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A former French military air traffic controller and senior airport manager named Eric Julien has completed a study of the comet “73P Schwassmann-Wachmann” and warns us that a fragment of this perambulating ice-ball is highly likely to impact the Earth on or around Thursday, May 25, 2006.  Discovered by Arnold Schwassermann and Arno Arthur Wachmann in 1930, the comet has an orbital period of just less than 5.3 years and comes nearest to the Earth every 16 years.

It has followed its five-year orbit intact for centuries, but in 1995, it mysteriously fragmented. Hey, that happens, but Julien wants us to really worry about it. He says that some fragments are too small to observe – which is of course true – but while astronomers have predicted possible meteor showers – “shooting stars” – as  some cometary debris enters the atmosphere, they tell us that the comet poses no direct threat.

Ah, but Julien has real evidence for his Doomsday scenario. He doesn’t only rely on hard facts, science, and statistics for his conclusions. He uses the latest and most advanced technology, as we’ll see. Since this year a “crop circle” (see appeared showing the inner Solar System with the Earth missing from its orbit, he concludes that this was a message from higher intelligences warning humanity of the consequences of its destructive nuclear policies, all of this tied in to the Bush administration's policy of preemptive use of nuclear weapons against Iran and the effect of nuclear weapons on the realms of higher intelligences. Says he, “We have to save lives when we have such information to share with the public." Of course; I ask you, when have the crop circles ever been wrong?

However, Julien assures us that the comet-fragments will fall into the Atlantic Ocean between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer, though he says that will generate 700-foot waves, so we can’t relax. He tells us that "each person with this information has to take responsibility to warn potential victims."

His article, "May 25, 2006: The Day of Destiny" is available at:
I predict that there will be a meteor shower the night of May 25, 2006, and it will be pretty. I’ll be out there watching it, and nothing will fall on my head – or anyone else’s.

BREAKING NEWS: Julien’s website – – has just announced…

In order to spread this vital warning (waves up to 200 meters), Eric Julien has decided to resign from his position of Director of Exopolitics Institute to create a website dedicated to save the lives of the Atlantic coast people, in the East of South America and North America, and the West of Africa and Europe:

Eric Julien invites everyone to warn family and friends, who do not live in a safety area, to go to proper places on MAY 25, 2006: inland and/or the heights. This date is the Ascension Day, i.e. the day for the people to go up. This date, once converted in the traditional Julien [sic] calendar (16 centuries long), is JUNE 6, 2006, i.e. 6/6/6.

Julien claims that we have still time to organise the protection of citizen without panic. We must stay calm and face this collective responsibility with dignity.

Incurable sceptic that I am, I’ll still be out looking at the meteor shower, exhibiting excellent dignity, and wondering what Eric Julien will offer as his alibi when we aren’t all drowned… I have to also wonder what he’s smoking, and whether he thinks he invented Caesar’s calendar…

Visiting his incredibly long and copiously illustrated discussion at will convince you that you’ve encountered the ultimate in egocentric, totally deluded individuals – and you should bear this in mind on May 26th, after his firm prophecy – with all its involved numerological, Biblical, crop-circles, “proof,” falls on its nose. Julien won’t be in any way discomfited at the prophecy’s failure; he’ll make incredible rationalizations and then just sail along as before. These nutters are never wrong, they just can’t be discouraged by any evidence that they’re demented.

However, we must note, Julien has a built-in escape-hatch here. Slyly inserted into his massive tirade about the “tens of millions” of victims, is a provision. He says the massive tsunamis will take place

Except if, of course, the leaders go into reverse.  That enormously will depend on you, of the actions that you will take to convince them of their folly! 

Yes, it’s perhaps unkind of me, but I can see the possibility that this deluded man will decide – and declare – that there were enough “positive vibes” sent out as a result of his warning, that world leaders reversed their attitudes and the “higher intelligences” out there graciously diverted the comet debris to cancel the catastrophe.
In less than 20 days, you’ll see. Yes, this is presented to you in ample time for you to follow, step-by-step, a case of full-blown delusion at work.


