Horizon's Homeopathic Coup, Cuzco's Altitude, More Funny Sites, The Clangers, Overdue, Orbito Nabbed in Padua, Randi A Zombie?, Stellar Guests at Amazing Meeting, and Great New Shermer Books!
This last Tuesday, the BBC-TV "Horizon" show was broadcast in the UK. That's the one I mentioned a while back, for which I visited the UK to make contributions. Immediately following the broadcast, I participated in an Internet discussion about the program. Many viewers expressed their conviction that we'd heard the death-knell of this form of quackery; I disagreed. To explain my reluctance to join the funeral procession, I offer readers this:
Oliver Wendell Holmes, (1809-1894) was a celebrated physician, poet, humorist and professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard, as well as the father of O.W.H. Junior (1841-1935) , who became a renowned justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1842, Senior wrote an essay, "Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions," which had originally been presented by him as two lectures to the Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. This essay was reproduced in "Examining Holistic Medicine" (Prometheus Books, 1985).
I present here two excerpts from the essay, to illustrate just how little the situation has changed in the last 160 years.
In 1835 a public challenge was offered to the best-known Homeopathic physician in Paris to select any ten substances asserted to produce the most striking effects; to prepare them himself; to choose one by lot without knowing which of them he had taken, and try it upon himself or an intelligent and devoted Homeopathist, and, waiting his own time, to come forward and tell what substance had been employed. The challenge was at first accepted, but the acceptance was retracted before the time of trial arrived.
Sound familiar? In April of 1999, Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson publicly challenged the American Physical Society (APS) to conduct tests of the claims of Dr. Jacques Benveniste in regard to homeopathy, at the same time predicting that the APS would fear to do so. I advised the APS to accept Josephson's challenge, and they did so. They also offered to pay all costs of the tests. From that day to this three years and seven months ago we have not heard from either Brian Josephson, nor Jacques Benveniste....
Holmes Senior concluded:
From all this I think it fair to conclude that the catalogues of symptoms attributed in Homeopathic works to the influence of various drugs upon healthy persons are not entitled to any confidence.
Exactly the decision I came to, long ago. But read on. Holmes, in his essay, described the thorough manner in which homeopathic claims had been examined. He compared the eventual results to those met with when magical "tractors," devices said to "withdraw" diseases, invented by Dr. Elisha Perkins in 1801, were clearly shown to be pure quackery and yet persisted in Holmes' time.
Now to suppose that any trial can absolutely silence people, would be to forget the whole experience of the past. Dr. Haygarth and Dr. Alderson could not stop the sale of the five-guinea Tractors, although they proved that they could work the same miracles with pieces of wood and tobacco-pipe. It takes time for truth to operate, as well as Homoeopathic globules. Many persons thought the results of these trials were decisive enough of the nullity of the treatment; those who wish to see the kind of special pleading and evasion by which it is attempted to cover results which, stated by the "Homoeopathic Examiner" itself, look exceedingly like a miserable failure, may consult the opening flourish of that Journal. I had not the intention to speak of these public trials at all, having abundant other evidence on the point. But I think it best, on the whole, to mention two of them in a few words the one instituted at Naples and that of Andral.
One could certainly expect that after such comprehensive and authoritative testing had resulted in total failure, homeopathy would immediately have vanished from the further consideration of the profession and the public. But to quote from Dr. Holmes (above): ". . . to suppose that any trial can absolutely silence people, would be to forget the whole experience of the past." Homeopathy is still with us, and no doubt will survive any contrary evidence, simply because there is a huge commercial aspect to its continued existence, along with wide ignorance of how to judge these matters.
Dr. Holmes continued:
But these are old and prejudiced practitioners. Very well, then take the statement of Dr. Fleury, a most intelligent young physician, who treated homoeopathically more than fifty patients, suffering from diseases which it was not dangerous to treat in this way, taking every kind of precaution as to regimen, removal of disturbing influences, and the state of the atmosphere, insisted upon by the most vigorous partisans of the doctrine, and found not the slightest effect produced by the medicines. And more than this, read nine of these cases, which he has published, as I have just done, and observe the absolute nullity of aconite, belladonna, and bryonia, against the symptoms over which they are pretended to exert such palpable, such obvious, such astonishing influences.
