The American Way, Geller's Minion, Two-Hundred-Year-Old Stick, Clarifying the Challenge, Lourdes Is a Failure, Morton's Egg Trick, and the JREF Conference....
Readers may recall that some time ago I got American Airlines a bit worried when I objected to the horoscope column in their in-flight magazine, "American Way." I suggested that American management was using astrology to schedule flights, pilots, and maintenance lists. They panicked, and assured me that they didn't believe in astrology; I responded that they obviously felt it was good enough for their passengers, but not for anyone really smart....
I see in their June issue that "Reader Feedback" contains a letter from one Robert Shiller of New Haven which opines:
While I agree with Mr. Shiller's opinion generally, I cannot see that the pap offered by Lutin who supplies the same service to the women's magazine Vanity Fair could very much affect readers except to annoy or bore them. I offer here a selection of three paragraphs, and ask you to decide which one is actually seriously-intended advice from Michael Lutin, based upon celestial configurations and ages-old claptrap. This is supposed to be a legitimate means of advising clients, from a man who purports to believe in it, and who makes a living from it. How a man can support himself telling others such obvious drivel, is beyond me. But could American Way or Vanity Fair! be wrong....?
#1: Prudent or not, manic extravagance can be therapeutic. In fact, everyone knows you have to spend money to make money, and besides, since you are in the process of reconstructing your whole life, why not go first class, or as near to it as you can get. Although the old scores are far from settled, maybe a touch of luxury can help heal some of the deeper wounds. Be tough now.
Tough decision, huh? No, please don't send me your guess; you'll remember which you identified as Lutin's, and I trust you.... Answer next week.
While on the subject of publishing answers here, I must tell you that the response to my proposition that readers do their own analysis of the James Van Praagh reading that was given here, got such a huge response that I must simply give a summary of points (methods, ploys, gimmicks, tricks) that were spotted. That will come along when I get the time. I've been just too busy with regular duties at the JREF, and I've had less time to spend on such interesting projects, than I'd like to have had.
This is where I can smoothly slip in a gentle request: please, folks, if you have a question that could require a lot of time and/or work for me to answer, do a "search" of the web page on the subject before you ask about it. About one in three of the inquiries I get can be answered that way, and if you can't find the material you seek, it may be because we can't afford a very expensive search program, nor archiving facility, so please be patient. Thanks.
I'll take this opportunity of handling a question that has come up often in the past few weeks, for some reason I can't fathom. Folks have been asking about Uri Geller (remember him, the guy who bends spoons for a living?) and what the current status is of lawsuits against the JREF. Well, the latest one, brought by a Geller minion who has tried again and again to get huge sums in damages from us (and who got zero, zero, zero, and zero in the last four tries), went through the usual firing back-and-forth of masses of paper, then when the minion was required to attend a deposition, he suddenly dropped out of the attack, withdrew his suit, and declared bankruptcy!
Why was the minion the one who brought the suit? It wasn't the first time he'd done that, either. Well, just for the record, in March of 1995, the US Federal Court of Appeals awarded a huge sanction against Uri Geller because of the frivolous nature of his lawsuits. In its written decision turning down Geller's appeal against that decision, the court cited Geller's "litigious history," and initially said that he
. . . is a self-proclaimed psychic . . . [who] has built a career and reputation on attempted demonstrations of these psychic "skills" . . . Among Geller's critics is James Randi, an accomplished magician, author, and lecturer, better known as "The Amazing Randi." . . . Since Geller's rise to prominence in the early 1970's, Randi has set about exposing various Geller feats as the fraudulent tricks of a confidence man.
Upon seeing this, Geller's lawyers panicked. That wording would have constituted a formal definition by the US Federal Court that Geller's "feats" were "fraudulent tricks"! Unknown to me since I would have vigorously fought any change in this statement if I'd known, the Geller lawyers asked the Court to change the last part of the statement to read:
. . . Randi has set about attempting to exposing . . .
An awkward phrasing, but evidently the only change they were able to have made.
