Table of Contents:
  1. Follow the Money
  2. Law Breakers
  3. Switching Directions
  4. Perron Responds
  5. Reminiscing
  6. Lotsa Luck
  7. An Observation
  8. Palmtop Feng Shui
  9. Can't Be Too Careful
  10. Unrecognized Joke
  11. It's All a Conspiracy
  12. I Should Have Known
  13. Again?
  14. In Conclusion...



FOLLOW THE MONEY

Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, is a major figure in the Guru business.  He preaches a pop-medicine, rosy-hued, attitude-is-everything, brand of “wellness” that adheres strictly to the highest standards of medieval thinking and technology.  This has landed him on the cover of TIME Magazine, twice.

I first met Weil in the Spring of 1974, when he interviewed me for Psychology Today Magazine. The result was an article that appeared in two parts, in the June and July issues. They were titled, “The Enchantment” and “The Letdown,” respectively.  The first dealt with his total conviction that Geller was for real — a decision that resulted from a visit he made to the spoonbender, and the second part told of his subsequent disillusionment after I’d had an opportunity – at his invitation – to do a few demonstrations for him and asked him to seriously rethink his previous accounts of “miracles” that Geller had shown him.

However, Weil’s incredible ability to devalue facts led him to state, at the end of the Psychology Today article:

It might be possible to take more conscious control over the process by which reality is shaped and made to seem objective. “Wishful thinking,” though it has a negative connotation, is an appropriate term to describe this process. We all engage in it, often unconsciously, to bring things into reality according to our needs, and to make them leave reality according to our needs.  That is why certain questions like, “Is Uri Geller a fraud?” or “Do psychic phenomena exist?” are unanswerable. The answer is always yes and no, depending on who is looking and from what point of view. Each of us has the power to make such phenomena real or unreal. The first step toward making them real is to believe that evidence exists. As for Uri Geller, I wish him good fortune and the wisdom to use his abilities well. From knowing him, I have learned an enormous amount about the way I see things and the need for great care in evaluating evidence – especially the kind of evidence which seems to prove things I want to believe.

I hardly need explain why I disagree so very strongly with what Dr. Weil expressed on this matter.  The question, “Do psychic phenomena exist?” can obviously be answered by examining each claimed phenomenon, but it can’t be assumed that such phenomena exist just because every claim has not yet been examined; this appears to be Weil’s approach. Try the same treatment of the question, “Does Santa Claus deliver gifts to good kids at Xmas?” and you enter another endless pursuit that permits you to assume that since you can’t explain every gift ever received by a child, Santa is real… And, Weil’s naïve notion that the answers to these questions are always “yes and no,” is ridiculous.

And, “Is Uri Geller genuinely paranormal?” is a question that is answered, “No, until he provides proof that he is.” Catching Geller at trickery – which has been done often – does not prove he’s a fraud, all the time. 

Weil has brought in the silly “multiple realities” nonsense that should have vanished along with bell-bottoms and tie-dyed shirts. 

When he visited me at my home in New Jersey, I not only duplicated everything that Geller had done for him — by trickery, of course, since as we all know, Mr. Geller does his stunts by divine powers, and I have to use sleight-of-hand and other such mundane artifices — but I even outdid the Geller performance on several points.  A taste of what Weil experienced at that session is best expressed by a partial quotation from his own account:

The key was bending.  In a trice it was bent to about 30 degrees, looking for all the world like a Geller production.  “No!” I protested.  My faith in Uri Geller lay in pieces on the floor… I had never before had the experience of going from such total belief to such total disbelief in so short a time.  Nor had I ever doubted my perceptions so thoroughly.

Weil, of all people, should have doubted his perceptions, constantly, from the very beginning. Perceptions may or may not represent reality; magicians are the proof of that. Of course, if you assume that you can't be fooled because you’re too smart, you might as well turn over your assets to the next person who shows you a card trick that fools you. I’m available…

Subsequent news about Weil showed – and still shows – that in spite of what should have been a revelation to him about his inability to solve simple magic tricks, all of my efforts to alert him to that fact, appear to have failed.  Or perhaps he has now found that he can more easily reject reality in favor of fantasy — which admittedly can and does dramatically improve one’s income and popularity in the guru business.  Just a month after his encounter with me, Dr. Weil chose to endorse books by Uri Geller and Deepak Chopra, and thereby, in my opinion, at that point he’d gone to the Dark Side. Now, from that location, he continues to publish incredibly naïve “energy medicine” articles and books.

