August 31, 2001

Remembering Ireland, Martial Arts Warning, the Penta Saga Again, the Art of Cold Reading, and Testing Powers Down Under.....

Just got back from Australia, and having the usual jet-lag recovery..... What a country. Exciting, busy, adventurous, beautiful. I've been there about six times now, and every time it grabs me a bit more. Tested applicants there, too. More about that later in this update. Meanwhile.....

The current public obsession with speaking-with-the-dead artists such as John Edward, punched up this week as his TV show went prime-time on Fox Television, reminds us of a half-century ago when there was another such rage for survival evidence. In 1956, a book entitled The Search for Bridey Murphy, by a previously unknown author, Morey Bernstein, became an overnight best-seller, with 170,000 copies sold within the first two months. A popular song made the hit parade, the book was serialized in 39 newspapers; an abridged version appeared in True magazine, a movie was produced, and 30,000 copies of an LP recording were snapped up. It was probably the twin appeals of hypnotism and reincarnation that made the case so immediately popular.

Mr. Bernstein was an amateur author/hypnotist who tried to use hypnotism to treat cases of stuttering, insomnia, migraine headache, hysterical paralysis, and excessive smoking. In 1952, he did an "age-regression" experiment with an especially good subject, Virginia Tighe, a Pueblo, Colorado, housewife whom he called Ruth Simmons. Under hypnosis, he instructed her to go back in time - to a time before she was born. Reacting to this suggestion, Tighe adopted the role of Bridey (Bridget Kathleen) Murphy, who she said lived in County Cork, Ireland, from 1798 to 1864. She developed an Irish brogue, performed jigs, and gave facts, names, and places to help establish her identity in her previous existence, homey details that in some cases appeared very evidential.

Not surprisingly, when the background and childhood of Mrs. Tighe were probed, the mystery faltered and then evaporated. The whole case for reincarnation rested entirely upon the assumption that Mrs. Tighe, in the role of Bridey Murphy, was producing facts and doing things beyond her knowledge. A newspaper reporter from the Chicago American was sent to Ireland to check the items in the Bridey Murphy account against whatever facts could be unearthed in official documents of her alleged existence. It was obvious that a good part of the key might be found in the childhood of Mrs. Tighe. Psychologist Ray Hyman wrote, in the Boston Sunday Globe, May 13, 1956:

The story of Bridey Murphy is in large part the story of the childhood of Ruth Simmons [Virginia Tighe]. Who can check back on every experience, book, movie, conversation, and stimulation to which a single child may have been exposed? And who, after studying the vagaries of the human mind, can deny the possibility that one such mind can create dozens of Bridey Murphys? The Bridey Murphy story is just another fascinating episode in the endless creativity of the human psyche. To us whose business is the study of human behavior, The Search for Bridey Murphy is but another addition to anecdotes concerning memory and forgetting. It is also a chapter in the history of man's wants and aspirations, of how man's need for a purpose in life - his desire to have concrete proof of an existence after death - can cause him to ignore the obvious, in favor of the more desirable explanation.

As an example of how far "researchers" of these matters will go to prove a favored conclusion, we find that when Mrs. Tighe - as Bridey - described the process of kissing of the Blarney Stone and specified that the kisser was held upside-down over a parapet to accomplish this, it established her validity beyond doubt. Whoever wrote that opinion, in a popular series devoted to the paranormal, was obviously ignorant of that detail, which as a child I'd been familiar with. To further show just how deliberately obstinate the writer of that observation was, on the same page that the comment appeared, an illustration of the procedure taken from a late-1800s book was featured. I have found the reference in several other places, sources that Virginia Tighe could easily have referenced, yet the writer states that this "would not have been known by Mrs. Tighe without her having done a great deal of research."

