October 17, 2003

Falun Gong on PBS, Yellow Bamboo Analysis, Treasure Scope Challenge, Quackery In Med School, Scientific American Questions Encyclopedia Britannica, Vortex Relief, and SkepDic Is Out...

I regularly receive strong criticism for my perceived failure to criticize the suppression by the Chinese government of the Falun Gong movement so active in that country. Let me outline here my stance on the matter.

I recently watched a very well-produced PBS-TV program on the Shaolin monks, “Shaolin: The Wheel of Life,” a spectacular demonstration of standard “martial arts” tricks — and they are tricks — some of which date back to medieval times. The Shaolin movement is very old, teaching the usual claptrap notions that most of the martial arts groups espouse. They say they can teach students “to develop supernatural abilities, far beyond abilities of an ordinary man.” A student can learn to “pierce a wooden board with his finger as it were a straw mat and crush stones into sand with blows of his elbows.” They claim that one master of Shaolin

. . . crushed huge stones with his elbow like with a diamond pestle and broke thick wooden beams with an arm blow . . . blows of a big iron hammer did not hurt him at all. [He] beat off arrows shot at him, was able of dodging spears pointed at him from a few sides . . . he could crush a stone with a "trampling" blow and kill a man with the “Iron Fist”. . . [he] ran up a sheer wall of three meters high . . .

They sell a medallion — the Wheel of Life Pendant — that is supposed to have healing and protective powers. Says one of their “experts” who uses “Applied Kinesiology” to test the pendant:

I have discovered that when one finds the Wheel (five varieties) suitable to one’s energy field, it is capable of reducing the intensity of allergic reactions if it is worn close to the body. The Wheel of Life pendant also helps to improve one’s physical energy and mental clarity by bringing the energy meridians into a Yin-Yang state of balance.

Not to be outdone, a TV minister, Terry Cole-Whitaker, endorsed the pendant with: “My aura jumped out 60 ft. This is fabulous.” And as final validation, actor Steven Segal declared, “My chakras began spinning and then went into balance after putting on my Wheel.” Nothing like spinning, unbalanced charkas to get your attention...

The show on PBS was beautifully choreographed, the music was exciting, the performances brilliant. But these stunts are not supernatural or mystical in nature, at all, any more than ballet maneuvers are. At no point was that made clear, though the impression certainly was allowed to get across that this was no mere dance recital, but rather a show of superhuman powers. These stunts have been used as selling points for many religious movements down through history, particularly in the Far East. The Chinese “Falun Gong” movement originated with Li Hongzhi, who in 1992 introduced the practice and started the religion, also known as Falun Dafa. Li’s claims are very much like those of the Shaolin priestsbody", though not as old.

Li preaches that the "qi," "ki," or "chi" — the "energy substance in the human body" — can, through practice of Falun Gong, be activated, changing the physical state of the body, achieving healing and health. Through such training, he says, one can emit a "high-energy cluster that is manifested in the form of light with fine particles and high density." This he calls, "Gong." "Fa" he defines as "Law" in the sense of a "primary cosmic law that pervades all things in the universe." "Dafa" is "Great Law." "Falun" means "Law Wheel." The purpose of Falun Gong, he says, is to cultivate a person's "Gong." This is done through physical exercise and the development of a person's "mind-nature," or "Xinxing." Li teaches that a "super-eye" obtained via Falun Gong can give his followers X-ray vision, that "goodness" cures disease, and that deep breathing exercises can solve the world's problems. This is how they describe the "Dharma Wheel" that they claim each adherent can actually grow in their abdomen:

Falun Gong is characterized by the cultivation of a Falun [Dharma wheel], located at the lower abdomen. As an intelligent entity of high energy substance, the Falun automatically absorbs energy from the universe and relieves the body of bad elements.

In short, folks, this is another mystical cult basing its philosophy on mythology and pseudoscience, a spiritual movement loosely based on Buddhism, Taoism, yoga-style exercises, and blatant fantasies.