Until Weil opted to give such strong affirmation of Geller’s powers, and made his excuse that the question can’t really be answered, I had opted to classify him as a naïve-though-intelligent scientist.  The species is rare, but not rare enough.  In light of these recent actions, I now think of him as a not-so-innocent opportunist.  Why?  Dr. Andrew Weil most certainly knows better, not only because of the eloquently-expressed eye-opening I provided for him thirty-two years ago, but simply because he’s basically smart enough to know tricks when he sees them, but chooses not to.  I cannot believe that a man of such erudition and experience cannot see through the nonsense that he appears to so totally accept as reality.  He is not deceived; he is dangerously tolerant of flummery.  Even more than that, rather than being merely a spectator to the parade of dubious operators who display and peddle their quack notions and potions to the public, he’s now marching in that parade as one of the vendors.

Andrew Weil could have been an ally — but we lost him.




LAW BREAKERS

Reader Christiaan Barnard informs us of an interesting law:

I thought you might be interested to know that in my home country of New Zealand there is the following offence that is tucked away in the Summary Offences Act 1981 taken from www.legislation.govt.nz:

16. Acting as medium with intent to deceive —

(1) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who, acting for reward,

(a) With intent to deceive, purports to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise any powers of telepathy or clairvoyance or other similar powers; or

(b) Uses any fraudulent device in purporting to act as a spiritualistic medium or in purporting to exercise any such powers.

(2) For the purposes of this section, a person shall be deemed to act for reward if in respect of what he does any money is paid, or any valuable thing is given, whether to him or to any other person.

(3) Nothing in subsection (1) of this section shall apply to anything done solely for the purpose of entertainment.

Unfortunately, I do not know of any convictions for this offence, but it would be interesting to see if there is similar legislation in other Western countries and whether it is enforced.

What I find interesting here is the exact wording. Item (1)(b) seems directed at “materializing” mediums or
those using concealed communication devices – as Peter Popoff and many others did when hearing the “word of God” during their public appearances. I would add to the #3 “purpose of entertainment” item:

“…and plainly announced and advertised as such.”

It’s interesting to note that New Zealand lists a horde (herd?) of professional “psychics” and/or “mediums,” such as Joanne Champion, Christine Donald, Jocelyn Hammond, Joyce Hanson, Ken Hanson, Terry Harnett,  Natalie Huggard, Doris Ketteridge, Carole McCarthy, Phyllis Peake, Penelope, Peggy Thrupp, Ruth Wildish, and Jeanette Wilson – to name only a few. Are these persons only “entertainers,” we must ask? If they fail to advertise themselves as vaudevillians, variety show artists, cabaret acts, buskers, or birthday-party clowns, in view of this now-unearthed Summary Offences Act, perhaps serious inquiries about their legal status might be entered into…

I’d be interested to find out whether other countries – or local states, provinces, parishes, or counties – have similar legislation on their books. Perhaps our readers would like to look into these matters…

In this same direction, reader Jayson Barrons sends us to tinyurl.com/lfsmo, where we find an article titled, “Macomb County – LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Psychics worry as cities try regulations." Says Jayson:

Here's an article recently printed in the Detroit Free Press about the suburbs of Detroit imposing regulations – or even bans – on psychics. At first glance I was happy to read that finally some communities were coming to their senses.  But after reading it a second time, it feels more like the reporter is attempting to solicit empathy for "persecuted" psychics in the area.

I adore the fact that the psychics they interview openly admit that there are some frauds in the business, but not them. Goodness no, they've been to psychic school!




SWITCHING DIRECTIONS

From reader Jerome Prevost, in France….

I’ve been an audio enthusiast for years and I studied electronics to get my engineer diploma. Any audio device is mainly a stupid machine that does exactly what it should do. No magic here, I never encountered any inconsistencies.

The main problem with the audiophile world, as you know, is mind pollution with ridiculous claims and expensive devices. You have Stereophile and probably other "subjectivist" magazines. Here, in France, we have the same stuff. It would take pages to describe the products described in these magazines but one of them is very interesting in the way they’ve managed their words and how "alternative medicine" can be recycled into “audio devices”...!

This company, named OSH (oxygène système huit) [oxygen system eight], was the provider of several (and classic) devices like the "Minipuce," "lampe bioactive," or "syntoniseur" which were supposed to give you better health. Nothing new there. You can check their products – they still sell them today – here: www.osh-bienetre.com. Unfortunately, it's in French.

