James Randi is recovering well from his recent surgery, but it will be some time before he's up to full speed. Updates will be posted at www.randi.org regularly. In the meantime, the JREF continues its mission, and thanks you for your support. The following commentary was written by Randi himself just before his hospitalization.
- Jeff Wagg, JREF Webmaster
TAM 4 was attended by just under 800 persons. That's more than a four-fold increase from our original TAM just four years ago! Plans are now underway for next year's TAM, which we hope will be even bigger, better, and more informative. Your feedback forms tell us that you all had a terrific time in "Sin City," and it looks like we'll be heading back there next year.
This is great stuff, but TAM is more than just a party. We raised some serious issues this year, and discussion continues.
Reader and TAM4 attendee Eric Rapp, from Los Angeles, California has this to offer:
First, thank you for a fantastic meeting and conference in Las Vegas. I enjoyed myself immensely. You and your team put together a wonderful group of speakers and you are all to be commended for your excellent work.
However, after Saturday's panel, I have a question for you, one that there was absolutely no time to ask you in person. My question is specifically for you and perhaps for anyone who would answer "no" to the question of whether a skeptic can believe in God.
I listened to Hal Bidlack speak on his belief, and while I do not agree, I can't understand why he is not allowed to be considered a skeptic. Clearly, he is skeptical even of his own faith - he understands and was willing to admit to 800 people that there is no evidence and no rational reason for his belief, especially after what he has been through in the past few years. So why do we begrudge him his faith?
I understand that there are those in our society and our world who will press their faith upon us through politics, fear, or disingenuity - be it prayer in school, Islamicist suicide bombers, or "intelligent design," these things are worth fighting against. But Mr. Bidlack's belief is none of those. He is not proselytizing, he is not attempting to make laws based on his interpretation of the Bible, and if he hadn't been invited to speak I imagine his faith would have remained utterly private.
So why can he not be considered a skeptic? What is gained by attempting to exclude him for a belief in an untestable and immeasurable entity? He, like Martin Gardner, is willing to admit that his belief is irrational and unsupported by evidence. Isn't that enough for us to allow him his faith while respectfully disagreeing? You said that you felt that allowing Mr. Gardner his faith meant some loss of your own integrity. I honestly do not understand why.
The fourth edition of the American Heritage dictionary defines a skeptic as:
1. One who instinctively or habitually doubts, questions, or disagrees with assertions or generally accepted conclusions.
2. One inclined to skepticism in religious matters.
Perhaps this is not the best set of definitions ever, but it seems to me that Mr. Bidlack meets both of these. He may come up with a different eventual answer to #2 than most of us skeptics do, but I don't think it could be said that he has not rationally considered his faith.
I anticipate a counter-argument: Would I feel the same way about someone who, say, believes in the Loch Ness Monster, while understanding that his or her belief is fully irrational? The answer is no, of course not. The existence of the Loch Ness Monster is testable. We know where Loch Ness is and we can search it. Something similar can be said for almost every other paranormal claim out there, except for the existence of a deity, or at least for a deity who created everything and is now just sitting back and watching. There is no way to prove or disprove such an entity. So while I don't see any point in believing in a God, I also don't see why it will ever be any skin off my nose if other people do, as long as they don't force it on others.
What concerns me most is that it seems the "skeptical community" is willing to exclude someone for the wrong beliefs. And it concerns me even more that this feeling is more about what we, as skeptics or Skeptics, want to believe about ourselves rather than any sort of evidence-based reality.
[Randi was working on this piece when he was hospitalized, and did not finish his response. I know this is an important issue to him, and I anticipate a response at a future date. In the meantime, Hal will be contributing more on this topic in next week's commentary. -Jeff Wagg]
Long-time JREF supporter Kitty Mervine has this to offer:
I just wanted to take the time to tell you a happy ending story about TAM. This little happening was the perfect ending of TAM for myself.
