November 7, 2003

Space Mystery, Philippines/NZ Report, Browne's Book Reviewed, Sylvia's Problem Solved!, Canfield Accepts Geller, and London Times Reports on Prayer and Mother Teresa...

Astronaut Dr. Edward T. Lu safely returned from orbit two weeks ago from a six-month-plus tour as science officer on the International Space Station (ISS). I was notified by Dr. Ray Beiersdorfer (who some of you lucky folks will meet at The Amaz!ng Meeting!) that by certain keystrokes I could view his landing via the Internet. Damn! That's a scary event. I note that the Russians, at their Mission Control Center all wear full suits and ties, while NASA is somewhat more laid back. And each step of the landing procedure is conducted and completed before any announcement is made — in case there's a problem, perhaps — but knowing that the "burn" will take place at a very precise moment, then having to wait another ten minutes or so to know whether it was successful, can lead to severe worrying. I'm letting Ed re-learn the walking process and other basic skills, before bothering him with inquiries. I just know he's going to pester me to find out how our First Card Trick in Outer Space was accomplished, but my lips are sealed...

A very interesting event took place during Ed's six months as the Science Office aboard the ISS. There were mysterious flashes of light that he saw while studying Earth's aurora from orbit. Ed was an astrophysics researcher before becoming an astronaut in 1994, and he estimates that he spent 100 hours watching the northern and southern lights during his half-year in space. In fact, he rhapsodized on the auroral light shows, which occur well below the station's 380-kilometer (236 mile) altitude He reported the beautiful shimmers and pulses that result from natural variations in incoming solar particles trapped by Earth's magnetic field. And, the Sun was building up to a maximum activity in the last days that Ed was up there noting these wonders. But on three occasions — 11 July, 24 September and 12 October — he saw something markedly different that puzzled him: flashes as bright as the brightest stars, which lasted only a second and then blinked off again. In one instance, he called crewmate Malenchenko over to the window, and he witnessed the bursts, too.

Now, the UFO nuts out there will relish this as further support for extraterrestrials looking in on us, but Ed Lu tends to be a bit more rational. He noted that these phenomena were very different from the random but harmless retinal flashes that many astronauts experience when heavy cosmic rays hit their eyeballs. Yes, being less protected that we are under the Earth's atmosphere, astronauts and cosmonauts are peppered with more cosmic rays that we can experience. They "see" little flashes that record the passing of cosmic radiation through their visual centers. True scientist that he is, Ed has tried to rule out other obvious explanations. The flashes he and Malenchenko saw didn't look to him to be the sunlight reflecting from the fellow-traveler dust particles that accompany the ISS. Those flashes last longer than a second. Nor, he thinks, were they meteors entering the atmosphere below the ISS; they would have appeared as linear streaks. Since the mysterious flashes only appeared in the direction of the aurora, Ed knows that the viewing conditions were wrong for a satellite or other artificial object. He also checked weather maps, which showed no lightning storms below him at the time of his observations. All of this led him to the tentative conclusion that he had seen a previously unreported phenomenon, probably associated with the aurora.

In an interview with Nature Magazine by telephone from the space station, Ed commented on his discovery: "It's a good thing to get this out in the open, so that people who do know more can start to think about it." Yes, of course it is. It will probably be several months before Ed will be able to get around to examining the evidence in detail and discussing it with aurora specialists, who should really be very interested in something so novel and unexpected.

Now, this was not a planned experiment; it was merely a series of observations that Ed made in the performance of his regular duties. But this is the sort of thing — a spontaneous event — that scientists are trained to observe and record. Think of Fleming and the discovery of penicillin, and you'll have a good parallel. It may well be that we'll have here a phenomenon that can be named after Ed Lu; that's what happened with the Van Allen Belts, remember?