In 2000, they had a problem. They were no longer allowed by the French agency of health security to continue advertising their products in France with the same claims. So, they had the great idea of moving to the audio enthusiast world. Here, it's much less risky and the self-importance of subjectivist audiophiles is very useful – because not hearing something is the ultimate humiliation, even if it does not exist! And you can go to the audio site: www.osh-antimis.com. As you can see, you still find the "micropuce," the "syntoniseur" and all other devices (with new ones) from the "medical division." They use the eternal patent excuse, pure subjective (i.e. unverifiable) speech, user testimony and pseudoscientific smooth talk. The effect they "discover" responsible for bad sound is called MIS (Micro induction de surface, you can easily translate!). This effect, they say, is caused by the water molecules in the air (very original!) as described in the patent. In actuality it's not true, this patent never mentions MIS. In the FAQ, you can find information about MIS and I especially like this one (hopefully translated correctly):

Q : Is there any proof of the existence of MIS?

A : Because of its nature, it cannot be measured directly. Classical measuring devices interfere with this. But, numerous indirect evidences exist: rise time in frequency (?) of a treated amplifier compared to a non-treated one, biological proofs made at Metz University, of which director is J.M. Pelt (it should be easy to verify...).

Very audible, but not measurable directly... The same old story of “non-measurable” but very audible stuff again and again... You can find these "biological proofs," but they were done for the "Medical division," not for the audio one. In fact, the effect of MIS is beyond the audio world…

In fact, they don't have to disguise their products that much. The "syntoniseur" is only the small speaker cabinet available from Monacor (tinyurl.com/rkohp) available for about 45 € a pair and sold by OSH at 20 times the price (about 450€ each!). They sell a speaker to the audio enthusiast as a room correction device! And of course, you only have to put it anywhere, without plugging it in (it's a stand-alone device)!

In order to remove all doubts from their customer, they offer a three weeks trial period! Obviously, here the goal is only to remove any suspicion, so the effect (placebo?) is maximal. This is an example of use of the #1 marketing rule described by Brian Vaszily in the www.SixWise.com website:

The number one rule of today's marketing – the key secret of those who seek to control your beliefs and habits in order to take your money, your votes, your time or whatever else it is they desire from you – is to always keep in mind that nobody really believes they can be manipulated.

It's funny: most adults will readily agree that the power of marketing has reached monstrous proportions in our society. Most adults will agree that marketing – in theory a discipline meant merely to build awareness – has instead become an invasive tool of outrageous control.

But then most will insist it is the stupid others who are really being manipulated by it. The future OSH clients have the feeling that they control the test because of this trial period. That's the main point I heard each time from the buyers to justify their buying.




PERRON RESPONDS

We’ve had a reply from Bill Perron, the magician who proposed that his computer could turn out horoscopes that would be recognizable to the subjects’ mates. See the article at tinyurl.com/zg8lv. His reply is typical Perron jargon.

First, he reports that he received a “letter” from JREF. That was a print-out of the entry above, sent to him by postal mail; he apparently doesn’t have e-mail. It’s clearly identified as the SWIFT entry for June 9th, 2006, but Perron chooses to not know what it is.

Perron says that the entry “reeks of elitist ignorant condensation” – by which I think he means, “condescension,” unless he knows he’s all wet and admits it. We’re also told that our concern about using strangers at a shopping mall to select subjects is “an affront on [his] integrity.” Well, excuuuuse me! I should mention that almost all of the 100+ readers who examined – as best they could – the Perron claim, jumped on this condition as not at all acceptable. And Perron wants no photos taken. He doesn’t want a “blinded” test – the only sort that readers – and I – would consider doing. He merely wants to see if a wife who is presented with a horoscope she knows is supposed to apply to her husband, can find enough correlation in its eight pages, including the birth date and the birth sign, to accept the horoscope as applicable. Perron will accept no controls, no removal of “markers,” none of the security measures that the readers of SWIFT and I presented, and he refers to our insistence on imposing controls, as a “smarmy action” of which we “should be ashamed.” We are, he writes, “childishly disingenuous” to suggest those controls.

To demonstrate that he has sought out prime authority, he writes that he has

…shown [his] test protocol to professional magicians, lawyers, school teachers, and others, they all agree that my test challenge is fair and reasonable.

Perron, if you did find persons of those professions who were that dense, I think you should report them for being incompetent.

And what will Bill Perron do about the last paragraph I’ll write here? He promises he’ll:

…write articles about this experience and send them to national magazines such as Fate, The Mountain Astrologer and others [and] will also bill [himself] professionally as “The astrologer with the computer that has paranormal abilities JREF is afraid to test.”

