October 11, 2002

Guadalupe Revisited, The "Real" Zygon, A Stunning Illusion, More on the USPTO, Please Evaluate Sylvia's Predictions for 2000, Cerier Again, Startling New Astrological Discoveries, and a Disappointing Article....

Reader George Paz writes:

While reading your article on the Virgin of Guadalupe, I felt compelled to write you. When I was thirteen years old I went on a vacation with my sister to Mexico City. It was a year after the massive earthquake of '86. One Sunday morning we boarded a tour bus and headed to Guadalupe. Though it was a full year after the disaster, the town looked as if the earthquake had hit just the day before. There was not one structure standing in the town, except for the basilica.

We arrived at the basilica about twenty minutes before mass. As we stepped off the bus, we were swamped by poverty-stricken children. All of us American tourists were touched and devastated at the sight of all the children who were clearly sick and malnourished. The dollars were passed out en masse. As we made our way through the crowd, we ended up in front of a gift shop off to one side of the basilica. We entered the gift shop to partake of humanity's greatest invention — air-conditioning.

I browsed among the many statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe and numerous saints, while my sister searched through a bin of T-shirts with silk-screened images of the "miraculous" painting. The church bells began to toll, calling the parishioners to mass. We walked outside to a scene which I believe I will never forget. The entire town was emptying into the basilica, most of the parishioners crawling in on their knees, over the cobblestones. We walked in behind them.

Right inside the main entrance was what looked like a large fish tank, with a solid-gold statuette inside. As the parishioners filed by they dropped the meager contents of their pockets into this tank. Much of what was dropped in was US currency, the money that we tourists had given them just minutes before in the belief that we were helping to feed at least a few of these starving families. There were easily tens of thousands of dollars in the tank.

I was unable to go any further, and had to wait outside while I tried to process what I had just seen. My sister continued on inside and when she returned she described a scene very similar to what you did.

On board the bus, as we drove away from the town, I looked back at this mammoth, pristine structure among the ruins. It vaguely seemed like something from a sci-fi movie, like a massive alien ship sucking the life out of that dying harvest of humanity. I left my lukewarm Episcopalian upbringing and any notion of deities or religion, behind me in Guadalupe. It was an eye-opening and life-altering experience.

Thanks for letting me share.

George, my own experience with this cruel farce was far more serious and shocking, but I do appreciate that you shared yours with our readers. Though I'll someday write up my account, I'll only tell you now that during the filming session there, I wandered down a flight of stairs — not unintentionally — and found the vast counting room where currency of many nations was being busily and noisily sorted and counted. The amount of cash I saw there was staggering. The stark contrast between the tiny copper coins the stricken poor were dropping into the many collection-boxes upstairs, and the gold-clad altars, figures, and ornaments that were set up to glorify this stupid painting as one of divine origin, stays in my mind like a scar. Just thinking about all this depresses me and re-affirms my determination to fight this sort of flummery. Thanks very much for your contribution.

Angus Rae writes us concerning a possible connection between Zygon International, (Dane Spotts' company that sold the bogus learning machine mentioned last week) and a monster that once frequented UK TV. He writes from Edinburgh, Scotland, where they know about such things....

"Doctor Who" was on every Saturday evening. This was a "juvenile" science fiction TV show which ran from 1963 to 1989, and is still being shown worldwide. In 1975 the Doctor ran into a race called the Zygons on the shores of Loch Ness who were, as usual, trying to take over the Earth with the aid of an ability to rearrange their appearance to match that of humans they had captured, and also with the aid of a large aquatic cyborg called a Skarasen that they had brought with them... yes, it was the Loch Ness monster.

So the question has to be — are we sure that Zygon International Inc., are really just here to sell "Learning Machines"? And is Redmond, California, near any large bodies of water...?

Now, dear reader, do you see the value of your participation here? In one fell swoop, we have been given a solution to the Loch Ness Monster, the origins of Zygon (and maybe of Mr. Spotts!), and a warning to Redmond residents! Yes, there is a large body of water — Puget Sound — right by Redmond, though that should be in the state of Washington, not California — my error. Puget Sound is an extensive and obviously monster-friendly location, and I'm all for plumbing its depths immediately!