A reader named “Jordan” has informed me of a project that appears to be a huge waste of time and effort, as well as a serious expenditure of our tax dollars. And yes, as we might expect, it involves the most common of perception errors, dowsing – or “divining,” as you wish. The Ideomotor Effect has confounded more people than any other psychological error we are subject to, as evidenced  by the array of strange sticks, wands, and swiveled gimmicks that are currently on sale for the purported detection of everything from missing children to explosives – though finding underground water is by far the most common claim for these gimmicks. See for a pertinent discussion of this matter.

Jordan wrote: 

Dr. Arpad Vass, a researcher at ORNL [Oak Ridge National Laboratory] who has also done work at the National Forensics Academy (NFA, colloquially known as the Body Farm), claims to be able to find buried corpses with the help of dowsing rods.  This concerns me more than it would if it were just some run-of-the-mill crackpot, as the NFA trains local and federal law enforcement.  I feel that testing and debunking his claims would be of great benefit to crime victims and to the American taxpayer, as well as giving some pretty serious publicity to the JREF.  I have had some brief correspondence with him, and I will cc you my most recent letter to him… Details are available in this thread:

I responded promptly to Jordan:

Dr. Vass is eminently eligible for our million-dollar prize, which he could win within an hour during a proper test. The question is, does it have to be a human corpse?


That was the first thing I thought of as well; his "theory" is apparently that "gasses that are released from the body create a magnetic charge that is opposite of the earth's magnetic field, which interacts with the divining hangers," so I noted that I imagine a pig carcass or similar large animal would work.  I made it clear that I was not a JREF employee or representative.  I do not know if he would find an animal body acceptable or if he would use it as an excuse after his certain failure… If you would like me to step back and let the experienced people of the JREF discuss the Challenge with him, let me know.

And, he quickly added that he’d received a brief note from Vass saying that a porcine carcass would do…

Here is Jordan’s first letter to Dr. Vass:

I read with great interest "Bodies We've Buried," the book about the National Forensics Academy written by your colleagues Jarret Hallcox and Amy Welch.  Much of the material is very interesting and informative, but I was dismayed to see that you have expressed interest in divining the location of corpses with divining rods.  Unfortunately, I have to tell you that this will absolutely not work.  You've experienced the "ideomotor effect," which is the influence of suggestion or expectation on involuntary and unconscious motor behavior.  Unless the experiment is double-blind and properly controlled, your foreknowledge of the body’s location will influence the motion of the rods, even though you are not purposely doing it.

If you can use divining rods to find corpses in a double-blind, properly controlled manner, you, the NFA, or ORNL is eligible to win James Randi's Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.  That would pay for a lot of research, as well as bring the program and yourself worldwide acclaim.

Further information on the ideomotor effect is available here: James Randi's Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is explained at All that is required is that you demonstrate that divining works better than chance.

The next day, Dr. Vass responded. Note that there is no mention or recognition of the possibility that he might be wrong, but only an attempt to bring in recognized scientific principles to explain the wonderful power he possesses. And, the JREF challenge, you’ll note, has been carefully ignored!

Thank you for your kind comments and they are of course taken into consideration. I am not sure what the authors of the book said since I have not read it, but divining started out as a fun activity for the students since it does “seem” to work. Since I have 100% success rate in finding clandestine corpses using divining techniques, I started doing some research into the effects and found that there are logical(explainable) reasons why it works – refer to Newton's theories which disproves a part of Einstein's relativity theory. Along with some of the exceptional unique properties of bone I think we have developed quite a plausible explanation of the concept. I plan to publish on this and will send you a copy. Best wishes, Arpad.

Jordan promptly fired back:

Thank you for the quick reply.

Because science is at its best when vigorously challenged, I hope you will not mind me asking you a couple of questions about your methodology.  You claim to have a 100% success rate in finding corpses, but I wonder, what are the control parameters?  Because the burial of a body leaves certain visible clues – disturbed soil, footprints, maybe even tools left next to the site, how are you certain that you are not simply perceiving these details?  It is not difficult to discover a body with divining rods when one already knows where it is.

Since you asked about the book, here is what Hallcox and Welch wrote in “Bodies We’ve Buried”:

Recently Dr. [Arpad] Vass, the same Dr. Vass responsible for developing some of the most extraordinary capabilities used to discover human remains, has fallen in love with the prospect of "divining for bodies."