[shudder] How can the JREF survive such a blow? In The Mountain Astrologer, yet, which we all read and adore!

Mr. Perron, we have been patient and have tried to make it clear to you that your suggested protocol – so far as we can understand it – is naïve, juvenile, and unacceptable. We have suggested an appropriate, corrected, protocol, and you have stated that you will not accept it.

Your application dated May 20th, 2006, is hereby rejected.




REMINISCING…

In 1945, a song that was a big hit for the Ink Spots and Dinah Shore, was “The Gypsy” – words and music by Billy Reid. I was just 17 when that song was popular, I was in high school, and I recall just how much in agreement I was with the message. The lyrics went:

In a quaint caravan there's a lady they call the Gypsy
She can look in your future and drive away all your fears
Everything will go right if you only believe the Gypsy
She could tell at a glance that my heart was so full of tears

She looked at my hand and told me my lover was always true
And yet in my heart I knew dear somebody else was kissing you
But I'll go there again ‘cause I want to believe the Gypsy
That my lover is true and will come back to me some day

I was struck by a variance I heard in some renditions; “I want to believe the gypsy” became, “I got to believe the gypsy.” That seemed, to me, a more accurate statement of the situation.

Today’s “gypsies” – Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh, and John Edward – work the same crowd, in the same way. It’s an ancient profession. Telling people what they want to hear, offering hope, throwing in a small disturbing hint of some obscure threat that might require further action or consultation, suggesting that everything will be okay if they’ll just blindly believe…

In passing, has anyone ever noticed that when ’Ol Blue Eyes – Frank Sinatra – rendered “Sweet Lorraine,” he sang, “A pair of eyes that are bluer than the summer sky,” while Nat King Cole used, “…that are brighter than the summer sky”? Actually, it should be “skies,” both to rhyme and to make sense…

I’m reminded: The yearbook at my high school recounted how, during a variety show, I did a mime to a Sinatra song that he recorded during the 1942-44 musicians’ strike; all union musicians were forbidden to accompany singers on recording sessions during that period. The song was “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night,” done a cappella, so onstage I had a dummy trio in the background humming along. It fooled the teachers, but of course not the students. The next day, Miss Quail, my German teacher, innocently complimented me on my singing voice, suggesting that it might be the way for me to make a living. “You’ll never do it speaking German,” she added, firmly. Miss Quail was always so hilfreich

My yearbook also carried this entry on me:

The Mind... carries huge slide rule... amateur magician... uses spare time working out tough math problems or translating hieroglyphics... mimics Danny Kaye... dreams of being an archeologist.

Little did they know I’d come to such a bad end…

Sorry. Just a little digression…




LOTSA LUCK

Reader Robert Lancaster tells us about his personal observations on a select community:

Regarding the "FEDERAL PANDERING TO SUPERSTITION" portion of your May 19, 2006 commentary...

I live in a community in Southern California which has a large Chinese population, so I am very familiar with the significance which many Chinese people attribute to the number "8."  I have been told that it stems from the fact that the Chinese word for "eight" sounds similar to a Chinese word for "luck" or "good fortune." I have been living here since the 1980's, and remember well the local excitement leading up to the extremely "auspicious" date of 8/8/88.  A friend had sold his local business to a Chinese couple, but they would only agree to the transaction if the contract were signed on that date.  There were reports of babies intentionally conceived nine months earlier, with some doctors even inducing labor in order that children would be born on the charmed date.

Around the same time, I had what I believe was a telling glimpse into the superstitious mind.

Housing locally was definitely a seller's market.  A Buddhist temple had been built in our town, and it was considered to be good luck to live within a certain radius of the temple – the closer, the better.  Stories circulated of Chinese buyers knocking on doors of homes near the temple, and offering briefcases of cash for the home. I lived a mile or so away from the temple, but houses on my block were still snapped up as soon as they went up for sale, as we were still well within the "blessed zone."

Oddly enough, friends only a block down were having difficulty selling their place, even though houses near them were selling like hotcakes.  They even saw cars of Asian people drive up, look at their house, and drive away without even getting out of the car. Finally, a Chinese neighbor told them that they would never sell their house to a Chinese family.  The reason?  It was at the end of a T-shaped intersection, and you probably know, in feng shui talk, that means that bad luck has a path straight to your door.  Personally, I'd be more worried that a car with failed brakes would have a path straight to my door, but I digress...

