June 25, 2004

Interesting Differences, Fightin' Over Phiten, An Interesting Parallel, Poor Alternative Performance, Finding Answers In Numbers, A Brilliant Perception of Evil, New Brunswick Running in Circles, Good Question, Perfect Example, and The Prize Is In Danger!

Table of Contents:


Siddhartha Sarathi Basu, of Chuchura, West Bengal, India, comments:

I am one of the Indian readers of your commentary, a fairly regular reader. The correspondence from Oke Millett [www.randi.org/jr/060404mass.html] touched a point I am very interested in — the difference in beliefs in Western and Eastern countries.

Let me say this first — I know a fair bit about stupid beliefs here, being a semi-active member of a "Rationalist" organization, "Rationalist" being our version of "Skeptic." I know the rationalizations and the reasoning of believing people. Strangely, the trends here are very different from the Western ones, and they are in a direction apparently opposite to what one should imagine.

European and North American countries, although more advanced in technological areas, seem to be very much in the hands of people selling pseudo-scientific and pseudo-technological products. From the past archives of your commentary alone, I can cite hundreds of examples of "Magnetic Shoes," "Energized Water" and such things. People there seem unable to cut in through the gibberish of these quacks. Quite frankly, I thought that in the USA and European countries, science education would be better than that.

Indian frauds generally appeal to people's religious beliefs. You must have heard about numerous "Babas" and "Swamis" collecting huge amount of wealth from ignorant and not-so-ignorant disciples. What they preach are usually variations and, more often, distortions of "Holy Books" from different religions. They sell the "Indian Spiritual Remedies" to some Westerners also. You'll see lots of white people, dressed in what they think are Indian outfits, in big "Ashramas." Somehow, we don't really have people selling pseudo-scientific products in a large scale here. It may be due to the reason that Indians are not really appealed by that kind of baloney. But, I feel, there are two more reasons behind this.

Firstly, there have been some very big public scandals involving makers of fraudulent claims. Some of these claimants were backed heavily by the media. When they failed spectacularly in tests, the "Letters to the Editor" columns of some newspapers were full with letters from people protesting against this kind of irresponsible media coverage.

Secondly, we are fortunate to have a very active scientific community who are always ready to bash an obvious fraud. Some of them are well-known TV faces and have a fair bit of influence in political circles also.

Thirdly, I feel that somehow Indians are satisfied with leaving the matters with experts. Thus, we are ready to listen to a scientist on a scientific matter and just as ready to listen to a "Guru" on religious matters. This prevents Indians, to some extent, from falling into the hands of the makers of "Energized Waters."

I know that this is somewhat over-simplified. But this may be a part of a bigger picture that may be unraveled sometime.

I'll just comment that I've found many Indian scientists who are not at all scientific in their approach to their personal lives, being devotees of Sai Baba and accepting his very anti-scientific claims, for example. I don't see Indian scientists making any fuss about the widespread belief in astrology, or its use in Indian government functions, either. However, I do see my good Indian friend Premenand (see www.randi.org/jr/050302.html) valiantly battling "godmen" and erroneous beliefs and teachings in his country — without much support from government officials or scientists. Indeed, it appears that politicians in India are quite in the thrall of popular "gurus" like Sai Baba, so that they may win votes from duped citizens. Here in the USA, we find Christian leaders endangering their tax-exempt status by supporting political candidates who have no hesitation in invoking a deity and asking for prayers every time they make a public announcement — whether they are genuinely religious, or not. The object is the same here as there: ballots in the box….


Reader Gary Heayes, in Tokyo, Japan, informs us of the latest in nonsense on those shores:

I thought I'd drop you a line about a "new" quack product being marketed widely in Japan right now. The scientific marvel in question is the Phiten necklace. It is a fabric-covered PVC rubber cord that apparently contains powdered titanium. The purported effects of wearing the necklace are increased energy, better blood flow, reduced muscle pain, and supple joints. The product is advertised on national TV, and the company runs a large number of stores selling the necklaces and titanium impregnated underwear, t-shirts, gels, creams and plasters. Many famous Japanese sports persons, including the entire Japanese Olympic volleyball team, wear the products. It's also being endorsed by major sports personalities (eg Randy Johnson) in the US. The US website is www.phitenusa.com/index.asp. The necklaces sell for about $40.

