September 17, 2004

A Course in Pseudoscience I, Get Over the "Code"!, Astrology Calling, Sensible Kid, Good Question, More Audio Nonsense, A Powerful Statement Re Geller, The Dreaded Geller Curse Continues, NASA on Astrology, and In Conclusion....


Table of Contents:


A COURSE IN PSEUDOSCIENCE I

Reader Joe Rabaiotti, of Cardiff, Wales, in the UK, has a suggestion:

I am regular reader of your excellent newsletter, and a postgraduate computing student at the University of Glamorgan here in Wales. I have therefore been following the discussion regarding the Summer School reflexology classes with interest. Whilst the Summer School runs vocational courses which aren't aimed at university students per se, it appears that the reflexology lecturer is actually employed by the University — and is presumably teaching students — maybe even ones who are training to become healthcare professionals at Glamorgan School of Nursing — that massaging special spots on the bottom of the foot is a certain cure for all ills. Heaven help the NHS — they'll be introducing faith healers next!

No doubt if they reply to your query they will argue that they have to run courses like this because there's a demand for them. Maybe we're all taking the wrong approach. If there's so clearly a vast demand for universities to teach gobbledygook, maybe Glamorgan ought to set up a special Department of Pseudoscience, the first of its kind in the UK, which could offer degrees in astrology, creationism, crystal therapy, "energy" balancing, faith healing, etc. Naturally, the establishment of pseudoscience as an academic discipline will require it to have its own abbreviation (like B.Sc, BA, etc) so that pseudoscience graduates can proudly display it after their names. May I suggest B.S.?

Keep up the good work.


GET OVER THE "CODE"!

Reader Todd Weekley of Boston, Massachusetts, reminds us that stupid ideas are regularly resurrected for use by the media, no matter how thoroughly they've been refuted and dismissed. The History Channel thought it could get some more mileage from such an item, and since they don't much care whether their "history" represents facts, they went right ahead with the deception. Todd speaks his mind:

I just saw a show on the History Channel regarding the so-called "Bible Code." It was very disappointing watching the bias in favor of belief in this grand word search, even though I knew better than to expect a great deal of integrity. Below is a copy of an e-mail I sent to A&E Television Networks through the History Channel web site.

To Whom It May Concern,

I just watched the program "The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon," and I must say I am greatly disappointed. In the description of this program on your web site, you claim that you "take a balanced look through the eyes of Code supporters and critics and let viewers determine its accuracy in predicting the future." However, the overall pitch of the program was in favor of the Code supporters.

The skeptical viewpoint was allowed only a couple of minutes out of the entire 60-minute program. Although the points the skeptics made, particularly Dr. Brendan McKay's comments about comparisons between using the Bible vs. using Moby Dick, the narration side-stepped these points to lend a sense of credibility to Code supporters' claims. Furthermore, no mention was made of "negative" codes or of codes that are self-contradictory, as have been shown by other researchers (e.g., see "Why I'm No Longer Researching the Bible Codes," by Lori Eldridge at www.prophezine.com/tcode/disclaim.asp).

I am more than willing to be shown concrete, rational, scientific evidence supporting the existence of the Bible Code that would justify such a strong, pseudoscientific bias to your programming. Until then, I can only shake my head in dismay at what should be a channel dedicated to providing accurate information.

Since it seems that the producers of this program believe in the legitimacy of the Code supporters' claims, they may be interested in earning one million dollars by simply providing proof that there is a Code. This money can be claimed from the James Randi Educational Foundation at www.randi.org. Once you claim it, you can use it for operating costs, research for new programs, donation to a charity, etc. You may also wish to invite any of the Code supporters — Art Levitt, Roy Reinhold, Mordechai Gafni, Eliyahu Rips, and so on — that appeared in the program, to try, as well.

I will send a copy of this e-mail to the James Randi Educational Foundation, as well, to let them know of this program and its bias.

Well, Todd, you know as well as all of us do, that A&E don't give a hoot about your opinion on such a matter. You'll hear nothing but the Sylvia Browne crickets....


