July 8, 2005

The Comet Comment, Bored of Education, Murder in South Africa, Oh Henry, Corrections, How Can You Possibly Resist?, Wise Words, Talk About Abysmal Naivety, Silly Question, Cartoon Lumps for Edward, The Geocentric Universe, Char Performs As Expected, Clever Fang, A Comment For The Times, Orbito In Hot Water Again, Quackery On Trial in Norway, Perhaps a Lack of Personality, Magic Rock...Salt, and In Conclusion....


Table of Contents:


THE COMET COMMENT

As some 60 or so readers hastened to tell me, Moscow astrologer/medium/spiritualist Marina Bai has come in for a lot of attention in the media, who appear to be quite amused by her case. She is suing NASA for damages of US$305 million because she claims that their Deep Impact probe, which they crashed into the Tempel 1 comet on July 4th, has altered her horoscope and thus her future, causing her "moral suffering."

Reader Richard Smith of Ottawa, Canada, comments:

So, who does she plan on suing every time some astronomer drops another "new" comet into the system, "changing" the ephemeris yet again? Who would she have sued if a random asteroid had instead done what Deep Impact did? I was surprised enough to hear that astrologers would — supposedly — consider minor comets such as Tempel 1 important enough to track and incorporate into their charts; what's the likelihood of them keeping track of every small — around 370 kg — asteroid that might possibly whack into such a minor comet, thereby preventing such a "natural" event from escaping their prediction? I mean, astrology is a precise science. Isn't it?

And of course, since one of astrology's biggest claims is of being a predictor of the future, why wasn't she able to see the impact coming? After all, once the probe had been launched successfully, scientists had a pretty good idea that Tempel 1 was in for a surprise about six months later, and then there's all the planning leading up to the launch. I think all the savvy minor-comet-inclusive astrologers ought to have taken Tempel 1 off their lists a year or so ago and waited to see what happened, although, again, couldn't they predict..?

I did a bit of searching online for information on comets and astrology and, apart from a few sites talking about comets visible to the naked eye as portents in early astrology — you know — the silly, superstitious astrology! — I couldn't find anything that mentioned comets, let alone minor ones, as on-going astrological influences. However, I did find one page, http://www.astrologers.com/html/MuiseMthlyRpt.html, which is concerned about the comet, by which I mean concerned for the comet. The page's author, Roxana Muise, asks her readers to "[p]lease join [her] in visualizing healing energies around the comet at [the] time [of impact]." Perhaps it was all that healing energy that kept the comet from shattering into a million pieces... That, or the mystical energy some call inertia.

Reader Andrew Senchuk of Winnipeg, Canada, also comments:

I guess feelings are more important than truth. Being a scientist myself I find it insulting when something as beautiful as the exploration of the solar system, and the truly beneficial knowledge gained through this endeavor come under fire because someone feels their delusion has been damaged!

Well, I certainly agree with astrologer Ms. Bai that NASA has caused a big difference in her life. Before Deep Impact hit the comet, she was an unheard-of buffoon; now she's a well-known buffoon.

And her lawyers will go through the same old process of vain gestures. They're now asking for anyone whose phone developed a fault at the same time as the impact, to come forward to support her case. And anyone — I suspect — who had a headache, felt cold or hot, was asleep in bed that night, or has the impression that they'd like to share that 305 million....

There must be something to this astrology thing....!


BORED OF EDUCATION

We return this week to the place we started last week — Australia. The Melbourne Herald Sun reported an alarming fact that demonstrates the increasing disrespect for, and downplaying of, science and technology. The item showed up on www.ThisisTrue.com:

School officials in Victoria, Australia, say it's too hard for students to calculate equations using the constant 9.8 meters/second/second [32 feet/second/second] — the acceleration of gravity at Earth's surface — so it's changing the Year 12 physics exam for the Victorian Certificate of Education to use a rounded-off figure of 10 m/s/s. Close enough? No: "The difference could cause a parachutist or bungie jumper to plummet into the ground, or the launching of a rocket to fail," say people who actually understand physics. After hearing the criticism, the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority announced that it would not penalize students who used the correct figure.

Comments ThisIsTrue boss Randy Cassingham:

No penalty for wrong answers, no penalty for the right ones — modern education in a nutshell.

Alas, this is true.....

Actually, "g" — the acceleration due to gravity on Earth — is 32.158 feet/second/second [9.8018 in meters] measured at sea-level, and at 40 degrees latitude. That's 9.8 rounded off to one decimal place.

Yes, I took into account the probable value of g in Victoria, which is at 36 degrees latitude — very close to 40 degrees — and it is probably very slightly smaller in value. In the most extreme cases — the difference between the value of g at a pole or at the equator — that difference can only amount to .5 percent, from 9.78 to 9.83 — so we still get that "difficult" number when we round off to one place of decimals, no matter how much smaller g is at Victoria....

I'm sure that some Victorians (?) will be quick to give me their g out to eight figures or so....


