July 15, 2005

On the Soapbox, What Science Does, That Iridology Myth Still Active, Maybe Not So Hot, Guessing Grocer, Char Wins, A Matter of Education, Cruising Back, Busy Bai, Turned Down Once Again, Much Grander, Compulsory Quackery, Getting In the Back Door, Accelerating Comments, Not My Library, Best Friends of Scam Artists, Tricky Billy, Excellent Rebuttal, and Another Approach to Evolution....


Table of Contents:


ON THE SOAPBOX

The recent terrorist attacks in the UK reminded me of how often I'd entered and left Underground "tube" stations in London, and sat atop double-decker buses, never dreaming that religious fanatics would someday be bombing those locations. That reminiscing gave rise to what follows.

I recall with delight the period in the 50's when I lived in the UK, and every Sunday morning I would arise early to visit Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. I would see the speakers assembling and vying for advantageous positions from which they could address the crowds on subjects from how Guy Fawkes got such a bad deal from the government, to the latest refutation of the Theory of Relativity, perched atop foldable chairs or more substantial platforms. I've been back to London many times since then, but I've somehow allowed my schedule to interfere with another visit to that wonderful site, where all and sundry — under the casual and benign observation and protection of strolling bobbies — could and would expound on a wide and wonderful range of topics.

To begin my page this week I reflect on what I might say if I were inspired to step up and be heard at Speakers Corner. I don't know where an equivalent venue is to be found outside of London, but it just might be the Internet. So here goes.

I note with interest that more and more commentators and columnists are getting around to asking questions about the basic rights that Americans are supposed to have about worshipping — or not worshipping — any of the hundreds of different varieties of deities that our species has invented to make the human condition more bearable and less confounding; having a "God did it" explanation to fall back on, allows us not to think about heavy matters. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion, but that's getting increasingly difficult to achieve.

It appears that the general attitude in faith-based America as we presently find it guided, is that those who believe in a deity should have greater rights than those who choose — for whatever reason — not to do so. This becomes all the more important to us when we face the fact that the war in which we're presently involved, is a religious war; it is not political, not financial, not territorial. Its precedent can be found nine centuries ago in the Crusades fought from 1095 P.E. to 1270 P.E., when those who went off to foreign lands in that devastating, futile, beggaring attempt to recover the "Holy Land" from infidels, were given honors and rewards — if they ever returned from the quest. Part of the zeal the crusaders suffered from, was a belief that the end of the world was imminent. That delusion is reflected in the present enchantment concerning The Rapture, in which the faithful will be instantly levitated into the celestial sphere, leaving sinners and sycophants behind. There are other examples; the Holy Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials were also also religion-driven futilities, as is the ongoing tragedy involving Irish Protestants vs. Catholics. Parallels are not difficult to find.

The strength of America has always been that we have freedom of belief, among other privileges, designed for us by those who founded this nation. The Constitution of the United States of America was designed to protect the minority from any tyranny put forth by the majority, and to guarantee to all citizens such things as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Remember that catchy phrase? If we obey the laws of the land, and do no harm to others, we should — by that Constitution — have the right to make those decisions which are personal, and to make them without intrusion from the government. That's a really great way to look at life, in my opinion.

In fact, that's the reason that in 1987, a Canadian citizen living in the USA, I applied to take US citizenship. That was brought about by an earlier unpleasant event. In 1973, I'd been touring with the Alice Cooper "Billion Dollar Babies" show, and while in Niagara Falls, Canada, I discovered something about my country that both disappointed me and brought about my decision to become an American. In mid-show, going backstage to change my costume at the locker-room where we'd been placed at the venue, I found a group of thugs prying open lockers and throwing personal belongings — including my own — in every direction. The destruction was heavy, and I of course objected strongly. I was backed up against a wall — at gunpoint — and told that I had no right to be there. I was escorted out of the building.

No, I couldn't object to the law. That was the law. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — the equivalent in Canada to the FBI in the USA — were searching the artists' property for evidence of drugs while those artists were supposed to be onstage, and though they found nothing, they destroyed that property and simply left all the trash where they'd thrown it. I was able to get back into the building, unseen by the police, through a side entrance, and I hastened onstage on cue, though not garbed as I should have been.

The following day I arose early and went to the local newspaper office. After much shuffling back and forth, I got to see a feature writer and explained what had happened the previous night. The reaction was a surprise: I was clearly informed that the newspaper wanted no trouble with the RCMP, that the story was already written, that the police action was not part of that story, and that I had better treat the situation as a learning experience. I'm a quick learner.

