Reader Nick Brown, in Strasbourg, France, reports on une marche à la renverse from the sensible decision of the French government we reported back at www.randi.org/jr/101504gallic.html#1:
A few months back you published a short note which I sent you about homeopathy in France... but the final result was disappointing. The Minister for Health essentially acknowledged that homeopathy has no therapeutic value, but decided to continue reimbursing it under the French national health insurance scheme, on the grounds that (a) it wasn't a big part of the budget (I'd dispute that) and (b) ten million people take it.
In other words, he didn't want to upset voters by telling them the truth. Still, at least that's consistent with how politicians generally operate.
Next, Mr. Brown sends us to a genuinely hilarious site that appears to have been constructed by kids who are just getting acquainted with the notion of grammar – let alone communication. It’s to be seen at www.brynaherb.co.uk. Bear in mind that this isn’t a Robert Benchley skit, nor a Bill Maher routine; it’s actually meant to be taken seriously. So, recalling a Benchley quote: “The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him,” I offer a few [text] extracts from this giddy bunch who sell [plant] extracts – and magic rocks. Writes Nick:
I'm writing today to inform you about the funniest pseudo-science Web site I've ever seen. There you can book a "distance healing" session (you'll feel better by e-mail), order "power plant essences" (apparently these are made not only without diesel-powered generators, but even without plants – and this is claimed as a virtue!), or, for the true sophisticate, 30ml of "essence of Uranus" (as Dave Barry would say, "I'm not making this up"). It would be funny if it weren't true...
Randi: The extracts I’ve chosen from the site:
With the consent of the individual, essences help to bring about positive changes. They work on the subtle energy system of the etheric, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. Healing and transformation takes place as the energy system starts to release any negative patterns present on these levels…. They can also be used to connect to and explore individual plant spirits. BrynaHerb Essences help to release blocked energies present in Chakras, Meridians and Nadis. They can be used along side [sic] any other therapy. Each 10ml bottle is sold at stock level. Each bottle is hand-made and preserved in organic vodka. For healing issues related to the mother archetype. For understanding and connecting to the natural cycles of the goddess energy.
A clue to how these essences help you feel better may be found on the "Using Essences" page. I suspect the presence of alcohol may not be entirely uncoincidental. But it's "organic vodka," so that's OK...
We received many notices from readers (thank you!) who looked in on the "7 Great Lies of Religion" site, as I requested, and they’ve cleared up the problem that reader Charles Smallwood encountered there. In any case, that item on the site seems to no longer be accessible, which I’ll accept as a blessing….
The man running the atheist site informed me:
I noticed that your recent commentary had a mention that a reader of my IAmAnAtheist.com site who was worried that it was a front for religious thinking. Banish the thought! Apparently, your reader clicked on one of the Google ads and thought it was part of my site's content. Because of Google's process of assigning ads based on content, IAmAnAtheist gets lots of ads from religious organizations. I get money when interested people click on these ads, and I don't mind that religious organizations are paying the expenses of my atheist site, but it worries me that someone might misunderstand the site's point. I'll modify the site this weekend to clearly label the ads. Hopefully that will avoid further confusion.
It appears that Charles was lured by the ads accompanying the listing – which were not in any way connected to the site itself. As we’d expect, those tricky proselytizers got in there disguised as innocent observers. Next thing you know, they’ll start re-naming Creationism as Intelligent Design, or some such scheme….
James Van Praagh claims he communicates with the dead. Such pretensions are always laughable, and often revolting. Now this tubby travesty of a man has gone over the line, big time. He has chosen to insult the memory of a friend who would kick his butt if he were here to defend himself. On the “Insider” TV program, plugging his latest foray into deception via TV, Van Praagh claimed that he’d contacted the ghost of Johnny Carson. To no one’s surprise, hosts Pat O'Brien and Victoria Recano, were “stunned” by his ability to look up information on them via the Internet, and to provide them with the usual array of picayune “revelations.” As reader Kevin Almeyda, who lists himself as a “proud JREF member,” observed:
Van Praagh also claimed to contact Recano's deceased sister and he informed Recano that her departed sister revealed to him that the reporter loves shoes. I don't know about you, Mr. Randi, but if I were able to give a message to my family from "the other side," I may have more important things to discuss than my sibling's love of quality footwear.