Leader "Master" Li Hongzhi is a former grain clerk from China's northeastern Jilin province, now in exile in New York, from which position he solicits financial support and directs the movement. Now, there is no question about the challenge that the rise of Falun Gong offers to the absolute authority of the Chinese Communist Party, and Beijing keeps cracking down on public demonstrations by followers. I have serious problems with any suppression of religious or philosophical beliefs, and I certainly would speak out on any such situation here in the United States. I believe, and have always believed, that education and access to information can serve to fight absurd ideas, and we pursue that as a principle at the JREF, as well. The unfortunate fact here is that the uninformed usually want to remain in that state, and you know what they say about leading a horse to water...

China is not a democracy. We have no right to expect that that country should follow democratic principles, though we can hope that they might go in that direction, and can make suggestions to that effect. Falun Gong is just such an untenable philosophy that it should collapse automatically when the followers become more informed. But be assured: I am not at all deceived by the emphasis that the Chinese government has placed on the self-immolation, bloody suicides, disembowelment antics and other horrific actions carried out by certain Falun Gong followers, as if to damn the entire movement by the actions of a few obviously disturbed fanatics. These are exceptions, to be found in all disciplines, even in science.

Let us not forget, however, that we in the USA have been depending on prayers, pleading, and self-abasement to a deity to bring us magical advantages, and have been encouraged to attribute our prosperity and general success among nations, to that sort of action. In my opinion, hard work and dedication to logic and reason ought to be recognized as the reasons for our achievements, not appeals to a mythical friend-in-the-sky. We got where we are in spite of, not because of, those incantations.

I would like to see cults and unreason go the way of the dinosaurs; one of those dinosaurs is Falun Gong. Education is the only morally acceptable weapon we can apply to this project, and in China we have Sima Nan, a valued friend and colleague, going out into the countryside to teach the population how the side-show tricks of the "masters" are done. This activity is not without danger to Sima Nan, who has suffered physical assaults by local groups who support and preach the mythology of Falun Gong. He's one of my heroes, a man who gets out into the countryside to educate and inform citizens about matters of critical importance.

The PBS show that I saw consisted of cleverly-choreographed demonstrations of the kind of tricks that Sima Nan regularly reveals in his performances. Now, I'm all for entertainment, but when it is used to sell a false philosophy, it becomes propaganda. Breaking cinder-blocks on someone's head and balancing on the point of a spear seem to prove supernatural powers, but these are standard deceptions that literally can be traced back into the early histories of most cultures. Clearly, presentation of Shaolin miracles also serves as propaganda for the Falun Gong cult, which builds its following via such demonstrations. If that's the best they have to offer, it's not good enough.

I have the great advantage of being able to reach out to readers of this page for information and opinions, as well as for technical expertise in various fields. That has resulted in a rather probable satisfactory solution to the strange "Yellow Bamboo" situation that arose a few weeks back. I avoided jumping to conclusions on this matter, though it was pretty evident to me and to others in this office, what had happened to Mr. Joko Tri, the martial arts practitioner in Java who had volunteered to go to Bali to experience the phenomenon that was being claimed by Mr. Serengen, the chief performer for YB. As I've pointed out here, Joko did not properly carry out my instructions, so the demo was not acceptable. I repeat here that I've no criticisms of Joko, who had admitted from the beginning that he was not experienced in this mystical procedure. He did the best he could. I regret that as of this writing, Joko has been subjected to suggestions of legal actions by YB.

I received more than 75 suggestions from readers who saw the dark and obscure video clip — the only and totally unacceptable video record of the event — and found that 70 of those independently offered me a scenario that matched with my initial analysis of the episode. One correspondent thought that a head-kick might have been delivered by one of those closely pursuing Joko, and another suggested that he was simply tripped. The two persons who followed him so closely could have performed either of these maneuvers, but Joko would have been very aware of either. He was not. In fact, what he reported was that he didn't know what happened, but felt himself suddenly on the ground without knowing how he got there. And, you will recall, we saw his body convulsing while he lay on the ground. That strongly suggests another modus.