I chose to be an American.

There was nothing automatic about my being an American, as there is with any individual who just happens to emerge into the world while located on American soil. I earned my citizenship over a decade by working hard, observing the laws, and establishing that I could be a useful member of society. That is why I think I have a valid reason to object to the fact that, while there was a time when our politicians understood that they were not empowered to be our spiritual leaders, presently they seem to believe that they can dictate what we think, do, and believe, rather than leaving those decisions up to us.

Our President never addresses the public without appealing to a god or to prayer, or asking a god to bestow blessings on us. He supports and encourages the most far-fetched applications from any person or agency adopting the label "faith-based," such as the disciples of wealthy cult leader Sun Myung Moon. He vetoes attempts to improve our lives and the lives of unborn generations through fundamental research into basic biology — via embryonic stem-cell research, for example — and he defines those who disagree with his religious philosophy as, "evil." Despite our oft-referred-to separation of church and state, we have the federal funds to pay for the promotion of religion; last month, we laid out $300,000 of our tax money to assemble hundreds of United States Air Force chaplains in Colorado Springs for a "Spiritual Fitness Conference," an evangelical effort designed to "look for answers in the Scriptures."

One group that expresses serious alarm about the growing power of religion over our basic freedoms is the Brights’ Network, who recently launched their revised website at www.the-brights.net. This hub serves people in 115 nations, linking to “Brights sites” in five languages. Who are the “Brights”? These are people who have a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements. The USA alone has millions of such individuals — skeptics, humanists, agnostics, atheists, Christians (who follow Christ’s moral dicta free of supernatural belief), rationalists, secularists, and many others. As the Brights say,

People who have naturalistic worldviews bring thoughtful and principled actions to bear on matters of civic importance. They advocate “a level playing field” for citizens having a religious or a naturalistic worldview, thus connecting to the Enlightenment, an era when people had confidence that, with reason and science, we could create a truly just society. Society has progressively become more civically inclusive regarding ethnicity and sexual orientation. Still, deep prejudice exists at all levels of society regarding those who do not claim to be religious.

Science-bashing is more popular than ever. Rednecks chant, "Science doesn't know everything!" and those who are not much better informed must agree. But science — as a reader points out in the next item on this week's web page, "What Science Does," has never claimed that it really knows anything; it only offers observations and probable explanations. Science is being demonized. A citizen's right to choose concerning abortion is being fought on quite precarious definitions of scientific/technical words and phrases, all reflecting religious fears and fallacies. Concerning that veto of human embryonic stem cell research — another religion-driven move — and the false objections that have been made to justify stifling it, what will future observers of our culture say? I think they will question our sanity. Inevitably, that research will be done — though perhaps in another part of the world less blinded by fear of supernatural retribution — and our species will be very much better for it; I resent the fact that I'll not be able to witness that victory.

The Board of Education of the State of Kansas, later this summer, will probably change its state science standards by casting doubt on the fact of evolution, and emphasizing still-unresolved questions such as the gaps in the fossil record, the favorite whipping-boys of advocates of "intelligent design," the poorly-disguised creationists. They preach that DNA and certain other biological mechanisms are too complex to have ever evolved, and thus dictate the existence of a "designer." They say that evolution and the origin of species are unproven matters and that students should understand and debate different points of view — even though their point of view has zero evidence to support it, and is based on religious dogma.

In the scientific community, however, there is no such question; in 2002, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) passed a resolution declaring "intelligent design" to be a "philosophical or theological concept," not a statement obtained through the examination of hard evidence, and that it should not be taught in science classes. That's 120,000 men and women of science, honored and respected internationally, who have the experience, the knowledge, and the training to be able to understand and authoritatively declare on such matters.

Rationality and logic are being demoted to the status of notions, science is devalued, reason is ridiculed. I fear for our species' future, when only the Yahoos may remain.

This soap-box is now available.


WHAT SCIENCE DOES

Reader Al Placette asks a pertinent question about the Catholic Apologetics International (CAI) www.randi.org/jr/062405silly.html#4 item that was here recently, and in the process he tells us very well just what science does and doesn't do. He asks the CAI:

Who, exactly, is expected to be "challenged" by the Geocentricism Challenge?

