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THAT FOOL AGAIN

Well folks, now we all know why Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had his debilitating stroke. Evangelist Pat Robertson has now decided that the affliction was divine punishment for "dividing God's land" – Israel, of course. So, according to Dr. Robertson, strokes are not caused by the brain of the victim being deprived of oxygen due to a clogged, narrowed, or ruptured artery, nor by bleeding within the brain. The old superstition that brain cells thus deprived of oxygen malfunction and die, resulting in loss of function in the part of the body controlled by these brain cells, is refuted by Dr. Robertson’s superior medical knowledge, I guess. No, God did it. That’s the vengeful, savage, jealous, angry deity that Pat accepts and fears.

Said Robertson in his omniscient fashion on his television program “The 700 Club,”

God considers [Israel] to be his. You read the Bible and he says, “This is my land,” and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, “No, this is mine.”

I see. This chap who created everything is touchy about the desert he’s chosen as the chosen territory of the chosen people? Gee, but it’s hard to figure out these basic facts of the world – but that’s why we have the wisdom of Pat to explain this stuff, of course. Robertson, a practiced name-dropper, assured his Club members that about a year ago he’d prayed with Sharon, whom he referred to as "a very tenderhearted man and a good friend." He said he was sad about Sharon’s stroke, but he pointed out that in the Bible, the prophet Joel had warned about doing anything to divide God’s land. In Robertson’s opinion, Sharon flew in God's face to appease the European Union, the United Nations and/or the USA.

I used to think that Pat Robertson was cunning, that he knew how to manipulate the naïve into his way of thinking. No longer. Recent blunders prove that he’s just plain ignorant, vengeful, and stupid. He’s not only a national disgrace, he’s an affront to the entire rest of the world, a blemish on our species.

But at least he’s consistently stupid. He divined that the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin also was due to that man’s efforts to achieve peace in his country by giving land to the Palestinians. Then he suggested that American CIA agents should assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. As recently as last November, he warned residents of Dover, Pennsylvania, that disaster might strike there via the angry hand of God because they’d voted to oust school board members who favored teaching the “Intelligent Design” nonsense. 

Hey, Robertson, shut the hell up. You embarrass everyone.

While I’m on a God rant, following the recent mining disaster – see www.randi.org/jr/2006-01/010606netherlands.html#i13 – the wife of the governor of West Virginia appeared on the NBC-TV Today Show and reassured viewers that people in her state still believe in miracles, as her husband had stated before the fact of the miners' demise was reported. Ignoring the twelve deceased, she designated the survival of the thirteenth miner as evidence to prove that at least some “miracle” had occurred. What an illustration of the desperate need these people have for their mythology and let’s-pretend philosophy! Want a better example of what looks like a miracle, lady? Try watching a sunset, listening to Mozart, or holding a baby in your arms; those aren’t miracles, either, but they sure out-class what you accepted. Your “God” made the mine shaft fall in, “He” suffocated twelve miners, and then – just to be capricious – “He” let one live, yet you see no defect in “His” decision? “God” even decided to give the survivor some brain damage, maybe as a little joke. Hey, “He” sure is a fun guy, isn’t “He”?

Can I rightly accuse your God of all this? Yes, I can. You see, I looked him up on Google. He’s omniscient – that means he knows everything. He’s omnipotent – so he can do anything. He’s all-merciful, forgiving, and loving, too. He controls everything: remember that falling sparrow? Well, do you suppose – if you thought about it at all – that God decided to carry out the West Virginia disaster – as well as the recent disastrous tsunami, murderous earthquakes in Guatemala and Pakistan, and bombings in Iraq – just for fun? Your merciful, caring deity sent hundreds of thousands of innocent people, many of them children, to their deaths! During the Holocaust, he heard the prayers of other millions, yet he allowed the poison gas to be released. This is your God?

When is the religious population of this Earth going to start figuring out that they haven’t got invisible friends living in the sky or under the ground who do these things?

Let’s grow up, shall we?