In order to do this, he takes a metal coat hanger like you would get from the dry cleaner, the kind with the cardboard tube, and cuts it in half, discarding the hook portion.  Using the cardboard pieces as handles, he ends up with two L-shaped diving instruments that can move independently of the cardboard.  He then holds his hands at his waist; with the metal portion of the hangers pointing straight out, he walks toward where he thinks a body might be decomposing.  As he gets close, the metal pieces will point inward.  It is unbelievable, to say the least, but we have both done this and it feels as if a force is acting upon the metal.  Dr. Vass is convinced that the gasses that are released from the body create a magnetic charge that is opposite of the earth's magnetic field, which interacts with the divining hangers.

Can you say new research?  This is something the class will try on the following day during their burial recovery exercise.

Jordan continued:

The James Randi Educational Foundation has a million dollar prize available to anyone who can successfully dowse in the manner you describe.  You must only demonstrate that you can do what you claim. I imagine a pig carcass or similar animal body would work, as they are chemically identical to that of a human body, and you mention that the detected material is gasses released from the body.  If would be a great boon to science if you would test your findings with the JREF, not to mention that if you succeeded, you would have a million dollars to do with as you see fit.

I am not an employee of the JREF, nor a representative of that organization.  Further details are available here:

Vass’ answer:

Well, the book doesn't quite represent what I said or do, but yes I think the principle of how it works follows Newton's theories (has nothing to do with gasses by the way) quite well. I do not believe it has anything to do with the paranormal – it just simply follows the rules of physics. Tesla also hit upon some aspects of it. And yes, you are correct that in some cases evidence of burial is present, but I use it only in the most difficult situations (burial under house foundations, driveways, garbage dumps, etc. where no telltale evidence exists.) Difficult to explain away when you find the exact location of a corpse under an entire house or building foundation when even the informant can't remember which house the victim was buried under. By the way, it does in fact work with pigs (even found some dinosaur bones), but pigs are not as similar to humans in decomp products as once thought. I will take your suggestions under consideration.

There has been no further correspondence between Jordan and Dr. Vass, though I will of course update the matter regularly. Again, as fully expected, Dr. Vass chose to ignore the JREF million-dollar prize, though I suspect he thinks that his comment about there being no paranormal aspect to his miracle, gets him out of that predicament. To remove that element from the offer, I sent him this message:

Dr. Vass, one of my readers, Jordan, has mentioned to you the million-dollar prize offered by this foundation. I assure you that your dowsing-for-bodies claim is eligible for this prize, particularly in view of your statement that you have had “100% success rate in finding clandestine corpses using divining techniques.” We would of course not hold you to such a rate of success, being satisfied with only a statistically significant performance. And, should you feel that your accepting such a large prize might damage your academic and/or professional standing, you are of course free to donate the million to any school or charity of your choice. We await your response with interest.

Promptly, I heard back from Dr. Vass:

I thank you for your continued interest and will take your suggestion under consideration, but could not possibly contemplate doing this activity until near the end of the year due to prior commitments and travel obligations. Arpad

And I responded:

I will contact you later in the year, about November, to inquire about your interest in pursuing the matter.

But I must ask my readers: How many among you would not arrange to postpone or re-schedule a few events in the next six months, to win a million dollars? Note that Dr. Vass still avoids even mentioning the JREF prize. I wonder why…?


Go to to see discussion on an article by “Mike Adams, The Health Ranger,” on those dreadful skeptics who do not embrace quackery. I won’t take the time to respond fully to this insolent, simply wrong, attack, satisfying myself with this brief comment:

This is a fascinating article. As most such tirades do, it invents attitudes and opinions for the skeptics — views that are incorrect and presumptuous. For example, I don’t know of any skeptics — myself included — who believe that “vitamins are useless… and that all medical treatment should be limited to drugs, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.” Where did that notion come from? From the minds of those who fear and deny the truth about the quackery they espouse, not from the skeptics.

To quote again: “These extreme skeptics are truly impressive in the depth of their knowledge: There is nothing true in the universe that they don’t already know. All science has already been discovered, they proclaim…” Again, I know of no skeptic who has ever made that ridiculous claim, or even entertained that opinion.

These canards are the ammunition of the beleaguered believers who need to create a straw man to attack.