Excerpting from the "challenge":

CAI will write a check for $1,000 to the first person who can prove that the earth revolves around the sun...By "proof" we mean that your explanations must be direct, observable, physical, natural, repeatable, unambiguous and comprehensive. We don't want hearsay, popular opinion, "expert" testimony, majority vote, personal conviction, organizational rulings, superficial analogies, appeals to "simplicity," "apologies" to Galileo, or any other indirect means of persuasion which do not qualify as scientific proof.

"Proofs" are written by mathematicians and logicians, not by astronomers nor by astrophysicists.

Science offers "proof" of nothing. Science offers data, gathered under specified conditions. Science seeks comprehensive yet parsimonious explanations of data named "theories," a jargon word which ignorant people often misconstrue as a synonym for "guesses."

No, it isn't "just semantics." It is the basis for the manner of reasoning, and the results to be expected from such manner of reasoning. A "proof" is not a product of science, so just who is expected to write a "scientific proof"?

Since writing "proofs" is outside the realm of science, a prize for "scientific proofs" ought to be very safe indeed. You should consider offering more "challenges" of the same format, but with a different topic, say for example "prove that the Earth's core is molten," or better yet, "prove that the world is round."

You could have a life-long hobby with this charade.

I'm sure that Al and others have noticed that the JREF million-dollar challenge does not offer nor attempt to "disprove" anything; we only ask that an applicant establish his/her claim. We make no claim that something is incorrect, false, or erroneous.

Thank you for your succinct and satisfying summary, Al.


THAT IRIDOLOGY MYTH STILL ACTIVE

An anonymous reader:

Using your methods, I embarrassed an iridology (diagnosis by examining the iris of the eye) practitioner last week. A bearded gentleman was dishing out free diagnoses to drum up publicity in the Jerusalem bus depot. I — a sufferer of end stage renal malfunction — stepped up to him and said: "I have a chronic disease which will be fatal in a few months if left untreated. Please identify it."

After drawing two blanks — blood imbalance and disease of the large intestine — he gave up with the excuse that he sometimes needs to photograph the eye and examine it magnified. Nevertheless, the next guy in line was unfazed and immediately stepped up for his free diagnosis.

Well, we're prepared to provide high-resolution photos to any iridology "expert" who thinks they can make the quackery work. We always have been ready to do this — but no one will take us up on that challenge. The prize is a million dollars, folks.

Hello....?


MAYBE NOT SO HOT

Reader Robert Woodhead — and a couple of others — corrected me on details about those "hot" worms I mentioned last week:

The water coming out of the vent is very hot (400C) but nearby it's quite cold (2-4C), because water is not a good conductor of heat and the heated water from the vent convects upwards, drawing cold water in from the environment. The worms themselves live in an intermediate zone, where the water temperature is about 40C (102F).

The most temperature-resistant living things currently known are some bacteria and archaea that live in hot springs at temperatures up to 80C, and others that live near the undersea hot smokers, closer than the tubeworms. There's some evidence of some of them surviving in 170C water — under pressure so it doesn't boil, of course.

No, Robert didn't mean that these bugs were placed there, under pressure, so they could survive! He's saying that water under that huge pressure doesn't boil at "regular" temperatures....

This whole philosophical ramble of mine put me in touch with some interesting facets of biology of which I was previously unaware. Just looking up his term "archaea," I was led to a site: www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/archaea/archaea.html, where I found fascinating information about a very newly-designated variety of life. Take a peek, and get hugely informed!


GUESSING GROCER

I send you to www.bbc.co.uk/cult/comics/funnystrips/morrisstokes01.shtml so that you can enjoy and appreciate the work of Simon Thorp, who has an uncanny understanding of the likes of John Edward, Sylvia Browne, Char Margolis, and James van Praagh — to name only a few of the multitude of cold-readers currently enjoying adulation. You'll be entertained and informed by "Morris Stokes" — who seems to have taken his name from a couple of other "readers" well-known in the UK.... This item was sent to me by Lawrence Jeffery of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.


CHAR WINS

Reader Justin Smith has been busy analyzing "cold reading" techniques. He writes about an item we had last week at http://www.randi.org/jr/070805the.html#9:

Regarding "CARTOON LUMPS FOR EDWARD," that sounds more like Char Margolis to me (although John Edward is a distant second), based on some evidence I've put together.

From the data I collected (www.martini.nu/justin/aura.htm), I tabulate 73 times where readers said an initial. Out of these 73, here is a breakdown by reader.