The Phiten stores use an interesting "test" to convince potential buyers. In an idle moment I went into one of the shops and let the staff demonstrate the miracle to me. They have a brown paper carrier bag that contains a brick shaped object wrapped up in newspaper and tape. They ask you to stand, extend your arm and lift the bag from a chair. You then put the bag down, and they drape the necklace across your arm and ask you to lift the bag again. It's supposed to be easier with the necklace on your body. Three of my Japanese work colleagues were so impressed by this that they bought the necklaces and eagerly repeated the demonstration around the office.

Randi comments: This is the old "Applied Kinesiology" scam, for which Gary has a rather good explanation:

I have an idea why this "test" might appear to work. When a person tries to pick up an object the brain makes a rough guess as to how much strength it's going to require. With an unknown object wrapped in paper, we have no idea how much it's going to weigh. The Phiten brick is actually quite heavy, and most people are likely to underestimate the effort required. The test with the necklace draped over the arm is always the second attempt, by which time our brain has recalculated and knows exactly how much effort is required. Hence it seems much easier to lift.

I also let the Phiten staff smear "titanium" gel on my neck and shoulders since I had bad neck pain that day. The shop assistant was rather startled when I reported that the pain hadn't instantly gone away. She stuck some titanium stickers on me and told me to give it more time. Well, that didn't work either. The whole thing is just a modern reworking of the familiar magnetism quackery, which incidentally also has a large following here in Japan. Interestingly, a chain of discount stores is now selling a knockoff non-branded rubber necklace that contains not only titanium but also powdered tourmaline (Why? For the negative ions, of course!) at 100 yen (about 90 cents). Just goes to show what the markup on Phiten necklaces must be.

Thanks for all your valuable work and your fascinating website. It's good to know there are people out there battling the forces of ignorance and hogwash.

The apparent success of "Applied Kinesiology" goes further than this, however. When I get the time, I'll tell you about my first encounter with this nonsense, back in New Jersey, about 1973….

Junk science abounds on the Phiten website. For example:

Phiten proprietary technology, PTi (patent pending), results in an aqueous solution of titanium that is considered insoluble in water. Our most popular series of products employ fibers deeply impregnated with aqueous titanium solution to help relax your muscles.

A lie, plain and simple. Titanium is a very hard, corrosion-resistant, silvery metal, atomic number 22, insoluble in water — no matter what these idiots claim. Oh, but don't doubt that they'll get a patent on their "proprietary technology." It doesn't have to actually work, to get a patent; it just has to sound good to the clerks at the US Patent and Trademark Office.


I've discussed here and in other venues the fear of God that is so proudly embraced by believers in such matters, exemplified by those who firmly and shamelessly assure us that they are "God-fearing." Author Isaac Asimov ruminated over this in an essay that first appeared in The Austin American-Statesman, May 10, 1981. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and the fall of communism in the USSR was not yet evident nor seemingly imminent. You can substitute "Iraq" for "Iran" and "Iraqis" for "Iranians" here, and see just how closely this essay reflects our present — 2004 C.E. — situation. Just remember that this is from 23 years ago, and our outlook and philosophies have changed considerably. Our much-missed friend Isaac was alarmed at what he titled:

"The Reagan Doctrine"

Some time ago, Ronald Reagan pointed out that one couldn't trust the Soviet government because the Soviets didn't believe in God or in an afterlife and therefore had no reason to behave honorably, but would be willing to lie and cheat and do all sorts of wicked things to aid their cause. Naturally, I firmly believe that the president of the United States knows what he is talking about, so I've done my very best to puzzle out the meaning of that statement.