SIR ARTHUR’S DUMB QUESTION

Quoted in a South African newspaper, December, 1928, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle asked this question, prompted by a comment about that strange notion that people really die:

It is surely clear that if this view prevails it really knocks the bottom out of all religion, as we understand religion. If there is no afterlife, why should man strive to improve himself? It is a waste if all his efforts end in annihilation.

Surely no better example of Sir Arthur’s lack of social conscience can be found. I have frequently been asked, “If you don’t fear Hell, why would you behave in an ethical manner?” My response has always been that I’m insulted by the presumption that fear should be my only motive for living a moral, caring, existence, and that I live that way because the preservation and comfort of my species is a need built into my programming, and I wish to further my species by being a positive influence. That’s hard wiring, not an adopted stance; I take no credit for it, since none is due. Spike Lee said that, too: Do the right thing. I’d add that one should make every effort to determine that it’s really the “right thing,” as well.

Conan Doyle appears to have had no respect for his fellow humans, or for the world he’d leave behind. That’s a frightening feature of the religious: they can’t wait to get out of the real world and into Heaven, so they abandon the rest of humanity. Conan Doyle also saw religion as a controlling force, ruling through dread; in that view, he was correct. But there’s no “annihilation” involved, Art; you left us some great stories, some cornball ideas, and a lotta laughs. Thanks.

Reader Brian van der Spuy, Johannesburg, South Africa, has a comment on “Sir Arthur and the Knights of the Circular Argument”:

I found the letter by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reproduced in your last commentary, most interesting. What Sir Arthur SEEMS to be saying is this: if we cannot catch the medium faking, then he must be for real. And if we DO catch him out, then he also must be for real, since a faker wouldn't be caught out so easily.

In view of this, I would love to inquire of Sir Arthur how exactly we can go about testing claims of mediumship then. The problem is that the only way to ask him anything these days would be to work through a medium. I therefore suggest that next time you test a self-proclaimed medium, you design the test to include an attempted contact of the aforementioned knight. That way, it remains a win-win situation whatever happens. Either you get to once again expose another fraud, or you lose a million dollars, but in the process we at least get a glimpse into Sir Arthur's unique logic.




INVESTING IN NONSENSE

Reader Erin Butler, of Lake Cowichan, British Columbia, writes:

I frequently use your page as a reference on my own blog for when I write about skepticism.  I decided to go off about how scientific thought can save you a lot of money after seeing a bit of idiocy in the National Post's December 31 edition.  I remembered that you had talked about some "financial psychics" before, and once again Swift became a reference for me.  Here's a bit:

I'm going to the December 31, 2005 edition of the National Post. Now, the Post isn't much of a newspaper, granted: it's much more of a collection of conservative opinion pieces strung together with big, big pictures.  But I do expect that since fully half to three quarters of the paper is given over to financial news of one sort or another that they'd take that sort of thing seriously. Apparently not.

The big, big picture on the front of their Financial Post Weekend is Deborah Levin, who is a "professional clairvoyant", specializing in charging $225 for an hour of vague psychobabble.  One of the columnists has a lunch meeting with her to ask about the coming year's financial highs and lows, and, as is reasonable, she expects things to be more or less like they were last year, always a safe guess.  Safe, because if you make six or seven guesses about future trends, and say all of them will be about the same as last year, huge financial shifts could occur that would only affect three of your guesses, making you 50% correct. That's a fantastic "hit rate" among psychics, and well worth bragging about. Even if she is completely wrong on every guess, all most people will remember is 1) that she was interviewed by the Financial Post, and 2) that the Financial Post is one of the papers that interviewed her – she'll be mentioning this on her "media" page.  The number of guesses will become irrelevant: if she got one right, that's what will be talked about, not the five "misses," though again, be vague enough and almost anything can be turned into a "hit."

She's not alone in this, of course: there are financial psychics all over the place, each adding their own special brand of expertise to anyone who's nervous about entering the stock market, or commodities, or land, or anything else involving investments.  But then, who could possibly be nervous about placing their life savings into the hands of a complete stranger?  Markets are for those hard of head and firm of conviction, though there are apparently enough who are thick of skull to keep folks like this in business, too.

So, if one of your New Year's Resolutions was to get a bit more money invested, you just might want to ask one little question of whatever adviser you choose: "Who do you think can make better predictions with my money, Warren Buffett or Jupiter?"