And which Reader, you may ask, has said the most initials in a single reading? Margolis. In T18R256 (my unique transcript and reading identifiers, see http://www.martini.nu/justin/T18.txt and scroll down to R256), I tabulate that Margolis said T, R, D, B, M, N, J, and O, not about the same person. From the readings examined so far, Margolis leads the pack in saying initials.

What? Are you trying to say, Justin, that these blessed people are using trickery, skullduggery, flim-flammery, shams, pretence, to ply their trade? That they're guessing? Say not so! Don't you know that using reason and logic is of no avail when trying to look into miracles? Fie!

(I always wanted to use that word!)

Mind you, this is far too small a database upon which to establish any analysis, but we trust that Justin will expand his research.


A MATTER OF EDUCATION

Reader Ruan Fourie of Cape Town, South Africa, points out a cultural difference:

I have lived in South Africa all my life, and, when I thought about this whole story with the Rath "AIDS cure" I can actually see why people here would go for it. The Aids epidemic is reaching uncontrollable proportions and a lot of the people that are affected by it come from a totally different cultural background. If you still believe that having sex with a virgin or raping a baby will cure you of disease then people can't possibly expect you to know the difference between a scam artist like Rath and real treatments for your disease. Sadly, most of these people will never have the privilege of reading the content on your site. They are being misled every day, not just with "medical advice," but it seems to me that more and more of the general TV advertising is aimed towards that audience. It's easy to rip off somebody who has no proper education!


CRUISING BACK

Reader Jacob Fortin reports:

As you are well aware, if you've had enough time to read the news, watch a bit of T.V. or looked out your window, no doubt you've noticed the strange and frightening behavior of one Tom Cruise in his endless pursuit to further the goals of Scientology. Most recently, in an interview with Der Spiegel, a German magazine, the actor claimed that Scientology had the most successful drug rehabilitation program on the planet. Luckily, the host pointed out that no, this was not true, and casually put Mr. Cruise in his place.

What has truly become frightening is the sheer amount of misinformation that Mr. Cruise has begun spreading, particularly his attack on psychiatry. In one interview, he claimed that Ritalin had become a street drug, and that Methadone had originally been called Adolphomine. He also accused Carl Jung of being an editor for a Nazi magazine. All of these are false. They are based on either myth (as the Carl Jung shtick) or downright confusion (Methadone was originally called Dolophine, "dolor" being Latin for pain).

Other profoundly frightening testimonials on Scientology's drug rehabilitation, crime prevention, and even literacy program do more than raise the alert status to orange. These programs are the first step in many to indoctrinate individuals towards their bogus "religion." That any beneficial results occur is secondary to the much more frightening prospects of people being duped into a pyramid scheme cult.

Psychiatry, like any science, is interested in finding out the truth about how the mind works. Though it is imperfect, it has never claimed to possess all the answers, and any abuses in this field are a result of personal negligence on the part of the practitioners, not of the field itself. Mr. Tom Cruise lambastes psychiatry because of its use of drugs such as Ritalin or even Prozac. He claims that chemical imbalances are not real, but rather can be cured by vitamins. These claims are obviously the work of a pseudo-scientist quack, which, not surprisingly, came from a science fiction author. If vitamins offer a cure, then I might suggest that Scientology put itself even more in the limelight by proving to the JREF that chemical imbalances can be cured through their bogus programs. I'm sure that they would put the million dollars to a "good cause."

Jacob, it seems evident that Tom Cruise is being pressured by the honchos of the Church of Scientology to use his very high profile to sell their science-fiction religion to the young film audiences, and we've seen him hang up his career and allow everyone to toss rocks at it. His choice....

Part of that interview:

DER SPIEGEL: Do you see it as your job to recruit new followers for Scientology?

Tom Cruise: I'm a helper. For instance, I myself have helped hundreds of people get off drugs. In Scientology, we have the only successful drug rehabilitation program in the world. It's called Narconon.

DER SPIEGEL: That's not correct. Yours is never mentioned among the recognized detox programs. Independent experts warn against it because it is rooted in pseudoscience.

Tom Cruise: You don't understand what I am saying. It's a statistically proven fact that there is only one successful drug rehabilitation program in the world. Period.

DER SPIEGEL: With all due respect, we doubt that. Mr. Cruise, you made studio executives, for example from Paramount, tour Scientology's "Celebrity Center" in Hollywood. Are you trying to extend Scientology's influence in Hollywood?

