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THE UNSTOPPABLE SCHWARTZ

Reader Paul Anagnostopoulos alerts us to yet another incredible sojourn into Woowooland by Gary Schwartz, professor of medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona, who says that research by a team he leads has found something he calls “cellular memory.” This, claims Schwartz, means that, for example, a person can inherit artistic traits after receiving a heart transplant from an artistic person. By the same token, a heart donated by a raving psychopath should give serious Charles Manson tendencies to a recipient? Apparently so, though Gary, who is always willing to present a sunny picture to his fans, ignores that aspect.

This story – which must embarrass hugely the faculty at the university – can all be seen at www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/health/healthmain.html?in_article_id=381589&in_page_id=1774.

Comments Paul, “Ah yes, traits stored in the memosome, a little-known cellular organelle.” Please Paul, don’t give Gary any more ideas! His colleagues are having a hard enough time dealing with the discomfort…




DESPERATION?

Selfridges Department store, started up in 1909 in the UK, enjoys an excellent reputation and a tradition for innovation. There are now four branches. Well, the management, in a startling break from expected decorum, has now announced a weird approach to help its customers decide which purchases to decide on: psychic readings.

The original Oxford Street branch of the exclusive boutique now proudly advertises that two resident psychics are in place for shoppers to consult for buying advice. “Clairvoyants” Jayne Wallace and Christine Murray are ensconced to provide this valuable service for 40 minutes to any shopper, who then add £40 [US$70] to their Selfridges charge card. And, readings from tarot cards and crystal balls are part of this valuable service. What a riches of help!

Said a representative of Selfridges, perhaps through clenched teeth, "Psychics have a valid role in bridging the gap between hunches and religious beliefs... Customers looking for an excuse to buy that expensive little black dress can now blame a dear departed relative." Umm, I see. Makes perfect sense.

Or, dare I suggest, has this formerly respectable firm run up against their public’s overpowering need to accept the ridiculous? What sort of advice do we think might be offered the shoppers? Purchase of the deluxe vacuum cleaner rather than the cheaper model, or first-class accommodation on the proposed ocean voyage? We can only wonder.




TRASHING AN OTHERWISE GOOD IDEA

Reader Bill Wickes of Corvallis, Oregon, gives us his review of a new TV series.

The CBS TV series Numb3rs is not great TV, but it's refreshing because one of its main characters is a genius mathematician named Charlie Epps who acts as a consultant for his FBI brother Don and applies exotic mathematical (and physics) analysis to help solve crimes.  He is on the faculty at a CalTech stand-in university near L.A., and often uses as a sounding board one of his brilliant (and beautiful, of course) students and/or his offbeat physicist friend Larry Fleinhart.  In many cases, his mathematical techniques and results may be a bit far-fetched, but it is wonderful to see a program show mathematicians and scientists in a positive light, and the results of logic and careful analysis used seriously for good purposes.

Randi comments: Okay, Bill, but I must agree with your “far-fetched” observation. To my taste, many of the mathematical conclusions arrived at are rather doubtful, depending on very small samples to draw awesome conclusions. But you were saying…?

But the March 10 episode was a downer.  In the opening scene the FBI is led to the bodies of three murder victims by the sketches made by a psychic from his "visions."  While Charlie was consistently skeptical and contemptuous of the psychic throughout, the other characters gave voice to every tired defense of psychics and their abilities.   Don insisted that the CIA had used psychics in the past, and that psychics had often helped police departments solve crimes.  Worse was the physicist Larry (who should have known better) who blathered on about how "we don't know everything,"  "we must keep an open mind," how there's different kinds of realities and even how maybe evolution had produced some quirks in the form of humans who are sensitive to communications that most people can't detect.  Even when Charlie showed that the psychic had cheated on a so-called test of his powers involving his blindly identifying the suit colors of playing cards, the other characters continued to treat the psychic with respect and to include him as part of the investigating team.  In the climax, the psychic claimed visions of “water” when the team was searching for a kidnapped young woman, and sure enough, they found her in a desert shack filled with – you guessed it – jugs of water!
 