The safest place to put your money? Well, here's a million dollars that has no chance of getting lost...

Erin, thanks for a good analysis of yet another “psychic” and her methods. I recall that during my 1991 TV series for Granada in the UK, when I invited a professional financial advisor and a “financial psychic” to invest a theoretical ₤10,000 in the market for a week, the professional advisor – using regular methods such as knowledge of the subject – was up 18%, while the “psychic,” using mystical means, was down 4%. Not much of a database, but interesting….! 




Stu Checks in late

Reader Stu Casteel, with the Bay Area Skeptics, tells us about something I’d have wanted to know about when I was writing my book, “The Faith Healers”:

I've been a subscriber of Skeptical Inquirer since it was the Zetetic. Many years ago I was with Hewlett Packard, back when it was an engineers company and would market Sake & Sushi as cold dead raw fish and warm rice wine. We were setting up for a conference in a hotel next to a Peter Popoff revival, and we were getting intermittent interference on some of our wireless equipment. Being engineers and HP, we fired up the spectrum analyzer and discovered the source. Apparently "Peetie's" direct line from his deity somehow involved his wife and a wireless "IFB" – "ear bug" – not sure if it was before BAS and Randi, but we were howling at the Nova episode when it aired.

On that NOVA show, the definitive exposure of Popoff via my investigation was shown. We revealed that Popoff’s wife Elizabeth was relaying previously-gleaned personal information about ailing audience members to Peter via a tiny concealed electronic listening device in his left ear; the messages so obtained were represented to be directly from God.  




BROWNE EXAMINED

Go to www.livejournal.com/users/baron_army/109284.html, do a “find” on “list of predictions,” and see an interesting analysis of predictions made by Sylvia Browne on the “Coast to Coast AM” radio show – the site of her recent flub. Reader Myron Getman, following up on our mention of Sylvia last week, gives us this excerpt from www.livejournal.com/community/skepticaldebate/23435.html:

Sure, telephone psychics are all labeled “for entertainment value only,” but how many people disregard that warning and waste their money? Enough that Miss Cleo alone had racked up $1 Billion – with a B – during three years of operation. Were people that desperate for entertainment? And Sylvia doesn't say that her services are for entertainment only. It's the genuine article, except (of course) when she's wrong. But what have you got to lose, other than $700 for a 30-minute phone call?

It's not just the money that pisses me off, but the way psychics prey on the fragile and despairing. Just ask Marc Klaas, father of Polly Klaas:

I have very strong feelings about psychics. They're part of a second wave of predators. The first wave is the person who takes the child. The second is the ambulance-chasing lawyers, the exploitation journalists and psychics. She came up with the same crap that we heard from every other psychic we talked to. She said she saw rolling hills and green trees and a babbling brook. She described nearly every spot in northern California.

Or perhaps you might ask Elizabeth Smart's uncle about his dealings with PSI-TECH, who declared that Elizabeth was dead? Or imagine yourself in Elizabeth's shoes; imagine that psychics have told your family and the police that you're dead; imagine them searching for bodies on a psychic wild goose-chase, while you're being sexually assaulted by a nutball.

Everyone yells at the media when they get it wrong; why do the psychics get a free pass?




THAT DUTCH “PSYCHIC” RESURFACES

Dutch skeptic Jan Willem Nienhuys, who commented last week on the fakery of “psychic” Robbert van den Broeke, has more to add:

It turns out that Robbert performed some camera fraud in his performance on January 1. He said he’d taken pictures of the “ghost of a nun” who supposedly was murdered in some castle. The evidence shows that the camera flash went off thrice, but when the memory file of the camera was inspected, there were four pictures. Moreover, the time recorded on the pictures was only about six minutes after the last “ordinary” photograph was taken, which is much too short a period, given the time needed for setting up cameras and lighting for the several shots in between.