Michael Shermer’s April 27th e-Skeptic report has an article on Mark Bellinghaus which rather bombs – again! – on the powers of James Van Praagh:

Re Mark Bellinghaus’ skeptical critique of the Marilyn Monroe Exhibit that opened in Long Beach, California in November 2005: Bellinghaus, widely regarded as a Marilyn Monroe expert, owns one of the most extensive and comprehensive Marilyn Monroe collections in the world.

Did you see that psychic on Entertainment Tonight in December, James Van Praagh? He had one of Marilyn Monroe’s hair curlers — it even had a Marilyn hair on it — and this guy was listening to Marilyn talk to him right on the air. Spooky!

Those curlers are a highlight of “Marilyn Monroe, The Exhibit,” a display that opened November 11, 2005, on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, advertised as the largest private collection of Marilyn memorabilia ever assembled, a collection with the claimed worth of $10 million dollars.

But I have a small problem with those hair curlers: it took only the briefest internet research and a call to Clairol to establish that they were first manufactured in 1974. Marilyn passed away in 1962. I wonder which dead blonde Van Praagh was talking to.

You mean that James Van Praagh made an error…? Incredible!


Reader Gary Sawyer in Sacramento was last heard of here when he was involved in one of several public vigils carrying a sign asking local radio station KNCI if their favorite psychic, Allene Cunningham – billed as the "World's Foremost Psychic" – was real, delusional or a scam.  As Gary tells us, she never returned to the air on KNCI – or any other Sacramento radio station – after that. He gives us a letter he recently sent to the editor of the Sacramento News & Review in response to an article one of their reporters wrote about her recent visit to a local "psychic":

Considering consulting a psychic as SN&R's Becca Costello did?  Before you do, bear in mind that Homeland Security would keep any genuine (or marginally-accurate) psychics too busily – and lucratively – employed for them to be selling "$5 (aura-cleansing) incense."  Any psychic that isn't part of a CIA team pursuing bin Laden is probably delusional or a scam.

But aren't Sacramento's news agencies usually diligent about exposing local scams?  After all, they've exposed scams involving non-existent Nigerian money-men, bogus lottery prizes, phony ATMs, etc.  So, why aren't they exposing the truth about phony psychics?  ("Phony psychics" seems redundant.)  Could it be because "psychic" is the one category of scam that is a "cash cow" for those agencies?  Face it, reporters at NBC-affiliate KCRA-3 aren't going to debunk psychics while "Medium" is NBC's moneymaker. Since Channels 3 and WB-58 are both owned by Hearst-Argyle, channel 58's not going to debunk psychics either.  The newsroom at CBS-affiliate KOVR-13 isn't going to raise doubts about the "psychic" CBS-based "Ghost Whisperer" or "psychic" Sylvia Brown's countless appearances on "Montel Williams."

Channel 10's not going to undermine ABC's star treatment of "psychic" James Van Praagh on "The Insider."  Channel 31's viewers watched John Edward converse daily with dead people on UPN's "Crossing Over," so Channel 31 News isn't going to reveal that clairvoyants aren't real, especially while Channel 31's "Good Day, Sacramento" features an on-air "psychic" each month.

That leaves The Sacramento Bee [newspaper] to report the truth.  But would The Bee risk alienating four networks and five local stations by exposing psychics as fakes or delusional?  Advertising-wise, that could run off an entire herd of The Bee's cash cows.

The result is a plethora of Sacramento-area "psychics"; be they low-profile ones like the one who relieved Becca Costello of $45 in a few minutes (4/13/06), or media-savvy and expensive ones like the "World's Foremost Psychic" and "Animal Psychic" (both on the air at radio station KNCI 1051.FM) or "Tristen" and "Monnica" [sic] heard trolling for clients over the airwaves of KCCL 101.9FM.

The parent companies of most local newsrooms have a vested interest in the public believing that authentic psychics exist, so self-professed psychics operate unchallenged.  Which prompts the question: How can local newsrooms and elected officials – who turn a blind eye to phony psychics defrauding gullible or desperate Sacramentans – profess to possess any integrity of their own?