MURDER IN SOUTH AFRICA

Ben Goldacre, with the UK's Guardian newspaper, has provided readers with excellent skeptical comments on many subjects. Recently he pointed out the heartbreaking situation in South Africa, where the HIV/AIDS situation is decimating the nation while authorities there actively denounce working treatments because they originate in mainstream medicine rather than in traditional — primitive — methods. A man named Rath is selling vitamins which he says will cure these deadly diseases, and the government is applauding his claims. Here's an excerpt from Ben's story:

The Medicines Control Council and the Health Professionals Council of South Africa have failed to act on complaints, just as our authorities have failed to act on bogus nutritionists and their ilk. Why? To parallel our Blair-Windsor axis of irrationality, Rath has President Mbeki, longtime naysayer of the link between HIV and Aids, and his health minister Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang. "Raw garlic and a skin of the lemon — not only do they give you a beautiful face and skin but they also protect you from disease," she said.... South Africa has 5 million people infected with HIV, one person in nine. Fewer than 40,000 are taking proper medication.

One person in nine? And the President of that country and his Minister of Health are preaching quackery! Are they purposely murdering their citizens? Our friend Dr. Stanley Krippner is there now, trying to convince the heads of African nations that magic powders, spells, and amulets are no protection against disease, but he's being fought by the governments wherever he goes. What insanity. In South Africa, does it have to reach one person in five before these maniacs will instruct the people to accept what real medicine has to offer them? Or maybe it will have to wait until a member of President Mbeki's family — or one of the daughters or the grandson of Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang, contracts AIDS and dies?

We're sure they'll have beautiful faces and skin.


OH HENRY

At www.randi.org/jr/122404alien.html#1 you'll see that embarrassing German live-TV sequence in which Uri Geller — remember him? — hands a key to a chap and challenges him to bend it, while telling him that it's impossible without mystical powers. The man easily bends it, looks confused, and a flustered Geller quickly snatches the key back from him. I've just been informed that the volunteer was boxer Henry Maske, who is very well known to the German populace. I'd like to ask Henry about that event....


CORRECTIONS

Reader Måns Eriksson, in Sweden, comments on something I let get by me last week:

Said Tom [Cruise] 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."

I think we all have to agree with Tom on this one! Just consider the dolphins in the sea, the E.coli in your stomach and the rhubarb in your garden. All foolproof evidence of the fact that we are not the only life form in the entire universe....

Good point, Måns! That was very careless of me, not to correct him into saying "the only intelligent life form" — though perhaps he was referring to DNA-based or carbon-based life forms.... I don't want to put words or thoughts in Tom's mouth or head, which might fill an empty space, but I'll give him that benefit of the doubt. However, I've also had several objections to my admittedly loose statement last week, that

From the mathematical point of view alone, the presence of other life — somewhere — is inescapable.

You might forgive my use of that word if you consider the fact that for some 45 years of my life I made my living as an escape artist, and I don't recognize many "escape" situations that are incapable of being overcome by skill, deception, or hard work. However, here's my more involved reasoning re this statement of mine:

First of all, since that quotation is taken out of context, I'll expand it here for clarity:

From the mathematical point of view alone, the presence of another form of life — similar to, or other than what we're familiar with here on Earth — existing at some other place in the universe, is inescapable.

Second, we have to define what we mean by the term, "life." Webster's says it's

The general condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, a means of reproduction, and internal regulation in response to the environment.

So, a "life" form can be defined as a system that grows, has a means of reproducing itself, and responds to its environment. I'd add that the reproduction doesn't even have to be sexual, and that the response to its environment has to include both some ability for internal error correction, and an enthusiasm/instinct to persist, as well. Life doesn't have to be mobile, write poetry, or even have any smarts at all: lichens and viruses are forms of life as much as Richard Dawkins and Duane Gish are. That opens up the possibilities rather widely.

But right here on Earth, a variety of life has developed that exists only in total darkness, in highly acidic water loaded with — to us deadly — hydrogen sulfide, at a temperature of 400C (that's 752 degrees Fahrenheit) and under pressure of almost 30,000 pounds per square inch! That's the giant tubeworm Riftia pachyptila, which has no digestive system; it lives in symbiosis with a variety of bacteria that supplies it with nutrients in return for a protective environment within the "worm's" body....

Think about that fantastic set of conditions and structure, and about the many other highly varied sorts of life that exist and flourish right here on Earth, under such diverse circumstances, and you have to recognize that life's tolerance for so many possible combinations of conditions, is vast. Then consider, in a universe which we presently believe to be some 10 to 20 billion light-years across, what varied combinations and permutations of gravitational attraction, pressure, atmosphere (gaseous or liquid), temperature, available "building blocks" (elements and compounds), energy sources, and other hundreds of physical systems and/or conditions, could exist. To assure yourself of the magnitude of the dimension of the universe, multiply the speed of light — 186,300 mps — by 60, by 60 again, by 24, by 365.25, by 10 billion, to get it down to miles — using the lower size estimate.