Tom Cruise: I just want to help people. I want everyone to do well.

Regarding that interview, reader Hogne B. Pettersen wrote:

Last week I got a call from a friend of mine who has been working with drug addicts and rehabilitation programs for over a decade. He was furious and told me that he would follow my example and never watch a Tom Cruise film again. I quote:

This actor is sitting there claiming that all the work that I and thousands of people all over the world have done, and are doing every day, has been unsuccessful. Personally I've saved hundreds of lives. Several times a week I'm thanked by people for saving them. And this nutcase is sitting there claiming that all our documented results are lies? The Scientologists have never presented one single result of their program! Never!

He was so angry that he was on the verge of crying, and I can't say that I blame him. I find it very disrespectful of Tom Cruise to say things like that, but I guess a world where political correctness forces you to say "I'm sorry" all the time, gives him the right to do it.


BUSY BAI

Canadian reader Michael F. Vasseur is a member of the Ottawa Valley Astronomy and Observers Group, so he's not one with which one may easily trifle! Michael pointed out to me that my size-of-the-universe figure of last week — 10 to 20 billion light-years — should be closer to 46 billion light-years. I responded that whether 10 or 46, the universe was large enough to satisfy my notion that other forms of life are "almost" inescapably to be found outside of our neighborhood....

Michael also observes (pun!):

I had a chuckle when I read about Marina Bai last week and the fact that her universe was being "disturbed" by NASA's Deep Impact mission.

I just checked the Minor Planet Centre of the International Astronomical Union (http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/iau/mpc.html), and I looked in their extensive list of all known minor planets in orbit around the sun. The text file that contains the ephemerides for these objects is over 46 megabytes, and includes over 246,000 (!) objects that have been tracked and their orbits computed. Add to this the fact that many are being added daily by automated sky surveys that watch for possible Earth-crossing asteroids, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's LINEAR (http://www.ll.mit.edu/LINEAR/), and astrologers would probably spend most of their time just updating their astrology programs to include these new objects. They'd have to use computers, otherwise they would never be able to stay up-to-date if they did their calculations manually!

I just hope that whoever asks for their horoscope gets their money back after each minor planet discovery because each new one found proves that the astrologers were working with incomplete information!

On this same subject, friend James Oberg shares this with us:

Renowned Egyptian Geologist Zaghlul Al-Naggar has claimed that the Deep Impact Spacecraft had a military goal and negligible scientific value. Following is an excerpt from an interview with him which aired on Al-Jazeera TV on July 5, 2005.

Zaghlul Al-Naggar: The main goal of this operation (Deep Impact) is military. America wants to prove to the world that it is capable of hitting a target with a circumference of no more than six kilometers, hundreds of millions of kilometers away. The goal is first and foremost a military one, and its scientific benefit is negligible. I doubt that the samples they obtained could yield scientific results of any value.

Samples? Hey, Dr. Al-Naggar, that probe smashed into the comet at 23,000 miles an hour — that's 37,000 kilometers an hour — and was about the size of a washing machine — that's the size of a small refrigerator for storing geological specimens. Do you seriously think that NASA got some comet samples sent back....? Is your doctorate in fantasy, or in geology?


TURNED DOWN ONCE AGAIN

Reader Michael Roberts of Hot Springs, Arkansas — he says, "and yes the water tastes good but it won't cure what ails ya" — shares this exchange with us:

After watching your interview with Penn and Teller on their "Bullshit" DVD collection, I later found myself chatting with a friend of mine who claims all sorts of fantastic things — past lives, psychic powers, the regular stuff. She loftily began explaining to me why her myths were as good as science — basically because they "explained things better" and that "besides, science is a mystery." I countered that while there were still things that were mysteries to science, science itself is by no means a mystery, and furthermore, that filling the gaps in scientific knowledge with pixies and myths was an easy way out of actually searching for answers.

She scoffed at me, of course, and then said, "Well, if psychic powers aren't real, why am I right so much of the time." I offered that if she were placed under controlled conditions, she might find herself a bit more unsuccessful. She said, "I'll have to test that for you sometime."

I pounced. But nicely.

I said, "Well, if you think you can, there's no reason to do it for me for nothing — James Randi is offering $1,000,000 for just such a thing. You should file a claim with him and tell him what you can do and under what conditions you will do it."