Reader Ray Trinidad, of Tauranga, New Zealand, writes:

I've just spent two weeks, on and off, reading everything in the "Commentary" archives of your website. What can I say but "WOW!" Sir, you are an inspiration to everybody who cherishes clear thinking and rational discourse. I cannot say enough good things about the work that you do, and I have been printing out excerpts from your material, properly credited of course, and sharing them with friends and family.

Needless to say, the reactions have been very cold and hostile. My mother and sisters are deeply devout Christians; although my mother and youngest sister are fundamentalist born-again Christians, and my other sister is what's referred to as a "charismatic renewed catholic," though what charisma has to do with it, I don't know. I'm also a martial artist with training in different Eastern and Western combat systems, and the material you wrote about the Yellow Bamboo group and their use of "psychic fighting" was particularly interesting. I'll be showing this material around to other martial artists that I know, but I can confidently say that "Yes, there are a lot of fakes in the Martial Arts, but my system/school/sensei/sensei's sensei/system's founder/school's grandmaster/sensei's wife's hairdresser's brother, can do that for real" would be a fair amalgamation of the comments I'll get.

I was born and raised in the Philippines, home of the "fake healers", where belief in all things spiritual, psychic, mystical, religious, or pseudo-religious is pervasive. Amulets (anting-anting), charms, special prayers (orascion), witchcraft (kulam, barang), living gods, and all manner of cults and religious movements are a part of everyday life. People carry amulets to ward off bullets, knife strikes, bad luck, win at gambling, or attract the opposite sex.

Psychics, clairvoyants, fortune tellers (called manghuhula, literally "one who guesses"), spiritual advisors, feng shui "experts," witches, herbalists, palm readers, card readers, speakers to the dead, astrologers, and "healers", do a thriving trade every day. Some are so popular that politicians consult them on how to win elections. The tabloids also carry headlines like "Half-human, half-snake monster claims another victim!"

One thing funny about all this is that the belief system can be stretched to accommodate everything. It's not unusual for a devout family to have an altar in the living room and pictures and statues of saints or the Pope in every bedroom, to go to Mass in the morning, consult a medium in the afternoon, and leave out food in the evening to appease the dwarves who live in the garden. I remember one of the priests at university — the one I went to was run by Jesuits — was really big on astral projection. He was also often seen talking to trees around campus.

I knew of a family who had a three-hundred-year-old (their claim) crucifixion scene carved out of wood. They claimed that attempts to photograph the altar always failed. When I expressed my desire to have a go at photographing it, they told me not to, as it would "upset" the spirits who live in it. Presumably Jesus and the two Marys couldn't find lodging elsewhere and didn't want to be bothered by paparazzi.

I remember one afternoon when I was out on some errand and came across a street performer doing some tricks. One of them was the old "magic rings" trick that made a coin placed under the rings "disappear." I knew how this one worked, but had a few minutes so I stayed around to watch the show. What struck me wasn't the performance, but the reaction of the audience. I heard comments like "He must be using some special prayer," "It's his amulet that does it," and "He must be from a family of witches" bandied about — everything but "What a great illusion."

I'll also admit that one of my aunts believes David Copperfield will go to hell as "...he's in league with the Devil!" I hope she never sees David Blaine, as that might push her over the mental edge. She also believes that every time she says the rosary, one year is taken off her time in purgatory.

I now live in New Zealand, and it's not much better here. Homeopathy, feng shui, psychic hot lines, aromatherapy, alternative medicine, crystal therapy and other forms of quackery abound. The TV brings ads for "Magnetic underlays." Just slip one under your sheets, and the magnets do the rest. One hundred thousand sold! The mayor of Auckland, the largest city here, touts the benefits of bee pollen. Well, he did, until it was discovered that he was one of the directors of the company that sold the stuff. Pharmacies sell herbal products side by side with homeopathic remedies. Courses are offered in iridology, colonic cleansing, color therapy, and the UFO abductees support group meets every Thursday.

