December 13, 2002

Those Perpetual Magnets, Uncomplimentary Medicine, An Elegant Dowsing Lesson!, Blasted Cat, Astrology Dissed, Unicorn Bones?, Planet X Cometh, Eclipse Wonders, A Vancouver "Genius", and More Ark Archness.....

Jonah Edwards, Victoria, BC, is appalled at one Walter Rawls, who appeared on a radio show recently to answer questions on his theories and discoveries. He claims to represent a Florida-based company, Biomagnetics, Inc., which I cannot find listed anywhere in Florida (or elsewhere) though this name is much-used in quackery. Says Jonah:

One caller asked Rawls how his life had been positively affected by his 30+ years use of therapeutic magnetism, to which he replied "...chronologically I am 74 years old, but if you were to see me or feel how I feel, you would realize that I am actually 61 years old... I attribute this slowing of the aging process to 30 years of drinking north-pole charged water...." How Rawls determined that he had taken exactly 13 years off his chronological age was not explained.

A caller asked Rawls what he knew about claims of a perpetual-motion machine being created using magnets. Rawls responded that these "free-energy" machines are possible and have probably been made, but we do not see many (any?) on the market as "...they are very difficult to make."

I agree! Very difficult, indeed! I'm constantly astonished at how these fakers can get away with such lame alibis, but they do. They use "very difficult" as a synonym for "impossible," and the investors simply accept it... Jonah continues:

Rawls repeatedly warned listeners to be wary of other magnet therapy outlets attempting to sell nothing more than slabs of rock or metal. Even worse, he warned, are the hucksters who will sell dangerous "south-pole" magnets with potentially life-threatening consequences. Evidently "south-pole" energy will increase the pH of the blood and could worsen an already-poor medical condition. As you would expect, he offered nothing to back up this claim. Rawls then noted that his company sells a "Magneto-Meter" for $95 which will accurately test third-party magnets for proper polarization and strength. I assume that we are to draw the conclusion that we can save our $95 by just buying the pre-tested magnet therapy products sold by Mr. Rawls and avoid being disappointed by ineffective or possibly deadly products from his competitors.

A skeptical caller finally made it to the air and asked Rawls if he could cite any studies that prove the effectiveness of magnet therapies. Rawls made some vague references to "Nobel prize winners" who have witnessed the power of magnets in healing, as well as various universities (not mentioning any specific studies or even years) which have also validated his claims. BioMagnetics' website contains additionally (and equally-vague) endorsements such as that by Kevin Dalton, in Australia, who in 2002 was awarded the Australian Sports Medal by Queen Elizabeth II for his use of the Davis and Rawls magnetics with sports participants, including Australian Olympic winners. I'm sure that you had the same question after reading this testimonial: The Queen gave him a medal for using magnets?

Finally, Rawls began speaking about how the use of (north-pole charged) magnets in eyeglasses has been proven to reverse the effects of cataracts. To paraphrase Martin Gardner: "Cataracts can be reversed no more than an egg can be un-fried." You'll be less than surprised to hear that Rawls/BioMagnetics is selling these same magnetic-lens glasses on their website for $60.

Of course there are no such things as north- or south-pole magnets. And yes, I'm less than surprised. They'll continue to make money, dishonestly and illegally. And nothing can be done about it, because government agencies just don't care.

An anonymous reader sent in this perceptive commentary two weeks ago....

This week's Newsweek has a cover story on "complementary alternative medicine." Brief critique: it states that CAM treatments are now being subjected to scientific scrutiny with proper trials etc., which is well and good, but it fails to tell the reader why this is so important. It does not address the reasons why CAM is popular, and seems oblivious to the fact that this phenomenon is not at all new and has been around for millennia — see history below — and that all medicines are "alternative" until their effectiveness is proven.

As Franklin said, circa 1780, "there are no bigger liars than quacks — except for their patients." And that was 10 years before Hahnemann invented homeopathy, for example, and 100 years before chiropractic.

The Newsweek article makes virtually no mention of homeopathy, therapeutic touch, or other such nonsense therapies which have been tested and about which the pseudo-scientific alleged "mechanisms" are well understood. Instead, the article addresses only those CAM therapies which might have some plausibility, and it remains silent on the clearly implausible ones, leaving the impression with the uninformed reader that all alternative medicines have some plausibility. It rates chiropractic as "likely safe and effective for low-back pain," and draws no distinction between true, traditional chiropractic as invented by Daniel Palmer in 1895 "subluxations" and "spinal energy" nonsense) and the somewhat more valid [?] "chiropractic" increasingly practiced today, which is basically just physio-massage therapy under the marketing banner of chiropractic. Nor does it caution about the dangers of chiropractic.

