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As James Randi continues his recovery from heart surgery, he's asked Hal Bidlack to line up some stellar guest writers for Swift.


This Week's Swift was written by Robert Todd Carroll.

Hal Bidlack introduces this week’s column, written by Robert Todd Carroll

This week we are pleased to bring you a column from a good friend of JREF, and a participant in the very first Amaz!ng Meeting. Professor Robert T. Carroll is a full-time teacher at Sacramento City College, where he has been a member of the philosophy department since 1977. Bob teaches classes in Logic & Critical Reasoning; Law, Justice, & Punishment; and Critical Thinking About the Paranormal. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego in 1974, with a doctoral dissertation entitled The Common-Sense Philosophy of Religion of Bishop Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699). Bob has written an important textbook, Becoming a Critical Thinker, published in 2000. A second edition was published in 2005.  Bob is best known to us from his heroic and ceaseless work on The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In book form, The Skeptic's Dictionary was published in August 2003 by John Wiley & Sons.  Bob runs the terrific website, a boon to anyone interested in critical thinking skills. I highly recommend you visit Bob’s site, and set aside a few hours. You will be pulled in, enthralled, amused, and excited by the content Bob has brought together. His report on TAM4 is available here.

This week, Bob takes us into the world of alternative medicine.  Thanks, Bob, for your hard work this week for Mr. Randi, and for your many, many important insights into the world of the chimera.  And so without further ado, Here’s Bob!

-Hal Bidlack


The following comments will make it all too apparent that every minute Randi is away from his keyboard or a lectern another bit of quackery rears its ugly head. Get well soon! One of the worst things about being laid up with any kind of physical problem is that it brings out the savior in many people. The advice on health from well-meaning self-anointed shamans can be quite stressful at times. I'm reminded of the words of folk singer U. Utah Phillips (who has coronary heart disease) when he moved to the New Age hotspot of Grass Valley, California: "They've got so many healers there, it makes you sick."

a new use for magic mushrooms

Andrew Weil

Andrew Weil, the guru of "integrative" medicine (a fancy word for integrating quackery into conventional medicine), was recently featured in a large newspaper ad for Macy's line of Plantidote™ Mega-Mushroom Facial creams. We're asked to "discover his latest skincare wonder," which consists of blended mushrooms and other goodies such as ginger, turmeric, and holy basil. Here is what Weil has to say about holy basil:

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is an herb native to India, where it is known as tulsi. It is sacred in the Hindu religious tradition and is regarded as one of the most important plants used in Ayurvedic medicine. If you go to India, you will see holy basil growing in profusion around Hindu temples. It comes in red and green varieties, both with a strong, pleasant aroma. More clove-like than that of culinary basil, holy basil has been used for centuries to treat a variety of medical conditions including heart problems, asthma, bronchitis, arthritis and eye disorders.

In the past decade or so a number of scientific studies have looked at holy basil for various treatment purposes. All of these studies have been done in animals, usually laboratory mice and rats, so we can’t be certain that results will translate to humans. Findings from these various investigations suggest that holy basil might have some effects as a painkiller, a COX-II anti-inflammatory agent, an antioxidant, and as a treatment for bacterial, fungal and even viral infections. There is also evidence (again, only from animal studies) that holy basil might help control blood sugar. (Weil)

Since we can't be certain holy basil will be useful as an antioxidant, it ought to go into our facial cream. That makes sense.

For $60, you can get 1.7 oz. of Plantidote™ Mega-Mushroom Face Cream which, according to Dr. Weil, "can help skin stay calm." So, if your skin keeps jumping up and down, this might be just the product for you.

The mushrooms in this facial sauce include reishi, known as Ling Zhi in Chinese. Reishi is an herbal mushroom known to have "miraculous health benefits," according to the website.

1. It is non-toxic and can be taken daily without producing any side effects.

2. When it is taken regularly, it can restore the body to its natural state, enabling all organs to function normally.

3. It is an immune modulator; it regulates and fine tunes the immune system.

An immune modulator is exactly what you need if the natural state of your face is the state of calm. For those who want a little more evidence with their mushrooms, unfortunately the website does not mention the many scientific studies that have been done that have demonstrated how reishi mushrooms regulate and fine tune the immune system.

Another mushroom in the mega-mushroom concoction is cordyceps, "a Chinese fungus traditionally grown on the bodies of caterpillars," according to Weil. He says this mushroom has several uses, including: "enhancing athletic performance by strengthening the lungs; overcoming general weakness and fatigue; tonic for physical stamina, mental energy, sexual vigor, longevity." Sounds like it might excite the skin, rather than calm it, but if it's good enough for caterpillars, it ought to be swell for humans. Caterpillars seem to have calm skin, don't you think?

Then there is Hypsizygus ulmarius, also know as elm oyster. According to Weil, this mushroom is edible and cultivated as a food mushroom in Japan. He says he chose it for his special facial cream because:

Many common skin problems, including sensitivity, puffiness, extreme dryness, hyperpigmentation, lines and wrinkles are the end results of inflammation that may be otherwise imperceptible. I chose Hypsizygus ulmarius and the other mushrooms used in these products because they have a long history of enhancing health, boosting resistance to stress, and promoting healthy longevity.

Does he mean that these mushrooms have a long history of satisfied customers and healers? In the absence of convincing scientific studies, this satisfaction may be accounted for by the placebo effect and subjective validation. I wonder, too, if mushrooms didn't get some of their reputation for miraculous health benefits from magical thinking about their shapes, colors, textures, and the kinds of places they grow.

Lest you think that Weil is in this for the money, consider this: he donates all of his after-tax profits from the sale of these products to himself! Yes, he proudly announces that all the after-tax profits go to the Weil Foundation, established to integrate quackery with 21st century medicine. What a guy!