Recently, New Zealand made the news worldwide, as a laughingstock, sadly, when construction on a highway was stopped due to pressure from a Maori (the Polynesians who were the first migrants to inhabit New Zealand) tribe. Apparently a part of the new highway would violate the home of a taniwha, a water-dwelling spirit guardian. I don't remember the outcome of this, but I'm sure some arrangement was made to accommodate the spirit. In politically correct New Zealand, even invisible entities have to be considered.

There are communities here that live in teepees, although none of them are Native Americans, gypsies who travel from city to city every summer, although you'd be hard-pressed to find one of Romany descent, and "retreat centers" based in "spiritually significant" locations. I take it that means "Prime real estate with great views."

I went to the local library to see if I could borrow some of your books, and found not one of them. Not one. The only books I could find that you've recommended were Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" and Phillip Plait's "Bad Astronomy." I asked how often these were borrowed and the librarian said "Oh, these aren't popular at all." They do, however, have books on UFO's, Atlantis, Spiritualism, ghosts, palm reading, Feng Shui, and "How to Increase your Psychic Powers." Some of them have waiting lists other authors would envy.

I realize I'm rambling on, and don't want to take any more of your time; I'll conclude by saying thank you again, and if you're ever down under in the Land Of The Long White Cloud, I'll most definitely be front row centre at your talks.

No foreseeable plans to visit NZ, Ray, but I'm off to Finland and Sweden in a couple of weeks... Seems I'm needed everywhere.

Reader Ken Finger tells us:

You should be pleased to know that your esteemed colleague in the pursuit of truth, famed psychic philosopher Sylvia Browne, has apparently given her response to the challenge and also laid down a challenge of her own in her new book "Visits from the Afterlife — The Truth About Hauntings, Spirits, and Reunions with Lost Loved Ones" (first printing, September 2003). Hey, finally we have the truth, just in time for Halloween!

After thumbing through the introduction at the bookstore, I couldn't resist. Yes, forgive me Father, for I have sinned and purchased the book. But, I figured that it will be a best seller anyway, so giving her royalties on one copy really doesn't make a difference, plus it will be good exercise for a practicing critical thinker. The first thing to notice about the book is that there is no bibliography, no index, and no end notes or footnotes. I find that strange for a book that claims to present the truth about such extraordinary subject matter. But then again, this is my first journey into the written "work" of Ms. Browne so perhaps my expectations are out of line.

At first I was simply astonished that anybody believes this stuff, but then as I made it through certain stories, I became angry because I know that since people do believe, she is really taking advantage of their credulity in irresponsible ways. I'll quote just one example. This is the last line from a letter describing the shooting death of the writer's brother that was labeled a suicide:

If you can tell me what happened, or at least tell me how I can help Mark find peace, I would really appreciate it. -- N.S.

Sylvia's response:

First things first — this death was not a suicide, it was the result of a completely random murder, a sad, simple case of the victim being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And while the killer technically got away with that particular crime, he's serving life in prison without parole for another murder he committed less than a year later that he was convicted of, so he's appropriately off the streets, behind bars, and miserable.

This is so obviously dangerous that I don't need to analyze it for you, but I will note that it's not even clear that the letter from the surviving brother (N.S.) is real or that any letters from any reader's in this book are real — Sylvia never gives the names of any sources and could easily be just making everything up in her living room (as opposed to using real letters and simply making up the responses). The book's methods are so bad that I'm really quite surprised — I was expecting a much higher level of polish and skill from such a nationally famous figure. Normally one would expect the most successful people in any field to be the most skilled. If this is the best that the psychic profession has to offer, it's really a sad statement about our modern society that it has an audience at all.

I thought you might be particularly interested in something she had to say in her introduction:

To the thousands of us collaborators on this particular book, and to the many millions who don't question any more than we do that of course there's an afterlife, there are those who will always be ready with a list of handy explanations for what we "think" we're seeing, hearing, and feeling. "Grief hysteria," "oxygen deprivation," and variations on terms for both "mental illness" and "scam" are among the most popular. What these skeptics and "experts" are usually insisting on, though, is the same cynical demand, over and over and over again, which boils down to: "Prove that there's life after death."

