July 1, 2005

Quality Control Down Under, Still Down Under, Moving a Bit East, Tom Cruise Actually Makes Some Sense, Magic Pouch, Serious Journalistic Lapse, Starch Detected in Shaw's Supermarket, Movie Review, Epiphany Time, Good Sense From Tulsa, It's All Relative, Waldorf/Steiner/Anthroposophist Schools in Norway, Ridiculous Claims, I'll Bet She Eats, Great Dowsing Experiment, Scolded Yet Again, Magic Mugs and Eggs, Smart University, Soul Innersole, About the Great "Carlos" and Zap-the-Scientist Show.


Table of Contents:


QUALITY CONTROL DOWN UNDER

Several readers in Australia have sent us to an alarming site: www.betterhealthchannel.com.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Homeopathy?OpenDocument where we find at the top of the Better Health Channel (BHC) page this heading:

Reliable health information — quality assured by the Victorian government.

What follows is not reliable, and of poor quality. Someone in the government of the State of Victoria has okayed this without troubling to check any of the facts. But they say:

This article, like all articles on the Better Health Channel, has passed through a rigorous and exhaustive approval process. It is also regularly updated. For more information see our quality assurance page.

Just what does this "rigorous and exhaustive approval process" consist of? Going to that "quality assurance page," we find naive misrepresentations, statements such as:

Homoeopathic treatment strengthens a person's health, acting as a catalyst, stimulating and directing the body's ability to fight infection as well as resolving any underlying susceptibility to disease.

Then the article presents — without any discussion or evaluation — the notions of Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, that:

Disease stems from a disturbance to the energy field of the body, which he called the "vital force." The best cure could be achieved by using "energized" medicine. As the size of the dose decreases, the potency of the substance increases.

Then they give another misleading statement:

Although conventional scientific methods cannot explain how they work, many clinical trials have found homoeopathic medicines to be effective in treating a range of disorders.

The "clinical trials" they refer to have all been conducted by homeopathic interests, and we note that at the close of this BHC article, they state that: "This page has been produced in consultation with, and approved by the Australian Homeopathic Association." What a surprise! Were any conventional experts — those strange fuddy-duddies who prefer facts and reality — brought into this "consultation" by the State of Victoria? We'd like to know!

And the BHC article manages, via the input of the homeopaths — not to our surprise — to bomb legitimate medical practices in favor of homeopathy:

According to the homoeopathic philosophy, conventional drugs that suppress symptoms are only driving the disease deeper into the body.

This is sheer fiction — not the "philosophy," but the assumption — and it's astounding that the BHC has allowed this to appear on their pages! Huge and dramatic successes are accomplished by "conventional" medicine every day, but that fact is ignored. And read what the BHC says about their usual practice in considering material that they publish:

All articles published on the Better Health Channel (BHC) have passed through a thorough and rigorous quality assurance procedure. This includes:

Content development — content on the BHC is developed in consultation with content partners from reputable health organizations. These organizations specialize in specific health areas. Research, writing and editing — all articles are researched, written, edited and proofread by professional staff who have extensive experience in the health sector.

Verification (external) — all articles are checked and approved by staff from BHC content partner organizations. These people are specialists in their fields and include clinicians, academics and other allied health professionals.

Verification (internal) — all articles are checked by the BHC Editor in chief (former Victorian Chief Medical Officer) and referred to other areas of the Department as required.

Reviewing and updating — all articles are reviewed annually by content partners and referred to our internal reviewers if necessary.

Having examined what they say about homeopathy, we see that at least this section has escaped all five of these "procedures."

It says, above, that their articles are "also regularly updated." Well, this item on our web page should be part of the next update, BHC. We await its inclusion.

Sure.


STILL DOWN UNDER

Aussie reader Marcus Lang:

I felt compelled to write you about an amazing experience as a result of purchasing a double bed size magnetic underlay with sheepskin outer. The result is nothing less than amazing. I was $250 poorer for the next two weeks and my back still hurts. I am amazed at my stupidity.

Ah, but see how smart you're now getting, Marcus! Must be the magnets....


MOVING A BIT EAST

Hopping over to New Zealand, we have reader Jamas Enright:

After praising New Zealand recently, I almost feel ashamed to admit what we did next. On the other hand, we already know the media will do whatever it takes to get ratings...

And so, on Thursday nights, we are now treated to the NZ version of "Crossing Over," namely, "Dare to Believe" with our own Jeanette Wilson. She says she started seeing people in the "Spirit World" after being in a long meeting (and who hasn't hallucinated then?) was freaked out, but after telling someone else about this they immediately reassured her that she was seeing dead people. (Which is a good example of a non-rational explanation taken as completely normal.)

The show itself looks to be about what you'd expect, with two segments, one where she talks to people from her audience, and one where she goes to someone's house. In the audience case, the fact that she can directly go to someone who happens to be in the front row and immediately contact who they came to talk to, tells me that she has some information to start with (which is more or less confirmed). In one case, she went on to describe a man having a wound in the head, and then added that there was a lot of blood. Later, in an interview with the mother, she claimed that Jeanette described the bullet wounds exactly, when no mention of a bullet was made...

But as if this isn't enough, on Tuesdays we are also treated to "Ghost Hauntings," where a group of paranormal investigators visits places around NZ to find out how haunted they are, starting with the classic site, Larnach Castle in Dunedin. This group involves a guy who sits in a car and watches camera monitors, while two others roam the place at night. One of them is so easily spooked that she'd freak out while examining a cardboard box!