All in all, this is another example of the mainstream media failing to educate the public properly on what we know and don't know and — most important — why we know and don't know it. But at least it wasn't unduly sensationalized, and it paid some lip service to scientific methodology. Best of all, there's not a single mention of Andrew Weil or Deepak Chopra.

Herewith the 3000-year history of alternative medicine in 30 seconds:

1000 BCE: "Eat this root."

100 CE: "That root's heathen, don't eat it. Say this prayer."

1800 CE: "That prayer is superstition, don't say it. Drink this snake-oil."

1900 CE: "That snake-oil is phony, don't drink it. Take this pill."

2002 CE: "That pill is artificial, don't take it. Eat this root.

Our anonymous contributor has pointed out the dramatic failures of Newsweek — among other major news sources — to properly inform their readers/consumers. Having been present myself at top-level meetings with editors and producers, at which decisions were made in this regard, I can tell you that they have no problem at all ruling that the preferences of the public must be served, regardless of the truth or falsity of the text.

Reader Simon Nicholson brings up a very popular self-delusion, and how it was made evident by a teacher to his pupils in a most effective and convincing manner:

I see that the topic of dowsing has once again made it into the commentary. Oddly enough, I was about to send you an e-mail on this issue. I would call this synchronicity, but I'm not a Jung man. I have recently undertaken a part-time course in Archaeology, a long-time hobby interest of mine. I thought it time I formalized my knowledge, and as a lecturer, one of the few perks of my job is that I am entitled to free courses. On browsing the otherwise excellent recommended textbook for the course, I was astonished to see that alongside aerial photography, geophysics and seismology, dowsing was mentioned as a survey technique!

Now, although very senior to me in the academic hierarchy, the author of this book is a colleague of mine, and I intend to buttonhole him at the next opportunity and take this up with him — I'll let you know the results. I will not at this stage name the book or its author, until I have had the chance to talk with him. I rather suspect that the section on dowsing is included as a caveat rather than as a recommendation; he summarizes, "at best this is an erratic technique."

Of that I have no doubt. I also have no doubt that when practiced by someone with a good practical knowledge of field archaeology, dowsing with rods can sometimes hit the jackpot. I have dowsed myself, and can confirm that it works, for (as Terry Pratchett would say) a given value of "works." It's a similar story to that shared by a reader in a SWIFT commentary a few months back.

It was back in the balmy summer of 1977, when I was in the lower VI, and being 16 going on 17, knew just about everything about everything. One day a group of my friends and I were surprised to bump into Charlie, our physics master, walking about the quad with what appeared to be a pair of bent wire coat hangers in his hands.

Now, Charlie was a remarkable man, Ex-Battle-of-Britain Spitfire pilot, humanitarian, and the best teacher I have ever encountered. He explained the concept of dowsing, and how the rods were supposed to be used. He then invited us to have a go. He pointed out the line of a drain running under the "Sacred acre" — a square lawn in the middle of the quad — and suggested we try our hands at dowsing over it. To our excitement and astonishment, on walking over the line of the drain Charlie had pointed out, the rods crossed. I will never forget the thrill I experienced. We all had mystic powers! We were young Jedi!

Charlie let us loose with a set of rods and a vague incitement to freely experiment over the next few days, then report back to him at the next physics lesson. Well, we went to it with all the enthusiasm and egotism of youth. By the time we reported back to Charlie, we had tales of wonder to tell. Our powers were extraordinary. We could not only locate all manner of hidden objects with extraordinary accuracy, but could also divine the nature of the hidden object via a sort of 20-questions technique.

Charlie listened keenly to our feedback. Then, without actually putting us down or dampening our enthusiasm, he gently encouraged us to think more critically about what was going on. Had we actually been recording our results? Had we compared "hits" with "misses"? What sort of controls were in place? And so on.

Armed with his suggestions, we went back to our experiments. One thing we spontaneously established, that I'm rather proud of, is that no exterior force, be it electromagnetism or some preternatural energy, was involved in moving the rods — this was due to tiny movements of the hands and wrists. We determined this by careful observation and by the use of clamps and wrist restraints. Once we had started to objectively record our misses rather than just successes, the effectiveness of the dowsing instantly became less impressive, yet we still had a steady run of hits. Realizing that it was the operator causing the rods to cross, we took the (retrospectively obvious) step of excluding the person doing the dowsing from the process of selecting or hiding the target. This caused another dramatic fall in hits, yet hits we still had, and when analyzed, the results did seem significant.