We can fully understand the anxiety of Mr. Geller's lawyers, and their vigorous efforts to modify this official statement of the Federal Court. However, as a result of this statement, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Geller to bring civil actions in the United States. Any judge being made aware of the large number of actions brought by this "psychic," would tend to look very carefully at the merits of any claim made by him. I believe that a closer look is something he would dread.....
How little changes in the scam world. In the "Conjuror's Magazine," subtitled, "or Magical and Physiognomical Mirror" issue of November, 1791, appears an article titled, "Use of the Divining Rod, A Curious Secret," by "Little Albert." It begins by instructing the reader how to construct a simple dowsing toy, which is similar to other such devices in that it is a system in poor equilibrium, when used as described, and produces a large secondary motion in response to a very small input of energy. The traditional forked stick, pivoting wires, and pendula, are more often seen in this highly-developed "art" of self-deception. The spinning arc that Little Albert suggests here is somewhat different, and rather dramatic in its performance.
He says to obtain a supple wooden stick about two feet long, of uniform diameter, and polished, and to bend it into an arc that would fit a circle two feet in diameter. See the accompanying illustration, photo A, where it will be seen that I've chosen to use a metal wire rather than the wood stick Albert suggests. Three metal weights are to be added, one at each end, and one in the center, "to give it weight, and of course fitter for the motion of turning round." Those weights, black metal cylinders, are seen in place here. Albert's text is fairly clear, and I will quote it verbatim. Refer to the illustrations as you read along:
. . . let [the arc] rest on your two forefingers placed horizontally, in such a manner, that the two points on which it rests, shall be near the extremities of the rod; you will then perceive, that the middle will be underneath the level of the two ends [photo A], but, by gently approaching your two fingers to each other, you will find the middle of the rod to elevate by degrees, and the extremities to fall; then, if you replace your hands in their former situation, and at the same distance as before, the rod will regain its first position.
I will add that the action of the fingers sliding along the arc is made much less obvious, if the performer is walking and/or misdirecting the attention of the witnesses.
To make the action clearer to my reader: when the fingers upon which the arc rests, are located so that the center hangs down (photo A), that is the "fallen" position when it is supported from those two points. Bringing the fingers slowly toward one another, the weight-effect of the two extremities exceeds that of the center, and the stick slowly flips over (photo B). If the operator rapidly and repeatedly brings the fingers closer together and further apart, moving only an inch or so, the rod begins spinning rapidly; this requires a certain amount of practice, but is very dramatic indeed.
(Powdering the fingers with talcum makes the action easier. Such "inside" details are only available on this website, I hope you've noticed!)
Remember, this instruction is intended for the conjuror, who consciously makes the rod move, but the same movement takes place with the self-deluded dowser, who is unconscious of the small movements he is making that result in so large and visible a motion of the device, or, if he is aware of this movement, he does not, or cannot, thereby account for the spinning action.
With a modicum of practice, great facility can be attained, and the stick will appear to be spinning independently of the operator. However, should an astute observer spot the motion of the fingers and cry "foul!", Little Albert offers this excuse to be used:
. . . having acquired the habit of turning the rod by the vibration of your hands, if anyone perceives your motion when you perform the trick, and attempts to reproach you for so doing, answer them, as the spring-tellers [water-finders] do, that the metallic emanation, or the vapours of the subterranean waters, occasion the stick to turn, and give you, at the same time, an ague [fever with shaking].
Hey, this guy Albert didn't just get into the business yesterday! One of the classic rationalizations of the dowsers nowadays, when the small primary motion is spotted, is that the "forces" cause their hands to move that way, beyond their control, and that the stick or the pendulum, or the rods only serve as an indicator of the magical forces. The self-deluded have to stay ahead of reality at every moment!
Little Albert also offered his readers of 1791 a few hints on how to get really water-smart, so that when the client wanted results, he would be satisfied. He wrote:
. . . when you are desired to discover water in the country, turn your rod boldly wherever you perceive the grass to be green and fresh in times of drought; because it is really there that the vapours of the subterranean water supply the grass with moisture, that occasions its freshness. . . . if this fails, you choose, always, in preference, the lowest spot of a valley, and there turn your rod, being well assured that there is water there; because that must be the deposit of the rain which the neighboring heights have absorbed. . . . Nevertheless, if you should happen to be mistaken, you must say, at that moment, [that] a current of humid air, or electrical matter, produced on you the same effect as the vapours.