And their ultimate proof? A picture of handprints on the outside of a window (which were only revealed after the fog rolled in) and a photo down a hallway that showed something that could be man-shaped at the end. Did they ask if there was a bad window cleaning service around? Did they check to see if looking down that hallway during the day would reveal one of the many statues that littered the place? Of course not. With that solid evidence of hauntings, they rolled off to the next episode...

Yes, the media wants ratings, but this is what we get...?

You've already got your answer, Jamas. The media do anything to get ratings, and seeing the adoration offered John Edward in Australia, NZ has shamelessly copied the format to get some of the bundles of cash that both the USA and Australia have seen rolling in from the gullible. And the program sponsors are laughing all the way to the bank, too....


TOM CRUISE ACTUALLY MAKES SOME SENSE

Increasingly controversial actor Tom Cruise, now campaigning on behalf of Scientology against the science of psychiatry — and psychology — has been screeching at media interviewers as if he actually knows something about these matters that wasn't invented by the late science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, who came up with the notions of, first, a crackpot theory he called "dianetics," and then a very profitable religion he dubbed "Scientology" based on the dianetics pseudoscience. Said Tom recently, while being interviewed along with Steven Spielberg about their film treatment of H.G. Well's "War of the Worlds":

I think it's supreme arrogance to think we are the only life form in the entire universe.

Well, Tom and I agree on that obviously true statement. From the mathematical point of view alone, the presence of other life somewhere is inescapable. By guessing alone, Tom would be right — but his belief is not based on mathematics nor on chance; he believes that, because Scientology told him so.

Spielberg, who did very well with his blockbusters "E.T. the Extraterrestrial" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," was once a very uncritical and vocal supporter of UFO sightings and contacts, but has recently changed his opinion on the matter, reasoning logically:

And you know why I'm not as convinced right now? Because of the millions of video cameras that are out today that are picking up less pictures and videos of alleged UFOs than were being picked up in the 1960s and 1970s. Why is that, when there's like 150 percent growth of video cameras on the face of the planet? Why are we seeing less of what's out there? Maybe we are in a dry spell.

But he readily agreed with his star, Cruise — though for logical reasons — on the "other life out there" possibilities:

I can't imagine anyone believes we are the only intelligent or biological life form in the entire universe.

Hey, guys, we all agree on that point, really, even though it's not in the Bible. But I — and perhaps Steven? — disagree on Tom Cruise's religion, Scientology, which currently doesn't widely advertise some awkward facts. Their founder Hubbard based the whole religion on a story about a galactic warlord from 75 million years ago named Xenu, who he said assembled billions of criminals from other planets, those millions of years ago, and imprisoned them inside Earth's volcanoes. The souls of these space creatures, he preached, are still constantly interfering with us. The mission of Scientology is to help us to shed these spirits, he said.

Sheeesh!


MAGIC POUCH

It was Scott Harbaugh who referred me to this next item. From Chuck Shepard's "News of the Weird" site:

The San Diego Union Tribune reported in April that Los Angeles Angels' first baseman Darin Erstad was wearing a leather-pouched "balance necklace" of minerals that (according to the manufacturer) will "achieve alignment of body, mind and spirit" and "address the electro-pollution, toxic vapors, scars, surgeries and traumas to the skin by organizing the quantum nature of man," which are things important to Erstad to avoid the kinds of injuries he had experienced in previous seasons. Erstad said that since he has been injury-free so far in 2005, "it must be working," but the player who recommended the necklace, teammate Steve Finley, is substantially underperforming so far this season.

Asks Scott: "It must be working." How can you argue with that sort of logic?

But the user is warned to use the pouch only in conjunction with other "Layers of Light" products, because

In reality, the electric and magnetic aspects of our Quantum fields are enfolded and are not separate.

Oh, now it's all clear to me; I was wondering about those aspects. The specific instructions for the magical pouch — are you paying attention, Mr. Erstad? — are provided:

Place the M-Power Pouch® around your neck making sure the pouch is located in the center of your chest area between the top of the collarbone and the navel. The adjustment device on the cord can be used to set the length of the Pouch to the desired placement. Before going to sleep, it is recommended that you adjust the M-Power Pouch® close to the collarbone to prevent it from moving out of its effective area. For women, the pouch may be placed inside a bra in the middle chest area when visibility is not desired. For best results it is recommended that the M-Power Pouch be used in conjunction with the M-Power Mix® and M-Power Ade® and that your body be in an "electrical" state.

Folks, the above provides ample evidence that this is a thoroughly quack device, typical of the seemingly modern scientific approach due to the lofty terminology (quantum, magnetic, alignment, electro-pollution, toxic vapors, traumas) applied in a meaningless manner.

In the late 1800s it was magnets for health, then in the 1960s and 70s it was copper bracelets, which gave way again to various applications of magnets, and now it's a bag of crystals and the titanium necklace, priced from $23 to $188, and worn by otherwise smart sports figures. And red kabbalah string bracelets. I wonder if you can mix the bracelets and necklaces without explosion — or at least getting a bad rash...?


SERIOUS JOURNALISTIC LAPSE

Reader William McEwen:

Today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram is a hoot. It announces that the incorrect horoscopes ran on Monday and Tuesday, then prints the "correct" ones for those days. I wish I could think of a witty comment, but I'm still too busy laughing.