That's big.

Then look at the time element involved. Give all of those possible experimental scenarios almost unlimited time in which to bring together elements and configurations, billions of years and billions of groupings and blends, and perhaps you will begin to relate to my statement, above. The monkeys-typing-out-Shakespeare scenario just doesn't compare with this one.

For one reason or another, or much more probably for no reason at all except that it worked and persisted, a life system that includes both carbon and DNA eventually developed here on Earth; the possibility that there are systems here that don't include either or both of those elements, we won't get into. That "seed" might also have arrived here from elsewhere via "panspermia," a not-impossible idea originated by the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (500 B.C.E. — 428 B.C.E.), which suggested that the basics of life on Earth could have come here via meteors or other space flotsam.

Re my explanation of my "inescapable" reference, Randall Wald smugly pointed out to me:

....even in the reference frame of the Moon, the Earth does not revolve around the Moon. The reason is that, while the Moon revolves around the Earth once every 28 days, it also rotates about its own axis in the same time span. In particular, the same side of the Moon is always facing the Earth.

Out-smugging Randall, I responded:

And, I could say that the Earth does revolve about the Moon while the Moon rotates on its axis to face the Earth....

And yes, I got in trouble for putting in four "rotates" instead of "revolves," but I refuse to acknowledge that error....

That about covers it, though if pressed I could say much more. That's why I'm so convinced that there must be at least another form of life somewhere else in this universe, and probably there are thousands, and other thousands that rose and perished, as well. But if you still don't accept my term, "inescapable," modify it to "almost inescapable," so that we can get on with our respective lives, okay?


HOW CAN YOU POSSIBLY RESIST?

Reader Dale Duxbury has notified me of this splendid opportunity. As you can see from the appended ad, one can snap up a bargain in quack medicine! The original price of the Novalite 2000 unit shown here was $8,500 — this advertiser will let it go for a mere $5,000. Look at www.novaliteresearch.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=nlr&Product_Code=n2tpm and see what you're getting. According to their expert advisors, this device will:

Induce a flood of negatively charged electrons that penetrate the clothing and skin, terminating free radicals, penetrate the body easily, inducing microamperes of intercellular current, which may stimulate some degree of intracellular electroporation, increase ATP production levels in the cells due to the abundance of energetic electrons, feed the healthful respiration portion of the Krebs cycle, rather than the cancerous fermentation portion, optimize the Na-K pump in the cells' membranes, increase the transmembrane potential (TMP) of the cells which boosts the immune system, and recharge the biophoton energy vital for DNA-cellular activation in the body.

So there! We have to admire the "Dodelka Hedron" — which has a pyramid added to the top so you don't bump your head while you're being healed by those "powerful energetic vibrations." Uri Geller sells a pyramid for the same purpose, but his would cost — if anyone would ever buy it — US$145,000. See it at www.randi.org/jr/081503.html.

Incidentally, Tesla coils of the same quality and performance criteria as the "Novalite 2000" can be easily built by any hobbyist for about $500 in parts, or purchased already assembled for about $1,000. But such units have no "spirit-healing" qualities that I know of....


WISE WORDS

Reader David Hildebrand says he stumbled across this John Dewey quotation from his 1924 essay "Science, Belief, and the Public," and thought I'd enjoy it. I'm happy to have it, and I'll quote it often:

The fundamental defect in the present state of democracy is the assumption that political and economic freedom can be achieved without first freeing the mind. Freedom of mind is not something that spontaneously happens. It is not achieved by the mere absence of obvious restraints. It is a product of constant, unremitting nurture of right habits of observation and reflection.

Until the taboos that hedge social topics from contact with thought are removed, scientific method and results in subjects far removed from social themes will make little impression upon the public mind. Prejudice, fervor of emotion, bunkum, opinion and irrelevant argument will weigh as heavily as fact and knowledge. Intellectual confusion will continue to encourage the men who are intolerant and who fake their beliefs in the interests of their feelings and fancies.

But while looking it up, I found another section of that splendid essay that speaks even more strongly to our present situation. Replace the "Great War" reference here with a more currently appropriate one, and you'll see what I mean:

There is a considerable class of influential persons, enlightened and liberal in technical, scientific and religious matters, who are only too ready to make use of appeal to authority, prejudice, emotion and ignorance to serve their purposes in political and economic affairs. Having done whatever they can do to debauch the habit of the public mind in these respects, they then sit back in amazed sorrow when this same habit of mind displays itself violently with regard, say, to the use of established methods of historic and literary interpretations of the scriptures or with regard to the animal origin of man.

"Fundamentalism" might have been revived even if the Great War had not occurred. But it is reasonable to suppose that it would have not assumed such an intolerant and vituperative form, if so many educated men, in positions of leadership, had not deliberately cultivated resort to bitter intolerance and to coercive suppression of disliked opinions during the war...Until highly respectable and cultivated classes of men cease to suppose that in economic and political matters the importance of the end of social stability and security justifies the use of means other than those of reason, the intellectual habit of the public will continue to be corrupted at the root, and by those from whom enlightenment should be expected.