Let me begin by presenting this "Reagan Doctrine" (using the term with all possible respect): "No one who disbelieves in God and in an afterlife can possibly be trusted." If this is true (and it must be if the president says so), then people are just naturally dishonest and crooked and downright rotten. In order to keep them from lying and cheating every time they open their mouths, they must be bribed or scared out of doing so. They have to be told and made to believe that if they tell the truth and do the right thing and behave themselves, they will go to heaven and get to plunk a harp and wear the latest design in halos. They must also be told and made to believe that if they lie and steal and run around with the opposite sex, they are going to hell and will roast over a brimstone fire forever.

It's a little depressing, if you come to think of it. By the Reagan Doctrine, there is no such thing as a person who keeps his word just because he has a sense of honor. No one tells the truth just because he thinks that it is the decent thing to do. No one is kind because he feels sympathy for others, or treats others decently because he likes the kind of world in which decency exists.

Instead, according to the Reagan Doctrine, anytime we meet someone who pays his debts, or hands in a wallet he found in the street, or stops to help a blind man cross the road, or tells a casual truth — he's just buying himself a ticket to heaven, or else canceling out a demerit that might send him to hell. It's all a matter of good, solid business practice; a matter of turning a spiritual profit and of responding prudently to spiritual blackmail.

Personally, I don't think that I — or you — or even president Reagan — would knock down an old lady and snatch her purse the next time we're short a few bucks. If only we were sure of that heavenly choir, or if only we were certain we wouldn't get into that people-fry down in hell. But by the Reagan Doctrine, if we didn't believe in God and in an afterlife, there would be nothing to stop us, so l guess we all would.

But let's take the reverse of the Reagan Doctrine. If no one who disbelieves in God and in an afterlife can possibly be trusted, it seems to follow that those who do believe in God and in an afterlife can be trusted. Since the American government consists of god-fearing people who believe in an afterlife, it seems pretty significant that the Soviet Union nevertheless would not trust us any farther than they can throw an ICBM. Since the Soviets are slaves to godless communism, they would naturally think everyone else is as evil as they are. Consequently, the Soviet Union's distrust of us is in accordance with the Reagan Doctrine.

Yet there are puzzles. Consider Iran. The Iranians are a god-fearing people and believe in an afterlife, and this is certainly true of the mullahs and ayatollahs who comprise their government. And yet we are reluctant to trust them for some reason. President Reagan himself has referred to the Iranian leaders as "barbarians."

Oddly enough, the Iranians are reluctant to trust us, either. They referred to the ex-president (I forget his name for he is never mentioned in the media anymore) as the "Great Satan" and yet we all know that the ex-president was a born-again Christian.

There's something wrong here. God-fearing Americans and god-fearing Iranians don't trust each other and call each other terrible names. How does that square with the Reagan Doctrine?

To be sure, the God in whom the Iranians believe is not quite the God in whom we believe, and the afterlife they believe in is a little different from ours. There are no houris, alas, in our heaven. We call our system of belief Christianity and they call theirs Islam, and come to think of it, for something like twelve centuries, good Christians believed Islam was an invention of the devil and believers in Islam ("Moslems") courteously returned the compliment so that there was almost continuous war between them. Both sides considered it a holy war and felt that the surest way of going to heaven was to clobber an infidel. What's more, you didn't have to do it in a fair and honorable way, either. Tickets of admission just said, "Clobber!"

This bothers me a little. The Reagan Doctrine doesn't mention the variety of god or afterlife that is concerned. It doesn't indicate that it matters what you call God — Allah, Vishnu, Buddha, Zeus, Ishtar. I don't think that president Reagan meant to imply a Moslem couldn't trust a Shintoist or that a Buddhist couldn't trust a Parsee. I think it was just the godless Soviets he was after.

Yet perhaps he was just being cautious in not mentioning the fact that the variety of deity counted. But even if that were so there are problems.

For instance, the Iranians are Moslems and the Iraqis are Moslems. Both are certain that there is no god but Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet and believe it with all their hearts. And yet, at the moment, Iraq doesn't trust Iran worth a damn, and Iran trusts Iraq even less than that. In fact, Iran is convinced that Iraq is in the pay of the Great Satan (that's god-fearing America, in case you've forgotten) and Iraq counters with the accusation that it is Iran who is in the pay of the Great Satan. Neither side is accusing the godless Soviets of anything, which is a puzzle.