Oh, wouldn't we love to see a case brought against the Star-Telegram by an unfortunate reader who followed advice given for the wrong day, and lost money or was run over by a bus as a result? I can just hear the plaintiff: "Yes, your honor, I always do stupid things, but this careless action by the newspaper made me even stupider!"


STARCH DETECTED IN SHAW'S SUPERMARKET!

Chip Taylor, a reader "in counterfeit-free central Vermont," tells us:

As a long time Randi fan I tend to believe what you say. But as a skeptic and scientist I sometimes find myself saying, "I want to check this claim out for myself." Here is my experience with those pens that are supposed to detect counterfeit bills. [www.randi.org/jr/120304youve.html#1] The subtitle might be: "Kids, don't try this (at home or anywhere); adults, try at your own risk":

Our local Shaws Supermarkets have all embraced these pens with a vengeance — EVERY 20 dollar bill handed over by the customer is checked with one of these pens. Based on your exposé of just how ineffective these are, I often tell the clerk that they really aren't that accurate and the rejoinder is always something to the effect of, "Yes they are — we often find counterfeit bills by using these pens."

So I decided on a test. I wiped a new twenty with a bit of starch and included it in the payment for a recent grocery purchase. WOW! Did that ever cause a commotion! The clerk made several marks on the bill, told me there was a problem, and went off to find the assistant manager who marked the bill with his own pen then ran for the store manager. In minutes the manager and several other clerks were all making marks on the bill, turning it this way and that, and finally I was told that the bill was bogus.

Oops, now what? I held up the bill, showing the manager the watermark, but that wasn't good enough for him. "The pen says the bill is counterfeit." he flatly stated, adding "I can't see the hidden microstrip embedded in all such bills." Well, of course not — by then the bill was covered with over a dozen pen swipes. A bit of saliva, some rubbing on my part and careful scrutiny in good light, and he finally admitted that he could indeed see the microstrip.

But he still wasn't satisfied. "This is a REALLY good counterfeit", he insisted, "After all, we checked with ALL of our detecting pens, and every one of them indicated it's counterfeit. Besides, it doesn't look at all like the other twenty you have here." Well of course not — the bill in question was a new Series 2004 — the one with the little gold "20" printed all over the reverse side. The manager was SURE that was a sign of a counterfeit bill! The other bill was a Series 2001, so of course it was different!

By then a crowd had gathered and the police were on their way. Not quite what I wanted! Our local police are decent types, and the officer who arrived took a close look at the bill in question, the Series 2001, and yet another Series 2004 twenty. He sort of thought all the bills were OK, but asked if I minded going down the block with him to the police station so he could check his book of sample counterfeit bills. As he now had three of my twenties fastened to his clipboard it was impossible to say no. Within five minutes at the police station he said all the bills were OK, that no counterfeit bills he'd seen had all the appropriate watermarks, and that he had heard somewhere that those infamous counterfeit detecting pens "sometimes didn't work."

Being a regular customer and a local resident meant just a short delay to my day, and the experiment certainly did show the shortcoming of those detecting pens. But I think passing a "starched" bill in a place where it's going to be checked isn't such a good idea. The Randi method might be a better way. However, this experience confirms my suspicion that the average store clerk has no idea whatsoever what to look for to determine whether a bill is real or counterfeit. They have their "magic" pens and that is all they need to know. And that really IS sad.

Chip, you missed a great opportunity when you were shown the officer's collection of really phony bills; a stroke of that pen on each one of them would have shown that it didn't work! And, the "Randi method" mentioned above needs explanation:

I regularly go to my bank and take out a couple thousand dollars in $50 bills. I bring them back to the JREF library, lay them out on the large table there, and spray them with canned spray-starch. I let them dry, then turn them over and treat the other side. When they're all prepared, I put them back in the same wrappers, make out a deposit slip, and trot out to my bank again. I admit that the folks there are quite mystified by this sequence, and probably examine those bills very carefully before mixing them back in with the currency population. But just picture the result: all over the state of Florida and beyond, innocent customers are offering very real currency in return for goods and services — and being accused of proffering counterfeit bills. If this happens enough times, with the bills being checked and validated, people are going to become convinced that this phony device just doesn't work. There will be exceptions, of course. One will be our local German restaurant, the Old Heidelberg, where I unknowingly tried to "pass" one of my own treated bills, and was lectured by the dunderhead in charge on how useful the pen was. They even called in a local cop, who agreed that this was a legitimate means of detecting phony bills, was not at all swayed by a call I made to the Secret Service — they verified that the pen didn't work — and trotted me off to the local bank. The manager there validated the bill, and the cop ushered me out and told me to "not do that again." I guess he meant dining at the Old Heidelberg — and I've obeyed that order carefully. If they're that uninformed at that restaurant, they may not know the difference between a bratwurst and a tube of caulking. And that could be fatal.


MOVIE REVIEW

The new Nicole Kidman "Bewitched" movie could make life a living hell for the fans. According to "occult expert" David Benoit of Virginia, the film makes witchcraft seem so "harmless" to folks — especially to kiddies — that it will inspire them to give it a shot themselves. He says this isn't a good idea because, as everyone knows, any kind of spell-casting can attract real demons which possess the people performing the spells. Hey, Benoit should know. He's the author of "14 Things Witches Hope Parents Never Find Out."

Could one of those feared things be that people who believe in witches are twits?