So here we have, two centuries ago, an open account and revelation of the methods used by conscious frauds to practice their trade at that period of history. But Little Albert and his colleagues are not unaware of why they have such an easy job finding clients for their talents. In closing his piece for Conjuror's Magazine, the author philosophized on what we have come to recognize as the "ideomotor reaction." This is an excellent analysis indeed of why the unconsciously faking dowser is not aware of how he/she is producing the movement of the dowsing device. Albert writes:
It is now easy to discover the origin of the popular errors respecting the divining rod, and to see how so simple a trick has imposed on the world from the twelfth century to our days: imposture, ignorance and credulity, are the secondary causes of such error; but the principal cause, if I am not much deceived, is, that the vibration of the hands is a gentle and insensible motion, and is performed in a right line. The motion of the rod, on the other hand, is very visible, and at the same time rapid and circular; it appears, at first, impossible that the second motion should be the effect of the first. We have said, elsewhere, that when striking and visible phaenomena depend on an insensible and unknown cause, the human mind, always bent towards the marvellous, naturally attributes those effects to a chimerical cause. This has occasioned it to be believed, that subterraneous vapours produced the turning round of the rod. Error having once taken deep root in weak minds, they become entirely deaf to the voice of reason, and in this enlightened age, we have seen those prejudices spread every day further, by the industry of people interested in propagating them.
I'm quite pleased to have discovered this ancient account, since it shows clearly that the innocent dowsers of two hundred years ago and for all we know, ever since the 12th century that Little Albert gave as the genesis of what he clearly recognized as a delusion suffered from the same misunderstanding that certain PhDs and others today still labor under, and the less innocent performers could easily deceive their clients at will. Some of us learn, others don't....
I'm sure that Little Albert made Big Money.....
Someone out there has been having a difficult time understanding the JREF million-dollar challenge. In a widely-posted and well-distributed Internet message, he refers to "the protocol" for the test, a phrase which is difficult to understand as he uses it, simply because the protocol will vary for every claim made, and no specific protocol is outlined in the published rules, because of that fact. Concerning my proposed testing of the notion called "the Human Energy Field" (HEF), a force which is said by those who claim to do "therapeutic touch" (TT) to surround the body and be palpable to the TT practitioner, he writes:
When I say "James Randi Protocol," I am referring to the principle of testing the claimant against their actual claim as opposed to a claim made by the tester in their behalf.
Hold on. Of course I want to test the "actual claim"! I have never made any claim on any applicant's behalf. How could I? But an "example" is given:
For example, if someone says he can detect an HEF ["human energy field"] at a hand distance of two inches, it would not be ethical for a skeptic to test him at a 6-inch hand distance and proclaim that his failure under those conditions discredits him.
Agreed. Enthusiastically. But he continues:
The "Randi Protocol" to which I'm referring is the principle of getting the test subject [to accept] that what is being tested is something he claims to be able to do. I'm talking about a principle of being honest with the person being tested, as opposed to a "sting."
Again, enthusiastically agreed to. I don't see where we disagree. The applicant is always asked to describe in detail what he/she claims to be able to do, and frankly, that is the hardest part of the whole procedure! But we insist on it, and we won't proceed until that is stated and mutually agreed on.
Whether James Randi himself showboats, whether he can be trusted to conduct a fair test with a million dollars at stake, etc. etc. etc. are other issues entirely.
Yes, and this "can be trusted" angle we can eliminate here and now, in as few as 100 words: since my tests are designed and approved independently from me, and are, and must be, accepted without reservation by the applicant, after which the tests are carried out by an independent party, I remove myself entirely from any part of the process that would call for me to be "trusted." This is common sense, it is rational, it is fair, and it is necessary. Gee, that was just 64 words! (Did you count....?) I will add that all my test designs call for the subject to first perform a set of trials in which the security is removed to assure that the subject can actually perform under the accepted conditions then we proceed to the secure set of trials. In the HEF tests he describes above, I would do a set in which the subject sees clearly whether the HEF should be detectable at whatever distance and frequency, and I would require 100% success in that set before going ahead. Understood? But, moving on in this poorly-informed tirade....