As powerful, comprehensive, and evidential as the BBC "Horizon" program was and we're very happy that a major network has actually extended itself to do the testing procedure history tells us that the homeopathic community, those with heavy financial and philosophical interests in supporting this quackery, will rally, regroup, and begin obfuscating wildly to neutralize this damning research. They certainly cannot deny those behind it: top-notch medical, biophysical, and biochemical authorities, using the very best experimental standards, and adopting a firm statistical conclusion. But they will squirm and mumble, wriggle and grumble, complaining that it just had to be something wrong with the experimental procedure, not the theory itself.
Here are a few samples of the over-900 questions that arrived for me following the Horizon broadcast last Tuesday:
If some labs are creating positive results for homoeopathy and it is shown that water does not have memory should we be worried that many labs are not rigorous enough to be looking after our health?
No comments on the above....
Concerning the excellent handling of the homeopathic claims by Horizon, and at risk of being a bore, I repeat another caveat of Dr. Holmes: ". . . realize the entire futility of attempting to silence this asserted science by the flattest and most peremptory results of experiment. Were all the hospital physicians of Europe and America to devote themselves, for the requisite period, to this sole pursuit, and were their results to be unanimous as to the total worthlessness of the whole system in practice, this slippery delusion would slide through their fingers without the slightest discomposure."
The transcript of the Horizon program can be seen at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/homeopathytrans.shtml.
I urge you to read the entire Holmes account, at www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/holmes.html and get the whole matter in perspective. If you've not yet been exposed to pseudoscience at its very weirdest, you're in for a shock. This, friends, is what homeopathy is all about....
The first person to have correctly solved the "overly-precise Cuzco altitude" puzzle given last week, was Prof. Thomas H. Lee, Center for Integrated Systems, Stanford University. I was amazed at the interest this matter generated, and we can only publish here a small fraction of the reaction....
Readers Sigal and Avital Pilpel submitted their quite correct solution, and offered additional interesting comments:
I took "3,398.5 meters" to the very useful site, www.convert-me.com, and plugged it in. The first round number I got was that this value is exactly 11,150 feet. This was probably the original value given.
That was probably Sagan, Shermer informs me.... Sigal and Avital continue:
The undisputed champions of meaningless "accuracy," however, are without a doubt the "pyramidologists" or as archeologists call them, the pyramidiots. They are very fond of measuring various distances in the Great Pyramid to a millionth or a billionth of an inch. That is far beyond the range of accuracy of their instruments, let alone the differences made by the movement of a single grain of sand in or out of the way. This doesn't stop them from finding "amazing secrets" that were "encoded" into these values.
On this same subject, Roar Larsen, of Trondheim, Norway (beautiful town!) tells us:
Denver, Colorado, the "mile high city," at least used to pretend to be able to pinpoint the exact location of 1,609.344 metres above sea level (now, where on earth did that exact figure come from?) in their sports stadia, and I believe a corresponding seat/row in Coors Field (baseball) is colored purple, as opposed to the rest of the seats being green. Perhaps one could claim a refund if one could prove that this row was actually a little bit off on a given day? "Emotional suffering" caused with respect to one's deep-felt numerological (seldom was the letter combination "logical" more misappropriated!) religion?
On this subject, Carmen Margiatto comments:
I wonder if the author [of the travel book] believes that someone who wears a size 7-and-a-half hat has a head circumference of 23.5619449 inches?
And Per Johan Rasmark is relieved:
Obviously McDonalds have a point in inventing the Royal with cheese; I would not like to order a "0.113398 kg with cheese."
Still on the subject, I was sent a note by several readers about the following matter, first submitted by Daryl Lafferty:
This type of mis-conversion is also why we usually see 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit stated as normal human body temperature. The original estimate was roughly 37 degrees Celsius. If you blindly convert to Fahrenheit, you get 98.6. According to The American Medical Association Encyclopedia of Medicine (Random House, 1989), normal human body temperature varies from individual to individual and time to time by more than one degree F, with a median of about 98.4 by mouth and about 99 by rectum.
Ah, but if we take the mean of these two medians, we get 98.7..... I have no idea what that indicates, but there it is!