No further comment....


TALK ABOUT ABYSMAL NAIVETY

Reader Dan Simon tells us:

I was amused by the section of today's Commentary with Brian Makepeace's contribution [www.randi.org/jr/070105quality.html#15] and reminded of a recent conversation I had with a business colleague that makes me think he is underestimating the depth of gullibility of which humans are capable.

At a business dinner I was seated next to a colleague from England. Through conversation she volunteered that she grew up near the village of Cottingley, in Yorkshire. In an effort to make conversation I said, jokingly, "Well, then of course you must know of the famous fairies that populate the region" (a reference to the famous hoax about which you have written extensively). She insisted that not only had she often seen fairies in the woodlands nearby, but that the "magical energies of the area" and the "ley lines which run through the region" made it a popular haunt for all sorts of mystical creatures, including various types of gnomes and other sprites. I thought she must surely be kidding but when she started to take offense at my tone it became clear that she was entirely serious! It took all my concentration to keep my jaw from dropping at the depths of stupidity with which I was sharing my table. I had trouble chewing my dinner, my jaw was so slack.

I could have tried to tell her that the perpetrators of the fairy hoax had come clean many years ago, but instead I opted for smiling and nodding because it was certainly not the right setting for a confrontation — besides, it would have done me more harm than good (not only would it have "caused a scene" at a professional meeting but also I continued to rely on this person in order to do my job).

Now this is, by all outward appearances, an adult, grown woman who seemed to have her faculties about her and could engage in reasonable dealings in the business world. And she believes in fairies and gnomes. I think perhaps, contrary to what Mr. Makepeace wrote, some people indeed do believe every single nonsensical claim they are presented with.

In considering it afterwards, I wondered why belief in gnomes is taboo when belief in equally exotic ideas (such as Astrology, Chiropractic and Christianity) are so commonly discussed in the open. My reaction to being seated next to an Evangelical who might spend the dinner proselytizing would have been quite different — instead of being bemused I would have been outright offended. Perhaps it is because of the relative power and influence Christianity has when compared with these other myths that we are less willing to consider its adherents "childish" than we are people with less popular (but equally fantastic) beliefs.


SILLY QUESTION

Dr. Matt Fields asks, re our mention last week of Jasmuheen, who says she lives on air alone (www.randi.org/jr/070105quality.html#14):

Computer programmers have been known to live for years on cold pizza and Pepsi. Does that count as Breatharianism?

No, that has three of the basic food groups: sugar, fat, and cholesterol! All that's missing is alcohol. What a question!


CARTOON LUMPS FOR EDWARD

Reader Alex Dering refers us to a recent episode of the animated program "Family Guy":

Briefly, Peter Griffin, the father of the show turns to his wife, Lois, and says something like: "I haven't seen you this mad since I spent $300 on those tickets to the John Edward Show." Flashback to Peter and Lois at the show: Lois' arms are crossed and she is obviously highly skeptical. Edward is in front of Peter. The dialog runs something like this:

Edward: Your name starts with an "A"

Peter: No.

Edward: B?, C?, D?, E?, F?, G?, H?, I?, J?, K?, L?, M?, N?, O?, P?...

Peter: Yes! My name is Peter.

Edward: Is your name Peter?

Peter: Oh my God! It's amazing!

The best lampooning of that crummy so-and-so since the drubbing he got on South Park!


THE GEOCENTRIC UNIVERSE

I'm sure my readers perceived the fact that I didn't make any pretence last week at having examined or even mentioned all the variables that go into the motion of the Earth around the Sun — or any other cosmological arrangement of which your guru, priest, or shaman has convinced you. I didn't touch on relativity, gravity waves, the meteor belt between Mars and Jupiter, or tidal effects, for examples. Prominent skeptic Jan Willem Nienhuys sums up the magnitude of the problem for us, and provides a handy escape-hatch if we want to simplify our lives:

An accurate description of the motion of the Earth and the planets comprises series with thousands and thousands of terms (I had to copy many of them by hand to get a precise Mars rise and setting program) and a simple change-of-center is nothing compared to the rest of the computation.

So the argument that the description of the planetary system gets any easier with the Sun-as-center is not really true. But having to accommodate the light rays of thousands of stars and billions and billions of galaxies all going in circles synchronous with the Sun, when even a child knows that light goes in straight lines, that's stretching it too much.

So any person pretending to show that the Sun goes around the Earth, you can ask them to give an explanation of the aberration of starlight that's compatible with the special theory of relativity. Saves you work.


CHAR PERFORMS AS EXPECTED

On June 16th I received an e-mail from Joanie de Rijke of Panorama magazine:

I am a journalist from Begium, I had an interview with you some time ago in Brussels. I have a question. In a few days I will meet the medium Char, a woman from the US who seems to be very popular. She says she has contact with dead people and she does readings. Do you know this woman? I would like to know what you think about her and confront her with that in the interview.