Her answer was the exact one I expected — not through any sort of precognition, but just because I've read it so many times in the JREF archives: "I have no need for Randi and his wealth." I said, "Well, then win the money and give it to charity — you'd be doing a service to psychics everywhere by shutting us skeptics up once and for all. We'd be bound to admit the existence of these things if you could prove them." But she had a response for that one, too, one that I'm sure you've heard but that I don't remember seeing in your archives. She said, "What, and be studied like a lab rat?" — as if after she passed your challenge, you'd immediately lock her up in a hospital somewhere and do all sorts of vile experiments on her.

I just sighed and changed the subject, but the damage was done, she stalked off and refused to talk to me about anything. Which is also typical. What a vile reputation you have, Mr. Randi — and so completely undeserved. It never fails to amaze me how threatened these people are by the truth, claiming as they do to be lovers of it themselves.

Hold on. That million dollars isn't mine; it's not "my" wealth. It belongs entirely to the JREF. And as for my "vile" reputation, it's probably because Rasputin also starts with "Ra".....


MUCH GRANDER

Reader Dr. Hanno Wertal of Linz, Austria, refers to the item at www.randi.org/jr/061705like.html#3a:

I have noticed the name "Grander" together with the claim of "vitalized water" on several beverages here in Austria, and regretfully I have to inform you, that Austria is far from being as enlightened as the New Zealanders...

On the homepage of Grander (see http://www.grander.com/en/wissenschaft/diplomunigraz.php) you can learn that there is even a thesis regarding this water. I used to think that the University of Graz was fairly respectable, but well, live and learn. And it is nice to see that for his work he was given a medal from the Austrian state. But I think, that if you can find enough gullible people to defraud without being found out, this is indeed worth a medal. Pecuniam non olet. [He doesn't smell of money]


COMPULSORY QUACKERY

Reader Richard Rockley

I'm shocked to learn that TT is being taught to nurses at a hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, and more to the point that nurses are required to attend and required to know the basics, according to this Nurse Kelly's blog: http://timetolean.blogspot.com/2005/06/pardon-me-whilst-i-treat-my-energy.html. She writes today that more "healing energy" course literature has appeared in her work mailbox: http://timetolean.blogspot.com/2005/06/speak-of-deviltherapeutic-touch-update.html with a link to the organization that promotes this quackery. It struck me these people could do with an invitation to apply for the million. Their contact info is here: www.healingtouch.net/hti/contact.shtml

On the positive side, it's encouraging that not all nurses buy into this nonsense.

Richard, as you know, the JREF doesn't pursue these people to beg them to take the prize. They are already well aware of the offer, but for reasons they know best, they don't dare to accept the challenge.


GETTING IN THE BACK DOOR

Reader Michael Sheridan:

I recently "googled" info on the evolution of horses and bats. I entered "evolution horses" and "evolution bats." The first page had links to creationist sites which gave their view of each species' evolution; both seemed to be targeted to kids. It seems as if they are trying to get their "side" in for school kids doing research. A kid doing research for school might think this is science, the way it's presented.

On another note, I was recently in a debate with a fundy [fundamentalist] friend of mine who challenged me to give him one example of something complex forming from basic materials found on Earth without help from intelligent beings. I thought for a moment, then asked him to meet me outside next winter when it's snowing.


ACCELERATING COMMENTS

There was a raft of criticisms about my and Randy Cassingham's bit about the State of Victoria, Australia, accepting the use of 10 rather than 9.8 m/s/s as "g" for Grade 12 exams. I wrote that all just a little tongue-in-cheek, but was taken rather seriously. Yes, I admit that physics tests are not math tests. Portuguese reader Pedro Rosário Silva rather agreed with me:

I read your commentary about Australia's decision concerning the acceleration of gravity being rounded out to 10 m/s2 instead of 9.8 with great interest. Namely because I though it was actually a common occurrence. Not correct, but common.

For example, here in Portugal, many High School Physics textbooks use that "approximation" in examples. As a matter of fact, when I took Physics in my 12th grade, while solving problems, the values I obtained often didn't match the ones found in the answers section. Later I was shocked to find that this was due to the fact that the values in the "Answers" were obtained by considering g=10 m/s2.

I was always annoyed by this. After all, students already use calculators in exams, so why this? This approximation may be advised in mental calculations but why should it be applied here? It gets worse: the dreaded approximation has been considered correct in the National Exams (for college access) at least for the past 5 years!