Our second and last flight home was on a very small aircraft from Newark to Hartford CT. Sitting nearby were two very well behaved and delightful children, ages 4 and 5 (by my guess). The flight was very short, but the children clearly were delighted and quite vocal in their enjoyment of it. As we came into Hartford we flew into a heavy fog. That's when the following happened that gave me great hope for our skeptic parenting skills in this nation.
The younger child, a girl, got quite excited and said, "Oh Oh! We have flown into a cloud!" Her slightly older brother said, "we have! We have!" Quite suddenly we landed, even I was surprised! The fog was so thick I could not see a thing!
The girls voice rises even higher in excitement as she says, "We've landed in a cloud!" Her brother looked and could see a scrap of snow on the edge of the runway. "It's a SNOW cloud!"
The mother smiled, but didn't laugh at the children. She calmly explained that they were indeed in Connecticut, and that would shortly see their father. But the children began to pelt her with questions, "Is fog a cloud on the ground?" "Do snow clouds look different than rain clouds?" "Why can't the sun shine through the cloud?"
The children were not sad that they had not really landed in a cloud. They were just excited about clouds!
This very wise and wonderful mother answered their questions as well as she could. When she did not know an answer she replied, "I don't know, but we will find out." She then promised the children that in the morning they would all go to the library to find some books about clouds.
When I was a child and I flew through a cloud, I was told to "look for angels!"
I didn't see any angels!
How I wish instead I had been promised a trip to the library!
Thank you Mr. Randi and thank you Linda.
A wise mother indeed. Kitty, as you know, children are natural skeptics. Imagine what would happen if all children were told to search for the truth rather than look for angels...
Hector Coronado of Mexico City has this to say:
I find your work so inspiring that two years ago I started a forum and some months later a blog to write about critical thinking and skepticism in Spanish. I wanted to make some kind of personal front to the nonsense I've been founding in internet.
Here in Mexico the people I've chosen to represent me in government don't think of education and science as a priority issue (although they always say the contrary in their speeches). The paranormal and the nonsense have become regular in massive media and in daily and domestic life.
Before this scenario my humble divulgation efforts seem to me insufficient. So I've been thinking to set a Skeptic Expo in my city at some weekend of the present year (like Toronto skeptics do www.skeptics.ca/news.html#041001).
I've been wondering if you could help me to reach those readers in Mexico via your newsletter in order to ask them if they want to join in arranging and setting this Expo.
They can reach me in my blog librepensar.blogspot.com and via email email@example.com.
Thanks a lot. Keep the good work.
Hector, this is how change happens. One person cares enough to make an effort and others join him. We have many readers in Mexico, and they now know how to get in touch with you. Thank you.
Our good friend Tony Youens has sent us a video clip that will have you falling off your chairs. It shows one of the UK’s most prominent “psychics” falling on his face, to the amusement of the tech staff who are recording a video of one of his miraculous readings in which he psychically captures facts about his victim that he could not possibly have known – as we all know. Or might there be another means of getting this data? Read on…
By far the most common trick used by the “psychics” is what’s known as “cold reading.” This is the procedure in which they throw out names, initials, phrases, basic words, and suggestions – and wait for the victim to pick up on them and amplify them. It’s the process they use on the telephone when they have no clues to go by other than the sound of the voice and/or what they’ve already been told. However, the procedure shown in this video clip with the “psychic” named Derek Acorah is an excellent example of “warm reading” – which differs from “cold reading” in that it is based on clues provided by actual observations of dress, posture, jewelry, and other items or overheard sounds when the performer is actually in situ. (A “hot reading” would be when the performer has been extensively clued in, either by an assistant who has done research, or by a previous interview with the victim.)
This clip shows the live broadcast video, which accidentally carried the gallery communications between the video crew and their home base, following a monumental blunder by the transmission team. It gives us, along with the video image, an extra audio channel carrying the conversation between the director in the studio and the crew who are actually on the scene.