I hope to hear from you.

Obviously this was a reference to Char Margolis, who we've written up several times. I responded:

Margolis is the same as any other "medium" of this sort, using the same techniques. See www.randi.org/jr/121401.html for an analysis of the methods she uses.... And also www.randi.org/jr/121704no.html#4 and www.randi.org/jr/122404alien.html#2

She will want to give you anecdotal accounts of persons for whom she's done readings, and tell you of naïve scientists who have "verified" her powers. But she won't be able to explain why she won't go for the JREF million-dollar prize.... She'll say that there is no prize money, that she's been validated by real scientists, that she doesn't want the million dollars, that I will cheat her — all the usual poor excuses — but SHE WILL NOT AGREE TO TAKE THE CHALLENGE.

Let me know how it goes, will you?

Joanie wrote back:

Thank you for your response. I surely will confront her with the million dollar challenge. I'll let you know how it was.

The next day, I amplified my suggestions:

Joanie: if you need to respond to her excuses, please get back to me for an answer. These people are very clever escaping from reality, and I suspect that Char will say that she just doesn't want the million — which indicates to me that she may be "intellectually challenged."

Remember, she may claim that there is no such prize, though we say on our web page how anyone can obtain positive, notarized, proof that it exists. She may also claim that the prize has already been won — which is a lie — and that I have refused to pay it. If that were true, I would be in big legal trouble, since BY INTERNATIONAL LAW I have committed myself to paying the prize! She may also say that I dictate the rules and run the test, which is another lie. The rules are ALWAYS arranged and agreed to by both parties, and I never run the tests unless the applicant wishes me to do so; the tests are conducted by independent agencies agreed to in advance by both parties.

If she says she hasn't got the time, ask her why a 30-minute test isn't worth a million dollars to her. Also, you can be sure she's researched your history — your Flair interview, and other sources. She can get details about you from the Internet.

That last comment got Joanie worried. She fired back:

Where on the internet did you found out that I also work for Flair? When I type my name at Google or Yahoo, I only see my name in connection with my articles for Panorama magazine. The more I know before I will meet her, the better.

I told Joanie there were "other ways" to get such information.... I sat back and waited to hear a report from her about the encounter, and on the 29th I got my answer:

I had a reading from Char Margolis and everything turned out the way you said it would be. The only thing she did was ask me all kind of things instead of telling me. I did not tell her anything, so she started to guess but nothing was correct. After 30 minutes she became angry and told me that I only had 15 minutes left to interview her, which wasn't true because she didn't have any appointments anymore that day. When I told her about you, she first pretended as if she didn't know you, and then she told me that nobody in the States took you seriously. She knew exactly who you are but she made you look like some frustrated magician.

When I told her about the reward she said she did not take that seriously, either. Because she felt that my article wouldn't be very flattering for her, she started to manipulate me. She found out about my brother who died young and she told me that he wouldn't like it when I wrote badly about her and the "whole spiritual world."

And in the Netherlands this woman can hardly walk on the streets because she is so popular. Unbelievable!

Can I predict, or what?


CLEVER FANG

Reader Don Belzowski comments about the Animal Planet reference at www.randi.org/jr/062405silly.html#2:

I did not see the Goodall program when I saw it advertised on Animal Planet but I suspected by the way it was promoted that it either going to grossly misuse what she said or poor Jane had gone the way of Linus Pauling in his last days. I didn't want to see either thing happen to one of my environmental heroes. But your comment brought up a memory of my long gone dog, "Fang," a very ordinary beagle/hound mix dog who was very smart and alert to what we kids did and always participated.

Back in the early sixties in a small Indiana town way before leash laws everyone's pets ran free. My mother used to notice that regardless of where Fang might have been he always showed up in the front yard looking NE to await the kids coming home from school. As he saw us and we saw him the calling and barking began and he ran flat out to join his buddies, my brother, my friends and me.

It would be so easy to see this as a telepathic experience but even to me at that young age it was just that the dog had learned by habit that we would appear about that time every day and he chose to wait for us. He played dominoes with us and would reach out with his paw and knock over a piece when his turn came (sometimes we had to remind him it wasn't his turn) and we would try to play it. I remember him being very successful at picking the right piece but I never kept records and I'm sure that he only had what success probability would allow and I only remember the fun we had.

Again, without data and only anecdotal evidence, it would appear that the dog was super intelligent, which he certainly wasn't.

He was a great infielder in our pick up softball games when we played pitcher's hand out because we were too shorthanded to have a first baseman. Fang would scoop up any ground ball through the slot and run to the pitchers' mound, dropping the ball just as he arrived so the pitcher could field it before the hitter reached first. He didn't learn to do it overnight although I tend to remember it that way but he was an active and welcome player.