Just look at the inane crap conjured up by the faker as he invaded the private beach walk where Johnny used to stroll near his Malibu beachside estate:
I think he felt very safe here. I think he would choose the same time every day to come down this path. I think this is where he got a sense of contemplation. He would think about things here. He would think about his family. He was a family man. I think he was a lot deeper than people gave him credit for but I think that he didn't want to let people to know about that part of him. I feel he wished that things were different. I think he felt guilty when he died that certain things in his family were not resolved at the time of his death.
In those 111 vapid words, Van Praagh manages to hedge even these simple, obvious, trite, guesses by working in modifiers – six “I think” and one “I feel” – the usual generalized escape-hatches. The actual content itself is so non-significant that it could be generated by a child.
Somehow, it has escaped Van Praagh’s attention that Johnny Carson despised frauds, particularly those who choose to feed on the vulnerability of the grieving and needy. That wasn’t part of the “message” that he shared with us from The Great Beyond.
A few of you got a good chuckle from last week’s penetrating analysis [see www.randi.org/jr/200510/101405same.html#9] by “psychic” Lisa Nash on the spiritual meaning of road-kill. Reader Steve Bauer suggests:
If dead deer by the roadside mean something bad for passersby, we thousands of Oregonians who drive state highway 6 between Portland and Tillamook are in major trouble. Year-round, especially during hunting season, one often passes one or more dead elk and/or deer out there. It's probably because the road runs east-west and has bad Feng Shui attached to it.
Bauer, go stand in the corner….
There was an excellent article recently by Robert Gelfand, an American Reporter correspondent of San Pedro, California, about Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “L'Elisir D'Amore” (The Elixir of Love") composed in 1832. In the story, this magic elixir – suspiciously similar to a very mediocre red wine – is peddled by “Doctor” Dulcamara to villagers who appear as naïve as parallel populaces of today. Two excerpts from the lyrics indicate that the quack-medicine picture hasn’t changed much in more than 170 years:
This huckleberry syrup
Will positively clear up
The mumps, the hives, and whooping cough in less than over night.
You ladies of maturer years would like your youth recaptured?
Apply this cream at night, my dears, your mates will be enraptured!
What misses under twenty would like a peach complexion?
What lads with prudish sweethearts, would win their quick affection?
It kills the worst rheumatic pain
Relieves a cough and muscle strain;
No matter what your trouble is, it makes you feel like new.
Though this may seem a paradox
It also cures the chickenpox.
It makes hysteric girls serene
Makes thin men fat, and fat men lean.
Ah, but the aria "Una furtiva lagrima," is worth the whole price of admission….! Go to www.ffaire.com/audiofiles/audioleech.html and click on the second entry to hear a tantalizing 30-second sample….
Do you remember the silly claims of Stereophile Magazine that prompted me to offer them a million dollars if they could prove any of the trash they were offering their readers? Well, they’re still hiding under the bed – or under that huge rock with Sylvia Browne – to avoid meeting the challenge. Just do a search on the main Swift page for “Stereophile,” to refresh your memory on that brouhaha. Well, now reader John McKillop sends us to www.stereophile.com/asweseeit/110/index.html to find an article written back in 1987 by J. Gordon Holt, the man who founded Stereophile Magazine in 1962. Holt apparently had the present management beat for brains. The article is titled, “L'Affaire Belt,” and refers to the ridiculous claims made back then by one Peter Belt, “inventor” of magical devices that improve everything from harmonics to hysterics.