EPIPHANY TIME

Reader Thomas G. Meloche tells us:

On two separate occasions I have a distinct memory of flying down a complete flight of stairs, simply through the power of thought, when I was about 6 years old. My sister has even more fantastic memories, when she was a child she actually saw Santa Claus and his reindeer, her memory was so vivid that she continued to believe in Santa Claus until she was a teenager, and only stopped after intervention by my father, who found her continuing belief embarrassing.

We both now look back on these memories and realize that they were not "real," although all these years later — going on 40 — the memories feel and seem as "real" as any other memory. I wonder how may other people have fantastic childhood memories, that never exposed to the light of reason, are the basis for continuing adult delusions and beliefs.

However, be encouraged, even those of us who flew and saw Santa Claus can eventually come around.


GOOD SENSE FROM TULSA

Reader Nathan Hendrickson, following on the item last week on the Great Tulsa Brouhaha to which he contributed, reports:

I emailed the Tulsa Zoo exhibits curator, Kathleen Buck-Miser, over the weekend. This is what I received Monday afternoon.

Hi Nathan, yes, the Cosmic Calendar (continental drift) is back up and running. I don't know what's going to happen on this Creationist exhibit. I had told the Park Board that if my department was responsible for designing the whole thing, it could be done in about 6 months but it depended on the approval process (which could take years!) We'd done a concept with 12 different creation myths from around the world (not quoting any scriptures, just telling basic stories) such as the Aboriginal, Buddhism, etc. but Dan Hicks said that he was "as offended by our concept as a Muslim would be to flushing the Koran". Go figure. Did you send your e-mail to the Mayor? I've forwarded yours to our PR department, who is compiling them and sending them to the Mayor and Park Board. Please realize that this whole thing was not a Zoo decision.

Thanks for your concern, Kathleen

Nathan responded:

Thanks for the reply! I appreciate your quick response and candor. Keep up the good work.

I heartily agree. Kudos to Ms. Buck-Miser, a properly concerned — and responsive — public servant


IT'S ALL RELATIVE

Well, friends, my offer last week to pay the JREF million to anyone who could prove that the Sun revolves about the Earth, got the expected storm of responses. All but a few properly pointed out that it's a matter of relativity — not Albert's variety, though similar — and that's of course right. I answered the first dozen or so, but then decided that I'd provide this general response here.

It's very true that one can look upon the Earth as the reference position, in which case the Sun would be traveling around the Earth. However, in any situation like this, we look at the parsimonious view: what is the simplest relationship that can be derived? To provide another difficult question: When you walk across the beach, you will probably perceive that action as your body moving across the surface of the Earth, which — relative to you — is standing still. But if you wished, you could also choose to decide that your legs are turning the planet Earth beneath your body — and that's just as correct — though bizarre — as the more sober view. It's relative, you see.

The old Ptolemaic view that the Earth stood still, and that all the planets, stars, and the Moon and Sun, revolved about the Earth, provides us with very complex views of the paths of those bodies. The outer planets, for example, go through "epicycles," which means that as they travel across the sky relative to the stars, they appear to slow down and stop, then go into reverse for a period, after which they resume their "regular" motion. If they were actually revolving around a stationary Earth, that motion would be very difficult to explain. Mind you, it could be expressed — and has been expressed — by huge and cumbersome equations, but the much simpler planets-travel-in-ellipses-around-the-Sun picture yields more basic and parsimonious results.

Trying not to get too confusing about all this, I must tell you that if you chose to accept the Moon as your point of reference, for example, you could work out the equations in a similar fashion, and if you then decided that the Earth revolved around the Moon, that would be as "correct," as well. And, the Earth does not exactly perform an ellipse around the Sun; the center of gravity of the Earth/Moon combination performs an ellipse around a point very near the center of the Sun. And that point in the Sun moves around too, subject to attractions from the planets....

The answer's in there somewhere. It's a very complex and involved, ever-changing set of parameters.

Oh, I almost forgot: when a comet enters the Solar System, that makes the.... Forget it.

The devout head of Catholic Apologetics International — Dr. Robert Sungenis — has very clearly and proudly stated his medieval philosophy, for those who inquire. Go to www.catholicintl.com/qa/qa.htm#Question%2050 and look at question #50, asked by a woman:

Q: Do you allow your wife to vote and/or daughters? Do you think women should go to college?

Sungenis: Yes, I allow my wife to vote. Regarding college, only if it was a good Catholic college, but there are very few of those.

Lucky Maureen! Her husband allows her to vote, and if he could find a college he approves of, he'd allow her to attend there, too. Clearly, despite his education — I can't find what his doctorate consists of — Dr. Sungenis has yet to peek out of the 14th century. Reader Nathan Stohler has sent me another Sungenis flash of genius. Nathan wrote to him:

By the way, the James Randi Educational Foundation will give you $1,000,000 US if you can prove that the sun revolves around the earth.

Fearlessly, Sungenis established his scientific authority by responding:

That's why James Randi "doesn't get it," as they say, and you can tell him I said so. I never said I could prove the sun goes around the earth. I asked heliocentrists whether they could prove whether the earth goes around the sun, since they think they can. I've gotten about 20 attempts so far in the last week ever since Randi put up his ad, but they all failed. Tell Randi I'll give him $5.00 if he can manage to understand the issue and stop distorting it, unless, of course, he is out for mere sensationalism.

Wow, I'm floored by such slick repartee, and tempted by the $5 offer! I must agree, Dr. Bob, I don't "get it." But since it's not there to be "gotten," I'm spinning my wheels....