By now, however, we were thinking skeptically, and it occurred to us that we dowsers could be reading subliminal clues, la Clever Hans, from our companions doing the recording. We therefore changed the test design so that no one involved in the "field work" was aware of the location of the test objects. That effectively ended the successes, and hits fell back to a level consistent with random chance. It was only then that Charlie rather wickedly confessed that the original drain in the sacred acre, that we had all excitedly identified, did not exist! He had just implied that it did, and that if we were sufficiently "sensitive" we could detect it with the rods. We fell for it, hook-line-and-sinker, and six months subscription to Angling Times. Our egos and imaginations had done the rest.

It was disappointing to discover that we were not young Jedis. But we had taken steps to becoming young scientists, and of course, that was what Charlie was up to; we had learned about good experimental design, double-blind testing, statistical analysis of data and above all, about critical thinking. And we had done it in our own time, with enthusiasm, thinking we were just having fun.

I remember vividly a conversation with Charlie in which one of our group, reluctant to let go of the idea of supernatural powers, mentioned that it was important to remain open-minded. "To be sure," said Charlie, "but a truly open mind has to be open to the possibility that a radical idea, however exciting, may prove to be a load of codswallop!"

To return to my original theme; the point is that while none of us were deliberately or consciously cheating, we were making it all happen in accord with what we already knew, or with guesses based on the reactions of our friends. So I am quite prepared to believe that on some occasions, a person with a good underpinning knowledge of how local topography links to underlying archaeology, perhaps also a pre-existing familiarity with the site, can locate materials with a rod or pendulum. They are merely using these tools, consciously or unconsciously, to give voice to shrewd guesses.

However, I find it disturbing that an apparent endorsement of dowsing finds its way into a serious textbook. I shall keep you posted.

Thank you, Simon. That was an excellent account of a good experiment. And, need I tell you, Charlie is my kinda guy? That's the way science — and critical thinking — should be taught!

Paul Gallimore presented us with a puzzle last week. It involved strange sounds, weird blue lights, and a startled viewer — Paul! — suspecting that UFOs just might be moving in. The actual solution was correctly arrived at by many readers, except that the unfortunate feline rather intimately involved in the phenomenon, was not guessed. Read on.....

As we learned from the local Luton Herald newspaper four days later, a cat had positioned itself across a couple of bus bars in the nearby power sub-station and had lost all nine lives in just about the most spectacular demonstration of electricity that you could ever witness. The test of my assumption of the origin of the strange phenomenon was to simply walk over to the light switch and try the lights. They did not come on, which I guessed would be the case when I saw how dark it was outside. No lights in the town were on, either.

The point of my tale is this: if I had not deduced the reason for the spectacular light show (I had a clue already, as I had done an apprenticeship with the railway and once saw something almost as good), and if I had not read about the event in the local paper, what would I have been left with as an explanation? What would most people conclude after witnessing that? You can see how stories get started, can't you?

Paul, to borrow from the True Believer Arsenal of Dumb Reactions: Can you prove that the cat wasn't placed there by The Aliens From Space to confound the authorities? Hah! Gotcha!

Reader Zachary Bos writes us his personal views on that most ancient of flummeries, astrology:

Astrology waxed in societies where there was no more adequate story for the stars. As technology advanced our knowledge (and vice versa), the "science" of astrology waned in relation to the brighter arts of reason, empiricism, astronomy. But as the previously-unknown actors of "media," "audience," and "consumer" developed, it became profitable practice to take advantage of those superstitions held over from times that knew no better.

Today, newspapers run astrology columns because they attract readers. James Van Praagh and John Edward enjoy burgeoning sales, and books explaining the strangely-undocumented-but-of-course-credible relationship between the topology of the iris and the health of the diverse organs, are churned out in millions by pulp printers.

It is my opinion (fervent, though I recognize subjective) that it is a moral imperative to stem the flow of mystical drivel. I do not dismiss "New Age" wisdom out of hand. I remain open to the possibility that the ancient Vedas, Hyperboreans, or Druids might have enjoyed some special power of awareness through their skill at chiromancy, crystal gazing, or navel contemplation. But, I reserve my right to evaluate any claim on the merit of the evidence of its efficacy.

Astrology claims that the astronomical bodies exert influence on the personalities, behavior, and luck of human beings. But this claim ignores many logical laughables, for example: there is no documented correlation between "personality" and "sign," though such a link has been long-sought, and the terms themselves have been made very, very amendable to statistical stretching — there is no known mechanism which might explain the ability of planets, stars, etc., to selectively endow individuals with certain properties only at the moment of their birth, and to not exert that formative influence during pre- and post-natal development. For these and many other reasons, astrology is bunk, but rather than fading into the annals of absurdity, it enjoys special status as a widespread hobby and lucrative profession! People are making money from the ignorance of others, and enthusiasts devote time and energy to hollow mysticism rather than learning about the truly amazing — and what is more, the true! — revelations of modern astronomy.