I have news: Mr. Belt is still making those silly claims, and is still getting rich by selling garbage to naïve audiophiles. We must wonder, as reader McKillop does, whether Art Dudley – a willingly flummoxed reviewer for Stereophile – and/or John Atkinson, present editor of the magazine – ever read this discussion by their founder, of the hilarious Peter Belt pretensions. Go there and see a thoughtful, well-reasoned, article that handles honestly what the present Stereophile management has chosen to ignore: blatant fakery, fraud, and swindling in the audio business. I’ll quote a pertinent section from the 18-year-old article here that should – but won’t – seriously embarrass Atkinson and Dudley. Holt recognized reality, and wasn’t reluctant to share it with his readers. Unfortunately, he sold the magazine in 1982, and the woo-woos immediately took over. Here’s the 1987 excerpt:
For self-styled golden ears to be claiming, and trying, to be "objective" is to deny reality, because perception is not like instrumentation. Everything we perceive is filtered through a judgmental process which embodies all of our previous related experiences, and the resulting judgment is as much beyond conscious control as a preference for chocolate over vanilla. We cannot will ourselves to feel what we do not feel. Thus, when perceptions are so indistinct as to be wide open to interpretation, we will tend to perceive what we want to perceive or expect to perceive or have been told that we should perceive. This, I believe, explains the reports that Peter Belt's devices work as claimed.
Perhaps what bothers me so much about the Belt affair is the alacrity with which supposedly rational, technically savvy individuals have accepted, on the basis of subjective observation alone, something which all their scientific and journalistic background should tell them warrants a great deal of skepticism. But then, perhaps I shouldn't be that surprised.
Despite heroic efforts to educate our population, the US (and, apparently, the UK) has been graduating scientific illiterates for more than 40 years. And where knowledge ends, superstition begins. Without any concepts of how scientific knowledge is gleaned from intuition, hypothesis, and meticulous investigation, or what it accepts today as truth, anything is possible. Without the anchor of science, we are free to drift from one idea to another, accepting or "keeping an open mind about" as many outrageous tenets as did the "superstitious natives" we used to scorn 50 years ago. (We still do, but it's unfashionable to admit it.) Many of our beliefs are based on nothing more than a very questionable personal conviction that, because something should be true, then it must be. (Traditional religion is the best example of this.) The notion that a belief should have at least some objective support is scorned as being "closed-minded," which has become a new epithet. In order to avoid that dread appellation, we are expected to pretend to be open to the possibility that today's flight of technofantasy may prove to be tomorrow's truth, no matter how unlikely. Well, I don't buy that.
Nor do we, Mr. Holt, but the suckers still buy the garbage…. I am seldom presented with such a succinct, powerful, and to-the-point summary of what we at the JREF battle, every day. Our very own Kramer, who handles the claims for the JREF prize, has sterling expertise and experience in the audio field, as well; regarding the Stereophile matter, he offers this comment:
As a recording engineer and producer of some notoriety, I am always shocked to see the level of gullibility among those allegedly trained in the Recording Arts and Sciences, where people who call themselves "professionals" willingly jettison all reason (along with everything they have learned about the physics of sound) in blind submission to these preposterous audio pseudo-products, the belief in which I can only compare to the belief in the miraculous, more akin to crying statues, bleeding icons, and flying carpets than to anything in the world of reason. It is the stuff of pure fiction, and worse (the word “fraud” comes to mind), and the support of these products renders any publication that champions their efficacy a permanent laughing stock, which is precisely what Stereophile Magazine has become.
Our excellent friend Gilles-Maurice de Schryver in Belgium, to whom we are all grateful for his services to JREF – particularly the on-line Encyclopedia – specializes in information science, and is an expert on getting correct information into available and authoritative formats. He discovered that the “Journal of Reproductive Medicine,” which has apparently abandoned its former status as a reputable source of specialized informative by behaving as we described last week – see www.randi.org/jr/200510/101405same.html#13 – is still on the Science Citation Index! As Gilles-Maurice points out, that’s an affront to any other persons or agencies that are listed on that Index. But the JRM is way in the back of their Ivory Tower, defiantly hunkered down.