At the time, I was sharing a cubicle at work with a Chinese gentleman, and described the situation to him, asking if he thought it was true that no Chinese family would ever purchase that home. I'll never forget his reply.  He said "Yes, some Chinese people are superstitious, and would not live in such a house. But others are not superstitious, and would simply hang a mirror on the front door to reflect the bad luck away."

He wasn't joking.

The house did eventually sell, but not to a Chinese buyer, and for much less than otherwise equivalent nearby homes sold for.

Best wishes on your continued recovery, I look forward to seeing you again at TAM5!




AN OBSERVATION

Essentially, my work consists of examining paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims, from water dowsing and ESP to healing by therapeutic touch.  In a word, I investigate magic.  The spectrum is wide, the subjects are popular, and I have no lack of lecture requests from around the world.  Most of my lectures are followed by a question-and-answer period, and by far the most frequently asked inquiry is, “Why do people believe in these things?”

Well, funny you should ask. An excellent 1997 book by my close friend Michael Shermer is appropriately titled, “Why People Believe Weird Things,” and it attempts to answer this very basic question. While you await delivery of your copy of this book – which you’ll have ordered by going to tinyurl.com/nq97x – I’ll offer you a few observations.

I recall that the NBC-TV Today show, about 10 years ago, featured a group of 43 winners of a 20-million-dollar lottery prize, and the host asked two questions with, I fear, predictable answers.  “Why did you buy your tickets at the liquor store?” she asked. “Well, that store had a reputation for selling winners!” was the wide-eyed response. “And how did you choose the numbers?” a second credulous winner was asked. “I believe in the "power of numbers,” said this sincere gentleman, “and I have a system!”  Here we have delusions that cry out for remedy. How many other stores – of any sort, anywhere – had that same “winner” reputation? I see similar claims posted outside many stores. And did the “system” claimed by the second man, and his belief in the power of numbers – whatever the hell that means! – ever bring him another win? What is needed here is the promotion of science education, challenging students to critically evaluate the sources of their beliefs, though my personal experience warns me that no amount of education in this direction could ever change the thinking of these naifs; it’s simply too late, and they cherish their ignorance.

Properly arrived-at scientific conclusions are often difficult for academics to sort out from the well-funded and popular productions that have every outward appearance of genuine science, but are better classified as claptrap and pseudoscience.  Homeopathy, acupuncture, “magnetic healing,” “remote viewing,” and other studies with the apparent trappings of proper procedure – but not the foundation nor the follow-up – are often taken by scientists to have been “proven” merely by publication, while varsity pre-game rituals, invocations over tossed dice at the gaming tables, and alien abduction stories, would be scoffed at by these same persons. For them it’s often all in where the reports are published, by whom, and what letters follow the authors’ names. With academics, common sense often plays no part in the process of evaluation of wild claims.   

The depressing fact is that Shermer’s book will not sell a tiny fraction of the number of copies of books on the Bermuda triangle, dream analysis, astrology, numerology, religious miracles, etc., that fill our bookstores. Those stores now feature entire sections on the quackery of Deepak Chopra, the novels-turned-facts titled The Celestine Prophecy and The Da Vinci Code, and the saccharine platitudes of Wayne Dyer. Shermer is fighting against the sad fact that readers not only prefer this nonsense, but think they need it to make their lives bearable.  It’s sad, but true.

Michael’s book should be rewritten or updated every fifteen years, I believe, since new claptrap presents itself every day. There are always victims out there ready to surrender their common sense for a talisman, chant, or a ritual that puts them “in” with their peers and gives them the warm glow of being “avant-garde” and “cool.”  Meanwhile, I urge rationalists out there to snap up this book while they can. It may be headed for the bonfires, if the politically-correct crowd and the faith-based present administration is still trusted to play with matches…




PALMTOP FENG SHUI

On Asian mythology, this news…

Incredible. A leading electronics/communication company has applied for a patent on a system they claim can evaluate that ancient medieval notion known as feng shui. In my opinion, this provides the United States Patent & Trade Mark Office – USPTO – with an excellent opportunity to regain some of their faded validity by denying this fatuous application. Fat chance they will, since the applicant is Motorola, Inc. Read the tiresome application at Feng Shui PDA (tinyurl.com/jqvwz). The “description,” alone, runs more than 4,000 words of stupefying text…

Reader Stewart Scott, Senior Director of Technology for Cdigix, a provider of digital media services to the college marketplace, informs us of this farce via a New Scientist article:

Ever felt the position of your home furnishings were seriously throwing your mystical “chi” – or life energy – out of balance? Then put your mind at rest.