We often discuss here how our expectations — based on experience and built-in hard-wiring — can color and often distort what we perceive. Magicians are very much aware of this tendency, and use it to confound the spectator's view of what he/she actually has fed to them by their usually-dependable sensory mechanisms. Here's a very effective optical illusion that will have you wondering, I'll bet. I'd never seen this one before, and I put the data through a lot of tests before I could accept that the grey of square A is identical to the grey of square B. Yes, it really is. The original, forwarded to me by a good friend, is to be found at http://www-bcs.mit.edu/people/adelson/checkershadow_illusion.html.

I've just been informed that the U.K. Exeter City football club have fired their manager after last weekend's defeat by the York team left them near the bottom of the League Division 3. Exeter have now lost seven of their twelve games this season. You'll recall that this is the club that Uri Geller bought into, promising great results due to his magical influences and vibrations. Well, he's working his usual football magic, it seems.

Didn't I advise bettors to bet against Exeter to get rich? The Shadow knows.....!

Reader John Stone writes:

James Randi pointed out to me that my statement — that the U.S. patent office trash-canned perpetual motion machines — was wrong. In this month's Scientific American there is a column on exactly this. They do grant patents for them . . . and here are the criteria:

Examiners assess patent applications according to four criteria: novelty, usefulness, non-obviousness and enablement, the last of which means that the patent application must disclose how to construct the patented device. . . . Statements in a patent application are presumed true unless a good reason for doubt is found. The device has only to be "more likely than not" to work.

So clearly, I need to invest in a dairy farm. And equally clearly, the patent office is in bad need of housecleaning.

I note that phrase "more likely than not to work" with amusement. How could a patent examiner have looked at the MEG miracle-machine of Tom Bearden, and thought it was likely to work? If it does work, that fat guy in a red suit can also get down my chimney....

Reader Brian Maki sent me a list of Sylvia Browne's published predictions for the year 2000. I thought that it would be an interesting project to have readers do an assessment of how right or wrong she was. You can write to me at randi@randi.org and give me just a score: X out of 51 correct. (There were only 40 predictions, but some were doubles, so I've split them.) Where you think it's pretty vague or non-definitive — as in #37 — or very obviously likely to happen, that should get a "wrong" mark. Okay? Numbers 26, 27, and 37 here cannot be evaluated, so they should be "wrong" as well. Unless, that is, there exists a record of their correctness. However, if you have any specialized expertise on the actual accuracy of any of these statements, I'd like to know that. Let me have your scores....

Prophet Sylvia Browne said, for the year 2000:

1. Interest rates will rise very slowly until Spring.

1a. . . . and then will level off and begin to go downward.

2. Stocks will stay pretty steady.

2a. The NASDAQ will fluctuate up and down wildly in March, but the Dow will stay pretty solid.

3. Building everywhere from all corners of the State (CA) will be at an all-time high.

4. There will be a lot of purchasing of property in foreign countries by Americans and for the first time at such an all-time high.

5. There is going to be a shake-up at American Airlines during January and February.

5a. American Airlines will also merge with Alaska Airlines.

6. TWA is hanging on by a thread and will probably not last until the end of the year.

7. Unemployment will be very low.

7a. There will be another acceleration of the minimum hourly wage by mid-year.

8. New electronic companies are in the making now, but will really burst on the scene by late Fall. This is as a result of not only technical advances but also genetic research.

9. The beginnings of a surge for a flat tax will be bantered around and come to some conclusion before the next election that will take us into 2001.

10. Air travel will reach an all-time high.

10a. Because of overbookings and poor service, the airlines will need to revamp their scheduling practices.

11. As in the 1940's and 50's, we are going to see a lot of small businesses flourish like the old Mom and Pop operations.

12. There will be a big upsurge in the population looking for more antiques and handmade articles than things that are mass-produced.

13. There will be extensive monitoring of the internet that will be imposed to govern and reduce indiscriminate pornography. This will be drastically different from the filtering software available now, along with harsh regulation.

14. There will be a definite crackdown by the Federal Government regarding frivolous lawsuits. This has been bantered around for a while, but now a definite crackdown will be imposed.

15. Sorry to say there will be three hurricanes that hit in rapid succession in the Fall, again around the Bahamas, then Mexico, Florida, and the Carolinas.

16. Tornadoes will touch down in Ohio in April and a devastating one will touch down in Brownesville and San Antonio, Texas in the Spring.

17. An earthquake will hit around the Niagara Falls area, small but significant because of where it is.

18. There will be small earthquakes that hit around the Northern California area in January and February, nothing of significance.

19. Los Angeles will register a 5.3 earthquake in and around the valley in late March.

20. The Seattle area, around Olympia, will get a 4.9 earthquake around June. None of these earthquakes above will be devastating.