There’s hope, says Gilles-Maurice. He points out that an article in a European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology publication – at http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/17/3/528, titled, “Alternative Treatments in Reproductive Medicine: Much Ado about Nothing,” comes to a nice conclusion indeed:
Considering the fact that there are still many unresolved problems in reproductive medicine we are quite unhappy to conclude that the contribution of alternative medicine to our field can best be summarized as “much ado about nothing.” It is even more regrettable that it is unlikely that praying can mobilize supernatural forces to improve the still-not-perfect IVF-practice [in-vitro fertilization] of our days, because more exciting and far-reaching data could otherwise be obtained. What to think of a comparative trial praying to the Christian God, to the Jewish Yahweh, to Allah, to Buddha and to Hare Krishna? Would not mankind be saved from much debate, war and disunity if such a trial produced an equally unequivocal result as was obtained in the trial of Cha and colleagues?
For the daily practice, we have only one piece of advice: doctors who want to stick to rational medicine and therefore reject alternative medicine, can best commence – if they want to “combine the best of two worlds” and impress their patients – with imitating the British general practitioner Liam Farrell. He wrote in the British Medical Journal debate on “integrated medicine”: “I am a strong believer in integrated medicine. After every consultation I give my patients a teddy bear to cuddle, and play them a tune on the banjo.”
Sounds like a grand idea to me…..
Reader Matthew Randazzo IV writes:
As you know, “dim mak” is a pseudo-martial art that claims to give its practitioners the ability to maim, cripple, and kill skilled opponents through the use of gentle taps and glancing blows to pressure points. Some truly confident dim mak instructors claim that they teach the ability to incapacitate attackers without touching them at all! All that is required is the ability to channel your “chi energy” into invisible lightning bolts of force, which seems like a modest-enough demand. One such dim mak instructor is profiled in the following clip from a local Chicago evening news program. Watch as "The Human Stun Gun" uses his "Touchless Knockout" to knock out his students one at a time without laying a finger on their bodies. Then, when challenged by the non-athletic middle-aged female news reporter to prove his skills, his "Death Touch" suddenly becomes entirely useless! Then watch as jiu jitsu students incredulously smirk and laugh through the mystical master's attempts to incapacitate them by channeling his chi.
Click on http://tooshocking.com/index.php?ns=view_vid&id=692.
All this reminds me that we still haven’t heard back from George Dillman! Remember him? See www.randi.org/jr/200509/090905these.html#2. I’d have thought that George – who is the “master” who taught the “master” in the video! – would have been here long ago to knock me down with his prodigious powers!
Reader Daniel Dannemeyer provides us with a translation from German of a short news item which he found to be hilarious:
As a last instance in the prosecution of his legal case a Rumanian murderer has sued God because He "hadn't protected him from the devil." The criminal plaintiff states that through his baptism he had made a contract with God, whose side of the bargain would entail protection from the devil and from misfortunes in life.
In the legal suit the prisoner sues "God, resident in heaven, represented in Rumania by the orthodox church." Among other things, God is being sued for fraud and misuse of office powers.
I am not aware that such a thing has happened before, aside from in the movie with Billy Connolly [“The Man Who Sued God,” 2001] but it makes sense that when the church pushes to make its influence felt in the real world, that it is being made accountable for what it would mean if there actually were such things as gods. Or demons, robbing people of their "free will." Or if the Bible would be warped in its (purely philosophical) nature and started to be used as a legal compass or... oh well, you get my point.
Because people tend to misread my facial expressions, I wouldn't want to find myself in an American court some day having to defend myself for making lustful glances at my neighbor's wife.
Can that be far behind….?
Reader Claus Larsen of Denmark – who you’ll assuredly meet at TAM4 – tells us:
Danish "job astrologer" Karl Aage Jensen has endured yet another public defeat. Despite being one of the most experienced and famous astrologers in Denmark, he has nevertheless managed to make one failed prediction after another. He seems to have a knack for misinterpreting the horoscopes for the Danish Royal family. Previously, he got the engagement date for the Crown Prince wrong several times and now he is facing his biggest defeat of all: His prediction of the gender of the Royal heir to the throne.