Randi comments: I must add here that a proper correlation between "sign" and personality would most certainly serve to win the JREF million-dollar prize, yet no astrologer will undertake to perform such a simple test....!

I think the satisfaction of affirming truth, denouncing falsity and the repugnance of said falsity's opportunists, is more than worth the possibility of having to face misplaced criticism. I have found that the proponents of fallacious arguments are always ready to cry "ad hominem!" instead of looking to salvage their position with logic. But that is just me. I hope I do not seem too militant! Since my militancy is a secret weapon and I do not want it so readily revealed!

The fact of the matter is, I feel very strongly that people of scientific prominence should make every effort in their power to educate others, and to debunk ridiculous notions we should have left in our less illuminated history. But that description of my mission is not a proscription for your article. I am afraid I have taken advantage of the opportunity you presented me to show a little passion....but you did ask what I thought about it. I repeat: as an editor, I affirm your right to write about whatever you like. As a science writer in my own right, I encourage you to lob a few at the inanity.

I look forward to reading your column each week. Thanks for the effort you put into it and the insight I am able to pull out of it.

Zachary mentions the responsibility of scientists to "make every effort in their power to educate others, and to debunk ridiculous notions." I will ask you to recall that the late Carl Sagan was a leader in that respect, though he was often criticized by his peers for expressing himself so publicly. Luckily for us, he didn't pay much attention to those academics....

We're told that a New Zealand furniture importer this month bought a box of bones from a dealer in Indonesia who claimed that they came from a deceased unicorn. However, astute investigators at the NZ Ministry of Agriculture determined that the bones, a prohibited import under NZ's strict regulations, had apparently been dipped in concrete to make them look fossilized, and concluded they actually were rather less unique than claimed. They came from a cow or a water buffalo. The bones were destroyed.

So much for that importer's powers of discernment. One must wonder what kind of furniture might have resulted.... And I have Aladdin's original rubbing-lamp somewhere around the office here, another item that he might like to invest in....

Reader Temple Cave reminds me:

Randi, I'm sure you've heard of Nancy Lieder: the person who claims that Planet X is supposed collide with Earth, killing 90% of human life, in May of 2003. She also claims that the government is covering up the existence of this "brown dwarf," fearing public pandemonium if the existence of the rogue planet is revealed. Never mind that it should be brighter than Jupiter in the night sky, based upon its purported size and position, as it approaches us; apparently every scientist and amateur astronomer with access to a set of sky charts is in on the conspiracy, too, given the fact that it should be quite visible to the unaided eye — at night, of course.

In any case, she and one of her minions have released photos of the planet, which provide unequivocal proof of its existence and movement towards us. I thought you might want to take a look at these incredible photos, which were released on December 4th. Just follow the link to see them.

I've already started digging in. I hope I can dig deep enough to be one of those ten percent left alive. BTW, the ten percent figure was apparently revealed to Nancy from a group of deep space aliens called Zetans, who channel through her to provide useful information, such as our impending destruction — sort of an Alien News Network.

With the end-of-life-as-we-know-it approaching quickly, I can't for the life of me figure out why Nancy continues to make public appearances and sell her books and videos on her website. Personally, I'd be swapping those books and tapes for dried goods and a back-hoe.

One quick question: if her predictions turn out to be true, will she qualify to win the $1,000,000.00 prize?

I just can't resist pointing out the 9-digit accuracy of Mr. Temple's question.....! Didn't we just discuss this matter....?

This entire Planet X thing will be the subject of much debate and revelation at The Amazing Meeting in 50 days! Phil Plait and Jack Horkheimer will have much to say about all that, I assure you!

Henrik Herranen, who we met in these pages as the one who with his wife Emma definitively bombed out some visiting aliens — energy creature pictures in an Egyptian tomb (I kid you not, do a search!) has sent us these epiphanous comments after an event on December 4th:

With the world so full of nonsense, I thought that I might share with you a real wonder of nature that science helped us to see. At this very moment I am with my friends in Australia, and we've just witnessed the second largest light show there is (second only to the Northern Lights), namely The Year 2002 Solar Eclipse.