My comments: Notice that she knows she's on fairly safe ground because she is speaking to her own audience, presumably gullible people who are willing to believe without proof and "who don't question..." She continues:

I'm sixty-six years old, and I've never spent one instant doubting that there's life after death. The thousands of us who contributed to this book, on earth and beyond it, don't doubt it. The millions we represent don't doubt it.

My comments: This is classic sociocentric thinking — it's true because we believe it's true (even those who are beyond this earth). This belief is so ingrained in who they are that it's embarrassing (and worse) to admit that it may be false. Plus, notice how nobody doubts anything. It's easy to be convinced you're right if you never doubt anything or require proof regardless of how outlandish the claim! Wouldn't a better argument be that she had gone through periods of doubt and then was convinced through some sort of proof or something — anything? I guess her audience doesn't even demand that level of convincing. Continuing:

God certainly doesn't doubt it, since He's the One who told us it's true in the first place, and we take His word for everything.

My comments: Obviously now adding the authority of God makes it irrefutable, right? Well if she takes "His" word for "everything," I find it curious that she's willing to invoke his authority to back her claim on this, while conveniently ignoring the same authority who states that "A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned to death, their blood is upon them." Lev. 20.27 (New Revised Standard Version) Well, that's nitpicking, so let's continue:

We're not the ones who are having a problem with this. You are.

(I think she's talking about you, Mr. Randi!)

So why do we keep knocking ourselves out trying to prove something we already know with absolute certainty?

My comments: In what way has she tried to prove anything? By that logic we would still believe that the Earth is immoveable at the center of the Universe. Millions of people believed it with absolute certainty for millennia, so why bother with the facts? They just get in the way! And finally:

Here's my suggestion to the skeptics and "experts," for a refreshing change of pace. We're done proving that there's life after death. We've proven it well past our own satisfaction. From now on, let's do it this way: You prove that there's not.

My comments: You go, girl!! This is a testament to the low (non-existent) level of "proof" that her followers are willing to accept! But also, I think it speaks to the intellectual horsepower of her audience. I can just see the Sylvia fans out there hi-fiving that she's really turned the table on us skeptics. "Checkmate," they would exclaim if they knew what it meant, while even a beginning critical thinker will recognize the gross flaws of her challenge to prove the negative. Since we can't prove that there's no life after death, there must be. Likewise the thousand angels on the head of this pin I'm holding must exist, as do the fairies that come out in my woods at night, and so on. But I wonder if she knows how flawed this argument is, and uses it anyway, thinking that her audience won't recognize it and will accept it as the ultimate proof, or if she herself actually believes that this is a legitimate track to take. Worse yet, perhaps this is the best she can come up with after 66 years and at least 7 books! And even if she does have the certainty of millions and even if the claim is thousands of years old, still the burden of proof is on those who make the extraordinary claims, not those who ask for evidence. Time alone doesn't reverse that burden, and the number of believers doesn't, either.

So I think you have the answer to your challenge — should you choose to accept it! And I think I'm going to have fun reading this book (although I suspect it may get so silly as to be boring after a while).

Well, Ken, perhaps I'm about to make your day. As I said last week, the very last obstacle to Sylvia Browne's acceptance of the JREF challenge — as she agreed to, so very long ago — has been deftly removed! Yes, last Monday I mailed this certified, self-explanatory letter to Larry King:

Larry King
c/o CNN, 820 1st Street
Washington, DC 20002

Mr. King:

Your frequent guest Sylvia Browne has offered many excuses for not fulfilling her agreement made with you and with this Foundation, on your CNN program, that she would accept being tested for our million-dollar prize. That agreement — that she would make herself available for such a test — was made 970 days ago.

Ms. Browne's first excuse for not proceeding with the test was that she could not find out how to contact me. A psychic, and she could not use a telephone book? Since she claims to regularly contact the dead, contacting a living person should not have been a difficult problem for her. We remedied that by sending her our e-mail address, postal address, and telephone and fax numbers. Still no response.