I haven't always felt this way, but due to actions and statements by certain skeptics I must say that at this point in time I do not approve of skeptics using the reluctance of paranormalists to take on the Randi challenge (or similar challenges by other skeptics) as evidence against their claims.
Again, hearty agreement here. But speaking for myself, I can only say that reluctance to take up the JREF challenge does indicate strongly that they know they cannot meet the requirements of the challenge. It does not prove that their claims are spurious, but it's evident that they certainly could prove that they're not spurious, if they would simply take up the challenge. What's not clear here?
I am not saying that I believe Randi or the others would cheat. I doubt they would.
Gee, that makes me warm all over. However, we don't have to cheat. Again speaking for myself, the way I do it, any cheating by either party is not possible. Read the rules.
No, what I am saying is that given the behavior of certain high-profile individuals who refer to themselves as skeptics I no longer consider paranormalists unreasonable not to trust skeptics.
Okay. Now that you are aware of the realities, are the paranormalists still "unreasonable not to trust" this skeptic? Remember, no "trusting" is called for; all my protocol is scrupulously monitored, by any persons and in any way required by the subject....
If I were an African American with a high IQ, I wouldn't want to be given an IQ test designed and administered by the Ku Klux Klan.
Well, if I were involved in such a matter, (a) the Afro-American of any IQ status! would have to agree that the test is properly and fairly designed, or make changes agreeable to all, and (b) the test would be implemented by a double-blinded means using an independent party. That way, no bias or prejudice or any kind, from either faction, could enter into the procedure, and a KKK member could conduct the test without any danger of interference being introduced.
Am I beginning to get through? Somehow, I'm afraid that I can't, with some people.
Speaking of the JREF million-dollar challenge, I've asked this question in my lectures:
Consider this list: Benny Hinn (evangelical healer), James Van Praagh, Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and George Anderson (they speak to the dead), Dr. Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra (new age gurus), John Hogue (Nostradamian), Uri Geller (spoon bender), Dr. Jacques Benveniste (who endorses homeopathy), Kenny Kingston (phone psychic), Larry Montz (ghost hunter), the U.S. Patent Office (who issued a patent for ESP switch and for several "free energy" devices), Eckerd and Walgreen or any drug chain that carries homeopathic remedies, Walter Mercardo (astrologer), every newspaper and magazine in the country that prints horoscopes, the DriMark Corp. (Who make and sell the phony Counterfeit Detector pen), every registered nurse said to number over 80,000 and EVERY medical facility, that practices therapeutic touch, Carolyn Myss (who manipulates "human energy fields"), Whitley Streiber, Bud Hopkins, and Dr. John Mack (who preach UFO abductions), Shirley MacLaine (a reincarnation fan), Dielectrokinetics Corp. And Thomas Bearden (who sell quack electronics), Walter McMoneagle, Wayne Carr and Major Ed Dames (who teach "remote viewing"), Dennis Lee (who sells a free-energy machine), and Dr. Robert Ray Holcomb (who sells healing magnets).
Why won't these professionals OR ANYONE, anywhere in the world! come forward and win our million-dollar prize? Here are just a dozen of the excuses that we hear all the time (and which we expect to hear again from those we are challenging) followed by our responses:
1) "The one million dollar prize money does not exist."
Wrong. It's there, invested in negotiable bonds. Documentation on request.
2) "I do not have to prove anything to anyone."
True. But humor us. Win the million dollars.
3) "I have already proven myself to thousands of people, I don't need to prove anything to Randi."
Again, true, in regard to proving anything to me. But please, make fools of us by walking away with our money. Just produce one of those thousands of people who can prove us wrong. Just one. Uno. Eins. Un.
4) "Any test by the James Randi Educational Foundation would be falsified."
How? All testing is done by qualified, independent, parties. We're not involved.
5) "James Randi is not qualified to test anything."
Perhaps not. But in any case, we always call in experts approved by all concerned. Qualified experts. What's the problem?
6) "The powers I have cannot be proven by science."