I've consulted experts in police techniques, and when I've told them what Joko reported, and what was seen in the video clip, they've all come up with the same answer: we believe that it's likely that Joko Tri was zapped by a hand-held Taser, or stun-gun. This is a high-voltage unit (see photo) that delivers a shock when the subject is touched by it, and the resulting symptoms are congruent with what Joko experienced. The subject suddenly finds himself brought down and doesn't know how he got there. He is stunned, his body involuntarily convulses, and — most importantly — he is often confused and doesn't recall what happened, particularly the period during which he convulsed, nor does he have any marks or other visible indications that he has been zapped. Some people have no recollection of pain at all, others feel they've been "shaken up" badly. The duration of the application — from a half-second to two seconds — seems to bring about different results with different individuals. Since the conditions of Joko's encounter were so ideal for such a possibility — darkness, persons immediately adjacent to him, great confusion and excitement — I have a reasonable expectation that this is what might have happened. At the same time, I cannot imply that anyone but the person who actually fired the device, was "in" on the procedure. Mr. Serengen and the others might have been quite unaware that any such ruse might be used.

There is a possibility that the large piece of bamboo might have been wired, but I consider that highly unlikely since Joko tells us he obtained that item for himself. Similarly, a charged wire net immediately below the surface of the beach sand is an unlikely modus. I prefer to stay with a more practical, relatively easy, and more probable solution. Of course, it also may be that Mr. Serengen of YB actually can stop a person in his tracks, disorganize his nervous system, and make him helpless, simply by gesturing and shouting at him. That would require a total reversal and reconstruction of what we know about how the world works, but that has never stopped any believers from coming to such a conclusion. Bear in mind that when students in such groups are told they will fall down on command, they are under very heavy pressure to comply, else they appear out of step with all the others, and are easily ostracized as a result of not going along with everyone else's expectation. This peer-pressure element is very powerful, especially among those immersed in a mystical atmosphere, in a culture that believes that such powers are possible and attainable — and YB provides all of that you'll ever find in any select group.

I can anticipate that I'll be told that these island people are poor and unsophisticated, and have no access to such technology as described above. Wrong. These stun devices are available by mail, on the Internet, from dealers in martial arts equipment for as little as US$20, and they use a simple 9-volt battery! Just why teachers of martial arts would be selling such items, makes one wonder, doesn't it?

In any case, we're now discussing the performance of a proper preliminary test of the Yellow Bamboo claim. I'm contacting the Australian volunteers who formerly offered to take part in a test, and we'll keep you informed via this web page. This is getting to be very interesting indeed!

YB is now rattling its legal sabers, as expected...

And, another gaggle of lawyers is being brought into action on another front. Carl Moreland, who sent us a number of dowsing gadgets he'd bought and taken apart for analysis (see www.randi.org/jr/082903.html and www.randi.org/jr/082903.html) is being sued by one of the purveyors of such a device, the "Treasure Scope/Quad". Carl is accused of having "palmed" a gold ring that was used as a test object in a demonstration that conclusively showed the thing just didn't work. The suit is for damages of $75,000. Well, in the first place, I don't think that the offended plaintiff — one Jim Thomas, of Texas — has any case, but what really makes us wonder is why Mr. Thomas is pursuing such a minor reward, when he could easily win the JREF one-million-dollar prize if his magical whirligig has any merit! Why does Thomas ignore our offer of a simple test of his "invention," conducted by impartial, neutral agents, double-blind? Jim, it would take just 30 minutes, no legal hassles, just a simple where-is-it test, and you'd be a million richer!

Thomas says that his device will detect such a thing as his own gold ring as far as a quarter-mile away, wrapped in foil or in any sort of container. Tell you what, Mr. Thomas: I'll accept your finding that same gold ring in one of ten simple paper cups, using your impressive-looking device, from just three feet away! Surely you can do that? That's well within the parameters you specify, and the "vibrations" only have to travel .002 as far as the limit you've set! But wait! I'll improve the offer! We'll use a gold brick — worth about $150,000 at present prices — and so you'll have a greater incentive, as well as massive "vibes" to detect! The brick won't fit in a paper cup, of course, but we can find ways around that problem, I'll bet.