And reader Carolyn Lachance expressed the majority opinion:

Regarding the item concerning Australian students and gravity, I see nothing wrong with secondary school students using 10 m/s2 for g in a physics exam. 9.8 m/s2 is no more the "correct figure" than 10 m/s2 is. The former is simply more precise to one significant figure. Presumably, the students are not being tested on their arithmetic skills, but on their ability to manipulate the concepts of Newtonian mechanics to arrive at the correct method to analyze a problem.

Two significant figures are not superior to one in this regard. Both the US Advanced Placement physics curriculum and many of my university mechanical engineering professors encouraged us to round to 10 m/s2 on because it reduced our chances of losing sight of the important physical concepts in the mathematical grind. As long as the students in Victoria understand how acceleration due to gravity is derived, and that 9.8 m/s2 is every bit as much of an approximation as 10 m/s2 is, their education will not be harmed by being encouraged to take arithmetical shortcuts on their exams. In fact, should the directions on the test specify the number of significant figures the instructor requires, students should be penalized for not following them.

Okay. I was really only concerned about the point that students might lose sight of the actual value of the variable; I asked a few readers who wrote in, whether they'd accept a human's "normal" body temperature to be 100F because it was close to 98.6F, and if pi could be rounded off to 3....

Reader Mark Siegel adds:

There is a precedent! I recall, on one of the occasions a legislature wanted to pass a law that Pi would be equal to exactly three. A mathematician allegedly agreed that it was true... For small values of pi and large values of three....

Mathematical humor... gotta luv it!

That brings up the persistent story that the legislature of the State of Indiana tried to get pi simplified by legislation. That's much like passing a law to make the sky beige. In 1897, House Bill #246 was introduced in the Indiana House of Representatives. It put forth three different possible values for pi — none of them 3.14159... — obtained by various spurious assumptions. The three values were 3.2, 3.23, and 4.

The bill was discussed, bandied about, shelved, and finally just forgotten....


NOT MY LIBRARY

This item is stolen directly from the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS) newsletter:

Marilyn Vos Savant's column, "Ask Marilyn," appears in PARADE magazine. On January 23 she ran this letter from David Manzi, San Diego, California:

You used the term "gullible" in a recent column. Did you know that "gullible" is not actually a word? Everyone knows what it means, but if you and your readers try to look up the word in a dictionary, you'll discover that it doesn't exist.

On February 27, Marilyn printed this follow-up letter:

A reader asked if you knew that "gullible" is not really a word. He said everyone knows what it means, but if readers tried to look it up, they'd see it doesn't exist. We librarians had to check it out but found the word in all our dictionaries! Please explain.
Rainsville Public Library, Rainsville, Alabama

No comment.....


BEST FRIENDS OF SCAM ARTISTS

Reader "Richard" in Las Vegas says he's "Looking forward to TAM4 here!" and tells us:

I used to spend some time volunteering to transport animals as a member of the Best Friends Network, part of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (now called the Best Friends Animal Society, www.bestfriends.org) just north of Kanab, Utah. It is the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the nation and a quite impressive operation.

What caused my falling out with them were ads in the back of their bi-monthly magazine touting the services of various charlatans who billed themselves as "psychic animal communicators," "distance healers," "intuitive animal psychics" and the like.

When I wrote the editor's office and objected to their allowing their vulnerable and mourning members who had beloved pets that were ill or had died, being taken advantage of by such opportunists, I received a reply from an office staff member stating that they had had no complaints from their members regarding such "services" and that they had to print whatever ads were submitted to them.

I responded that of course they'd had no complaints, these poor people were being told exactly what they wanted to hear by these frauds — that Fluffy was playing happily in the meadows beyond the Rainbow Bridge waiting for their reunion, etc. — and so could therefore hardly be dissatisfied with what they had paid to be told, and that it was simply not true that they had to accept whatever advertising was submitted to them. I went on the explain that their members money could be better spent fulfilling their goal of directly helping the animals instead of being squandered away on such flim-flam and that I didn't see how they could allow their members emotions to be preyed upon for the minimal advertising revenue such advertising could bring them, especially in light of the fact that they were currently enjoying a large budgetary surplus at the sanctuary.

Their response didn't address my objections and said simply that their policy would remain in place. A further objection from me resulted in them blocking my e-mail address from their website. At that point I voted with my feet and found a local shelter to volunteer with much closer to home. Apparently Best Friends chooses to remain clueless about the harm facilitating such charlatanism does to their reputation and the emotional and financial damage it can do to their members. The whole thing left me quite bewildered.