ASTROLOGY CALLING

Hungarian reader Péter Lovasi tells us of the scene in his part of the world:

The 90's, the start of the democratic change also saw the rise of pseudoscience, and it is still here. I'm afraid that critical thinking doesn't perform very well. My father is an interesting example. He was a member of the Socialist Party in the eighties, and a follower of its ideas (including materialism). He was skeptical but rather bigoted than critical, I think. Now he happily dowses for earth-radiation with a pair of rods.

But here's something completely different. Your web page has a quite paranormal effect. Sometimes I feel an irresistible urge to write when I see something pseudoscientific, and I end up being unable to put my point through and I get vacant, but diplomatic answers. I had an e-mail change with a local company here that I won't name, since I didn't ask them for permission to share their answers with others. This company released phone-cards with astrological signs. Phone-cards have different theme series, centered around animals, planets, musical instruments, etc. It's a form of education it seems, but it is mainly for the pleasure of collectors. A card is a practical thing meant to make phone-calls; everything else is secondary, but not when it gets to pseudoscience.

I'll share the four e-mails with you. They provide a really good insight into why it is a conversation with the deaf. I tried to make conclusions for myself, but I really don't know how to make such a simple and clear point understandable on my next try, though not at these people, because what follows was enough for me!

These are translated from Hungarian, so all mistakes are mine, and they are a bit shortened.

My first letter was:

I'm not a regular customer but you might find this note interesting. I really would like to know why it is that the sponsor of a popular science TV-program releases phone-cards with astrological signs? It's the 21th century! Does this parallel the "Planets of the Solar System" series? Some might think it's a good match, but it is more than ridiculous. The pictures are pretty good, but the content is horrible.

Maybe I was too short. Here is the answer I received:

I am happy that you are interested in our phone-cards. I can give two main arguments to your complaints. A merchant shouldn't judge the customers' requests, but fulfill them. The other is that quantity that makes quality. These astrological cards are very popular amongst collectors.

Both arguments were pretty false. They have "some" power over customers, they make the decision what to put on a card, and these cards have the same value as others. So I made a second try:

I thank you for your answer, but I'd like to respond. Your arguments didn't sound quite convincing, but my real problem is the following. Apart from the pictures these cards also have a short description of a typical person of the astrological sign and other characteristics. It's been proven that this is drivel. Any counter-evidence is worth a million dollars from James Randi. You are a sponsor of real science. Is it really acceptable for you to spread this sort of rubbish, just because there is a demand for it, and it pays?

Was I too rude? Is there anything unclear? The answer was the following:

There are many who would disagree with you about the correctness of the personalities of the astrological signs. I personally don't believe in it, but I don't despise those who are believers. Let this be their biggest problem, and they'll be happy persons. This is our most popular theme series.

I gave up at this point. Two questions came to my mind. Are facts a question of faith? I think this could be a question for research. I can predict that astrology won't be the biggest problem for the next 100 years, but is it possible to handle our biggest problems while using pseudo-tools to gain happiness? This is a big, respected company with an international background, though I made add that I made the e-mail correspondence with a single employee. A nice addition to the results of higher educational standards here in Hungary!

Péter, I unfortunately won't be able to include Hungary on my European trip that begins next week, but I certainly intend to visit there again very soon. Thanks for your memo.


SENSIBLE KID

Reader RoseAnne Mussar of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, has a cool kid....

Your recent discussion of "human magnetism" presented me with a great parenting moment with my 6-year-old son. We were having lunch the other day — soup and crackers. He was showing me how he could "hang" a cracker from his lip — very proud indeed. I asked him how he thought that worked.

"I don't know," he said, without thinking about it. Naturally, I prompted. "Do you suppose it's because the cracker is dry and sticks to your lip?"

After a few moments of quiet cogitation, he came up with this: "Well, when I lick my lips, they get wet. And then when I put the cracker on it, it sucks up the saliva, and that's what makes it stick!" I told him that some people think things like that happen because of magic, but I thought his answer was way smarter, and he agreed.