Wrong. Any claim can be tested and either proven or disproven, if the evidence is presented. We're waiting....
7) "You cannot prove a gift from God."
Really? Well, every day some miracle-worker offers the public and the JREF some case where divine powers are said to have intervened. Show us just one of those gifts.
8) "If you're close-minded, then the powers will not work."
Maybe. But we're open-minded enough to put up a million bucks! Since I'm not involved in the testing procedure anyway, what kind of an excuse is that?
9) "I don't need the million dollars."
Maybe not. But hungry children, the homeless, and AIDS victims do. By refusing to take this prize, you are selfishly denying these people the gift you could give them.
10) "My theory is new, and it's beyond scientists' understanding."
So what? We don't care about theories. We only care about results. And we'll pay, very handsomely.
11) "James Randi only wants to make fools of us."
If your claim is valid, we're the ones who will look like fools; you'll have taken our million dollars! So take it!
12) "I have absolutely no interest in trying for the James Randi Educational Foundation's prize."
That's very hard to believe. Anyone who says they don't want a million dollars, just for doing what they do professionally every day and for which they collect money can have only three possible reasons for that statement. One, they're not very smart. Two, they're already fabulously wealthy, doing what they do and not having to ever prove it's real. Three, they can't do what they say they can do, they know it, and they fear exposure.
What's the answer......?
The Hudson Valley (NY) Chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a 120-year-old Catholic fraternal order, has been sponsoring pilgrimages to Lourdes for decades, flying hundreds of sick or injured children from across the country, many in wheelchairs and on crutches, to the French town, with hopes of healing. The trips are paid for with the proceeds of raffles and charity balls. But is this a positive move by the charity?
They are now preparing to send Jeffrey Lewis, a 14-year-old from the area, to Lourdes, France. The boy suffers from a degenerative and incurable disease of the brain, and will be heading off to France in high expectations of returning healed. Connie Venditti, a spokesperson for the Knights of Columbus, is carefully enthusiastic; maybe she has actually studied the record of Lourdes. As a result, she cautions that "healing comes in different forms." A close friend of the Lewis family who suggested Jeffrey be sent to Lourdes, she says, "I would like to see a cure, but a cure doesn't always have to be something we see." Why this evident lack of conviction, and preparation for a failure of this plan?
Well, looking at the actual record we find that Lourdes has been a destination for both pilgrims and the curious since 1858, when 15-year-old Bernadette Soubirous claimed she had a series of visions of "a lady" at a grotto there. Word of this spread fast. Soon, pilgrims were coming to pray, and the sick came to bathe in the spring water, which quickly gained a reputation for working miracles. Though Bernadette herself was never cured of the tuberculosis and asthma that led to her dying at age 35 in a local convent, that awkward fact was, and still is, ignored or rationalized by the faithful. Even in this age of genuine medical wonders, an estimated average of five million people a year have visited Lourdes.
Let's do the math: five million a year in that time span equals about 700,000,000 persons who have gone to this small French town seeking miraculous cures. Surely that number will produce a large number of recognized cures? No, we're told that there have been a total of only 66 such miracles verified. Sixty-six? That's a .00001% success rate! Even Sylvia Browne could do better than that!
The Reverend Dr. Bruce Chilton, a professor of religion at Bard College, New York, says the fact that Lourdes and other "places of vision" [?] continue to attract visitors suggests to him what he calls a "two-fold approach to health." "One side of us understands we are organic machines," he says, "the other that we are also spiritual identities." Most of all, he says, the massive pilgrimages represent a desire to "come close to the divine." How could we have a clearer explanation for these wonders?
Judging from past performance, and looking at the situation in my difficult pragmatic fashion, I must say that I believe young Jeffrey Lewis will go to and return from France filled with enthusiasm and hope that his condition has been relieved, only to be plunged into deeper despair when it is discovered that he's one of the 99.999% of those who are told they have not improved a bit. This is a cruel sham that raises hopes higher so that they may be more effectively shattered.