Gary Craig's Center for EFT

Gary Craig

Gary Craig is a healer who would fit well in any New Age borough. He is so happy he's found the cause and cure for almost everything and he can't wait to help you cure whatever ails you. He loves you and cares for you. How do I know? He says so on his website:

I hope this doesn't sound too grandiose but you just walked into the most successful health innovation in the last 100 years. Based on impressive new discoveries regarding the body's subtle energies, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) has been astonishingly successful in thousands of clinical cases. It applies to just about every emotional and physical issue you can name and often works where nothing else will. (EFT)

Subtle energies, for those who haven't heard, is the scientific name for chi (prana, ki), those mysterious energies that are in constant need of balancing, harmonizing, unblocking, channeling, funneling, and transferring in order to maintain perfect health. If you doubt Gary's word, you can read the testimonials from dozens of people who have been cured of everything under the sun by this fabulous therapy. You'll feel welcome at Gary's site. He's loving and caring, as are all his staff. And you matter. He treats the person, not the disease. Let's cut to the chase. Basically, Gary's discovered what traditional healers have known for millennia: if you can relax people, they become suggestible and you can relieve their stress, ease their minds, and allow their bodies to heal themselves. Gary's discovery came when he found out he could cure people by using acupuncture without the needles. He stimulates so-called energy meridian points on the body by tapping them with his fingertips.

Of course, the gimmick wouldn't be complete if Gary didn't remind us that he knows about ancient wisdom (he is following a  time-honored Eastern tradition that has been around for over 5,000 years, he says, though acupuncture has not been around nearly that long. It has a recorded history of about 2,000 years.*). Plus, Gary knows about modern science. He says Albert Einstein "told us back in the 1920's that everything (including our bodies) is composed of energy." Thirdly, Gary tells us that "these ideas have been largely ignored by Western Healing Practices." What Gary forgets to tell us is that the so-called subtle energy of acupuncture has nothing in common with the energy in E=mc2. When you unblock that kind of energy you get nuclear weapons or power, not miraculous health cures. And the reasons these ideas have been largely ignored by conventional Western doctors is because they are nonsensical. Both the meridians and the subtle energy that supposedly flows along them are mythical entities. If Gary's methods are helping anyone, it is because he is touching them, relaxing them, reducing their stress.

Bob Park explains very simply and clearly how the placebo effect works in contexts like EFT:

Once we are convinced of the healing power of a doctor or a treatment, something very remarkable happens: a sham treatment induces real biological improvement. This is the placebo effect. Healers have relied on the placebo effect for thousands of years, but until recently, it was usually referred to as the "mysterious" placebo effect. Scientists, however, are beginning to understand the complex interaction of the brain and the endocrine system that gives rise to the placebo effect.

People seek out a doctor when they experience discomfort or when they believe that something about their body is not right. That is, they suffer pain and fear. The response of the brain to pain and fear, however, is not to mobilize the body's healing mechanisms but to prepare it to meet some external threat. It's an evolutionary adaptation that assigns the highest priority to preventing additional injury. Stress hormones released into the bloodstream increase respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate. These changes may actually impede recovery. The brain is preparing the body for action; recovery must wait.

The first objective of a good physician, therefore, is to relieve stress. That usually involves assuring patients that there is an effective treatment for their condition and that the prospects for recovery are excellent—if they will just follow the doctor's instructions. Since we recover from most of the things that afflict us, the brain learns to associate recovery with visits to the doctor. Most of us start to feel better before we even leave the doctor's office. (Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud. Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 50-51.)

So, the metaphysical mumbo jumbo that accompanies Gary Craig's tapping with his fingers is unnecessary baggage. He could tell you to take two of these little blue pills twice a day for two weeks and probably have just as many satisfied customers as the Emotional Freedom Technique folks. One difference, however, is that we have a way to test whether those little blue pills are a placebo or not. But we cannot do a randomized, double-blind controlled experiment on subtle energy being unblocked along meridians.

In case you're wondering whether Gary Craig is another medical doctor gone astray, the answer is no. He tells us on his website that he is "a Stanford engineering graduate and an ordained minister and, although we don't pound the table for God here, I do come at this procedure from a decidedly spiritual perspective."  His mentor was Dr. Roger Callahan, the inventor of Thought Field Therapy (TFT). The theory behind TFT is that negative emotions cause energy blockage and if the energy is unblocked then the fears will disappear. Tapping acupressure points is thought to be the means of unblocking the energy. Allegedly, it only takes five to six minutes to elicit a cure. Dr. Callahan claims an 85% success rate. He even does cures over the phone using "Voice Technology" on infants and animals; by analyzing the voice he claims he can determine what points on the body the patient should tap for treatment. As you have no doubt surmised by now, Mr. Craig is a great judge of character.*

He also has high regard for Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) in which he is a Certified Master Practitioner." I guess that's called Truth in Advertising.

What if the True Believers Were in Charge?

Patrick Hurst found a little sci-fi gem on the Web. It's a look into the future should the true believers take over. It's called "Condemned to Repeat It" and it's written by Mike Combs. It's worth a peek.


Michael Shermer will be joining us on the Amaz!ng Adventure! President of the Skeptics Society, author of many skeptical books, Michael's been a longtime friend of the JREF. He's also a very interesting guy to hang around with. (Be sure to ask him about his UFO abduction experience.)

In other cruise news, we're extending the discount for another two weeks. If you haven't made up your mind about the cruise yet, you now have until April 10th to get yourself a 10% discount. There's also some more information posted about the ports and speakers here.

In Skeptics Society news, they're holding a conference on "The Environmental Wars" the first weekend in June. There's a well-rounded list of guests and speakers including Michael Crichton, Adam Savage (Mythbusters), Chris Mooney, John Stossel, and many more. Find out about it at