The program writers probably thought they were "teaching the controversy" by showing the psychic and the mathematician as hostile to each other, and allowing the latter to voice many classic skeptic arguments and facts about psychics and yet allowing the other characters to be open-minded and accepting of anecdotes and other supposed evidences of psychic crime-solving.  But by allowing the psychic to triumph in both the opening and closing scenes, the writers succeeded in placing the psychic on an equal footing with the mathematician, and encouraged the audience to think well, maybe there just is something to all of this psychic crime-fighting business.

Randi comments: Bill, I’d not be surprised to find that the closing scenes were re-written when the producers discovered that maybe there wasn’t enough woo-woo to satisfy viewers. That often happens; always remember that sponsor satisfaction outweighs any inclination to present facts…

Never have I been so disappointed in a program.  I'm used to TV providing a forum for every crackpot notion that comes along, but it's especially disheartening to see a show that was actually making a contribution to public awareness of science trash its own premise, and ruin the credibility of several of its main characters.  Sigh.




OBSERVATIONS….

Borrowed from the Augusta Free Press….

You may be listening to the wrong TV preacher if...

He/she asks you to send money to the Lord, but then gives you their address.

He wears a suit that would embarrass Michael Jackson.

The people he heals in Houston bear a striking resemblance to the ones he healed in Los Angeles the week before.

He embraces a pile of letters and guarantees that God will answer each prayer.

He/she uses the all-time most patronizing statement – "If you’d had enough faith, your friend would have been healed."

His hair takes a can of hairspray per show.

He says that the Spirit hasn't led him to disclose his financial reports – just yet.




HOW SILLY CAN YOU GET?

For no good reason, this brings to mind a photo I came upon showing some folks associated in a meaningful way. So you’ll know, that’s L. Ron Hubbard on the left. He’s the Scientology guru who taught Tom Cruise that millions of years ago, some giant blue octopi from another star system came to Earth, stuffed hordes of intergalactic criminals into volcanoes, and vaporized them; Tom has eagerly accepted this history. The guy in the red dress and funny hat on the right is George King, head of the Aetherius Society. I once confronted George at Caxton Hall in London, where he’d given a speech about a sacred rock he’d found in the countryside that could not be chipped or broken without deadly results. I promised that if he’d only show it to me, I’d break a piece off it and kick the chunk all the way back to Piccadilly Circus, without suffering anything worse than scuffed shoes. He didn’t accept the offer. George likes to play Cardinal, as you see.

My question: Which of these three men looks the silliest…?




FROM INSIDE THE TEMPLE

An anonymous reader, writing a personal note about the infamous Jim Jones’ fiasco in Guyana…

I've been a fan for a long time.  I've always had a special interest in your fraud challenge; no doubt that's because of my own experience with psychic fraud.

I grew up in the Peoples Temple and was a member of the Jones family by marriage to Jim Jones' daughter.  Completely disillusioned, I left the Temple shortly before the exposés began in July, 1977.  As you may know, an extremely important part of the Temple ministry and appeal related to Jim's “psychic powers.”  Given my position in the church and close affiliation with Jim, I knew the healings and demonstrations of psychic ability were fraudulent.  Most of the psychically perceived information Jim presented publicly came to him in an extraordinary manner to be sure.  His staff robbed the garbage cans of prospective attendees (as well as existing members) and culled useful information for Jim's highly profitable psychic use later on.  In fact, my mother was arrested in LA while going through the garbage of some unsuspecting Temple aspirant and doing so in blackface and afro wig, no less.
 
Occasionally, Jim had the temerity to suggest that perhaps not all the healings were based on his phenomenal talents.  After all, he averred, continuous demonstrations of the "gift" would be simply too tiring.  Of course, we justified this nonsense on the strength of that the old liar's mantra:  "The end justifies the means."  It took me a while to figure out that when that fat fraud made this observation to me, he was in fact telling me that I was the means to his next end.  By the way, if you'd like to witness psychic demonstrations nearly identical to those we in the Temple saw routinely, please rent the recently released DVD of the movie "Nightmare Alley", a 1947 film noir, starring Tyrone Power playing against type in the starring role.  Frankly, I think that very film inspired Jim to pursue his own chicanery.