The Bernstein book suddenly disappeared from the best-seller lists when the reporters, with the help of the pastor of the church to which Mrs. Tighe went as a little girl in Wisconsin, were able to get the facts of her childhood and publish them serially in the Hearst newspapers. It turns out that as a child, Mrs. Tighe had lived across the street from a woman who had grown up in Ireland, and used to tell her stories about life there. That woman was Bridey Corkell, maiden name Murphy. Mrs. Tighe had been involved in high school theater and had learned to dance Irish jigs and speak in Irish dialect. In the book, Bridey speaks with an Irish dialect and dances a jig. In real life, Virginia Tighe as a child got spanked for scraping paint off a newly painted metal bed, had a baby brother who died, had an "Uncle Plazz," was taught Irish folklore by a relative, loved the "Londonderry Air" and potato pancakes, and touched up her brown hair with henna in an effort to convince herself and others that it was really a natural red. In the Bernstein book, Bridey gets spanked for scraping paint off a metal bed, has a baby brother who dies, has an "Uncle Plazz," recites Irish folklore, likes the "Londonderry Air" and potato pancakes, and has red hair.

Author Bernstein, apparently, had resisted researching too far into a matter that had provided him with a best-seller and much more fame than he might have otherwise expected. No sense in spoiling a perfectly good story with the dreary facts.

So, we've been down this road before, many times. In the 1950's, it was UFOs and Bridey Murphy. In the 70's, it was Geller. Now, twenty years later, it's John Edward. How long will he last?

Blatant Endorsement Section....

We've received many inquiries about how more detailed information on the art of "cold reading" can be obtained. Here is the definitive answer to that question. Our friend Ian Rowland, in the U.K., is probably the world's leading authority on the subject, and now the 2nd edition of his book, "The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading," is available. This will be a rather expensive way to learn about the art, because this is a limited-edition sort of book, really only meant for those in the trade and for those curious about the subject. However, if you're willing to part with US$57 - in the U.K., 40 - the book is yours. Just go to to look over the description, and decide. In the book, Ian says clearly that it is written for the interested person who wants to be able to decide whether or not a "reading" was done by psychic means, or by "cold reading." No other book I know of will provide this information. Every aspect of this art that I can think of, is represented here in detail, and it provided me with additional information I simply did not have.

Highly recommended!

Reader Charles Blue, martial arts practitioner, observes as follows:

I read your recent commentary about martial arts breaking techniques, and as a 3rd degree blackbelt in Taekwondo, I have to warn you that, no, not everyone should be trying to break a stack of cinder/concrete slabs with their bare hands - no matter how much physics is on your side. It is true that in demonstrations to impress the crowd you pick the easiest things to break (how embarrassing when it doesn't), but I have seen failed attempts, and the results are not pretty. The purpose of breaking technique (at least in a honest school) is to demonstrate that a technique (kick, punch, whatever), can be delivered cleanly and accurately. It doesn't prove or purport to demonstrate any special ability - but it does demonstrate training, confidence, and many times speed and strength. Sure, any adult person should be able to punch through a pine board if [it is] held correctly - and you actually punch through it - but I have seen some large guys just punch the surface (bounce), and come away with an intact board and bloody knuckles. Also, my first attempt to break one concrete slab - similar to the ones on your webpage - failed because I hit the surface hard, but didn't hit through it (my hand was bandaged for several days). My next attempt several months later was successful, to my delight. Also, in tests in reputable schools, you don't break a board for the sake of making kindling. You are given a specific technique (some hard enough when your only target is a soft pad), and told to break one, two, or more boards or cinder slabs, and if the instructor is worth his belt, the boards are solid pine, and the cinder slabs have not been soaked in water. You're given two tries, and if you can't, you stop. Every test there are strong men and women who cannot do a particular break, and they usually hurt themselves in the attempt. I agree with you that this is no miracle, but as far as stunts go, it's not necessarily simple, and it's not fake. So please, don't suggest that "anyone can do it" - if done wrong, it can be very dangerous.

Thank you, Charles. Two things, in particular, interest me about your comments. First, I feel that this notion of punching "through" a board or other target, is part of the mystique, unsupported by physics, adopted by martial arts fans. An attitude thus supported may tend to prevent "pulling" a blow, but I see no reason to accept that a failure in such a demonstration means that the "intent" was incorrect; knuckles surrender to some targets, under some conditions. Second, the notion that concrete/cement slabs soaked in water are somehow weaker, I also doubt strongly. There are underwater constructions that have survived for a century or more.