On April 26th, 2005, the day after the pregnancy was announced, he proudly proclaimed in the newspapers that it would be a Princess, and she would be a Scorpio. Therefore, it would be a "girl with a very strong will," "100% loyal to her friends." At 01:57 AM, October 15th, Crown Princess Mary gave birth to a son. A Libra. Now, according to astrology, Libras are prone to obesity, so the proud parents had better hide the candy. Libras are also indecisive, gullible and easily influenced, which are perhaps not the best traits for a regent.
The good thing about astrology is that you can always find positive things. If Karl Aage Jensen had been right about the gender and sign, the heir would have been a sexually very aggressive woman, as well as vindictive and cruel. Of course, other astrologers predicted a son (none of them thought it was odd that they couldn't agree among themselves on such a small matter), so they can still proclaim that ASTROLOGY WORKS! And they will...
And the Sun will rise tomorrow…
Reader John F. J. Sullivan puts out a challenge:
Your opening salvo on Feng Shui [last week] impelled me to write to you again.
Can I tell you how frustrating it is working in the "news"paper industry? About a fortnight ago I overheard that one of our better reporters was assigned a story on psychics. The fact that we are headquartered near Salem, Massachusetts, made the assignment unsurprising, but I hoped to spice things up with a little skepticism. I hoped that, since we are a newspaper that presumably trades in facts, the suggestion would be received warmly.
And the proposal was a modest one: Simply write the word "parachute" or something equally uncommon but not particularly arcane on a piece of paper, and place it in an envelope. Then the reporter could ask all the psychics she interviewed to guess the word. Admittedly, a pretty low threshold of proof, but one I doubted any of the charlatans that hang out a shingle in Salem could pass. Well, as you might imagine, the suggestion went nowhere, and the piece ran without a touch of skepticism or even black humor. I was on a week's vacation in Vegas when the story was filed and printed, so I could lodge no last minute – undoubtedly still fruitless – protest.
Though I've successfully introduced Quackwatch.org to our health and science writer, the Sunday edition published by our sister publication (a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, no less) recently ran an uncritical feature about Feng Shui in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. You can lead a horse to water...
At any rate, I'll do my best to keep the fires of reason burning up here on the North Shore. If you use any portion of my letter, I'd appreciate you omitting the name of the publication I work for, though I have no objection to my name being used. I include it below if you need to check my bona fides. Rest assured, I have already brought this issue up with my supervisors.
Well, Mr. Sullivan, Thank you for this contribution, but it’s time for the opening lecture in Test Design 101: Consider: a woman claims to be a musician. You seat her at a piano and demand that she prove her claim. She cannot play the piano, and you conclude that her claim has been invalidated. Hardly. You see, the lady is a cellist….
You cannot challenge a claimant to do something they’ve never claimed they can do. That’s why, at the JREF, we design a protocol only after the applicant has clearly stated (a) what they can do, (b) under what conditions, and (c) with what expected degree of success. And, the applicant must find the protocol appropriate, fair, agreeable, and adequate to prove their claim.
We wish you good luck with informing Salem residents; they were not too bright back in 1692….
Reader Chris Duff, London, UK, suggests:
You may be interested to know that the UK science journal, New Scientist, is running a special report this [last] week titled “Fundamentalism – Descent into the new Dark Ages.” You may be interested in acquiring a copy as the articles very much follow your own ideas. The introduction begins:
After two centuries in the ascendancy, the Enlightenment project is under threat. Religious movements are sweeping the globe preaching unreason, intolerance and dogma, and challenging the idea that rational, secular enquiry is the best way to understand the world.
Well, Chris, that’s not just my thinking, but the thoughts of most of the civilized world. New Scientist is only expressing what science has known for centuries now, but which the public has resisted incorporating into their view of reality. That resistance can only last a while longer, as the news gets around that facts don’t bow to superstition.