I often wonder if the terrible deaths in the Guyanese jungle in November, 1978, (including those of my entire family) might somehow have been averted had your challenge existed back then.  Please keep up your truly "amazing" work.  You'll never know how many frauds you'll frighten back into their holes and how many lives you just might save.

That film “Nightmare Alley” was based on the book of my late friend William Lindsay Gresham. Bill was less than happy with Hollywood’s treatment of his tale, but happy that his message got out. Tyrone Power played Stanton Carlyle, a “mentalist” who goes bad. I’ll add that Bill also claimed to have invented the term “geek” to designate the carnival low-life who bites the heads off chickens in playing the “wild man.”




MORE DAMN FACTS

A news item made quite a stir recently and caused the religious right to cast about wildly trying to patch this affront to their determined ignorance of reality. I can’t say it better than my old friend Bob Park. This is taken directly from “What’s New,” Bob’s excellent web page, to which you should be subscribed. Go to listserv.umd.edu/cgi-bin/wa?SUBED1=bobparks-whatsnew&A=1 and sign in. No charge, lots of enlightenment, and no spam will follow.

MIRACLE MEDICINE: PRAYERS OF SCIENTISTS HAVE BEEN ANSWERED.

The long-awaited study of intercessory prayer for coronary bypass patients was released yesterday (see last week's WN). A small increase in complications, attributed to "performance anxiety," was found in a subset of patients who were told that strangers were praying for them.

Otherwise, there was nothing. Scientists are relieved of course; science is tough enough without having to worry that somebody on their knees in East Cupcake, Iowa, can override natural law. The study of 1800 patients took almost ten years and cost $2.4M, mostly from the Templeton Foundation. Of course, there are calls for further study. Where do we start? What are the units of prayer? Do prayers of Pat Robertson count more than those of death-row inmates? What is the optimum posture of the supplicant? Where can we learn these things?




PUZZLE SOLVED

Every now and then I get a missive that exceeds my expectations of the ridiculous. Here is one such, offering us an applicant’s total proof for the million-dollar JREF prize:

Somehow, I’m supposed to fathom the esoteric meaning of this graphic. It’s sort of a mandala or balanced figure – which accomplishes nothing. The applicant is sure he’s won the million on the strength of this submission…




LONG-DISTANCE QUACKERY

We occasionally come upon an item that appears to edge out any other candidate for our next yearly Pigasus Award. Here is one, which I don’t think can possibly be surpassed.

Ohio chiropractor Dr. James Burda, 58, calls it a personal “gift,” a power he discovered six years ago and refers to as, "Bahlaqeem." This potent ability, he says, enables him to manipulate patients’ joints using only his mind, without touching them. In fact, he says, he doesn’t even need to be in the same room with them. It’s sort of like quackery-at-distance.

Even the Ohio State Chiropractic Board says it’s an unacceptable departure from their "prevailing standards of care." They propose the revocation of Burda’s license to practice. He’s had that license since 1991. He says that “Bahlaqeem is a long distance healing service ... to help increase the quality of your life that can be performed in the privacy of your home or other personal space. There is no need to come to my office." That name, incidentally, is one he invented because to him it expresses a mystical meaning that describes his “service.” I have several other names in mind.
Burda claims a success rate of "close to 100 percent." His Web site features comments from satisfied patients, one of which is from Daisy Mae, a 10-year-old basset hound that supposedly overcame severe neck pain. Hold on.!. A writing or speaking basset hound is yet another miracle which could win the JREF prize! Did Daisy Mae come up with the $60 treatment fee Burda charges, and was it cash, credit card, or check…?

Burda said that while he was driving to a store one day, he found he had the ability to move bones using only his mind. “I got a pain in my foot," he said. "I figured out what bone it was in my foot, and I told it to realign. Within half a second, the pain went away. That taught me that I could do something different." But the Ohio State Chiropractic Board maintains that Burda is "delusional" and that his methods constitute "gross malpractice." Gee, cracking bones and manipulating infants’ skulls is okay, it seems, while something that can’t possibly hurt – or help – is a no-no?