Why did I say that science helped us see the eclipse? There are tons of reasons, explained below. First, we had to get from Finland to Australia. If time is limited, the only real option is using an aircraft, which is quite a scientific wonder. There you are, 12 km above the ground: outside there is air that has a temperature of -60 degrees Celsius and which is way too thin to be breathable. Also, there is enough radiation to burn you badly in just a few moments. Still, you're sitting comfortably inside in a comfortable 25C temperature complaining about your meal. I've always been happy to be able to eat at all so close to such a hostile environment!

Next, you get to a hostel, with air conditioning. You get to go scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef, with equipment again based on scientific discoveries. You look at satellite maps on the Internet to find a cloudless spot — not too difficult a task in the desert. You drive several hundred kilometers with a car along Stuart Highway, and use your GPS to find the exact "sweet spot" where you should be getting 0.4 seconds more eclipse than everyone else. Then, finally, you use several digital four-megapixel cameras and digital videocameras to store those precious seconds to be remembered forever. And what's even better: after the show, you use a mobile phone to upload the pictures you took, onto the Internet. Just thinking of the amount of scientific theory and engineering that went into making it possible to use a Finnish mobile phone in Australia to upload pictures to a Finnish Web site is... my English vocabulary fails me, sorry!

All in all: you need truckloads of science to fully savor the fleeting moments of a total solar eclipse. The only place where the supernatural and occult creeps in is here in Adelaide, where I can get my fortune read from Tarot cards for AU$30. I know my fortune: I and my friends made it for ourselves.

Hey, fully agreed! How easy it is to just turn a water faucet, hop onto a bicycle, or slip on one's spectacles, without thinking of the genius that went into developing these conveniences. Let's give some more thought to such matters, folks. Henrik reminds me of the excitement we can generate with kids just by letting them look at a planet or the Moon through binoculars for the first time. That needs to be done..... Henrik's account of the eclipse appears at

Here's a statement that speaks volumes, written by John Hutchison, a crackpot Vancouver "researcher" who has solved why he's so brilliant:

I attribute my discoveries due to a lack of a conventional science education; otherwise, I wouldn't have done the kinds of experiments that gave me the strange phenomena. But my lack of doing (and recording) experiments in the "proper" way has frustrated scientists who want to understand and repeat my findings. And that has made it more difficult for me to interact with experts on the front edge of physics who want to help advance the discovery. However, I believe that communication will occur naturally when a bond of intuition takes place between myself and a scientist pursuing my findings.

Says Shawn Bishop about this revelation:

Yeah, sure, John. Doing and recording experiments in the "proper" way can only be done when the experiments actually do something. Otherwise, there is nothing to log/write! Another scam. With TRIUMF [Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics, where Shawn works] just "down the road" one has to wonder why he doesn't ask us to be involved....

Last week I drew attention to the calculations of a reader who pointed out that The Ark of Noah would not have been big enough to even accommodate a pair of every species of beetle, let alone camels and elephants. Ah, but a Christian has valiantly sprung to the defense of the Biblical account. Here are excerpts that reveal our ignorance:

The Bible does not say that Noah brought aboard two of every species. The Bible says "two of every kind" of animal. Well, what is a kind? A "kind" is the basic variety of an animal, which the various species came from. For example, biologists realize that the various varieties of pigeons all came from ONE KIND, the "rock pigeon." So, instead of saving two of every one of the hundreds of varieties of pigeon, Noah would have only saved two rock pigeons.

Oh. I see....

Or, dogs. Through breeding, and over hundreds of years, many varieties of dogs have arisen, but they came from only ONE KIND of dog. So, Christian biologists have calculated that there would have been, roughly, 16,000 "kinds" of animals on the ark. Noah would have taken very young animals, as they would have survived the trip easier, and been more likely to reproduce. (Please note, most dinosaurs are a lot smaller than the tyrannosaurus rex! If he took a pair of them aboard, I'm sure he would have taken the smallest babies he could find.)

Most of the animals on the ark would have been smaller than a sheep. A large cattle car on a train carries up to one hundred head of sheep, and one thousand cars would have fit inside Noah's ark.

If you take all of this into account, Noah would have had more than enough room for the animals, and food for the animals and his family.

Well, my ignorance has once more been proven. Without critics like this, that calculation just might have been believed! How refreshing to have someone handy who knows what God really meant. And of course the King James translation is to be depended upon for the exact facts and terminology. However, I do wonder how old Noah managed to get even 16,000 "kinds" of animals together and keep them all happy and fed.... And the waste products....? Whew!

I've put together a few pertinent quotations from much wiser persons than I, which I'll throw in occasionally as seasoning. These are all things that I wish I'd had the wit to declare, but then I've been very busy.....

My position concerning God is that of an agnostic. I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment.

Albert Einstein
Till next week....