Another amusing contribution was from Greg Winslow, of Specialty Sensor Technologies Inc.:
For the last ten or fifteen years, Canada has been taken over by the metric-system-police, which has led to some rather hilarious bits in national magazines and newspapers. I recall reading an interview with an American fighter pilot, who was quoted as saying, "There's nothing like feeling the kick of 4535.92 kilograms of thrust to wake you up in the morning." Somehow, I think the original statement was "10 thousand pounds of thrust." I also remember reading about a man who was killed by a fall of "over 30.48 meters." What is a fall of "over 30.48 meters," exactly? 30.49 meters? 30.4800001 meters? Ya gotta wonder, although I understand the first 30.4 meters went quite well: it was the last .08 meters that killed him....
But the best and most succinct solution to the "Cuzco altitude" puzzle, presented the way I like to see it done, came from reader Paris Laskaris. And the joke's pretty good, too:
The most probable answer is that in the American edition, the altitude of the city was listed in feet, and when the German editors converted the altitude in meters, they left in too many significant figures, thus producing a number that is impossibly exact.
Okay, here's an easy one for you: why, in doctor's records, is the pulse rate for a patient always a number divisible by four? If you miss this one, stand in the corner for a week....
Oh, you must click in on this one! But be seated when you do. I'm not responsible for falls and abrasions from uncontrollable laughter.... http://www.moontruth.com/
John Haywood, London, UK, says that the pink figures on the site we suggested last week, http://www.stuffucanuse.com/fake_moon_landings/moon_landings.htm, are not at all strange to him, first appearing before his delighted eyes on November 16th, 1969:
All your readers who grew up in 1970's Britain will have instantly recognized the pictures as being from "The Clangers," a very surreal early seventies BBC-TV children's animation. They just don't make them like they used to.
John then asks:
Please, please keep up the good work exposing the ever-increasing hoards of quacks and charlatans out there.
Be assured, John, I've not the slightest intention of turning down the oven.....
An anonymous UK reader sends us this information:
Regarding quack medical devices, I'd encourage anyone in the UK to report them to the Advertising standards authority (ASA) at http://www.asa.org.uk. The burden of proof is on the advertiser to prove that the therapy/device/pill works. The ASA can rule (and has) that the evidence that the quack produces is not strong enough, and prevent them from making the same claims again.
I dearly wish it were so in the USA, sir. But I wonder if the ASA will be contacted now that BBC Horizon has blown a very loud whistle......?
Mark Johnson, also in the UK, reports the latest development in the Geller/Football saga:
With regard to his support for the Exeter team, Mr. Geller was heard to say: "I never send negative thoughts to anyone, it would be unethical. The best team on the day will win."
Randi comments: Just think of the psychic skill that went into that last prognostication! The training, the practice, the late nights and the dedication required to be able to make such a stunning prediction! Mark continues:
I am sure, like me, you are delighted to hear that Mr. Geller is not doing anything as dangerous as sending "unethical" negative thoughts, given the efficacy of his thoughts in regard to Exeter and Reading football clubs. Surely though, if he acknowledges that the best team on the day will win, what are we to conclude is Mr. Geller's own assessment of his own "powers"?
Reader Iain Roberts, Leidschendam, Netherlands, reports to us on the latest status of Geller's team, Exeter City. They're now 90th out of 92 teams in the professional leagues, but played an amateur team, the Forest Green Rovers, two weeks ago. The game, Iain reports, was a fairly dull 0-0 draw. As the match commentators said, if Uri knew what the match was going to be like, he could have done them all a favor and told them. They wouldn't have bothered coming.
We're privileged to bring you this edition of the comic strip "Overdue," by permission from Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum. Thanks, guys.....
Reader Joe DeMartino comments on my "Formello Wedding Cake" item two weeks ago, where I wrote, "I turned to Piero and asked, 'Are you sure we're not in the middle of a Fellini movie?' The question was not all that fanciful...." Says Joe:
As Fran Liebowitz wrote years ago, "You only have to spend an hour or two in Rome to realize that Fellini made documentaries."