Next, she said that she was not going to deal with me because I am a "godless person." For that, I admit, I have no remedy.

Her latest excuse — made on your show — is that she now demands that the million dollars be put in escrow, to ensure that she receives the prize, a prize which she had previously rebuffed, saying that she was not interested in the money. This seems a strange turnabout, but though we previously believed that we would lose the interest on the account if it were put in escrow, and our rules specifically state that such considerations will not be made for any applicant, in the case of Ms. Sylvia Browne, we have decided to make an exception. We have consulted Goldman-Sachs, and they now inform us that by means of a special dispensation, we will be able to do this without any loss of income. This should please Ms. Browne, since there is now no impediment in the way of her proceeding with the accepting of the test procedure.

Previously, we have sent letters and other documentation by certified mail to Sylvia Browne. However, this material has been refused by Ms. Browne's office, and returned to us, unread. We will make every attempt to hand-deliver a copy of this present letter to her office.

We have sent you proper proof that establishes the existence of the JREF million-dollar prize, as well as the availability of the prize, and all of that evidence was published on our web page, as well. Ms. Browne has refused to accept this evidence.

In the 970 days since Sylvia Browne agreed, on "Larry King Live," to be tested by this Foundation, she has not contacted us. You had stated, on your May 16th show, that you would be happy to "arrange" for Ms. Browne to be informed on this matter. Since you, Mr. King, may be better able to reach this person, I would ask that you inform her of this latest development, so that she will hasten to fulfill her previous agreement to be tested.

There is only one thing missing in this picture: Goldman-Sachs requires, as part of the process of putting the money in escrow, that we find a person to act as "escrow agent" for the million dollars prize money. That simply means that the agent would have complete control over the distribution of the prize money following the test of Ms. Browne's claim. Since Ms. Browne apparently trusts you, Mr. King, and would have good reason to believe that you would fairly and properly handle this function as "escrow agent," I am asking you if you would serve in that capacity. This would be for a very limited time, of course, from the moment that Ms. Browne accepts the fulfillment of her demand until the test has been done and the answer has been arrived at. I ask you to please inform me concerning your willingness in this matter.

Please bear in mind that it is Sylvia Browne, not this Foundation, who has avoided the challenge. Now that all conditions laid down by Ms. Browne have been met, it should be only a short time before we are able to begin conducting the test. However, since I had previously issued a call for "believers" as volunteers to be subjects for the test, and that was two years and eight months ago, some of those who volunteered have now died, and others have lost interest. It would be necessary for me to go on the Internet and re-issue that call for subjects. I believe it would take about two weeks to find a sufficient number of persons for this purpose. I will of course keep you informed on the progress of this effort.

Note: with the exception of the "special considerations" clause mentioned above, the rules on the JREF million-dollar challenge, as stated on our web page, will be in effect if and when Sylvia Browne agrees that all of her demands have been met, and that she will proceed with the test.

Thank you for reading this letter, Mr. King, and I hope that we might look forward to finally conducting the test of Sylvia Browne's claims that she can contact the dead, and does so regularly, as a profession.

I intend to allow two weeks to pass before concluding that Mr. King declines to serve as the escrow agent in this matter, or just does not respond to this request. In that case, I will make the same offer to Montel Williams. Should both of these gentlemen show no interest in serving in that capacity, I will assign the task to a trust company that specializes in serving thus. However, I will make no move toward obtaining the ten willing persons who we would need for the test, until Ms. Browne signifies — again! — that she is now prepared to take the test. We may wait for a long, long, time... Please, if you are a potential volunteer as a subject for the test, do not apply yet. Sylvia has shown that she's not very quick to respond, though I can't imagine why, with an easy million dollars awaiting her.