An excerpt from a lecture for the British Humanist's Association by a speaker named Blackburn:
In 1726, we may recall, Voltaire was exiled from France to London, where he was amazed and enchanted by the freedoms of the English. He was lucky not to be exiled here in the twenty-first century, and still less to the United States of America. As a foreign national in the UK, he would now risk indefinite arbitrary detention, the abrogation of habeas corpus, a secret hearing with no right of representation, and a right of review only by the same tribunal that convicted him. In the USA, he could face state murder: the death penalty by majority vote of a secret military tribunal from which there would be no appeal.
Folks, we simply must give more thought to this present frantic 9/11-inspired pursuit of the possibly guilty and the threat of constitutional rights being ignored. Yes, we're scared, but we're not foolish or panicked not yet. Let's be very careful.
That strange person Thomas [Thomaz] Green Morton in Brazil has been sending the JREF some lawyer's letters and complaints concerning the million-dollar challenge we offer. His inane "supernatural" tricks have been accepted as miracles by many of his countrymen, and there has been much urging by his fans for him to waltz away with the prize. We welcome any such overture, of course. Last week, his signed "Application for Status of Claimant" was received here, and just as I had predicted to the GLOBO-TV people in Rio de Janeiro, he failed to describe what he could do, and under what circumstances. We're quite accustomed to these tactics of stalling and doing things partially, to stave off the Moment of Truth that the fakers know they cannot survive. Morton met our prediction.
However, for a Brazilian publication, Morton did make a statement of his intent. One of his most popular miracles is to cause a living bird to hatch from an unfertilized egg. Now, that would really be something to see, wouldn't it? Morton breaks an egg on a plate, goes through much dancing and chanting, and eventually shows a feathered critter on the plate where 30 minutes before there was only a helpless/hopeless yolk surrounded by runny albumen. Wow!
That's the miracle he's said to the press, but not to us he'll produce to win the JREF million-dollar prize. Okay. Accepted. When and where? Here's what I've now sent to Morton and his lawyer. I share it with you to meet our practice of always publishing and notifying the public about what's in progress....
In the Brazilian press, Morton has stated, "Thomaz Green Morton will show, before the magician, something incredible: the creation of life from an unfertilized egg!"
"I'll break the egg, I'll put its contents on a plate and during some minutes I'll energize it, an embryo will start forming and, within 20 to 30minutes, you'll be surprised."
I await the response of Morton. And/or Sylvia.....
Every now and then, someone puts a huge amount of work into a hoax to prove a point. Here's one such: the author(s) obviously thought the effort worth while, and modeled the web site after several "real" sites that have only slightly different claims. Take a look at http://www.landoverbaptist.org to see how much effort went into a prank. But also consider that the difference between scam and genuine intent, is not that great.....
Reader Don Reid writes:
I was bemused by your account of the student at the Arkansas Governor's School asking you about the so-called "morality vacuum" in atheism. Believe it or not, this question comes up quite a bit on the various atheism websites. They all seem to bring up an interesting statistic to counter this argument: apparently, there is a significant under-representation of atheists in the nation's prison system. In other words, the percentage of atheists in the general "free" population is much, much higher than the percentage of atheists in the prison population.
I'll comment here that there is a possibility of atheists being smart enough not to get caught at crime....! However, just about every murder case we hear of in the news involves a religious murderer. They go to a prison cell or to the execution chamber singing to some spirit, ghost, deity, or demon that they admire at that moment.
A reader tells me:
[The AGS raves of last week] lead me to believe that you aren't aware that other states do this too? I attended Kentucky Governor's School in the summer of 1989, "majoring" in Astronomy and "minoring" in Statistics. My family was sort of bouncing between Tennessee and Kentucky at the time, and I happened to be a Kentucky resident when I became eligible to apply for Governor's School . . . however, I know that Tennessee had a program at the time as well, and probably still does. Not that I'm downing Arkansas or anything, but believe me, they don't have a corner on the concept.
That's good to hear. Perhaps Tennessee will follow Arkansas and use a JREF representative as an annual speaker....?
In closing: the suggested JREF conference that has been so discussed on the Forum, brought in votes for January 31 to February 2, 2003, as the preferred date. So, we'll be working on hotels, air fares, and such with that date in mind. I already have agreement from two heavy speakers, and I think this could be quite an event. We'll keep you posted....