But amazed as we were sometimes about the smart things this dog did and the fact that we were a pretty ordinary collection of kids, it never occurred to us that anything psychic or abnormal was happening. Today that dog would possibly be a superstar with the nonsense out there. But I wonder why we never thought anything like that when we should have been so impressionable.

I'm sorry this ran so long but it seemed like a good story to show how wonderful and exciting the planet is without any mystic/ psychic explanation necessary. Fang was a long time member of our family and to this day, after many other animals and many years we still bring up stories about him when we meet but none have ever touch on paranormal behavior.

I hope you enjoyed this little diversion and I don't mean to make much of it. Maybe you can find it entertaining and it gives you some small hope that not all of us always see the paranormal in extraordinary events.

I recall the "Clever Hans" — Der Kluge Hans, in German — episode that took place back in 1891 and made such a fuss internationally. It was all ironed out, only to be renewed, updated, and improved upon by the Lady Wonder phenomenon that so easily captivated Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine. See www.randi.org/jr/061804remote.html#8 for related material.

Don, these are the items that make all this worth doing. I hope that you've contributed to the gene pool, or intend to. One letter like this makes up for about two dozen woo-woo ones.... Thanks.


A COMMENT FOR THE TIMES

I've had the good fortune of being able to cajole a few heavy-hitters like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov into writing intros for my books. I was thusly favored by Sir Arthur C. Clarke when I approached him back in 1995 re my "Encyclopedia," and here's an excerpt from that piece that I find topical:

I am a little disappointed that Randi doesn't deal [in this book] with one of my pet hates — Creationism, perhaps the most pernicious of the intellectual perversions now afflicting the American public. Though I am the last person to advocate laws against blasphemy, surely nothing could be more antireligious than to deny the evidence so clearly written in the rocks for all who have eyes to see! Can anyone really believe that God is responsible for a cruel and pointless hoax, by forging billions of years of prehistory? It is indeed a national tragedy that millions of children have been prevented from appreciating the awesome scale — in time as well as space — of our wonderful universe, owing to the cowardice of politicians and school boards. But I am delighted to know that Hollywood, of all places, has now undone much of the damage. Thank you once again, Steven, for Jurassic Park.

And although the Catholic Church is — very rightly — castigated by Randi for many of its past crimes, at least the Pontifical Academy endeavored to put the record straight when it announced (and I quote) "We are convinced that masses of evidence render the application of the concept of Evolution to Man and the other primates beyond serious dispute."

Yes, that is the wording that is most often cited, and it is gleefully flaunted by those who wish to demonstrate that the Church is actually enlightened and flexible — albeit lethargic and stubborn beyond comprehension — and has embraced science. But the late pope, while delivering that admission through clenched teeth, also declared:

The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator.

In other words, here is Intelligent Design in Vatican prose! The new pope, who headed up a 2004 International Theological Commission, made very clear the fact that any apparent acceptance of genuine evolutionary science is still rejected by the Church, when he declared that

An unguided evolutionary process — one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence — simply cannot exist.

No, the Church has not grown up, has not left the 14th century, has not backed down on established dogma, and has not become rational nor enlightened.

Tell that news to Giordano Bruno.....


ORBITO IN HOT WATER AGAIN

In Toronto, Canada, the fraud squad seems to be getting their act together. Last month Filipino "psychic surgeon" Alex L. Orbito, 65, a self-described "Reverend" who claims to magically reach into the bodies of the ill to remove their "negative energies," was charged with of fraud over $5,000 and possession of the proceeds of crime. Police officers seized $6,000 in U.S. and Canadian currency — the proceeds of a single afternoon of healing — after raiding a hotel where Orbito and his fellow accused, John Robert Wood, 62, are alleged to have set up treatment sessions.

The trick isn't very difficult, and Orbito — who's been in business for many decades, doesn't even do it very well — but he doesn't have to, because he has the believers already deceived by his advance men. Orbito has, I must admit, a rather unique claim among his many: he says he can cure blindness by removing a patients eyeballs and cleaning them before replacing them in their sockets. No, I didn't make that up; he has testimonials to prove it!

A private session on the Orbito assembly line typically lasts between two to seven minutes, with charges beginning at $135. Since he runs hundreds of suckers through the line in a day, he does very well in the banking department — while his "patients" go home to die.

Why do Canadians so readily accept Orbito's claims? Well, intellectual giant Shirley MacLaine featured him in her 1989 book, "Going Within: A Guide to Inner Transformation," in which she wrote:

I had seen many videotapes of psychic surgery operations brought back from Brazil and the Philippines. One had been given to me by a medical doctor who had personally undergone treatment and was cured of an eye disease. I had read many books about the lives of the psychic surgeons and had talked to others who claimed to have been healed by them.

I had also seen "magicians" on evening talk shows attempt to debunk the phenomenon with very well done "psychic surgery" magic acts of their own. They used chicken gizzards and red-colored pellets to simulate blood. It was usually a kind of gory sleight-of-hand act without the elegance of, say, Siegfried & Roy. I watched the debunkers with impassive curiosity. They impressed me as individuals who were exploiting what they claimed to be the naïvete and insistence of "dumb people who want to believe in the tooth fairy." Their fear and emotional violence interested me. Their "debunking of charlatans" seemed to suggest that they made their livings at it.