Gary’s message here is that the media have so much invested in “psychics” that they must support and promote them. Seems logical. What’s right and ethical, however, escapes them…


I received some dozen or so posts chiding me for the “Muslims in Orbit” item of last week. Here is the answer I sent to one who wrote me that I was thereby ridiculing Muslims:

Sir, I ridicule Muslims far less than I ridicule Christians – and all other religious beliefs.  We are held back in our progress by incredible mythological notions that cripple us and invade our daily lives, and they affect our laws and educational standards, as well.

If you were offended by my words, I apologize, but my comments remain.

Sometimes a community, when criticized, reforms itself.  That can be a healthy action.  I am still waiting for fundamentalist Christians to release their grip on the American population, but that disadvantage remains, and threatens to drag our society back into the Dark Ages.  Similarly, and just as strongly, Islam has a firm hold on the futures, the treatment, and the limitations forced on Muslims. It is a daily battle for all of us, trying to stay ahead of the darkness that is encroaching on us, and if I can help just by commenting on how ridiculously we behave, I will continue to do so.

Again, if my observations were offensive to you, I regret that fact.

I must add that reader Vasmi Abidi informed me – in my ignorance – about the means that could be taken to get around the religious rules I mentioned. I should have known that there would be a certain degree of practicality in such an extensive theology. He wrote:

The rules for the Muslim prayers (as practiced by most Muslims) are quite flexible and can be adapted to circumstance. All the "difficulties" mentioned for space travel in the piece, already exist on Earth and have well-known solutions: Irregular sunrise and sunsets? Already faced by people living in polar regions, or traveling across time zones. Not enough water? Use available alternatives for cleansing, such as sand. Not able to kneel? Many sick people can't, and so on...



Go to and learn a few points with which the I.D. flakes can be confronted. This is a very well done video, and difficult to deny.  Of course, the I.D. preachers won't face up to the recognition of the very large number of evolutionary experiments/trials/random permutations that have taken place over so many millennia, to arrive at each step of this ongoing process, so they choose to opt for the simpler and easier view that relieves them of hard thinking...

I’m sure they’ll bleat that so few fundamental steps are delineated here by zoologist Dan-Eric Nilsson of the University of Lund in Sweden, and we’ll get the usual “evolution is only a theory” objections. No, evolution is a thoroughly established fact, supported by tens of thousands of examples of excellent evidence, which is being added to, every day. Creationists have ZERO evidence, only mythology, to offer.


Reader Dr. Matthew Grove, North Tyneside General Hospital, UK, writes:

I enjoyed your piece on the Silent Knight ring – but I think you missed the funniest quote on their website. Have a look at the first testimonial Quote:

A spokesman from the British Acupuncture Council says: “Although the traditional texts do indicate this [acupuncture] point as beneficial for congestion of the nose and for nosebleeds, as far as we are aware, there is no specific research or proof that this acupuncture point would stop snoring in everyone. We would recommend a proper diagnosis from a fully qualified acupuncturist to identify the underlying cause of snoring.

A proper diagnosis from a fully qualified acupuncturist …. !!!! As if that'll add anything useful!
Keep up the good work and all the best for your recovery.


The January 12, 1994, issue of USA Today carried the results of a survey conducted by Jeffrey S. Levin, associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, which stated that more than two-thirds of the U.S. population has had “at least one mystical experience.” Now, what was meant by “mystical,” is not clear. Surely, what some of us look upon as fascinating but otherwise quite ordinary, might be dubbed mystical by others. As a professional magician – more correctly, a conjuror – I have a narrower field to consider, in this respect. How Penn & Teller can – apparently – catch marked bullets in their teeth, must appear to be magical/mystical to their audiences, but to me, it’s a clever, effective, demonstration of their excellent conjuring skills.

There’s currently much fuss being made about the resurrected Levin survey, coupled with the poll analysis that was published in the January-February issue of The Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, the journal of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. (subscriptions at  We must bear in mind that the believers must keep frantically scratching about trying to find anything that might validate their delusions, anything that can distract or mislead the media or the public. This is a good example of their frustration.

The CSICOP survey – by Farha and Steward – was based on a 2001 nationwide Gallup Poll that found younger Americans more likely to believe in the paranormal than older respondents. It was found that getting more education was not a guarantee of skepticism or disbelief in the paranormal. While only 23% of the freshman questioned professed a belief in paranormal claims, the figures were 31% for college seniors and 34% for graduate students.