From the file numbers of the photographs, it seems clear that he went to the toilet or whatever, made four pictures of a small drawing of what he thought was a 16th-century nun, but was of a “lay sister,” actually, but he didn't know that. Then he erased one poor picture, and about half an hour later he took three pictures of a blank wall. He misdirected the camera to look at the blank wall, and in the meantime erased the three fake pictures, and leafed back to the FIRST ghost picture, and then expressed surprise that he had found something.

The whole story including video stills can be read at http://home.planet.nl/~buij0038/rvdb/ and (without the pictures) on the website of Skepsis. You may not understand the Dutch, but the pictures speak pretty much for themselves.

We tried to contact the producer, but the agent said her manager was abroad and her location was “unknown.




DEFINITION

An anonymous reader:

I saw a quote I like, to rebuke the assertion that atheism is just another religion: "Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby."




COUNTRIES FALLING BEHIND

Reader Brian van der Spuy, Johannesburg, South Africa, already quoted above on another subject, adds:

Your commentary also included a letter by one Jan Kalin, in which he complains that the Slovenian government isn't quite as skeptical of homeopathy as they should be. Well, I have just the thing to help. You can inform him that I have designed a homeopathic remedy that makes people more skeptical. You take it twice a day, and you know it has worked as soon as you stop believing it does...

Seriously though, the Slovenians are still lucky. Here in South Africa, the minister of health apparently thinks a cocktail of garlic and olive oil is a cure for AIDS, and in the rural areas, witch burnings still occur with dreary but tragic regularity.

But hey, at least we haven't had much trouble from creationists. Yet.

Patience, Brian, patience. They’ll be there before long….

Reader Claude Pasteur Faria, an engineer in Florianópolis, Brazil, assures us that his country is also in this camp:

Slovenia is not alone in legalizing the profitable business of homeopathy. This indecent and medieval practice is widespread in Brazil, despite all the advancements in modern and scientific medicine. And, worst of all, homeopathy is now openly practiced by physicians, who, tired of competing for clients with charlatans of all sort, "legalized" homeopathy and decided that only established physicians can practice it. Scientists and skeptics in Brazil have been denouncing this quackery for a long time, but we're losing the war. Money has spoken louder, and MDs don't want to let go of their clients. Most doctors now play a double role: if their clients are not sick, they prescribe homeopathic "remedies" as placebos, but if their patients present some serious pathologies, they prescribe real medicine, and so they make everybody happy.  

The path of least resistance, obviously. The faithful will never reverse their allegiance, the media and the bureaucracy will promote the nonsense, and all but the taxpayers and those who survive the quackery, are happy.




FLAMM ON FLIM-FLAM

I could run weekly updates on the scandalous situation involving the Journal of Reproductive Medicine and its continued reticence to act on an obviously fraudulent paper they published supporting the effect of “distant prayer” on unknowing patients. Rather than doing so, since this is primarily a supernatural medical claim and takes up too much of our weekly space on Swift, I will suggest that you contact Dr. Bruce Flamm at bruceflamm@aol.com and ask him to forward to you a copy of his January 10 posting. After reading that, you may be moved, as Dr. Flamm suggests:

As friends of science and evidence-based medicine, you may wish to write officials at Columbia and the JRM to express your views.  Their emails are listed below.  Your comments at this time may get them to finally take action. Send to:

bollinger@columbia.edu; Editor@jreprodmed.com; ldevoe@mail.mcg.edu; gdf@columbia.edu; gf224@columbia.edu; db196@columbia.edu; lindberg@nlm.nih,gov; betsy_humphreys@nlm.nih.gov; kingd@nlm.nih.gov; mehnert@nlm.nih.gov; and kathleen_cravedi@nlm.nih.gov; cahn@nlm.nih.gov.




SHE’S WRONG AGAIN

Back to Browne again: Reader Aleksander Zidansek noted a question that he feels needed an answer. He writes:

I actually checked your web page after seeing Sylvia and Bryan Farha on Larry King. I am sure you saw it, however I was puzzled why Bryan didn't respond to this answer:

KING: But why didn't you take the [JREF] test?

BROWNE: OK, let me tell you something about what Randi did. He ran away from the whole experiment in Bali when they actually knocked all these people down and he backtracked. It's all over the web. The other thing he did was when they really tried to do the German guy that came over, you know who it is, Zerbrowski (ph), no he said it was – no, they changed everything.