As a parent, I can but try. In a world increasingly populated with mystical nonsense and flummery, you help make my job easier. I hope that as my children grow up they can continue to find excellent role models and institutions such as you and the JREF.

We — and I — intend to stick around forever, RoseAnne. At least, we'll do the best we can. CSICOP and Shermer — as well as dozens of other skeptical and critical-thinking groups are out there, so take advantage of that fact. And make sure your kid thinks about a career in science....!


GOOD QUESTION

Reader Paul Schultz of St. Louis, Missouri, asks....

In defense of Catholic doctrine, an anonymous reader wrote you last week, and you opted to let many of the comments pass without much comment of your own. Still, one particularly common bit of doublespeak really irked me. He wrote: "What then? Shall we please man or God? Are we so damned arrogant as to believe that we know everything?"

Arrogance is defined by Merriam-Webster as "exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one's own worth or importance in an overbearing manner."

Let's see... One person maintains that the entire universe was created for himself and his own kind... maintains that truth can be arrived at by what you personally believe by faith? And that such truth cannot be questioned and applies to all others — whether they accept the belief or not?

Another person starts by assuming that one's own observations and conclusions are imprecise and questionable. He/she desires verification of observations and conclusions by as many different streams of evidence as can be found. This person holds no idea to be above question and is always ready to abandon a position if it shown to be incorrect by enough evidence.

I would humbly ask, "Who is the arrogant one?"


MORE AUDIO NONSENSE

Reader Bob Lee is an audio engineer with QSC Audio Products who lives in a real world, which many of his profession do not:

Many "audiophile" magazines have a vested interest in not doing double-blind testing, and in even denigrating the method as "not sensitive enough." After all, the snake oil peddlers buy advertising space in these magazines, while makers of zip cord (which makes excellent speaker wire, BTW) and other such ordinary hardware-store products, do not.

I was amused to read about Hartford Courant "reviewer" Kevin Hunt and his claims that the Bedini whatever-the-hell-it-was can remove electrostatic charges from CDs and cause audible changes. Some eight or nine years ago when I lived in the Hartford area I read another "audiophile" whopper in the Courant: a review of a CD with special signals on it that would "magnetically align" all the components in an audio system — electronics, cabling, loudspeakers, et al. I had to look at the date on the paper to make sure I wasn't reading the April 1 edition.

Bob, April 1st has been extended, from April 1 to March 31st.....


A POWERFUL STATEMENT RE GELLER

Mr. Abb Dickson of Jonesboro, Georgia, is a professional magician of note. He was President of the International Brotherhood of Magicians 1997-98, and was named as a director of the World Alliance of Magicians. He worked with Orson Welles, and was selected as master of ceremonies and performing magician for a State department-sponsored tour of eleven European countries in 1966. He has published several articles on magic in publications of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians, and served as a consultant for the popular New York City production of the late Doug Henning's The Magic Show. He has this statement to publish here on our web page, from a letter to me:

Update on my "Opinion" of Uri Geller's supposed powers:

As we've discussed over the years, I've had the unfortunate experience of being referred to as "...the magician who proclaimed Geller's powers as real." I'm constantly amazed at how this comes up year after year, and I'd like to set the record straight.

In 1975, Geller made a television appearance in Atlanta on Georgia Public Television. A local magician, Art Zorka (Art Glick) worked for that station and called me to invite me to the taping as he was hoping that a number of local magicians would attend in an attempt to "trap or catch" Geller in his "act."

On the appointed day, I arrived at the studio to find that no other magicians were in attendance, only Art and myself. I watched the "performance," including the usual stopping-and-starting of old wristwatches and the odd spoon bending — which I had never seen before at all.

After the studio audience was dismissed, we were ushered into Art's office, where we went through a private showing of drawing and copying various shapes, etc. When asked how, I said that "...as a Magician, I am fooled." I never proclaimed that this was in any way real. I was merely fooled by a method which was unfamiliar to me at that time. Good sleight-of-hand can often fool even a professional. Hey, I like to be fooled! But upon doing more research, I discovered Geller's trick.