If your device works, Jim Thomas, and you're prepared to defend your claim that it does, get in touch with us. This is the perfect opportunity for you to (a) prove you're right, (b) prove you're truthful, (c) show that Carl Moreland cheated in that test, (d) validate the performance of the device you sell to your customers, and (e) sell truckloads of your device — at $795 apiece! JIM THOMAS, I CHALLENGE YOU TO ACCEPT OUR OFFER.

No, Jim Thomas won't take us up on this; he'd rather run to the law because someone called his bluff, and he was shown to be wrong. Typically, in this present-day environment, the angered claimants resort to frivolous lawsuits rather than to reality, to get their revenge. We're here, the million is available, and Thomas must ignore us because he knows he's bluffing...

Reader Richard Morrison describes a discouraging scenario to us...

I'm a 1st year medical student, somewhat inspired by your work to promote rational thinking. Naturally, on beginning my course, I had assumed that doctors — of all people — would be like-minded, more concerned with people's actual well-being than their perceived well-being. Unfortunately, it seems I was wrong. Our 2nd lecture (entitled "Complimentary medicine") was an hour-long discourse on Qi, acupunture, homeopathy ("shows promise in animals"), and so on. Depressing, to say the least, and all presented as assuredly beneficial to the health of the patient, even to the extent of the mention of "scientific studies" into the excellence of these treatments — acupuncture in particular. Am I wrong in thinking acupuncture effectively clinically untestable because of the nature of the treatment?

I hoped to find some solace in the following tutorial, but it turned out I was alone among my classmates in thinking of complimentary medicine as dishonest and irresponsible. Can this culture of ignorance ever be corrected if prospective doctors are exposed to such nonsense at such a formative stage in their career? I don't know. I hope so.

Thanks for being an inspiration, to me at any rate.

(Out of a perhaps misplaced sense of duty to my faculty, I'd rather not name the university I'm attending.)

Richard, I share your dismay, as I'm sure you know. It is a disastrous state of medical irresponsibility that you are describing, one born of "political correctness" and abject fear of legal aspects. Our federal and state agencies show little or no interest in such situations, preferring to pursue the safety of inaction. The American Medical Association continues to be more concerned with the well-being of doctors, than of their patients. We are being poorly served, ignored, and injured by this support of quackery and medieval thinking in medicine. And we're helpless to do anything about it because we have lost contact with those in government who could, if they dared, question such flummery.

I was recently given a copy of Scientific American dated July 31, 1875, a tabloid-format newspaper that announced itself as, "A weekly journal of practical information, art, science, mechanics, chemistry, and manufactures." On page three I found this interesting commentary on the then-newest edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which contained an article the editor of S.A. found disturbing. Under the heading, "APPARITIONS" we read:

From time to time, as there was occasion, we have referred to the so-called revelations of modern spiritualism, to the discovery of gross imposture in connection with the same, and to the strange hallucinations, in regard to this subject, which have overtaken even men who have no mean pretensions to the name of scientists. We have just seen a resumé of the history and theories of supernatural appearances and influences, in the second volume of the new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a work which is generally regarded as an unusually high authority. The article to which we refer traces the origin of and reasons for superstitions beliefs, considers the evidence for the reputed appearance of ghosts, and concludes with the principal arguments for and against the creed of the spiritualists. The writer of the article evidently considers the strength of the argument, in favor of spiritualism, to consist in the character of a few of its supporters, men like Mr. [Alfred Russel] Wallace and Mr. [eventually Sir William] Crookes in England, and Robert Dale Owen in this country. Reference is made to the experience of Mr. Crookes, who not only saw a spirit, but clasped it in his arms, and thus demonstrated its substantial existence; and the conclusion to the whole matter is that spiritualism, even if its principles are not fully proven, is still a fair subject for scientific investigation, with a reasonable presumption in its favor.