WALDORF/STEINER/ANTHROPOSOPHIST SCHOOLS IN NORWAY

Reader Trygve Knudsen offers us an insight into the strange curriculum of those expensive and exotic "Steiner Schools — also known as "Waldorf Schools" — that infest the globe. They are based on the teachings of architect/artist/occultist Rudolph Steiner [1861-1925] based on anthroposophist notions:

Just a quick update from the headlines over here in Norway.

Experts on ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder], Asperger Syndrome, and autism, were shocked to hear what the Steiner teachers are taught from the American Steiner teacher and writer Eugene Schwartz. On a lecture he held in Haugesund, Norway, in 2003, which was later transcribed by the Norwegian Steiner Foundation and given to all Steiner teachers in Norway, Schwartz described children with Asperger Syndrome as "living in the antipathic forces," and they are a "spiritual problem." Children with ADHD are a "psychological problem." He also is concerned about what he calls "the millennia children," "young spirits," who, before the 20th century, "weren't strong enough to come to Earth in its earlier stages."

The Norwegian Steiner Foundation say they take no responsibility for what Schwartz says or teaches — but they still have distributed the transcript to all the Steiner teachers...

On the subject of how to understand children with ADHD, Schwartz says:

What happens here is an Ahriman acceleration process. The Astral body comes in at great speed and the Ethereal body isn't strong enough to fight it, so the child comes into a state of eternal spiritualization. They are sort of lost in the process of spiritualization.

Ritalin and similar medication, he says, is "a capitalist invention," but he assures the teachers that "anthroposophy has all the right medicine for this." Hmmm. This sounds a bit like the Scientology Church, doesn't it...?

You can say one good thing about this guy though: at least he doesn't hide what he stands for. This is a main issue in the criticism against the Norwegian Steiner school system these last few weeks: Most parents aren't told right away what a big part of the teaching plan the spiritual/religious aspect really is. For instance, one important problem in the Steiner school system is how they often don't deal with children who "mob" others. It's simply because the victim and the offender "chose" to be enemies in an earlier life!

Also, the school has yet to say anything against Rudolf Steiner's clearly racial points of view.

Thanks again for a great and important website and work.


RIDICULOUS CLAIMS

Reader John Goldie has reason to fear his local library:

I just wanted to alert your readers to the nonsense being passed off as fact in some children's science books [and on TV]. A recent example is a non-fiction book my son brought home from the science section of the local library called: "Foul Facts: Our World — The Awful Truth." It's full of the usual info on volcanoes, earthquakes, etc. — and also has a section on wacky superstitions, where it mocks human gullibility. For example, under the heading of "Pretty Stupid," it mentions Jewish and Chinese cultures regarding a compliment as being unlucky as it can attract the devil.

That the authors are mocking others for being gullible is particularly ironic, given the following amazing-but-true "fact" they teach children:

X-Ray Eyes: Not just something out of science fiction, there are actually people who have X-ray eyes. A Ukrainian woman can see other people's insides through their skin, and she now works in a hospital diagnosing diseases.

John, this is probably Russian "psychic prodigy" Natasha Demkina, who we've written up here several times (www.randi.org/jr/031805x.html#1) and who has been thoroughly exposed and debunked — though one might have to actually do a little research to discover that fact.

As a side note, I saw segments on "Amazing Animals" on a kids TV show that I regarded with a little scepticism, and wondered if any of your readers could verify. One fact reported, was that an octopus will eat itself when angry (my son insists that this one is true as his friend saw it separately on a national geographic segment on the science channel, but I find it hard to imagine this trait being favoured by natural selection). Another segment described how a species of armadillo can leap over 9 meters (30 feet) straight up when threatened by predators (which just seems wrong to me).

Now you've got me really interested, John. I pursued this self-devouring octopus statement, and at http://library.thinkquest.org/J001418/octopus.html I was told that these critters will nibble themselves away "when stressed." I dunno. I agree with you that such a tendency seems not very species-survival-positive. As for that nine-meters-plus-straight-up leap by an armadillo, other sources report that it's three to four feet — .9 to 1.2 meters — so that just might be a misplaced decimal point. I can't see an armadillo surviving a self-launched 30-foot fall, despite its armor.... John continues:

Speaking of dubious claims, a few years back a friend of mine told of finding an old science textbook which contained an explanation of the theory of natural selection. As an example it described the amazing behaviour of lemmings. It said that scientists have never been able to figure out the mechanism through which lemmings are able to recognise overpopulation — in order to sacrifice themselves and thus ensure the survival of the species — and they somehow know when to kill themselves even when they are on a separate island hundreds of miles away from where the over population problem is occurring — a concept so illogical it still makes me laugh.

That lemming-suicide myth began in 1958 with the release of the Disney movie "Wild Wilderness." It's a total invention, it's spurious, wrong, untrue, and bogus. But, it's such an attractive lie that it's easily believed, repeated, and promoted by folks who need fantasy in their lives. John:

Really enjoy your site, and it has encouraged me to stress the importance of critical thinking to my children.

Thanks, John. Just be sure that your kids watch their decimals....!


I'LL BET SHE EATS

There are several varieties of "vegetarian." There are "vegans, who avoid all animal products, including milk products. "Fruitarians" consume only fruit, nuts, and other seeds. But at www.randi.org/jr/071103.html — and other locations — you'll find the most extreme diet-claimers of all, the "breatharians," who claim to subsist on nothing but air and light. Most of them say that they don't even need to drink water. Or beer, for that matter.