UK reader Danny Walker notes:
There's some disturbing news from the UK this week. Our head woo-woo, Charles Windsor (or “Prince Charles” as some prefer) has commissioned a report that will claim that more alternative therapies should be made available on the NHS [National Health Service], including Magnetic Therapy, Osteopathy, Chiropractic and Acupuncture.
Now, I don't care how the Prince spends his own money, but suggesting that it's appropriate for the UK taxpayer to have to fund this sort of nonsense, is insane. There are further details at the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4312780.stm. I do hope that the powers-that-be treat this with the contempt it deserves.
Reader W.L. of Scottsdale, Arizona:
As a longtime reader of your online column, when I came across a commentary from the October 1st Los Angeles Times called "The Dark Side of Faith," I thought it might interest you. To summarize it, a study in the Journal of Religion and Society compared religious belief in eighteen democracies (measured by how many of its citizens express absolute belief in God, how often they pray, and how often they attend church, etc.) with indicators of how well those societies function (as measured by rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, abortion, child mortality, etc.).
The researcher, Gregory S. Paul, found a striking correlation, that the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics.
And the good old United States is the outlier in both categories, the US "which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God (and the lowest percentage of atheists and agnostics) – also has by far the highest levels of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” Paul has shown that the more religious a society is, the more dangerous its members are to each other. A couple of things about this:
One is that this study received virtually no coverage. No great surprise. The LA Times mention is, you'll notice, a commentary rather than a news report. It got a few paragraphs in the Village Voice. Most interesting is an Australian radio piece in which the reporter described the study, then sought a “balancing” response from a sociology professor at Monash University in Melbourne. That response was rather weak. The Monash professor pointed out that Paul is a dinosaur paleontologist rather than a sociologist (yes, a fair criticism, but easily factored out by examining his methodology rather than his resume), and that Paul does not explain the correlation – which he did not set out to do. The radio report ends by describing Paul's study as “controversial.”
Two – why is this controversial? I honestly don't get it. Why does it require a “balancing” voice? Are his methods or facts controversial? As with any scientific study, the methods and facts are transparent, openly arrived at, and open to objective criticism. Is it controversial because the premise might be hurtful or inflammatory to our vocal religious friends? Or is merely bringing up the subject taboo? If there are things we're “not allowed to talk about,” told by the authorities to deny logic and objectivity and the evidence of our senses, and instructed to either accept the popular belief or shut up, then we're right back standing with Galileo at his show trial. That was 1633. I personally can't accept that restriction on independent thought, which is one of the reasons I think your website is so important.
And three, a comment on what the study really does prove. After a bit of digging, I found the entire text of the article, which is here: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/pdf/2005-11.pdf. So there's a correlation between religiousness and social dysfunction. So what? As some of my friends would hasten to remind me, correlation does not mean causation. All three of the obvious constructions – that religion causes homicide, STD's, abortion, and child mortality; that people who experience homicide, STD's, abortion, etc. disproportionately turn to God; or that there is a common cause underlying both religious feeling and murderous damaging impulses – are all probably too simplistic to be true. This deserves further investigation.
But the study does seem to thoroughly debunk the widely-held and often-repeated notion that religion is necessary for a good society. In paragraphs 3 through 8 of the study, Paul refers to a number of political figures, from Joe Lieberman to Pope Benedict XVI to Tom DeLay, all of them singing the same tune: that belief in God is the prerequisite for a civil society. Paul shows that notion is utterly, provably false.
Why the Pope would promote religion is obvious. Whether Lieberman and DeLay are simply pandering to their audience, or trying to actively preserve a voting bloc that will respond to authority rather than reason, I'm not qualified to say.
I'm happy to sign this, but should you use any of it for SWIFT, please use my initials only. I don't relish the hateful mail and other retaliation I might receive from those loving, gentle people who model themselves after Christ.
With my sincere best wishes, Mr. Randi – keep fighting the good fight
Our apologies for getting last week’s page up some hours late – it was a combination of hurricane problems and poor access to electronic facilities.
Next week, among many other subjects, we’ll discuss that “blind” woman in Germany who can see….