Richard, ask them if they'd "have to" run ads for animal traps, hunting rifles, and vivisection projects....

I spoke recently for a "pet bereavement" group on the subject of the "pet psychics," and I was only barely tolerated when I made it very clear these were swindlers. The reaction from my audience was one of disappointment and rejection. People like and prefer fantasies....


TRICKY BILLY

Remember the one-armed UFO photographer in Switzerland, Billy Meier? See www.randi.org/jr/032604why.html#2. What makes us marvel at Billy's work is that he's turned out over a thousand clear photos of extraterrestrials, including one of a voluptuous Pleiadien alien named Semjase — optional pronunciation — who looks remarkably human, though she hails from very far away. Well, it turns out, according to Underground Video, Inc., that the photograph Billy offered us of Samjase originally appeared in a Sears Roebuck catalog. Inquiries to Sears about their probably illegal employment of an alien model, have gone unanswered. Did they pay her an astronomical sum (pun!) for her services? Does Homeland Security know about this....?


EXCELLENT REBUTTAL

In closing an excellent letter in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer (subscribe at www.csicop.org/si/subscribe/) on the subject of evolution, David W. Briggs, of Augusta, Maine, refers to the creationists' bleat about the lack of transitional life-forms in the fossil record between the various recognized stages of development that led to homo sapiens. He handles it in this neatly-turned manner, the origin of which I will attribute to him until and unless further informed to the contrary; after all, we evolve by inserted or acquired data....

By analogy, imagine an archaeologist looking for the transition from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile in a large lot where carriages and automobiles have been dumped for the past 150 years. On the bottom layer, he would find many carriages, and above, he would find many autos and auto parts starting with the first popular car — the Model-T Ford. But what are his chances of finding one of the first experimental cars that looked like a carriage with a motor attached — the automotive missing link?


ANOTHER APPROACH TO EVOLUTION

I close this week with a book review of a book I've not read, but only thumbed through, so far. I dearly wish that I could have a couple of parallel lives going on, so that I might assign one alter ego to settling down with an adequate supply of cookies and milk for three or four days to carefully absorb a book like "Into the Cool," by Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, just published by the University of Chicago Press. It is a study of an approach to evolution and life processes with which most of us are not acquainted: "open system thermodynamics" or "nonequilibrium thermodynamics," which the authors mercifully abbreviate to "NET," thus saving countless trees and much stumbling over syllables.

Briefly, NET addresses

...how energy flow works to bring about complex structures, structures that seem to maintain themselves apart from their environment, structures that cycle the fluids, gases, and liquids of which they're made, structures that have a tendency to change and grow.

This is an attempt to bring us to a better understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which the creationists — through willful ignorance — gleefully flaunt as their disproof of science. We are informed by the authors, in 41 words that might serve to summarize what "Into the Cool" is telling us:

We [homo sapiens] are a particular material pattern of energy flow with a long history and a natural function. Our essential nature has more to do with the cosmos and its laws than with Rome (or any other human society) and its rules.

In other words, this book suggests a more far-reaching and expansive consideration of our origins that goes beyond history books and organic chemistry, all the way to the origins of the universe and the laws that govern the basic behavior of matter well before it organizes into living entities.

I note that when the authors find they must offer a certain criticism of Richard Dawkins' emphasis on natural selection as the explanation for the observed complexity and long-term regulation of environmental variables, they wisely preface that discussion with, "Far from attacking Dawkins, we wish to point out that...." Having thus prepared the path, they go on to suggest that Dawkins needs to incorporate thermodynamic elements — the energy flows — into that process. I look forward to knowing how Richard has received this suggestion....

The NET suggestion comes from two prodigious talents. Dr. Schneider has been widely cited for his three decades of intensive work on thermodynamics, and as senior scientist at NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — he is in an excellent position to be informed about that complex and fascinating process whereby we are supported — and buffeted! — by the physics of weather and its seemingly capricious behavior — but all in accord with that Second Law. Science writer Dorion Sagan authored previous books — "The Evolution of Human Intelligence" I much admire — and other publications, some in cooperation with his mother, evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis. New Scientist magazine has referred to him as an "unmissable modern master" of his craft. My personal acquaintance with Dorion results from two circumstances: he is an accomplished sleight-of-hand performer, and his father was named Carl.