Part 2 of the Penta Water saga.... Last week, we gave you Part 1 of the e-mail exchanges between William Holloway and myself regarding his acceptance of the JREF million-dollar challenge, and my proposed, detailed, protocol for the preliminary test procedure offered to him. The product involved is "Penta" water, which is said to hydrate the users tissues more effectively than regular H2O, at a price of $8 a liter.

Continuing last weeks page....

Having no response, I sent this on July 20th, six days later:

Mr. Holloway:

We've been waiting for your response to our July 14th summary of a suggested preliminary test procedure for Penta.

As I'm sure you understand, what was outlined in that communication covered only the preliminary test procedure, which would have to be passed before we would proceed to the formal test. That would be essentially the same except that the security would be more stringent, since one million dollars would then be involved. Also, slightly higher performance levels would be required. Persons applying to be tested, seem inordinately concerned with all the details of a possible formal second-phase test, even though no person has ever yet passed the preliminary test.

Perhaps, in your opinion, the conditions I described in my July 14th letter of the preliminary test, are too stringent for Penta to pass? If so, please inform me. I had gathered, from your previous statements, that Penta could perform at least at that level. If I'm wrong, please let me know so that we can make it easier for you.

I will take this opportunity of once again stating my approach to this process: I will accept no samples of your product, because nothing would be served thereby, and it could be claimed that in any case I am prejudiced against the product and the claims. I will do no testing of the product myself, simply because that same claim of prejudice could be invoked, and it would seem possible that I would not be an impartial judge of the product. Our tests are always done by independent, capable, qualified, third parties.

For similar reasons, we do not accept results offered by independent labs. We would be foolish to do so, I'm sure you will agree, since our reputation and our million-dollar prize is at stake. We presently have very competent, reputable, and willing colleagues at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and at Harvard University, standing by to conduct the first set of tests. If those credentials are insufficient for you, please advise us. All of this must meet your standards, of course.

We await your response with great interest.

Signed, James Randi.

We waited patiently for another ten days, not wishing to rush Mr. Holloway or to annoy him. I had rather hoped that he might decide to actually do some double-blind testing in accordance with the protocol I'd outlined, in which case he would have discovered that there was no evidence to be had when the test was double-blind. And, for all we know, he just might have, for I began to receive messages from other persons who had approached him by e-mail inquiring about his agreement to take up the million-dollar challenge, and Mr. Holloway's responses to them were not only untrue, but rather nasty.

On July 30th I received a copy of a particularly abusive response he'd made to an inquirer. I knew by that time, from others, that Holloway had hinted that he was considering suing me. I sent him this:

Mr. Holloway: I repeat here portions of a message that you sent to a Mr. Chris Walsh, and my own added observations. Though I see that you affirmed to Mr. Walsh that you will be replying to me, I've not yet received that response. If this is due to your intent to bring a suit against me, as you have indicated, please advise me.

Mr. Holloway had written to Mr. Walsh, and I had replied, as follows:

We most certiantly [sic] will be responding to Randi. I would like to know have you ever tried Penta water?

I note that your entire thrust seems to be, not scientific testing of your claims, but providing anecdotal accounts. I am only interested in proper double-blind tests, as I pointed out to you in our previous correspondence.

Are you a water expert?

I do not see any indication that Mr. Walsh has claimed to be a "water expert," and I would have to wonder what your definition of that term might be.

Would you like to try or test Penta water for free?

I believe that Mr. Walsh is, as I am, only interested in proper scientific testing of the claims you have made for your product, and though we have carefully and fully outlined to you the bona fides of those scientists who would perform the tests that you yourself said would establish the claims, I do not see your acceptance. Why is that?

I do not mind you being critical of our product, however I do think we deserve the right to prove our product is structured water, and we can prove it.

Excellent! Let us have the tests that you yourself suggested, using the equipment you approved, be carried out as soon as possible, so that your claim for the million-dollar prize may be established.

Lets [sic] wait and see if Randi will accept our challenge. I would bet he will not.

This, I admit, has me puzzled, Mr. Holloway. I long ago (July 14th) submitted my acceptance, and you told me you'd be back to me within a week. You did not get back to me. And what is this "our challenge" referred to? I don't recall any challenge being made by you, and I am only concerned with one item at a time, in this case, our standing challenge to you.

