as one who has worked in this specific field I can assure you that the QXCI is not some "Gizmo."

I didn't have to discredit or make a fool of Nelson. He did that himself by his preposterous, unscientific, claims and statements. And just what, may I ask, are "J.B"s qualifications to know better about this? Just where are the assurances — accompanied by evidence — that he offers us? If what follows in this statement constitutes his assurance, his promise is in deep trouble. Read on:

If the practitioners that utilize this device are considered "quacks", then there are quite a few certified "quacks" working all over the world. Among them are MD's Nurses, and many other various Medical Professionals.

I cannot agree more with these two statements! Yes, quacks abound, by the thousands, regardless of claimed affiliations and academic attributes. As I've said before, education only makes one educated, not necessarily smart or perceptive. Just look in the classified telephone directories, and see homeopaths, acupuncturists, psychics, magnetic practitioners, yogis, TMers, therapeutic touch nurses, and chakra balancers, all promising miracles — and all of them quacks, often with degrees and other qualifications. "J.B" continues:

The device does NOT cure anything, but merely assists a trained practitioner in assessing and providing proper treatments to allow a clients body to heal better.

The first part of this sentence I find acceptable, the second part gives us excellent criteria for testing the QXCI. Why is it that neither Nelson nor any of the other hundreds of persons who endorse the device — including ""J.B." — have not stepped forward to prove the case and win the JREF million-dollar prize? Inquiring minds want to know.

In typical Allopathic Medicine AKA "Your Doctor" they use a hit and miss principal [sic] in attempting to cure various illnesses.

Wrong, in every respect. This is the standard canard repeated by those who believe, endorse, and support quackery. It is their motto, their alibi, their creed — and it's false. Modern medicine applies methods derived from careful observation and arrived at by experimentation and verification. It has saved literally millions of lives all over the globe, and will continue to do so. In common with all other sciences, it is not a perfect science; it has never claimed to be perfect. It changes, learns, improves — as other sciences do — slowly and painfully — but it does move forward. Diseases and imperfections that only recently were either fatal or impervious to treatment, are now subject to control and/or reversal. Can the quacks make that claim? No, they cannot. They remain submerged in medieval thinking, and that depends on blind belief and fear of reality.

This [real medicine] only succeeds in overwhelming the body's systems with synthetic drugs and causing massive trauma to the client.

Again, wrong. It's the body's natural and built-in defenses that — in the long run — bring about recovery from infections and injuries, and that is enormously aided and enabled by medical intervention such as antibiotics and other substances that repair those defense mechanisms with which evolution has armed us. Therapies that eliminate harmful behavior and elements that tend to allow or encourage ailments, are an important part of real medicine, as well. Real medicine serves us efficiently and effectively — though not always perfectly simply because it's still evolving. Quackery does not evolve, though the names, terminology, and appearances of the gimmicks they espouse, may.

If you don't take the time to truly understand what the device does instead of remaining afraid "Skeptical" [sic] of it then you will never truly grasp the implications that come with the change in Society's Ideas of medicine.

Sir, if you don't take the time to truly understand that the device you advertise is derived from superstition and mythology, instead of remaining afraid of real science and research, you will never truly grasp the reality of the changes and progress that have been brought about in real medicine.

Note how skepticism here is equated with fear. Rather the other way about, I believe; you have to have courage to question the imbedded beliefs of the nutty sector....

Do some real research, find out more results, and I can Guarantee that you will find that an impact has already been made in the lives of others around you. Just because you don't understand the words doesn't make them false, just that you are ignorant of there [sic] meaning.

Yes, the impact that has been made is very evident: more people are dying every day around the world because quacks continue to be tolerated and patronized, even in developed cultures. As for the words that you don't understand, those are the ones that the quacks drop into their endless tirades, words like "vibrations," "quantum," "natural," "bio-electric," "frequencies," "meridians," "applied kinesiology," and "subtle energy," to mention only a few that are strewn about in the QXCI literature. "J.B.", all of this may have fooled you, but not me. It's not my ignorance, but yours, that is revealed here.

"J.B." closed his complaint with the tedious "Have a good day," and then invoked: "Blessings Upon Your House!" as a final absurdity.

So, we now expectantly await a crowd of "Quantum Xrroidists" descending on the JREF, electronically armed to take the JREF million-dollar prize.

Sure.


IN CLOSING....

Well, a storm of e-mails have been pouring in here, prompted by The Grubbies, who are always having epiphanies about the terrible lies and mistakes I make, of course. They seize on any and all apparent signs of my perfidy or senility that is suggested to them, and chortle themselves into a state of euphoria. The most recent deception I'm accused of, involves my description of a black-and-white 16-mm film that was prepared back in 1972 at the former Stanford Research Institute (SRI) on "research" done on Uri Geller's claims. This involved Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff — to whom I've given the monickers, "The Laurel and Hardy of Psi" — the two scientists who thought they were too smart to be deceived by a conjuror, and endorsed Geller's performances. So far as I know, no copies of this film were ever made, perhaps due to the fact that I saw therein several obvious moves by Geller that were congruent with standard "mentalism" tricks, and I advertised that discovery. In fact, SRI now takes the "Sargent Schultz" stance that they now "know nothing" about such a film, and don't know where the original is.

Asked one of The Grubbies recently:

If you know any more about the SRI film I would appreciate finding out too. How could Randi know anything about the movie if no copies were ever in circulation (or were they?)? I recall having made an audio tape recording of the sound-track as we previewed the SRI film at A.P. & M. This would be a good way to check the authenticity of any copies of the motion picture that may be out there....

Not surprisingly, I was not among those invited to Columbia in March of 1973 to see the only public showing of that film; I didn't have the "right attitude," nor any academic credentials. But a fellow was there, back of the projection screen, with a reel-to-reel 1/2-inch Sony video recorder with which he made a very bad, no-sound-track, distorted, fuzzy, reversed-left-to-right, copy of the film. This man later contacted me, and I had the opportunity to see what he said was his copy, just once. I have tried for years to get a real copy of that film, with no success. Those who have inquired at Edgar Mitchell's institute, where it's felt the original resides, have gotten no response.

Next week we'll have Australian "Breatharian" Jasmuheen, an interesting excerpt from an interview with Scientologist/actor Tom Cruise, a homeopathy trial in Norway, and an examination of Himalayan Rock Salt Crystal Lamps. Educational, as well as entertaining, as the billboard says out front....