In any case, we have now met each and every objection made by Sylvia Browne, except that she does not like me. I must ask her, as I have with Uri Geller's refusal to be tested: would it not be very satisfying, if you don't like me, to take the million-dollar prize away from the JREF? Ah, but we're not dealing with regular mortals here, folks; these are specially-chosen and gifted persons, persons we cannot hope to understand.

Reader Wayne W. Urffer

I am a teacher, a Bright, and a devoted fan of your website. I would like to tell you about a recent experience of mine.

At a the National Tech Prep Conference, a conference for teachers of technology held in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month, Jack Canfield was the featured speaker at our opening meeting. Canfield is the developer of the "Chicken Soup" series of "inspirational" books. During his speech, Canfield wanted to make the point that if students don't believe they have limitations, they will perform as if they don't have limitations. Generally, this is good teaching theory — don't discourage students by telling them what they cannot do.

However, Canfield illustrated his point by saying that (I'm paraphrasing here) "In Europe, Uri Geller bends spoons using only the power of his mind. And European parents don't tell their children that they can't bend spoons with their minds. Consequently, there are children all over Europe who bend spoons with the power of their minds."

Now, Canfield is an "inspirational" author, so I was not particularly shocked by this. In fact, I expect him to bend the truth in order to make his "inspirations" more "real." What I found shocking was the number of teachers around the room who were nodding approval! Many Tech Prep teachers are teachers of the sciences, mathematics, and so on. I was truly disappointed that so many of them didn't seem able or willing to challenge Canfield's assertion about Uri Geller's "power." Worst of all, my colleagues were lined up for hours to get Canfield to autograph their copies of his books! Ugh!

I'm not much surprised, Wayne. Each year, I lecture for teachers' groups — often science teachers, at that — and though the larger percentage of the audience express their appreciation of my pro-science attitude and speech, a certain number of them simply stay away from the lecture, not wanting their cherished delusions questioned. I recall that a few years ago, one such disgruntled teacher approached me in high dudgeon, telling me that "Yes, I teach science, Mr. Randi, but I also know that science doesn't have all the answers, so I won't let my students be misinformed!" This is a teacher who doesn't even know a definition of the discipline she is teaching; I have to wonder whether she knows any useful, at all.

Mark Henderson, in The London Times, commented on the dismal results of the praying-for-patients experiment that recently took place, and the treatment given it by a popular television program — "Everyman" — in the UK:

Science has not exactly been shocked by the outcome of this expensive exercise in proving the obvious. That was not the impression, however, that the Everyman program gave.

This, the narrator said, was an experiment that could change the way we look at the Universe. The negative results were reported, but almost as an afterthought. There was more emphasis on "anomalies" in the data, hinting at small effects. The idea of getting people to pray for the prayer groups to enhance any benefit — increasing the dose of prayer — looked promising. The results, we were told, would be encouraging. Some benefits, Dr. Krucoff said, even "approached statistical significance."

This is ludicrous: a finding that approaches statistical significance is, by definition, statistically insignificant. You might as well be slightly dead. Yet Everyman left it wholly unchallenged. The casual viewer could be forgiven for thinking that this research had produced baffling results that mainstream medicine could not explain.

This is yet another example of how easily the slant of a story can depend entirely on the wishes or other prejudices of the writer, the editor, the producer, or the director of a media release. And, though we can never tell, there may be other forces — financial or sponsor-driven — that direct how the story is shaped. Mark continues:

The beatification of Mother Teresa rests partly on the miracle of Monica Besra, "cured" of a tumor by a beam of light from an image of the future saint. Her doctor, however, says that his patient did not have a tumor, but a tubercular cyst cured by the drugs he prescribed.

It's edifying to me to see how Mr. Henderson has treated both the "prayer" situation and the newly-elevated saint that the Pope has chosen to present to us....

Guess what! No response yet to my certified letter to Jim Thomas re his wonderful "Treasure Scope" dowsing device. Gee! It's been a full three weeks now! I guess he doesn't want the million dollars, but he'd better act now, before Sylvia snaps it up!

In closing, an interesting comment by Stephen F. Roberts: "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."