Reader Clyde Stringer suggests that for an entertaining account of how some folks are handling the "Nigerian Letter" scam mentioned last week, you can go to http://sweetchillisauce.com/nigeria.html and laugh along. He adds:
I am conducting a similar charade with a scammer. My character's name is Indiana Jones, famous archaeologist. We have been trading emails for a month. According to my last correspondence, Indy will be arriving at the Lome, Togo airport today, November 23, to personally deliver the good faith money. The scammer's brother will be waiting. I am sure I will get the "where were you?" email soon.
Proud to know you, Clyde! Keep us informed of your scam scam!
Massimo Polidoro sends us this report on one of the most famous and prosperous of the Filipino "psychic surgeons" and his progress in Italy. This man Orbito was written up in my book, "Flim-Flam!" Here is the report:
The Philippine "healer" Alex Orbito was arrested in Padua two weeks ago, together with his cousin and seven friends from the "Asian Pyramid" association, all accused of criminal conspiracy for the purpose of fraud. Orbito had promised healings by bare-handed pseudo-surgery, without anaesthesia, incisions or scars.
During a three-day meeting at the Piroga hotel in Padua, the "maestro" and his friends piled up a sum of 50 thousand Euros [about US$50,000]. Each one of the 170 victims who crowded the meeting paid a subscription fee of 235 Euros plus 250 Euros for the "surgery." The NAS team (Nucleo Ati Sofisticazioni, a department in charge of frauds involving food, drugs and medicine practices) raided the place at the last minute, when the healer had already pocketed the loot and was clutching his return airline ticket to Manila, Philippines. By a lucky coincidence, a CICAP team (Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sul Paranormale, CICAP) were also conducting an investigation on the healer during the police raid.
This is a major victory for the skeptics movement, Massimo Polidoro, CICAP, and their associates. We congratulate them all, and we thank Giuseppe Bottacin for his courtesy in translating for us the original news item from the Italian.
Still haven't heard from dowser Russ Thompson, who so loudly challenged me and offered to give his million to charity when he won it. Nor from Sylvia. Sigh......
But reader Erno Risthein, from Estonia, suggests:
I think that [Russ] could do this dowsing test you mentioned and he could donate this money to the American Cancer Society by himself (if he succeeds). I don't see a problem here!
At www.merlin.org you'll find an hilarious site that spoofs others that take their declarations very seriously. Here you'll find two lists, from which I've taken a few highlights, but you must read the original to get the full impact.
KNOW YOUR ENEMIES. Know ye, all here present, that the following individuals and organizations are enemies of psychic freedom. We sanction all measures you may deem necessary against them, including cranial implosion.
The second person on this illustrious list, we find to be:
The Amazing Randi. His mouldering [sic] corpse fights us from beyond the grave. The Amazing Randi was to psychics what Pol Pot was to Cambodians. Warning: If you see this man, do not attempt to apprehend him. His zombie body is ten times stronger in death than it was in life.
That's followed by such "ENEMIES" groups as, ACLU, American Psychological Association, Center for the Advancement of Objectivism (here, Ayn Rand is referred to as "The Amazing Randi's undead bride"), the CIA, CSICOP ("in the pay of the International Communist Party"), Dow Chemical, the FBI, Federal Reserve System, IRS, Rush Limbaugh, MIT, Microsoft, NASA, National Council Against Health Fraud ("CIA-funded quacks, leading the fight to prevent you from using health insurance to pay for laying on of hands, and diagnostic aura readings"), NPR, USAF, and the Red Cross.
Then we find "KNOW YOUR FRIENDS," with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kim Jong Il, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, and others listed.
Anyone out there know who's behind this site? I'd like to shake a hand or two....
Reader Frank Womble, after solving the "Cuzco" problem of last week, offers:
The article about Upledger's use of "dolphin energy" was the most absurd thing I've seen reported your web site yet. I've read things about "dolphin therapy" where children are allowed to swim in tanks and interact with dolphins. A look at the Dolphin Human Therapy website http://www.dolphinhumantherapy.com/Mainpages/mainDiagnoses.htm indicates that children with autism, cerebral palsy, and Down's Syndrome are the most frequent "patients." The children seem to derive something positive from the experience, which is not surprising, given how exciting, fun, and unusual the experience can be. As an avid scuba diver, I can tell you that it's great fun to be in the water with any large species, and that dolphins do exhibit a curiosity towards divers that few other species do (although barracuda are intensely curious of divers, too). But to claim that some sort of measurable energy is inexplicably transferred from dolphins to humans, is patently ridiculous.