21. The warming trend will continue and climates will begin to change drastically even more than we have seen in the last ten years. Temperatures along the East Coast will become milder and along the West Coast, colder and more damp.

21a. . . . and also due in part to the polar tilt.

22. NASA will finally cut back on the space program realizing that every time they send up a space vehicle they are tearing the ozone layer.

23. The midwestern U.S. will have a big uprising because of some kind of polluted waste hazard. This has not been recognized at this point, but will begin to surface around Branson.

24. There is going to be a very definite detection of mines and some bombs that have not been detonated off the coast of Hawaii.

25. Train wrecks will occur in France and England causing quite a bit of devastation in May.

26. In June a major airline disaster will be averted.

27. An airline high-jacking will be thwarted out of Florida in August.

28. Democrats will win the election with Bill Bradley, with close competition from the Reform Party.

29. New York crime will continue to be at an all-time low, and crime across the country, including crime in schools will seem to reach an all-time low.

30. The one thing that is very frightening as we go into the millennium, and even though spirituality is at an all-time high, is that we will see more occult groups arising and people professing to be the Messiah.

31. Organized religion will become gentler and kinder and more liberal, which goes along with spirituality and in keeping with Christ's words.

32. We are approaching an age of innate goodness and acceptance and the philosophy of living and let live. People will become more conscious of others like it was in the 1940's and 50's; e.g., when someone dies, people will come together to help with a more community-like lifestyle. Families will begin to band together as they once did.

33. Elizabeth Taylor will end up back at the Betty Ford Center.

34. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston will get married.

34a. . . . but it will last for only a short time.

35. Gwyneth Paltrow will marry an older man who is in the entertainment business, but not as well known as she.

36. David Letterman will decide to call it quits from his nightly late show after this year.

37. John Travolta has to be very careful flying his plane in February.

38. Donald Trump will buy another large hotel.

38a. . . . and will go into partnership with someone very well known in a production company.

39. Warren Beatty will have no success in politics.

39a. Donald Trump will have no success in politics.

40. Courtney Cox will get pregnant this year.

40a. She will have a baby boy.

40b. She will have the baby boy this year.

Here's Part Two of Steven Cerier's observations on alternative medicine and how it affects us. Part One was published here last week. I'm very grateful for this contribution. Steven continues:

I have yet to read one convincing study of any alternative medical therapy curing a serious disease like cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, AIDS or Parkinson's disease. Modern medicine, with all its advances, has not come up with a cure for them, yet many alternative practitioners claim a very high success rate in curing such diseases. I wish it were so, because it would be a wonderful thing. Imagine if homeopathic medicine did indeed cure pneumonia or if a macrobiotic diet cured cancer. Think how many billions of dollars could be saved in medical costs. But if alternative medicine were truly effective, then Gary Null, Andrew Weil and Deepra Chopra would have shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine a long time ago.

Modern medicine may not be perfect. Doctors sometimes make terrible mistakes. Many drugs are over-prescribed and can have disastrous side effects. People can, and do, die unnecessarily in hospitals. There are doctors who are greedy, incompetent and unsympathetic. Some surgical operations are not necessary. Doctors often don't spend enough time getting to know their patients. But despite the faults of modern medicine, it is infinitely better than the quackery of alternative medicine, which claims miraculous cures for serious illnesses without presenting any clinical evidence to prove those claims.

Randi comments: "Modern medicine may not be perfect"? Steven, modern medicine is most certainly not perfect. Many of us have had experiences in which orthodox, experienced, well-meaning, medical people, have given us incorrect diagnoses, treatments, or prescriptions. The understandably imperfect state of the medical art is mostly to blame; these scientists are dealing with organized, highly complex life forms that do not give up their patterns or secrets easily. But I, myself, would most certainly not be at this keyboard had it not been for the skills and knowledge of medical science. It's powerful, extensive, effective, and necessary to our existence — but it's not perfect, not at all. As with any body of knowledge, any art, it works to approach perfection, but like Zeno's arrow, it never quite gets there....