I think she was talking about Yellow Bamboo group and Nico who hasn't eaten for year? I was very surprised that Bryan did not respond as both these cases are so obvious. A simple response stating basic facts would easily expose these as empty excuses and impact millions of people around the world who were listening.

I suppose the YB are no longer interested to try again after their trick has been exposed, however it might be interesting to see whether the air eating German has a more clever trick than a simple fast food order?

Aleksander, you must understand that Bryan could not easily interrupt that gaggle of psychics who babbled away on the show; he was not in the studio, so could not indicate that he had a comment to add. And just who is “Nico”?

As for Sylvia’s lame and floundering objections, first, I never went to Bali to test the Yellow Bamboo claims. Their leader came here to Florida, made an appointment to meet me, and never showed up. As for the tests that were actually done in Bali, the entire protocol I’d accepted, was changed. They did it after dark, against my specific requirement that it be observed in daylight and videotaped, they used a crowd of people all rushing forward rather than just the one participant – again strictly against the previously agreed-upon protocol, the video record lost sight of the activity, and it was obvious that the subject was touched with a high-voltage stunner, since he exhibited all the symptoms of that event. Yellow Bamboo was never tested because they broke the protocol and then failed to show up. Go to www.randi.org/jr/100303.html, and do a search for the word “Indonesian.”

Second, I’ve no idea who “Zerbrowski” could be, and our stance on “breatharians” is clearly stated. Browne might be referring to a German who came over to Florida a few years back, claiming to be able to move stars in the sky. Guess what? He failed tests we did here at a local university. But this applicant was tested, and he agreed that the tests were fair and proper.

Again, Sylvia Browne is a bare-faced liar.




MY MISTAKE

I commented, at www.randi.org/jr/2006-01/010606netherlands.html#i12, on the male first name “Gary.” I stand corrected by John Shonder of Knoxville, Tennessee, who consulted some census data. Avers John:

Gary was the 490th most popular name for babies in 1920, and going back as far as 1880 it was still in the top 1000.

Well, okay. (blush) But ranking 490 seems insignificant….




A SUGGESTION

Alberto Diamante, of Toronto, Canada:

I would have a lot more respect for the proponents of intelligent design/creationism if they extended their version of “objectivity” to other religious matters. For example: why not teach all religions to their students as “theories” and let the students decide which one they prefer? Can you imagine those Christian fundamentalists being forced to tell their students that there is no evidence that Christianity is a “truer” religion than, say, Islam or Confucianism or Buddhism?

That would be quite a sight.  After all, there is a lot more debate in the world about religious “truth” than about evolution, so much so that people throughout history have gone to war against “infidels” in the attempt to prevail in the religious arena, something that has never happened in science.

Will never happen, Alberto.




UNEMPLOYMENT IN CHINA

UK reader Paul Daly notes:

I read a report in The Guardian newspaper about a firm in China that will only employ someone born in the Year of the Dog due to the traits associated with this astrological sign. Having a quick look for an Internet link I found this: www2.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2006-01/04/content_509209.htm but I am sure there is more.

Fancy that. Everyone born on this 12-year cycle is a person to trust. Anyone worrying about Chinese dominance in trade in the future may want to consider this.

That means only 8.3% of the job applicants are eligible! I trust that this failure of rationality is only a localized aberration. After all, my books are all on sale in China, and in their language…!




IN CONCLUSION….

You have an opportunity on February 8th to tune in to a webcast that will honor Charles Darwin’s birthday and bring you the one-and-only Richard Dawkins, live: go to www.uclan.ac.uk/psychology/bully/darwin for information on this upcoming delight.

And, we’ve passed the 700 mark in registration for TAM4! The hotel has now agreed to move out one wall of the main auditorium to accommodate the record crowd, so we won’t have to limit attendance, as we’d previously thought! As long as we don’t crack the 760 limit, that is….!

Astronaut Ed Lu called me, and can’t wait to get levitated by yours truly, he says. I have to get 170 pounds of USAF prime protein airborne….! I’ll need all the psychic forces you can muster, folks…