If you would like to try Penta and have it tested please send me your address and I will send you a sample. Feel free to take it to any University and have them do a mass spec. direct liquid inject [?] or Infrared spectroscope [?].

I fear that you are out of your depth, Mr. Holloway. The terminology you apply here is gibberish. But, I repeat: we will accept any means you specify to differentiate between Penta water and ordinary water. I'm tiring of repeating this, and I'm hoping to receive your reply so that we can get this pending matter out of the way and move on with our business. There are people out there willing to be tested, who do not shilly-shally and stall.

. . . at which time we will accept your apology.

I suggest to you, Mr. Holloway, that your pompous attitude here will backfire on you. I cannot speak for Mr. Walsh, but I'm not going to apologize for having doubts, for being skeptical, for challenging. That's the American way, and I'm all for it.

Mr. Holloway, put up or shut up. Ball's in your court.....

As you see, Mr. Holloway is anticipating apologies, again, and there are none coming, I assure you. I received his response July 30th, late:

Dear Mr. Randi:

We have nothing to prove to you. I am extremely busy and do not need your distraction. While it would give me great pleasure to take your money, it would only take money from your supporters, as I am sure its not your money. You live on other peoples money while claming [sic] to fight injustice. Injustice is to make libelous charges without any investigation on your part. Our product is real do your own testing before you shoot off your big mouth. Why don't you get a real job and contribute to society instead of leaching [sic] off of others. Please do not bother me anymore. Any future communications should be directed to our law firm, Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch Mr. Michael Kinkelaar 619-515-3250

In character, as always, I responded within the hour, with observations on Mr. Holloway's false presumptions, adding, "A copy of this is going to Mr. Kinkelaar." I sent an e-mail letter to Mr. Michael Kinkelaar, inquiring for his postal mailing address so that I might send him a proper, formal response. To date, there has been no answer of any kind, not from Mr. Holloway nor from his lawyer.

Is it now somewhat clearer what we have to go through at the JREF? To have discussed almost any other case on these pages, I would have had to run on for six or eight times as long as this. I chose this case because it's relatively succinct, in comparison with most others.

I'll add here that I erred in saying that water does not "cluster," as Mr. Holloway claims. It does, if it's ordinary H2O, and he tells us that Penta Water does not. Mind you, the dreaded "clusters" of as many as six molecules occur frequently, but since they only last for three picoseconds (that's .000000000003 of one second) I don't really think that we have to be concerned.....

My trip to Brisbane, Australia, was very rewarding. I was there to lecture at the "Ideas at the Powerhouse" conference, and was impressed with the wide variety of speakers they presented. Following that, I finally got to visit the Parkes Observatory, which was the subject of the movie, "The Dish," the story of their very important involvement in the lunar landing adventure. Standing by that enormous piece of radio astronomy technology, I was appropriately awed. And I don't awe very easily.

While I was Down Under, I had two persons apply for the JREF million-dollar prize. One was a "healer" who said he could alleviate pain by simple waving of his hands, the other was a dowser/diviner who claimed he could reliably detect gold. Both were, I'm sure, quite honestly convinced of their powers. With the healer, we asked for those in pain to apply, and got over 200 persons. We randomly selected six of those, and placed them, blindfolded, in separate cubicles. Five non-healers joined the applicant, and all were randomly assigned to go through the general routine usually employed by these folks. That way, none of the subjects knew whether they were being treated by the applicant, or by one of the stand-ins. Six separate trials were conducted, and after each one, the subjects scored the results from 0 to 10. The applicant got the highest score on one out of the six trials - exactly what would be expected by chance.

The dowser, during his "open" demonstration, showed us that his pendulum became immediately and vigorously agitated when he held it over a gold locket he himself provided, for a 100% successful pre-trial. He then took up to 15 minutes for each of 10 trials in which he was to determine in which of 10 sealed cups the locket had been - randomly - placed. He was correct twice, when he would have had to get it right at least four times to pass the preliminary test requirements.

We still have the million dollars.