But then, you know, they are Moslems and perhaps we can't just go along with any old god. I can see why Reagan might not like to specify, since it might not be good presidential business to offend the billions of people who are sincerely religious but lack the good taste to be Christians. Still, just among ourselves, and in a whisper, perhaps the only people you can really trust are good Christians.

Yet even that raises difficulties. For instance, I doubt that anyone can seriously maintain that the Irish people are anything but god-fearing, and certainly they don't have the slightest doubts concerning the existence of an afterlife. Some are Catholics and some are Protestants, but both of these Christian varieties believe in the Bible and in God and in Jesus and in heaven and in hell. Therefore, by the Reagan Doctrine, the people of Ireland should trust each other.

Oddly enough, they don't. In Northern Ireland there has been a two-sided terrorism that has existed for years and shows no sign of ever abating. Catholics and Protestants blow each other up every chance they get and there seems to be no indication of either side trusting the other even a little bit.

But then, come to think of it, Catholics and Protestants have had a thing about each other for centuries. They have fought each other, massacred each other, and burned each other at the stake. And at no time was this conflict fought in a gentlemanly, let's-fight-fair manner. Any time you caught a heretic or an idolater (or whatever nasty name you wanted to use) looking the other way, you sneaked up behind him and bopped him and collected your ticket to heaven.

We can't even make the Reagan Doctrine show complete sense here in the United States. Consider the Ku Klux Klan. They don't like the Jews or the Catholics, but then, the Jews don't accept Jesus and the Catholics do accept the Pope, and these fine religious distinctions undoubtedly justify distrust by a narrow interpretation of the Reagan Doctrine. The Protestant Ku Klux Klan can only cotton to Protestants.

Blacks, however, are predominantly Protestant, and of southern varieties, too, for that is where their immediate ancestors learned their religion. Ku Kluxers and Blacks have very similar religions and therefore even by a narrow interpretation of the Reagan Doctrine should trust each other. It is difficult to see why they don't.

What about the Moral Majority? They're absolute professionals when it comes to putting a lot of stock in God and in an afterlife. They practice it all day, apparently. Naturally, they're a little picky. One of them said that God didn't listen to the prayers of a Jew. Another refused to share a platform with Phyllis Schlafly, the moral majority's very own sweetheart, because she was a Catholic. Some of them don't even require religious disagreements, just political ones. They have said that one can't be a liberal and a good Christian at one and the same time so that if you don't vote right, you are going straight to hell whatever your religious beliefs are. Fortunately, at every election they will tell you what the right vote is so that you don't go to hell by accident.

Perhaps we shouldn't get into the small details, though. The main thing is that the Soviet Union is Godless and, therefore, sneaky, tricky, crooked, untrustworthy, and willing to stop at nothing to advance their cause. The United States is god-fearing and therefore forthright, candid, honest, trustworthy, and willing to let their cause lose sooner than behave in anything but the most decent possible way.

It bothers the heck out of me therefore that there's probably not a country in the world that doesn't think the United States, through the agency of the CIA and its supposedly underhanded methods, has upset governments in Guatemala, Chile, and Iran (among others), has tried to overthrow the Cuban government by a variety of economic, political, and even military methods, and so on. In every country, you'll find large numbers who claim that the United States fought a cruel and unjust war in Vietnam and that it is the most violent and crime-ridden nation in the world.

They don't seem to be impressed by the fact that we're god-fearing.

Next they'll be saying that Ronald Reagan (our very own president) doesn't know what he's talking about.

Interesting, isn't it? Oh, to have Isaac here to give his opinions on the situation we find today. But maybe this essay does the job….?


Claus Larsen, of www.SkepticReport.com, reports that in the recent Danish "Doctor's Weekly" (the equivalent of "The Lancet" in the UK), there is a study about "alternative" treatments:

[The report] shows that cancer patients who use alternative treatments to try improving their quality of life, are not cured by them. The study covers five years and follows 441 cancer patients, who used acupuncture, megadoses of vitamins, Applied Kinesiology, nutritional supplements, mistletoe, psychotherapy and other methods. Some 70% reported improved life quality, but while they believed that their improvement was caused by the alternative treatment together with their own efforts, only 83 out of the 441 (19%) are still alive.