I can believe that interaction with dolphins could be an excellent form of therapy, seeing that similar interactions are noted between humans and regular canine and feline pets. This Upledger claim is borrowing on a subtle fact and expanding it unreasonably into a paranormal matter.
One only one of the special people appearing at The Amazing Meeting will be Marvin Minsky! He just called and announced his intention. Marvin has made many contributions to AI [Artificial Intelligence], cognitive psychology, mathematics, computational linguistics, robotics, and optics. His conception of human intellectual structure and function is presented in The Society of Mind (CDROM), a book which is also the title of the course he teaches at MIT.
Marvin received his BA and PhD in mathematics at Harvard and Princeton. His inventions include the SNARC (the first neural network simulator), mechanical hands and other robotic devices, the confocal scanning microscope, the "Muse" synthesizer for musical variations (with E. Fredkin), and the first LOGO "turtle" (with S. Papert). A member of the NAS, NAE and Argentine NAS, he has received the ACM Turing Award, the MIT Killian Award, the Japan Prize, the IJCAI Research Excellence Award, the Rank Prize, the Robert Wood Prize for Optoelectronics, and the Benjamin Franklin Medal.
And, ready for this? I just received the registration of Fred Durant III, astrophysicist, former Assistant Director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and president of the International Astronomical Federation. Haven't seen this illustrious gentleman for years. When Horkheimer, Plait, and Durant get together.....!
We also have an offer from Susan Barnett, director of the beautiful Buehler Planetarium near here, to host a visit during the Meeting. They have a 16" telescope (telescopes are measured by diameter of the main optic, not length!) and Orion will be overhead....! We can only accommodate 30 persons on such a visit, so get your reservation in early.
See? You'll be in rarified company when you attend The Amazing Meeting! Hey, they don't call me "The Amazing" just because I'm cute.....!
There's no question of it: Michael Shermer (another one of our star speakers at The Amazing Meeting in January!) is a prolific writer. His scholarship is astonishing, and I will recommend here and now that you get to "In Darwin's Shadow," a spectacular, thorough, very revealing biography of Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who co-discovered evolution and natural selection at the same time that Darwin did, and who effectively hurried Darwin into print with "The Origin of Species" when he announced his own parallel discoveries. Wallace discovered and classified literally thousands of new specimens of life in his travels, made under far more arduous and challenging circumstances than Darwin's famous "Beagle" expedition, and he won the proper respect of Darwin for his original and important analysis and pursuit of the idea of evolution. One of the negative aspects of his life and work was his whole-hearted acceptance of spiritualism, which was to cloud his acceptance by other scientists and reduce their respect for his real discoveries and contributions.
Shermer is obviously in some awe of the work of Wallace, and treats him with compassion and understanding. This book is, in my opinion, absolutely necessary for an understanding of the whole matter of evolution and of just how convincing and solid its evidence is. And, it brings a deserving and modest man of science to our attention.
But there's more as they say on the shopping channel. We've just received a handsome set of Shermer's two-volume "The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience." This is dedicated to me, an honor I very much cherish. Its 903 pages are packed with articles that will inform and astonish any reader, about half culled from The Skeptic Magazine, the rest specially commissioned.
The price is out of sight, but Shermer tells me they're soon going to produce a soft-cover edition, plus a CD-ROM version. So there's hope.
Excellent books, both of them!
In closing this week, I'll quote from Peter E. Petersen, Oslo, Norway, who comments on the "Miracle2" water we mentioned two weeks back:
[They] claim that atoms "remember" earlier information, and that this information is exchanged between "parallel universes" faster than the speed of light! Wow! Why don't they contact the remaining atoms of the body of Einstein, who said nothing travels faster than the speed of light, and see if these atoms now have changed their minds. My advice is: don't drink the soap, you may drink atoms who will be able to remember your credit card code, and you never know where those atoms end up later.
Good advice, Peter!