A well-known advocate of breatharianism is Ellen Greve, a businesswoman from Australia who claims she hasn't eaten any real food for the last 12 years. She has adopted the name "Jasmuheen," which we'll all agree sounds much more mystical than "Ellen," and is likely to attract gullible folks who will buy into her delusion and her scam. She's written a book, "Living on Light, the Source of Nourishment for the New Millennium," about how "Ascended Masters" speak to her by "cosmic telepathy," and how she draws upon invisible "pranic energy" for her sustenance. Questioned on the obvious personal matter, she says that she excretes only "rabbit-type droppings every three weeks," a claim that has not excited my interest at all.

Her claim that she lives on light, however, is something that we could easily examine. I've already explained why these claims are usually ignored by the JREF, but I must make an exception here because of the high profile attained by Jasmuheen. For her to fail a widely-publicized test would relieve us of all the nutty and noisy "airians" we hear from regularly. I'll bet that we could get together some funding to conduct a comprehensive test of her claim.

However, we have to look at what happened in 1999 when Jasmuheen agreed to undergo a challenge issued by the "60 Minutes" TV show in Australia. They confined her in a hotel room under a doctor's care, but after only two days of this, she began showing symptoms of high blood pressure, dehydration, and stress. Asked why she had these problems, she said it was because of "air pollution," so the show moved her off to a mountain location where the air was probably much better. Two days later, she was ill again. Her speech had slowed, her pupils were dilated, her pulse was almost double the normal rate. The doctor in charge said that her kidneys were in danger of being damaged, so the experiment was immediately terminated.

Hey, I'll do that test, first making sure that Jasmuheen is totally satisfied about the circumstances, and meeting all her requirements, including location, atmosphere, and ambiance. I'll also get a comprehensive waiver from her that says she won't bring legal action against anyone if something goes wrong, that she's a competent adult, that she will tell us when and if she has any problems, and that she will close off the test at any time she wishes. But I won't allow the test to be terminated unless Jasmuheen herself says she wants it to be stopped!

Why am I so heartless? You should know that to date, three of her followers have starved to death by following her instructions. If she has the wisdom to command them to die, she should have the smarts to know when she's going down that slope, as well. Jasmuheen said of one of those dupes who died, that she was "not coming from a place of integrity and did not have the right motivation." I believe that Jasmuheen should be allowed — even encouraged — to demonstrate that she herself has both the required integrity and the correct motivation.

However, here's something that might be far easier to test: Jasmuheen claims that her own DNA has changed shape from 2 strands to 12, "in order to absorb more hydrogen." (Don't fall off your chair laughing, and you know that I couldn't have invented such a stupid claim!) She's already been asked by the Australian Skeptics if she'd allow her DNA to be unraveled, and they offered her A$30,000 — which she said she'd think about. She stated, "I don't know what the relevance for it is." Perhaps by now she's been able to arrive at a decision on that matter, and has also considered the fact that the prize — for her — now amounts to US$1,023,000. That's a lot of "relevance," Jasmuheen.

We'll keep you posted, since I'm sure we'll have an immediate and enthusiastic acceptance from Jasmuheen. (yawn)


GREAT DOWSING EXPERIMENT

Reader Brian Makepeace writes:

The letter last week from Perry Goy about pendulums has inspired me to share a story from 15 years ago, and some current thoughts.

In 1990, I was at a family gathering at a friend's house, and I walked into the living room and stumbled upon a dowsing demonstration. My good friend was showing his children and mine how dowsing "works." He held a 4-inch metal tube in each hand and out of the tubes protruded two heavy metal wires which were bent at 90 degrees. Because he wasn't holding the wires directly, my friend noted that they would move very easily. He held the apparatus so that the wires were parallel to each other about 2 feet apart. He asked the assembled children, one at a time, to walk slowly between the wires. To their astonishment, the wires swayed rapidly apart as soon as they came near to them.

Being a bit of a tease myself — I use parlor games and card tricks to sometimes mystify and entertain the kids — I assumed that my friend was just spoofing them, until I heard him explain that this was "dowsing" and that it really works, and that you can find water, gold, etc., "because the frictionless wires can sense the energy fields."

I like to consider myself an open-minded, tolerant, and accepting individual — "to each his own," I say. But when it comes to blatant ignorance — especially from an Ivy league graduate! — I tend to lose patience. I get even more upset when someone sets out to indoctrinate my children with paranormal drivel. So my immediate reaction to my friend was, "ARE YOU (expletive deleted) KIDDING ME!!? Dowsing is COMPLETE B.S.!"

But then my own kids said, "But Pa, we saw it work!" I had to think fast. Now, I should say that this all occurred before I learned about the specifics and subconscious aspects of the ideomotor effect, so my skepticism was based solely on my conviction that my friend (and all other dowsers) were just insensitive to the subtle tremors of their own hands — something that, due to the nature of my profession, I am keenly aware of about myself. So, I immediately set about conducting a simple experiment.

I had my friend sit in an armchair — with his elbows, forearms, and hands resting firmly on the chair. I asked him to move his hands to align and steady the dowsing rods so they were in the position they were earlier. I then blindfolded him by pulling a hat over his eyes. Once he was ready, I quietly signaled to the kids to take off their shoes — then, one by one, I motioned for them to tiptoe between the rods — or not. What my friend did not know was whether anyone actually ever came between, or near to, the rods. After about five minutes of this, and after absolutely NO movement of the rods at anytime, we took the blindfold off. My friend was confident that the rods had moved exactly as he expected but he was startled when his own children — who he had raised to believe in this stuff — said, "Daddy, it didn't work!"