The conclusion from the Danish University of Pharmaceutical Sciences was that though the patients benefited from the additional attention they got, and the ability to take charge of themselves, there was no benefit obtained from the "alternative" treatments.

What can be learned from this? Take better care of our sick, treat them more kindly, but drop the expensive woo-woo treatments. Spend the money on TLC instead.

Claus, I'd like to see figures on what survival rates are found among people similarly afflicted, but who are not subjected to these treatments, as well as the normal remission rates expected for the — unspecified here — varieties of cancer. Since the documentation is only available so far in Danish, I cannot know of that data….


When I'm asked what form of nut belief I find silliest, I'm hard put to decide. However, numerology ranks way up that list. Reader Steve Gipson provides us with a great example of how this "art" is applied by the "experts," an example that should serve all by itself to demonstrate just how juvenile this notion is. Just look at how easily it can be "made" to work, with a modicum of ingenuity and slippery reasoning:

Numerology in the Murrah bombing in Oklahoma and McVeigh's Execution:

We in Oklahoma are still suffering the aftermath of the 1995 Murrah Building bombing. That sad experience has been made even sadder by people not being able to let go and move on with their lives, and also by people believing there is some sort of cosmic conspiracy at work here.

After years of buildup and hype, Terry Nichols was tried in state court for murder charges at taxpayer's expense of about $5 million. After all the publicity and hubbub, Nichols was just this past week found guilty and sentenced to what he is already experiencing from the prior Federal conviction — life in prison with no chance for parole. All the time, money, and turmoil of a state trial has yielded nothing.

Coincidentally enough, this past week also marked the anniversary of [bomb-deliverer] Timothy McVeigh's execution, and I thought you might be interested in the following piece of numerology that has been going around locally. Consider the "significance" of the numbers surrounding McVeigh:

04 — The month of the Oklahoma City Bombing (April 19th, 1995)
19 — The day
95 — The year
09 — The hour the bomb went off
02 — The minute

06 — The month McVeigh was executed
11 — The day
01 — The year
07 — The hour he was pronounced dead
14 — The minute

Adds up to: 168 — the number of people killed!

We can put this right up there with the predictions in Drosnin's Bible Code, and the power of Von Däniken's "pyramid inch," to explain why things happen the way they do. The universe is clearly a slave to the numbers — as long as you selectively pick the numbers and make up the rules for their accumulation, after the fact.

While such absurd use of mathematics is probably written off as just plain silliness by most, the numerology will be believed by enough for someone to capitalize on it for some perverse agenda. What truly infuriates me is that people would exploit such tragedies and others pain, for entertainment. Using numerology to explain aspects of the Murrah bombing is not as morally reprehensible as faith healing, but it has to rank close.

Thanks for your weekly internet post. It makes my favorite day, Friday, even more enjoyable.

Steve, I share your dismay over such nonsense. It's further proof of the need for education — at an early age — in the art of critical thinking and in basic science and math. We've failed a large percentage of our citizenry in this respect.


Just recently, a Brooklyn, New York, a "psychic" and "spiritual advisor" named Mercedes Osario, 53, rather failed her employers, a drug gang that used its own fleet of cars to make cocaine deliveries to regular customers. Osario had been hired by them to warn if police were in their future. She was a practitioner of the Afro-Caribbean "Santeria" faith and also "business adviser" to the gang. Despite this powerful force working for them, the gang missed the fact that investigators had been watching them via wire taps on their phones which picked up more than 30,000 conversations, including many with their customers.

Osario was arrested in a raid on her home. And here's the best part: investigators said they found there a locked box containing four handguns, about which the "psychic" claimed she knew nothing. Well, almost nothing. She told them, "I always sensed evil in that box." A hit!