We have referred to this article in the Encyclopedia Britannica because an opinion, such as that cited above, in a publication of such high standing, is worthy of more than passing notice. No matter how wonderful the events that are related by the fanatics who generally make up the congregation of spiritualists, their revelations have little effect on any one outside the circle of their immediate followers; but let a man of some scientific attainments, and, moreover, a member of the Royal Society, add his testimony to the truth of these events, and we see that he may deceive even the very elect. It was generally understood, when the last edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was announced, that it was to be scientific in the best sense of the term, and while giving due weight to popular beliefs and superstitions, that it would endeavor to sift away the chaff with which many of them are enveloped, and reveal their real character. We are to understand, then, from the article under consideration, that such investigations as have been made by some of the more distinguished converts to spiritualism can properly be classed under the head of scientific experiments, which, while not perhaps absolutely conclusive, leave the matter sub judice. When we remember the character of the evidence on which all the modem miracles depends, the difficulty if not impossibility of making a thorough investigation with the facilities afforded at a séance, and the complete exposure of all the notorious cases of spiritual visions, our readers will probably venture to doubt whether the treatise on "Apparitions" in the Encyclopedia Britannica either gives a clear understanding of the actual facts connected with spiritualism, or represents in any sense the views of scientists generally in regard to the matter. No mention is made, for instance, of the exposure of the Katie King fraud in this country, while the vision of this airy being, produced in England under the auspices of the same mediums, is given as one of the strong arguments for allowing spiritualism to have a standing among scientific men. For our part, we can say that we have never heard of any event at a spiritualistic séance that at all approached the movements of the wonderful Psycho, in London, whose rationale escaped detection for months, with exhibitions in open day, and with apparently every facility for investigation that could be desired.

The Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877) referred to was a free-thinker who fought for the abolishment of slavery in the United States, but apparently collapsed into belief in spiritualism as he aged, a shocking event for his many admirers and former colleagues. The "Katie King" exposure — which thoroughly fooled Crookes in England — was very definitive, and the S.A. writer does well to point out that this is the sort of strong counter-evidence that the supporters of spiritualism leave out of their considerations. The "Psycho" reference is to a very clever automaton created and first demonstrated by the famous British conjuror J. N. Maskelyne, the same year this S.A. article was published. This device, which appeared to play a game of whist with an audience member, was owned at one time by the conjuror Harry Keller, and by Houdini, then was on display at the ill-fated Houdini Museum in Niagara Falls, Canada. It was eventually salvaged and restored to working order — just recently — by Johnny Gaughan, a leading manufacturer of illusions for modern magicians. The secret M.O. was very clever indeed, and would fool audiences today, though modern technologies could easily be applied to the situation. Such methods were not available nor even imaginable, more than one and a quarter centuries ago. Similar devices were described on this web page back on January 19th and February 3rd of 2000.

Reader and teacher Erin Rudnik tells us:

Thanks so much for that piece on the Oregon Vortex. One of my physics students just showed me that website last week because I think he believed it and wanted to know why. I didn't know exactly how to explain it to him, so I am glad you took to the time to put that together. My kids are so curious about things like that, and you are helping me to educate them about the way the world really is. Your website hasn't just changed my life. It will reach the thousands of students I will have in my career. Thank you for what you do!

Erin, thank you. I suggest that you encourage your student(s) to tune in on NBC-TV the evening of Friday, October 31st — Halloween evening. I'm told that Tom Brokaw will be featuring an item on this phenomenon, speaking with Dr. Ray Hyman and magician Jerry Andrus about the Oregon Vortex. Jerry's the one who specializes in optical illusions, and will be one of our featured speakers at The Amaz!ng Meeting 2, in January of 2004. Are you registered yet...?

The long-awaited "Skeptic's Dictionary" of Internet fame has come out, folks, and in 446 soft-cover pages, Robert Carroll gives us something to wave about as we screech from the rooftops. It lists for $19.95, which makes it a bargain at less than a nickel a page! Buy this book!