The experiment convinced my own kids that dowsing is a crock of baloney but, despite my debunking experiment, my friend and his now-adult sons still believe it works.

What flabbergasts me is not that people believe nonsensical things, but that no one believes every single nonsensical claim they hear about. For instance, my dowsing friend does not believe in the purple gnomes that I tell him live behind my house. He has discretion. All of us make some sort of analysis in order to believe some things and not others. And in order to do that we must employ the scientific method. Obviously though, some of us do this very poorly.

Since my dowsing experiment, I have given up on directly challenging believers with demonstrations, proofs, and facts. I merely ask why they don't believe in every other odd claim. "What thought process did you use to decide not to believe purple gnomes are part of reality?" "Why do you not use the same process to its fullest, and fairly analyze the things you have come to believe are factual?"

I've never gotten answers to these questions, of course, but I hope that by asking them, I've gotten people to at least understand why I ask and why I don't believe what they believe. I admit, though, that my patience and confidence in human nature is wearing very thin these days. Being kind and respectful of people's beliefs is getting very hard to do. Political correctness and cultural diversity are back-firing. When otherwise brilliant "progressive" people are so gullible and irrational as to believe in dowsing, homeopathy, and other such nonsense, and when I begin to feel like humanity is moving toward Dark Ages II, it is time to start slapping people across the face with reality. "STOP DOWSING! STOP DOZING! WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE!"

Thanks for doing more than your fair share of slapping.


SCOLDED YET AGAIN

As usual, readers are eager to correct me. Dr. Matt Fields, for example, tells me that a reference I made last week to myths of creation, had an error. He writes:

Yin and Yang are not Shinto, they are Taoist. The fertile pair of Shinto are Izinagi and Izinami. Gotta get our nonsense right!

Picky, picky, picky! Okay. Then our friend and reader Flavio Rizzardi in Padua, Italy, along with some 30 other readers, pointed out something that I really should have spotted:

The incredible Sylvia Browne states that "The only living things that I have never seen at Home are insects. [...] I've never seen a spider, fly or any other type of insect..." You missed the opportunity to inform Sylvia that spiders aren't insects at all; they are arachnids (a class that includes scorpions but not flies, ants and so on). A tip for Ms. Browne: count the legs! (6 = insect, 8 = arachnid)

Reader Jeremy Lyon, of Mesquite, Texas, on this same point, adds:

I don't know which is more troubling, the idea that she can't even get the Phylum of her "contacts" correct, or the idea that she claims to have some sort of afterlife contact with every type of animal which has ever existed (except insects and arachnids?) including — I have to assume — the many dear departed sea coral and sponges. Furthermore, she doesn't say that the only animals left out are insects. She says that the only living things not there, are insects. I know it's a shocker, but on her authority she is definitively stating that the souls of plants, microbes and even that mildew colony I scoured off my bathroom tile can communicate with her after death. As a retribution, I'd like her to personally berate — individually — all those untold millions of bacterium which have wreaked havoc on humans through the millennia. That should keep her out of our hair for a while.

Many thanks for the continued dedication of yourself and your colleagues,

Reader William McEwen — you heard from him earlier in this edition of Swift — also offers input on this item:

Sylvia has reached a new low with her animals book. It's frightening and sad that people buy her books and believe this crap. Years ago, I used to read Billy Graham's nationally-syndicated column in our local paper. About 1973 or so, a woman wrote in about her beloved dog who had just died. Would it go to heaven? Graham said no, that animals don't have souls, so it wouldn't happen.

A few years later, someone wrote in with a similar question. But Graham's response was different! He said that Heaven is a place of happiness, and our pets bring us happiness, so yes, Fido will be there. He made no mention of his earlier, different belief. I've never forgotten that. And I'm curious. Who changed the rules? God, or Billy Graham?

All on my own, upon re-reading last week's review of the Browne book, I saw that I'd passed over an obvious question: How did Browne's co-author Chris discover — through his fabulous psychic powers? — that the temperature of heaven was "a perfect 78 degrees"? Did he have a thermometer with him when he visited Never Never Land — oops, I mean, "the Other Side" — or are there thermometers stuck up on the trees? And, if Eskimos, polar bears, and Emperor penguins go there, do they carry bags of ice cubes around to beat the sweltering — to them — heat? But the heavenly ice and snow, Chris tells us, are warm.... And as reader Eric Johnson, in Canada, says:

My friend is from Thailand, and he says that in his country, whenever the temperature dips below 28 degrees Celsius [82F] they feel cold and would put on a light jacket. In North America, we think we're going to die of heat exhaustion and can be found swimming in lakes in air-conditioned shopping malls. I have another friend who spent a good part of 15 years in Africa and he also said that whenever temperatures would go down to 25 degrees [77F] or so, people would huddle by fires and wear jackets to keep warm. Of course, for North Americans, 25 degrees is quite comfortable: definitely sandals and shorts weather. Does that mean that only spirits from the Northern Hemisphere will be comfortably warm at Home, whereas all the spirits from the Equator and below will spend eternity freezing? Doesn't seem fair.

Well, Eric there are problems with your belief that temperatures below the equator are always warm. You see, when Canada has summer, Australia has winter.... But your basic observation was just fine.

