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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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."