The woo-woo fringe have been extolling – in a backhanded gesture – the virtues of Skeptical Inquirer for publishing the results! They declare:

Although the results of the survey are not surprising to long-time researchers in the metaphysical/psychic fields, what is startling is the fact that while the poll may have been conducted with expectations of demonstrating that as students became more educated they dropped questionable beliefs in favor of more skeptical attitudes, The Skeptical Inquirer must be congratulated for publishing results that they really did not wish to find.

News Flash to the woo-woos: Science is conducted with a view to discovering facts, not to try to establish any preferred fact. Ideally, there are no “expectations” in place. The Farha/Steward survey was bound to be published, regardless of the nature of the results. True, the woo-woos don’t recognize that principle, and operate on a different wavelength, but then they are more comfortable being ignorant of reality.

There’s another factor here that I think has been missed. It involves a statement I have made on many occasions:

Education only provides a student with a framework for discovering the facts, but it does not force the student to use that framework. An education only makes you educated, it doesn’t necessarily make you smart; you have to get that way on your own. By “smart,” I mean “able to apply knowledge to the real world.” Give me a kid from the slums as a survival assistant in a disaster, rather than a half-dozen PhDs. The academics would still be writing a paper on how to find some food, while we two survivors were already digesting our meal.

The survey result that those more educated tend to out-believe those of us of the Great Unwashed, is not surprising to me.  I recall the George Bernard Shaw (?) quote, “Youth is wasted on the young,” and it appears that education is sometimes similarly squandered…


John Huntington, Associate Professor, Entertainment Technology, at the NYC College of Technology, who attended the Amaz!ng Meetings 1 through 4 and promises he will be at #5, informs us of something I would hesitate to believe, were I ignorant of the astonishing naivety exhibited by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. He’s serious, folks…

My friend Karl Ruling, the Standards Manager for the Entertainment Services and Technology Association, recently included this item in his "Standards Watch" publication ( I thought you might find it interesting.

John Quincy St. Clair filed a U.S. patent application on 19 January 2006 for an invention that would make door hardware and doors irrelevant. Patent application 20060014125 is for a "Walking through walls training system." According to the application's abstract:

This invention is a training system which enables a human being to acquire sufficient hyperspace energy in order to pull the body out of dimension so that the person can walk through solid objects such as wooden doors.

Randi comments: Folks, this statement is gobbledygook, pure nonsense, codswallop, written by an uninformed person who doesn’t understand the concept of hyperspace, energy, or dimension. But notice that it was accepted by the USPTO without question… Mr. Huntington continues:

St. Clair also later filed an application for another invention that might obviate the need for a trained audience. United States Patent Volume 10, Number 8 Page 4 Application 20060071122, filed on 6 April 2006, is for a "Full body teleportation system." According to the abstract, the invention is for a

…pulsed gravitational wave wormhole generator system that teleports a human being through hyperspace from one location to another.

Don’t rush out to your local Radio Shack to place an order, folks. This is just another example of the incredible ineptitude of the USPTO. You can patent literally anything if you pay the fee…


Recently, at, I mentioned that my late friend Bill Gresham had laid claim to inventing the term, “geek” – denoting a certain low class of sideshow performer, often referred to as The Wild Man, and often said to be from Borneo. Reader Edward Carney (I’m highly suspicious of that name!) of Roseville, Minnesota, has researched the matter, and informs us that Bill should not be so credited, since he would have been only ten years of age when an ad appeared in Billboard, posted by a Cincinnati resident. It read:

At Liberty – Snake charmer or geek man; would like to join show going south.

That is clearly used in the proper context, so it seems unlikely that Bill originated the term, though he was a precocious youngster.

This is yet another example of a phenomenon I find fascinating. Any problem or question I offer here in SWIFT is followed in short order by a reader response providing a solution or an answer. Since we reach a huge audience every week via SWIFT, we reap this added benefit. My excellent friend Martin Gardner, who wrote the “Mathematical Puzzles & Diversions” column for Scientific American from 1956 to 1986, discovered a similar unexpected boon in the fact that each of his columns elicited a great volume of correspondence from mostly erudite and enthusiastic readers. The material thus produced expanded each subject on which he wrote, and all of this could be – and was – incorporated into the great number of books that he produced, many based on his Scientific American columns.