Reader Steve Ferry adds his bit:

Reading your review of Sylvia's book about animals on the other side and whether predators would behave themselves, I couldn't help thinking about P. T. Barnum. He had a display called "Happy Family" where a curtain would rise and a tableau would be revealed containing a lion, a leopard, a tiger and a lamb. On being asked whether he would make the display permanent he replied, "As long as the supply of lambs holds out!"

And Steve Wilcox of Denver, Colorado, writes:

Regarding your review of "Animals on the Other Side": If Sylvia can communicate without opening her mouth, there really must be a heaven.

I agree.... But I must let Sylvia have the last word here. This, I couldn't improve upon. On the Larry King show last week, promoting her silly book, she announced that there also are no skunks in heaven.

Even Larry laughed at that one..


MAGIC MUGS AND EGGS

At www.energels.com/main.htm you will see ads for an "Energy Mug" and an "Energy Egg," both of which produce miracles that are obviously eligible to win the JREF million-dollar prize. The mug will:

...energize your water in 1-2 minutes... Highly charged water inside the hollow of the mug transfers positive information to your drinks (water, juice, coffee, colas), giving them a positive spin and a sweeter, softer, less acidic taste. This information stays with the drink even when poured into another glass.

But, cautions Cheryl Peterson, who sells this set of merchandise, "Do Not X-Ray Or Microwave" the mug. That makes sense.... I couldn't resist issuing a proper challenge to this claptrap. I sent this letter, both by US Postal Service and by e-mail:

Magical Entity/Cheryl Peterson
P. O. Box 33
Midvale, UT 84047

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Dear Ms. Peterson:

This is a formal notice to tell you that if your products work as advertised, you can take the million-dollar prize that our Foundation offers. Please refer to www.randi.org/research/index.html for the information.

I estimate that it would take about two hours for you to complete a simple test of your claims. I'm sure that you will be interested in applying for the prize, and we look forward to hearing from you.

For her convenience, I sent Ms. Peterson a printed copy of the JREF "Application for Status of Claimant" form. Of course I don't expect that I'll have any response from her, but if I do, you'll be the first to know. Reader Germán Buela alerted me to this item.


SMART UNIVERSITY

Under the heading, "VOODOO SCIENCE," Bob Park tells us that the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, the oldest medical school in the nation, which had formed a partnership with the Tai Sophia Institute to offer a master's degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, has quietly severed ties to Tai Sophia. Fight 'em all, win a few.


SOUL INNERSOLE

Reader Kurt Kober suggests you go to http://in-souls.com/index2.html, but only when and if you have the time to carry on laughing and kicking your heels. You'll be in stitches when you see just how damn silly people can get! And I'm sure that the proprietor of this site, understanding that silliness factor fully, is dragging in the coin....!


ABOUT THE GREAT "CARLOS"

Those of you who know about The Great Carlos event, in which our friend and artist Jose Alvarez created the character of "Carlos," a spirit he was "channeling" for the people of Sydney, Australia, may obtain a much clearer picture of his ongoing project and what he has done after that original performance in 1988, by tuning in to www.wnyc.org/studio360/show061105.html, where author/art historian Thomas Hoving is interviewed by host Kurt Andersen on the artist and his work. I strongly suggest that you listen to the whole program, clicking in on "Forge This" and then "Airwave Imposters" leading up to the "Carlos" segment; this is an excellent discussion of fakery in general, the subject that we handle in depth here at the JREF, and it goes into how Alvarez created this fictitious persona who was so willingly accepted by the public of Australia in the same way they'd chosen to believe so many fakers-for-gain who invaded their shores. This hour of WNYC radio is entertaining and educational, and will demonstrate how the art of fakery can be either constructive or damaging, depending entirely upon the goal of the creator. You can also listen to another interview about his work at www.wps1.org/include/shows/correspond_miami.html where Alvarez goes a little more into his intentions. Click on Edition #15.


ZAP-THE-SCIENTIST SHOW

The formidable team of Richard Wiseman and Simon Singh will be opening a science stage production in London on July 4th — perhaps in observance of the 1776 Britain/colony severance? — and it's a sell-out already! You can see all the details at www.simonsingh.com/Theatre_of_Science.html. A monstrous Tesla Coil — shown in the illustration — will be co-starring in the show, and the audience will get to choose which of the two presenters will take up residence onstage in a coffin-shaped Faraday Cage at the close of each show as a million volts or so is blasted at the daring "involunteer." The producers of the show had first intended that an audience member would be selected as the subject for this experiment, but the insurance company handling the affair firmly refused to issue a policy if a hapless human guinea pig were to be so selected; they opted to use one of the two scientists. Scientists are very close to being regular people, but are apparently considered dispensable — which makes sense, because in this case either one can carry on the show without the other "fried" member of the team present, and a replacement for the next show can be easily and quickly obtained from the huge rank of parapsychologists and psychics that the UK boasts. My personal suggestions would include Rupert Sheldrake and Derek Acora, and I'm prepared to expand that list....

In any case, there is now a £12 million policy covering possible mishaps at the "Theatre of Science" show, and the background of Michael Faraday has been examined in detail; all seems in order.

I know, last week I promised you an excerpt from an interview with Scientologist/actor Tom Cruise, a homeopathy trial in Norway, and an examination of Himalayan Rock Salt Crystal Lamps. Too much other stuff came up, so I'll postpone those goodies until next week. Apologies.