The videotapes that I saw were very different from the magicians' performances because the surgery had been performed in clinics with other doctors and nurses present.

Well Shirley, there has only been one "magician" on an evening talk show that I know of who did the "psychic surgery" act; that was I, on the Johnny Carson show — and on several others. What you describe in your chapter on the miracles of Alex Orbito is exactly what you saw me do, though you choose to perceive it as different. And would you care to produce for us the un-named "medical doctor" who was "cured of an eye disease" by this flummery? No, I think you won't, Shirley.

As for those "chicken gizzards" and "red-colored pellets," Shirley, you know as much about the magic act as you do about reality. Yes, I admit there's "fear" and "emotional violence" involved, though certainly not on my part; fear experienced by the victims, and emotional violence inflicted by the charlatans you so adore.

Also, what's that snide comment about the "magicians [who] made their livings at it"? Orbito, Ms. MacLaine, lives in a handsome palace in the Philippines and drives one of several Mercedes cars that were custom-made for him. And you should know that I, too, have performed this "psychic surgery" trick "with other doctors and nurses present" in Sri Lanka, in the USA, in Canada, in Japan, and in the UK. They had no idea of how I did it, since they had no knowledge of conjuring techniques — any more than those who observed Orbito!

Shirley MacLaine must have been very, very, ill when she visited Alex Orbito. She reports that he operated on her "heart, third eye, ovaries, throat, pancreas, kidneys, colon, and spinal column," according to the book. And just what was Orbito removing from Shirley's body during this marathon session? He told the wide-eyed actress that he'd taken away "negative stress clots, negative vibrations, and negative thought forms which coagulate in the blood." How? Well, said Orbito, "The body is only an illusion, the physical being only the manifestation of one's thought."

Oh. I see. Now we know.

But the best item that Orbito trotted out for Shirley, once he saw that she would believe anything, was the eye stunt:

Among the operations I saw was one where I witnessed him take someone's eye out of the socket with his fingers, clean behind it, and replace it.

Folks, this is a 55-year-old woman with — one would think — adequate experience of the world, yet she actually chooses to believe that this man Orbito can take a human's eye from its socket and replace it again with his bare hands! Am I being uncharitable to assume that she's not too bright?

MacLaine blandly makes the statement:

Alex [Orbito] never liked more than a few [observers] at a time because he said skeptical energy drained him.

Shirley, there's a different reason for that. You see.... Oh, forget it. Enjoy your delusions. And give Alex some more money.

At risk of shocking my readers, I'll tell you that this is not the first time that Alex Orbito has been arrested and charged. For just one more example of the many other times this has occurred, see www.randi.org/jr/112902.html — do a search for "Orbito."


QUACKERY ON TRIAL IN NORWAY

Reader Hogne B. Pettersen sends us this news item:

A Norwegian homeopath is now standing trial in Norway after being prosecuted by the National Health Department for telling four adults they had tuberculosis. Two of them went to him for a long period of time to receive treatment. A woman suffering from MS was told that she wasn't suffering from real MS, but a fake MS that he could cure. Another woman was told that she suffered from MS, and a whole number of other ailments that he could cure her of. Yet another woman was told that she had an infection in her brain that could lead to MS unless she let him treat her.

Five people were told that they had whooping cough (pertussis). Even if the homeopath had been knowledgeable about this disease, which he wasn't, he would have been charged anyway since all cases of this illness should be reported to the authorities so that the patient can be quarantined.

In addition he was charged on 16 counts of medical malpractice; he had been both fined and warned by the Health Department on several earlier occasions. This is a very important trial because it's the first time that a quack like this has been taken to court in a case that could lead to jail time. Earlier cases have only resulted in fines, and he was fined back in 2002 after diagnosing a girl with tuberculosis. Test results done by a real doctor showed no sign of said disease, but the homeopath nevertheless continued his malpractice without a hint of remorse. And people ask you what the harm is in letting people like this go on with their business?

I'll update you later on the result of this trial, but I hope this will act as a light in a tunnel that is getting darker in Norway now that alternative medicine is more and more accepted by the government. In addition we have a priest as prime minister and a health minister that believes in healing by prayer, including the healing of homosexuals....

As we say in English, Hogne, there's a light at the end of the tunnel — but it always has the danger of being blown out....


PERHAPS A LACK OF PERSONALITY

Reader Leonardo Mesquita, in Brazil, wrote me:

I've been challenged by the psychologist in my company. He wants to prove to me that graphology works. His claim is that he can correctly analyze the personalities of 10 people that are not his acquaintances (but could be mine), based on their name signatures.