Kelly Caudill, the Chiropractic Board’s executive director, made a bold statement: "It is the board’s contention that you cannot perform chiropractic by thought." But Burda is ready. Says he, “What I do is beyond what they understand. Anything that’s beyond what people understand scares them." No, “Dr.” Burda, we’re not scared of the phenomena you claim; we’re terrified that nut-cases like you actually get to vote, let alone practice….




A STRANGE KUDOS

A website in Australia mentions me in a rather weird fashion, perhaps implying that the event named is the most outstanding thing I ever did Down Under. The item reads:

Some of our best known Australians have had their say about the moments they feel have defined us as Aussies and how our culture has formed over the past 50 years. Entrepreneur Dick Smith, a man whose personal success story is part of our folklore, chimed in with his own.

"It's got to be something we all think back and we know something about and something that changed our culture a little bit," he said.

Dick ranked Australia's first Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras at number three, Don Lane's famous dummy spit before the astounded skeptic James Randi at number two and that incredible march of the returned Vietnam Veterans at number one.

Our good friend Dick Smith, you should know, is very famous in Australia for believing that he can do just about anything – and proving it true. To show Aussies that they could have a good supply of fresh water during one drought, he towed an iceberg into Sydney harbor. Fascinated by a stunt man who leapt his motorcycle over four buses, he jumped a bus over four motorcycles. Since Australia didn’t have a proper national geographic magazine, he started one, and it’s flourishing. And he’s still the only man to have circumnavigated the globe – solo – in a helicopter. I won’t get into the balloon flights….

A humanitarian and generous benefactor to many causes, Dick has certainly established himself as an Australian of note. In conversation with Aussies, I sometimes get a doubting look when I claim Dick as a close friend.

In any case, the “dummy spit” he refers to was a confrontation I had with an American who became quite prominent on Australian TV as a host. He met with me and wanted me to talk on his show about Uri Geller, who had wowed the continent with his spoon-bending, that feat that so significantly moved forward our basic understanding of the world. I agreed to appear, but asked that I be queried on more basic subjects, and that I not be required to replicate the tiresome old key/spoon trick. He agreed, but when I showed up at the studio, I caught sight of some keys and spoons that had been assembled by the prop man. Lane was setting me up – or so he thought.

During the program, Lane triumphantly unveiled the hardware. When I reminded him that we’d agreed not to go that route, he smirked and commented that I was obviously not able to replicate the tricks. That’s all I needed. I picked up a key and held it in my hand, then to his astonishment, opened my hand and showed that it was noticeably bent. Lane choked, then swept all the hardware off the table, commenting, “Well, you can just piss off!” The audience – across the nation – reacted appropriately…




EXPOSÉ IN PUERTO RICO

Reader Abel Nieves sends us this interesting video clip from a Puerto Rican skeptics group, Sociedad de Escépticos de P.R. Even though you might not speak Spanish, you’ll get the message…! Says Abel:

This is a Latin (Venezuelan accent I think) TV show debunking a mentalist who has previously been on their show. I think they felt deceived and decided to go after him. A good lesson, there’s still hope. It's in Spanish, but anyone that watches the whole thing will understand. If it's worthy of your site, please share! www.escepticospr.com/Humor.html

Just click on the right-arrow beneath the photo…




IN CONCLUSION…

I had the pleasure of a personal visit from Michael Shermer last week. He was in town on his busy lecture schedule, and we had a happy afternoon together at the JREF. I’m intending to observe the JREF Open House here on the 26th – last Wednesday of the month, as formerly. Though I may not be available for the entire evening, I'll show up to give the benediction. We’re trying to get back into the saddle…

Please note the new JREF Photo Archive that Jeff Wagg has provided for your entertainment. www.randi.org/the_jref_photo_archive/base0.html. My biographers have managed to come up with literally hundreds of photos that I hardly knew existed, and we’ll be adding to these from week to week.

This is my first full page since returning to SWIFT, and it has been – I admit – rather arduous to get it together. The work therapy is good for me, I’m sure, and a lot of this was assembled in the midnight-to-dawn period due to serious insomnia, but I’m getting better every day. Thank you for your continuing good wishes and encouragement, friends.

All for now. Stay skeptical…