Peter Hogan, with the Victorian Branch of Australian Skeptics, Inc., asks me to mention that their National Convention will be coming up the 18th & 19th of November in Melbourne, Australia. The theme is “Science, Truth & the Media." Details & registration at

The Aussies know how to put on excellent conventions, so plan to attend if you’re Down Under..!

And Barry Williams will be there. How rich can life get…?


Reader Simon Nicholson in the UK follows up on our discussion of Boots…

I read in the latest SWIFT Rob Smith’s account of his dealings with Boots. He is absolutely right, Boots is not just a Chemist shop (Drug Store?) in the UK, it is a national institution, and as he says, trusted by millions. If it’s sold by Boots, it must be okay…?

I regularly use my local branch of Boots and, after reading Rob’s account, when I went in yesterday to get a prescription, I took the opportunity to raise the issue with their senior Pharmacist; note that I do not have his explicit permission to relay the conversation so I will not use his name nor the branch in which he works. This chap has always been very friendly and immensely helpful; if Boots required an endorsement for their Pharmaceutical Service, based on my interaction with this guy, I’d be happy to give one.

I put it to him that the shop in which he worked offered many homeopathic, magnetic and herbal remedies of the sort Rob Smith mentions. He rolled his eyes and said “Yeah, tell me about it.” I asked if that bothered him, and he replied, “Yes, it bothers the heck out of me, but what can you do? Boots isn’t just a Chemist any more, and they will sell anything.” By “they” I assumed he meant the store management, and he is right, Boots are now, effectively, a retail store.

He was clearly discomforted by talking about this, but under JREF influence (I was wearing a T-Shirt and Pigasus badge at the time!) I pressed the point, What, I asked, would you do if someone came to you with a magnetic ring and wanted to but it? He stood on his dignity and said “I would say that I could not recommend the product and refer them to a retail counter, we are Pharmacy.” He was obviously differentiating between the traditional part of the Boots company and the expanded “sell anything” sector.

I let it go at that. The fact, is, I  could empathize with the guy; as I’ve stated in previous correspondence, I work at a college that, amongst excellent Science and Arts teaching, also flogs courses in reiki, reflexology, crystal therapy, ear candling  and other woo-woo stuff. I feel sullied by association and have, as you know, confronted the “powers that be” on several occasions, only to be fobbed off with nebulous statements very similar to that of Boots, essentially saying “We will teach anything as long as there’s a market for it.” The college has recently been awarded one of the Blair Governments “Beacon Awards” and despite the fact that this was effectively in recognition of specific learning materials for disabled students, every enquiry is met with reference to this “Beacon  Award status” and implies that no criticism is legitimate because the government has recognized our excellence.

I can’t afford to simply quit my job in protest. I stick at it and try and raise objections where and when I can, and to end on a positive note, there was a minor “victory” recently. I was at a steering meeting planning a foundation degree course, and one of the items was about the profiles of the teaching staff to be included in the new web page and prospectus. I was nodding through the process when it was suggested that all teaching staff provide their star signs! I coughed and spluttered and was about to come up with a plethora of objections, when I realized it was unnecessary; my colleagues were already doing the work. “Nonsense!” “Rubbish!” and “Codswallop!” were amongst the politer responses. The proposer gulped, and merely said “We’ll minute that as a ‘no’ then”.

I must be having some influence!

Reader Jon Davies from Glasgow Science Centre adds to the Boots saga with a similar account….

I have just read with interest, and unfortunately not much astonishment, the article from your April 28th commentary by Rob Smith about the latest trip “Boots” has taken to Woo-Woo land. I have contacted them several times over the past year or so about their policy of marketing “alternative” remedies. My replies have been of a similar nature to the one Rob received – mainly that if customers want to buy it, they are quite happy to sell it. My frustration to this lame response is this:

Whenever I am in a Boots store, I ask for the pharmacist. I then pose them this question: "As a scientist, how can you justify the sale of homeopathic remedies, magnetic bracelets etc...?"

After the initial shock and surprise I get the usual "If people want to buy it, we sell it" or "Some people say it works, so therefore we sell it." My response of course is to explain to them the true nature of these products.  I push them, as trained scientists, to admit to me that these remedies are ineffectual, and very, very occasionally I get their quiet agreement.