This entire video clip is 56 seconds long; the numbers shown at the beginning of each of the following five items represent the point in time when the described action takes place. Refer to the time-lapse indicator at the lower right corner of your screen. To see the video, click here (Windows Media format). The clip opens with a shot of the victim, who is listening expectantly to Acorah:
08 seconds: A keyboard first shows in the picture. It appears to be of a piano-accordion simply leaned against the wall behind Acorah, who had to have seen it against the wall as he sat down for this session. It certainly gets the viewer’s attention, and the director begins to panic when he sees that Acorah has incorporated the object into his “psychic reading”! This shows clearly that the production staff – both on the scene and at home base – are dedicated to maintaining the illusion that Acorah is doing something psychic, rather than something that anyone could do, given the clues that are presented. In fact, it seems evident that Acorah’s act is well-known and well understood by those who work on the shows; they’re only doing what they’ve been instructed to do.
10 seconds: At this point, Acorah says – the first part is drowned out by the director’s instructions –
…symbol, to the chest [he pauses, indicating his chest] …for some reason.
This is the tired old “pain-in-the-chest-region” that the readers use for almost any cause of death or serious illness, since the heart stopping – or even only malfunctioning – certainly does provide that phenomenon. It also covers respiratory problems, of course. Here, Acorah tries it on for size while watching the victim closely. He gives a brief opportunity for him to react, gets nothing, and retreats from it with, “…for some reason.”
21 seconds: Here’s the part of Acorah’s guessing game that really startles and concerns the director: Acorah says,
…someone is coming into the atmosphere here who’s sitting down and playing the keys of a piano.
It’s astonishing to me that he would try something so inane. Though he might not have realized that the keyboard was in the same shot as he was, clearly visible to the viewing audience, and he might have been depending upon the director noticing that fact and correcting for it by his instructions to the crew, it still seems foolish for a professional scam-artist to do this.
28 seconds: One of the technicians – named Joe – understandably, giggles loudly at the absurdity of the obvious situation, and continues to giggle in the background.
36 seconds: The director asks the technician, who is apparently highly amused, “Are you all right, Joe?” They’re all amused at the situation.
Following this, the director – having clearly seen the clue from which Acorah made his guess – as all of England has – says twice, rather desperately, “Lose the piano!” In TV parlance, he means, “get the piano [keyboard] out of the picture” by “tightening up” – zooming in – on Acorah. The director sees a perfectly good miracle going down the drain, and tries to put a stopper in there.
Sorry! We gotcha, and we gotcha good!
Reader Bill Hanrahan comments on the current attempt to establish the sainthood of the late Pope John Paul II through the required miracles. The case of a “medically inexplicable healing” of a French nun with the same Parkinson's disease that afflicted him, is being examined for authenticity; so far, those profound savants in the Vatican seem to think that they’re hitting pay dirt. Bill doesn’t think so:
Well, here's a big surprise, eh? After seven hundred years, Occam's Razor is still not a part of the Vatican toolkit. Is it really not going to occur to them that perhaps the nun was misdiagnosed with Parkinson's in the first place, that it is a tad too convenient that the "miracle cure" is for an illness that is so frequently misdiagnosed?
Randi comments: Bill is quite correct about this dreaded disease. A 1999 study in Wales involving 402 patients who had initially been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 74 general medical practices, patients who had been professionally examined by specialists, concluded that only 213 – 53% of them – actually had the disease; the others had symptom-related ailments. Bill continues:
This hits home to me on a very personal level. Perhaps my earliest brush with skepticism occurred when I was eight years old. My father was diagnosed with a tumor in his leg that resulted in it needing to be amputated. I prayed rosary after rosary that this would not have to happen, but apparently the Almighty is a deity that is perfectly happy to say no to little boys whose daddies are going to have a leg cut off unless He intervenes. At the same time, if the nuns at my grade school were to be believed, He decided to help another classmate – through the intercession of St. Anthony, I believe – to find her lost mittens. Even to my second-grader mind, He had some rather inscrutable priorities...