Personally, I feel that one of the great weaknesses of medical science today is that it does not make it clearer to the consumers, that though it can positively cure certain situations like some bacterial infections and broken bones, it cannot cure afflictions such as diabetes and myopia, but only offer treatment (insulin and spectacles) that alleviate the conditions and allow the patient to continue with life. The quacks state that they can absolutely cure everything, without exception, and an uninformed public turns to and accepts that much more attractive scenario — until it fails, by which time it's often too late. Steven continues:

Trashing science has unfortunately become very popular. Once we respected scientists, but today, we often don't hold them in high regard. I have a theory for why this is so. I believe that science has become a battleground for ideology, rather than for ideas. No more is this true than in the fields of genetically modified food and stem cell research, which are among the most important developments in science in recent years. If you are against genetically modified food but for stem cell research, you are assumed to be on the left of the political spectrum. But if you are for genetically modified food and against stem cell research, then you must be on the right. People increasingly want to see science through ideological glasses and that is a very bad thing because there is no such thing as right-wing or left-wing science. Instead, science has to be judged on its merits and on whether or not it enhances our knowledge of the world that we live in. We should not forget that the Soviet Union bent science to its own ideological purposes with disastrous consequences. Many "politically incorrect scientists" ultimately lost their lives in the Gulag camps. We must be vigilant against the self-appointed ideological police who base their views on scientific issues on their political opinions, instead of on the facts, and who engage in scare tactics, see their opponents as enemies, and are unwilling to enter into a rational debate.

I believe in science, technology and rational thought. I do not believe in the metaphysical, paranormal, the supernatural, nor "alternative" medicine. I do not believe in tarot cards, nor the I Ching, nor astrology, nor palmistry, nor ghosts. I do not believe that people can communicate with the dead, nor that they have lived before, nor that they have been reincarnated, nor that they can levitate, nor psychically talk to animals. It is best to be skeptical because that reduces the chances of been taken advantage of and being made a fool of. I wish more people believed like that, but that does not appear to be the case. Unfortunately, I have come to the sad conclusion that the battle for reason and logic has been lost. It has been defeated by the proponents of the paranormal and the metaphysical, and by those who trash science. I've just about given up trying to reason with people because regardless of what I say, they would rather believe in nonsense than in the facts. I'm afraid that as was the case in the movie "The King of Hearts," the lunatics have taken over.

Steven, you sound very discouraged. Yes, so many of us have felt that dismay and despair when we've considered the state of education, the attitude of the media, and the lack of common sense and thinking abilities in the public arena. But giving up — at least for those of us at the JREF — is not an option. We're in the saddle, swords drawn, and at full gallop. Please join us, don't drop away in dismay or surrender. We need you.

I just came upon this cartoon from back in the 70's from New Scientist magazine, in the UK. I've made a slight correction, but the meaning is clear. Strangely enough, this does not appear on Uri Geller's web page....

I've been forwarded a bit from an astrological site that announces their remarkable discovery of new attributes of the planets and birthdates in regard to various human aberrations and problems. This obviously will add to our ability to solve our worldly situations.... They aver that there is a defined influence of Jupiter in the charts of alcoholics, that there's a correlation between date of birth and a girl's/woman's possible involvement in prostitution, and that there are similar correlates of Jupiter and Saturn with fertility and barrenness, respectively.

I see! Now we know that, we can easily design tests that will establish any of these four claims, and award the JREF prize, right? No, I won't hold my breath waiting for applicants. Ah, but all is not so smooth for this ancient delusion in Zaragoza, Spain, since professor Jesus Navarro-Artigas of the University there reports to an astrologers' conference that there is no possibility of offering astrological courses on their curriculum, this term. Also, incredibly, professor Chris Bagley (with the department of Social Science at the University of Southampton) told an audience in Swansea, South Wales, that there still exist some academics who hold unflattering thoughts about astrology. Say not so!

In closing this week, I will tell you that an article appeared in a local paper in South Florida that at first had us at the JREF rather excited. It was an essay from a student at a local college. It started out in great style, describing how the 1-900 "psychic" lines were operating their scam, and revealing some of the gimmicks used to swindle the unwary. At first glance we thought we had here a candidate for a JREF award, a field that has been rather bare in recent months. Alas! We then saw that the entire second half of this otherwise sensible article quickly degenerated into a typically vapid acceptance of other forms of superstition:

These psychic hotlines generally have nothing to do with the actual science of astrology, which involves the study of celestial bodies to determine what will happen in any given individual's life. . . . true astrologers base predictions on the movements of the heavens . . . I personally own a Magic Eight Ball and a book about the meanings of birthdays . . . I still enjoy pursuing them when I'm bored or with friends. . . . Other options for astrological enjoyment include books, tarot cards, and of course, horoscopes.

I need not comment on the shallow values expressed here. The writer doesn't even know the parameters of the nonsense she writes about. So much for college.....