Clever, but just another trick, and only one of several available methods!

Art [Zorka] wrote Geller a glowing letter and gave it to him the next day, which further elaborated and in Barnum-like terms described Geller's "performance."

It's amazing to me, that the opinion of a 27-year-old boy has been used as a positive quote for the last 29 years! I'm 56 now, and each year some young "Gellerite" tracks me down for me to re-tell the story and I tell them that in the years that have passed since I saw the "performance," I've since learned that Geller is only misleading the public by his boasts that he has "real powers."

The only power he has is a good Publicity Agent, but continuing to use 29-year-old quotes is poor showbusiness!

Count on it, Abb, Geller will continue to run his piece on your endorsement, on his web page. It doesn't have to be true, just sensational.


THE DREADED GELLER CURSE CONTINUES

There's more Geller news that shows clearly the pervasive "Curse of Geller" that is becoming increasingly evident. He periodically puts out his vibrations to help football teams by establishing curses or charms — depending on what he's selling at the moment — and so far his powers have doomed teams to failure. The most recent became known after reader Peter Emanuelsson of Stockholm, Sweden, noted that:

This spring Uri Geller appeared on the show "High Chaparall" on the Swedish TV-Channel Kanal 5. Among other things he predicted that the Swedish soccer team AIK would win, or at least finish among the top teams this year, in the highest league. The results: with only a few games left to play, they are in the tenth place out of fourteen, only two points ahead of the teams that will be downgraded next season. They have not been in a worse position than this since the seventies.

All this makes me wonder whether or not there is some kind of real supernatural power at work, since almost all the teams and athletes Geller endorses seem to fail miserably. Maybe he deserves the million dollars after all?

Peter, please keep us informed on the outcome. It's getting to be a "sure bet" that wagering on any team endorsed by Geller, or putting your money on any of Sylvia Browne's predictions, can make you rich....


NASA ON ASTROLOGY

Reader Andrew Koster tells us of his puzzlement.

I was looking at the MSN.ca front page today, when I saw a "Horoscope" link, and, either out of a sense of morbid curiosity, or because I thought it would be fun to dissect it and see how stupid astrology really is, I clicked on this link: http://horoscope.sympatico.msn.ca/Accueil/

Looking up my sign, I saw that it said

La lune [sic] en Lion nous donne le courage et l'énergie pour faire bouger les choses.*

I don't know if you read French, but that basically says that "the Moon in Leo gives us the courage and energy we need to make things move." Not only is that a vague generality — it says that for all the signs today, by the way — it isn't likely to be disproven, but you note that there's an asterisk at the end? Right underneath that, it says "Données scientifiques prises sur le site du Planétorium Dow et de la N.A.S.A." In other words, "Scientific data taken from the websites of the Dow Planetarium and NASA."

Wow, if they say it's scientific, I guess I believe it...!

Seriously though, is MSN even allowed to say that? The position of the Moon relative to the Earth is fairly scientific, but the rest is made-up bullshit that certainly didn't come from NASA or any reputable planetarium. Seems as if they should get sued for claiming that NASA endorses astrology.

Anyways, they also went on to say that I was going to resolve a family conflict. I'm on great terms with everyone in my family, but my girlfriend is mad at one of her friends, so wow, that was pretty close! Wrong sign and relationship, but hey, I guess the stars are fickle. And it said that I would be lucky in love. Um, nice try, but my girlfriend is about 12 hours away, and there's less than 7 hours left in the day, so no, not today. Eh, keep trying, though. Even vague generalities and wild guesses can't always be right. Maybe tomorrow....


IN CONCLUSION....

The hurricanes caused all sorts of havoc, and some small damage, but all is well. We had problems with our computers and connections staying in shape, so getting the web page up every week was a miracle that Jeff Kostick and my staff managed....

Off to Europe. See our web page for my schedule, and say hello if I'm in your area....