Reader Stephen Sloan, Systems Librarian at the University of New Brunswick, is dismayed:

We have a system of regular e-mails that goes out to all faculty and staff of the university. Imagine my dismay to see this announcement in the e-mail bulletin yesterday:

Subject: Faculty of Education Hosting Documentary Presentation June 20

A 75-minute documentary on the Mystery of Crop Circles will be featured Sunday, June 20, at 7:30 p.m. in Room 102 of Tilley Hall. Robert Nichol will be the guest speaker. The presentation will be hosted by UNB's faculty of education. Admission is $10 for the general public and $8 for students and seniors.

A quick Google.com search on "Robert Nichol crop" brought me to: www.hiddenmysteries.com/item600/item665.html

Can you or your readers provide a rationale for a faculty to bring in such a speaker? And for charging $10?

Stephen, whoever's in charge there needs some basic instruction in the process known as thinking. Just a short quotation from Nicol's web page will suffice to convince any but the terminally naïve that this is a classic nut case, one who should have never been asked to speak before any school gathering. He says:

Crop Circles are co-creative works of art brought about by the giving interaction of several fields of energy and intelligences. They are also a communiqué and to some extent a stabilizing force on the planet. Evidence suggests that these symbols are here to attract humanity to higher levels of being, to bring about a greater understanding on the nature of reality.

Just as the circle-makers, the Arcturians and the various support teams venture into unknown territory they in turn are supported on a very high level by the consciousness of the planet — Gaia if you will, and this contains all the physical, elemental and etheric beings that make up the constituency that is termed planetary consciousness.

Trash. Codswollop. Nonsense. Get real. Is the Faculty of Education at the University of New Brunswick at all interested in education….? That's a serious question!


Reader Tony Kehoe comments, as did a few others:

In the latest commentary (excellent as ever, I might say), you have a piece on reflexology quackery, accompanied by a reflexology diagram that outlines the various organs linked to the pressure points on the foot — sinus, brain, eyes/ears, etc. My question is: where do you press if you have a sore foot? That seems to have been left off the diagram....

Since I'd never even considered having my soles thumbed, Tony, that never occurred to me. Maybe they press your wallet….?


Reader Shaun Bowen writes, re last week's "Clever Hans Lives" item:

Regarding your recent article on animals understanding words and picking out items based on verbal commands, I recently saw a TV show over here in England entitled "How Clever Is Your Pet?" or something similar. A section on the show was devoted to a gentleman and his allegedly super-intelligent dog, which could apparently pick out different toys according to the command given by his owner.

The demonstration involved a scattering of chewy toys in the shape of letters, which the dog would pick out when his owner called out the appropriate letter. However, rather than going straight to the correct toy the pooch would sniff and pick up a number of them while his owner repeatedly called "Find the J" (or whichever letter it was). Eventually he would approach or grab the letter being called by his owner, who would then thoroughly congratulate the dog and beckon him over. For the dog, there was no differentiation between toys, he just knew to bring back the one he was near to when his owner congratulated him!

The letters eventually spelt out "HOW CLEVER IS YOUR PET" so I had a lot of chances to be proven wrong. The same pattern occurred every time though. I'm not sure if the owner even realized he was helping the dog to "cheat" but I'm pretty sure the dog was well aware of how deceptive he was being....

I'd seriously argue with your attribution of "deception" to the dog, Shaun. You're assuming that the dog knows what the audience-perceived intent of the demonstration is. More likely, the animal knows that if it goes from object to object, then retrieves the one for which the owner gives a different reaction, that pleases the owner, and a reward is given.

However, you are describing here a fine example of the classic "Clever Hans" effect, in which the experimenter quite unconsciously cues the animal; I agree with your evaluation that the owner in this case very probably does not realize that he is cuing the dog. And, I must add, the appellation "Clever" was given to the horse Hans by the promoters, who didn't care a whit how the stunt worked. Hans was just doing a routine that he'd learned would get him a handful of oats….


We've heard from someone in Canada who wants to apply for the JREF prize, telling us that he/she predicts lottery numbers "in advance." Best way, in my opinion. But are the predictions correct, I had to ask. Seems to me, anyone can "predict"…. Stay tuned.