I thought of the following protocol: Each of the subjects would write down a neutral word instead of their names. He would then produce the 10 results, and these results would be shown, unidentified in a random order, to the 10 people, who should grade each of them from 0 to 5 according to how they feel each one defines their personality. The results should be such that the grade of a person's individual result must be greater than the grades of the other results, for at least 9 subjects.

I really don't know how to test against a personality test. This protocol I've come up with is based on some article I read on the Forer effect and a protocol you proposed to Sylvia Browne. Remember her? Long time ago? No show? Yep, that one.

Do you have any suggestions for the protocol? Could you help me with this one? Thanks in advance, and also thank you for being such an inspiration.

Taken from Bob Carroll's "The Skeptic's Dictionary" page at http://skepdic.com/forer.html, here is a definition of the "Forer Effect" mentioned above:

The Forer effect refers to the tendency of people to rate sets of statements as highly accurate for them personally even though the statements could apply to many people.

Psychologist Bertram R. Forer found that people tend to accept vague and general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to just about anyone.

I was alarmed to see that Leonardo was changing the rules without checking with the claimant. I wrote him:

First, find out if he thinks he can do this test. If someone claims he can play a tune on the piano, you can't hand him a violin....

The next day, I heard back from Leonardo:

It was AMAZING! I proposed that test I mentioned, I even accepted including people's full names, and he suddenly remembered "legal reasons" not to take the test! The "reasons" he mentioned:

1) He couldn't show one person's report to the others because it would be a "breach of professional secrecy."

2) He couldn't make graphology tests for free, because it would be "disloyal competition" with other professionals. (But I'm surely not paying him! It would cost about R$640 [US$270] to make 10 tests.)

3) He could do it for free in cases of scientific research, but only if oriented by an ethics committee of psychology academics.

In plain English, he "chickened out."

Well, I don't see what else I can do. He made a claim that Graphology is successfully used by: FBI, NASA, ONU, Interpol, Brazilian Federal Police, Renault, Peugeot — which is obviously an appeal to authority and proves nothing.

Thank you for your help. Another one crawls under that big ol' rock...


MAGIC ROCK... SALT

This photo removed at the demand of the seller, due to inquiries made about the product.  This and other photos of pretty rocks can be viewed at their site: www.ionicsalts.com/

Folks, we present this here just as advertised at www.ionicsalts.com What follows is claptrap, lies, pseudoscience, a swindle, a scam, a cheat, a con, a fraud, a rip-off, and a trick. My readers are rather smart folks, and should be able to easily analyze this nonsense. However, there are people out there who cannot determine that for themselves, and I don't find it difficult to wonder just why none of our tax-supported services like the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, don't do something to protect victims of this sort of crime. A product that offers medical and scientific benefits, is here described falsely, and is being offered for sale. DOESN'T ANY GOVERNMENT AGENCY GIVE A DAMN?

Read this sad example of lying flummery:

Himalayan rock salt crystal lamps are naturally beautiful and effective air cleaners by generating powerful negative ions which are scientifically proven to enhance human health, environment, and well-being; as well being hygroscopic by reducing moisture content which airborne particulates/bacteria need to remain airborne and survive.

A glowing salt lamp also brings terrific ambience to the bedroom, den, restaurant table, a doctor or hospital waiting room, a hotel lobby, a spa or salon, or anywhere people may gather, meet, or spend extended periods of time in. Use our salt lamps at your desk, next to your computer, on a bedside table; try them in your home and allow ionic ambience to work for you.

Breathe better, feel better — naturally.

Scientists, interior designers, and decorating experts are only beginning to learn about salt crystal's healthy, ionic benefit and the pleasant environment it creates. Ancient civilizations dating back as far as 327 B.C. (Alexander the Great) recognized the powerful effect of Himalayan salt crystal. We also recognized that these aren't just "pretty rocks with a light bulb"... that was the birth of Ionicsalts.

Salt lamps naturally reduce airborne allergens, as well as bacteria/germs; they also provide energetic atmosphere, a healing influence based on the light wavelength emitted through the salt, as well as clean smelling indoor air that is actually GOOD FOR YOU. Effectively clean indoor air without cleaning nasty plates, changing filters or running up your electric bill.

Asthma, allergies, headaches, snoring, stress, fatigue, and many more problems are all well-known reasons for having a salt lamp around. Most notice immediate results once immersed in an ionized area created by this salt crystal; others may take a little longer, depending on environmental sensitivities. It is unmistakable though.


IN CONCLUSION....

And as we close this week we are able to tell you that the Tulsa Parks Board received so much flak from around the country and around the world, that on Thursday morning, they voted 3-to-1 to reverse their former decision to cave in to the creationists who wanted their notion represented along with the scientific facts about evolution at the Tulsa Zoo. The only dissenting vote was by Mayor LaFortune. I guarantee he’ll be re-elected. See www.randi.org/jr/062405silly.html#2 for details.

And we must call attention to the fact that it’s the 250th anniversary of Samuel Hahnemann's birthday. And he still hasn’t learned about the real world....