But I didn't quite give up. A year or so later, my older sisters took a trip to Quebec and visited the Shrine of Saint Anne [de Beaupré], where all sorts of miracle cures had taken place: like Lourdes, there are apparently crutches hung from the walls, but alas, no artificial limbs. Of course, that bit of logic never occurred to my young brain, and I began praying that my Dad would take a trip there and be cured, his leg restored. I eventually told one of the nuns at my school about my hope, and was told that, well, God probably wouldn't work a miracle like that; you just can't make something grow back. I couldn't imagine that. This was GOD, after all! And then I asked my mom why on earth a visit to St. Anne's or Lourdes hadn't occurred to them. I was given very much the same answer, and I stopped my prayers and left off hoping they'd pay a visit. It was yet another of those – to quote a pop song from about 10 years ago – things that make you go "hmmm."
Randi comments: Saint Anne was the mother of the Virgin Mary, and has really heavy duties in the saint business. She’s in charge of lost articles, such as mittens. She deals with poverty and pregnancy as well as with sterility. She tends to the welfare of broommakers, cabinetmakers, carpenters, equestrians, grandparents, homemakers, horsemen and horse women, lace makers, miners, mothers, old-clothes dealers, seamstresses, stablemen, wood turners, and women in labor. In Quebec, where I lived for a while as a child, her shrine is festooned with crutches, braces, and glasses – but, as Bill notes, no artificial limbs…
And sadly, my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson's; it wasn't quite an accurate diagnosis, as it was later found to be only a related syndrome. She died from that one eventually, uncured, of course. I guess there wasn't a patron saint of Parkinson's or Parkinson's-like syndromes at the time. Darn! If only she had lived until John Paul II had died, she might still be with us!
Unless he was busy finding lost mittens...
Reader Stephanie Barnes of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, tells us of an apparent weakness in sticker-charms, as developed by Dr. Masaru Emoto (see www.randi.org/jr/052303.html, and do a search for “Emoto”):
For several years, some friends and I have had a regular Wednesday morning coffee date at a lovely little neighborhood cafe and bookstore. The coffee was excellent, and the conversation even better. Recently though, the cafe was purchased and remodeled by a "fluff and nonsense" practitioner, who stocked the shelves with books like "Indigo Children," "Awakening Your Psychic Powers," and a certain fictional work by one Kevin Trudeau... She also offered palm, tarot and tea leaf readings to the paying customers.
Unfortunately, in her quest to provide alternative and occult reading material to patrons of the cafe, the proprietor completely forgot to provide reasonable coffee. It became almost undrinkable; truly nasty, bitter stuff. My friends and I were forced to find an alternative meeting place farther away, but with palatable coffee.
On our last day at the old cafe, I noticed the owner trot to the back storage room with an empty water jug. She returned with it brimming, and used it to make a fresh batch of coffee. I wondered if the source of the water could be the source of the horrible coffee, so after she was out of sight, I tip-toed into the storage room and looked around. What I saw was a standard 20-liter water jug, inverted over a normal water dispenser and cooler. The only odd thing was that the jug was covered with brightly colored sticky notes. I crept closer for a better look, and saw that on every sticky note was a positive, uplifting word, printed in bright felt pen, à la Masaru Emoto!
Among these powerful words were: "Beauty," "Health,” "Happiness," "Love," "Joy," and even "Crystal." One, lone, pink sticky note stood out from its peers, though, and when I saw it, I knew I had discovered the secret to the lousy coffee. It was all abundantly clear at that moment; on that curling, pink note, carefully printed with blue felt pen, was one word: "PAECE."
Evidently, Emoto neglected to mention that water is highly sensitive to bad spelling...
I’m surprised at your ignorance of this fundamental axiom of nonsense, Stephanie! We all know that magic forces are subject to imbalance and misdirection due to bad vibrations!