Unfortunately almost every other high street pharmacy I visit sells homeopathic goods or magnetic bracelets. This is of course an opportunity for me to speak to a lot of pharmacists... If they are particularly obtuse I revisit with some literature and leave it with the hope that someone, sometime, may read it. I especially like to have these conversations when the shop is busy and a lot of customers are within earshot, but it is vitally important to be very cool, calm and considerate, even when you feel like screaming and shouting!

I would encourage everyone to use this questioning approach when visiting pharmacies. Perhaps with enough questioning, someone, somewhere, may start to think a little more seriously about the service they offer and the goods they sell.


While we’re in the UK, reader Tony Kehoe breathlessly recounts that in his country, bumps-in-the-night and other strange happenings are terrifying workers at a Cumbria shipyard, one with a long reputation for being haunted. Reports of unexplained pipe banging, machinery working by itself, and mysterious shadows during the changing of trousers, have been reported!

Ah, but fear not. The management are taking these concerns seriously and have called in the services of a local vicar, who will perform an exorcism. That’ll do the job!

One worker said that the mysterious happenings took many forms, a crane moving when the driver had the controls by him while no one was touching them, and an innocent lad upstairs changing his overalls when “a shadow or something went past him, but when he turned round there was nobody there."  Yes, terrifying indeed! The same worker averred that "There are a couple of big guys, one of them a foreman, who won't go upstairs at night on their own." Of course!

One local theory says that it's caused by the spirit of a man who committed suicide at the plant many years ago, or maybe the return of an overtime-mad storeman who died of cancer. Or – I offer – the ghost of a Roman soldier who stubbed his toe really badly at that location in 54 B.C.  Or the spirit of the widow down the road who fell in the river – remember? Or…. take your choice.

How about a badly-managed or out-of-order crane, and a moth passing by a light during the overall change? Well now, that doesn’t serve our purpose here, which is to fill a few inches of newspaper space and/or provide a 15-second titillation to TV viewers, in lieu of any daft current aberration offered up by Cherie Blair?

Well, the site's industrial chaplain has been in to talk to the staff, and a local vicar will also come in to perform an exorcism, so all will be well again. Until, that is, a telephone goes out of order, or an employee’s car won’t start – both sure signs of haunting.

Then there’s that tax collector who was lost in the bog, and never found…

What future is there for The Empire?


Folks, I urge you to give some of your attention to the matter of climate change. This debate is on the cover of every magazine from Wired to SEED to Vanity Fair this month, and we all need to become more familiar with the arguments, pro and con. Take a look at a conference website, which tells you about the June 2–4, 2006 Environmental Wars conference which will host scientists, writers, environmentalists, and thinkers from all points along the environmental spectrum at the California Institute of Technology. At that conference, you’ll find questions, answers, and opinions on this important subject.

Why are we still debating climate change? How soon will we hit peak oil supply? When politics mix with science, what is being brewed? At this powerful conference, speakers from the left & the right, from the lab & the field, from industry & advocacy, will air the ongoing debate about whether human activity is actually changing the climate of the planet.

Just look at the array of speakers Michael Shermer has assembled: ABC News anchor John Stossel and science fiction writer Michael Crichton will attend an evening session. Nobel laureate and President of CalTech Dr. David Baltimore, Caltech environmental scientist Dr. Tapio Schneider, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science will debate with science editor of Reason magazine Ronald Bailey, Occidental College paleontologist Dr. Donald Prothero, archaeologist Dr. Brian Fagan, Dr. David Goodstein, Professor Jonathan H. Adler, Dr. Gregory Benford, and our good friend Dr. Paul MacCready will all participate in what will be as comprehensive a discussion of this matter as you could ever wish.

You can register at, and you’ll be better informed on a matter which threatens to damage our world.


Yes, this was a rather long page this week, but I’m trying to make up for the material I couldn’t post during my illness. Next week, we’ll have a full report from Claus Larsen – Denmark – on a recent Benny Hinn fiasco there, we’ll find that the Facilitated Communication nonsense is still active in Syracuse, there’ll be a piece on “psychic” Sonya Fitzpatrick, and you’ll find that the Church of Scotland is training priests to recognize and deal with Satanic forces – and probably administer holy oil and water…