Motorola has patented a new kind of PDA [Personal Digital assistant] that evaluates a property’s Feng Shui rating by measuring positive and negative chi and awarding plus and minus points accordingly. “Feng Shui principles are widely applied in the fields of interior decorating and real estate,” a company spokesperson explains.

The device houses a camera that checks the color of the property, a microphone that listens for noise from nearby roads and factories and a compass to find north – a crucial factor for Feng Shui enthusiasts. It can also measure the strength of AM and FM radio signals from local radio transmitters and connect to the nearest mobile phone base station to check for indications of cell phone signal strength.

Weak radio signals indicate positive chi, but strong signals mean negative chi and lead to a poor Feng Shui rating. Ironically, Motorola’s new gadget seems to help people avoid the signals that they need to connect their cell phones. It looks like city dwellers' chi may be in dire straits.

New Scientist errs in identifying this as a granted patent; it’s only an application, at this point. Folks, isn’t there something else of real worth that the Motorola engineers could turn their attention to? Is the financial return to be expected from this waste of talent, too much to resist? In excavated trash heaps, future archaeologists will find 45rpm record players along with Motorola feng shui evaluators, and they’ll wonder at the naivety of those ancients who thought that the placement of mirrors, the orientation of beds, and the angles of windows could affect their futures and their fortunes. More than that, they’ll be puzzled how a company that turned out leading innovations and designs in electronics, could choose to wallow in such foolishness…  




CAN’T BE TOO CAREFUL

Reader Andrew Heaton tells us that we’ll like this one:

On a recent trip to a local store I came across an item I thought might interest you. It’s named Karma Guard. Thinking it to be a throat spray that is designed to take advantage of the foolish by its silly name, I chuckled and upon picking it up, I do believe I found a serious contender for the New Age, b*ll sh*t, product of the year. Karma Guard's label claims; "spray this once... before your deeds return ten-fold" and that it will "protect your soul." Here's the link: karmaguard.com

When I started laughing so hard that the whole store could hear, the girl behind the registered looked embarrassed and told me that I wouldn't believe the number of middle-aged woman who’d bought one. Of course the next thought that occurred to me was that only you could appreciate this as much as I. Until next time, thanks for continuing to fight off the next dark age.

Sorry to tell you, Andrew, but as you noticed, it’s already here…




UNRECOGNIZED JOKE

This is the cover of a 1992 book – one of many – donated to the JREF library by Charles Smallwood. It speaks for itself; the joke is on the cover…

I’m amused to see that Chapter 16 of this book is titled, “Probable Questions and Possible Answers.” There are 37 questions there, such as, “Isn’t this delving into the occult or Devil’s work?” and “Aren’t there some Tarot readers who are confidence tricksters?” But nowhere do we see the definitive question, one that these folks most fear:

Why is it that after the reading is finished, if I shuffle the cards and you deal them out again, the same pattern does not reoccur – has my fortune changed that much within the last 15 minutes?

I do ask the damnedest questions, don’t I?




IT’S ALL A CONSPIRACY

Our good friend Hal Bidlack – just recently retired from the US Air Force – tells us of an episode that shows just how persistent and strong the idea of a conspiracy theory can be. At the JREF, we receive regular missives devoted to establishing that almost any event – an assassination, a crash, even an earthquake – is actually a nefarious, organized, deception initiated by the CIA, FBI, the Vatican, or any other powerful agency. Mind you, I don’t put any possibility of a conspiracy beyond consideration, but when climate changes and cattle deaths are attributed to evil scientists living on Mount Shasta, I have to rein in my correspondents and try to instill some common sense. That’s very seldom successful. Here’s Hal’s experience:

You may recall the 1997 crash of an Air Force A-10 aircraft (see: tinyurl.com/r9nhl) in the mountains of Colorado. It was a sad and strange case in which the pilot was lost. The story is, however, most instructive as to critical thinking skills and conspiracy thinking. When the craft was lost, there was much discussion about the oddness of the accident. The pilot was in a two-ship formation, when the lead pilot noticed his “trail aircraft” had vanished. It was sighted over Colorado, and ultimately disappeared in the mountains. My students at the Academy, bright and intelligent to a person, immediately leapt into conspiracy mode.

They noted the aircraft was carrying four 500-lb bombs, and a student promptly told me he had heard the pilot had flown to Mexico secretly to sell the bombs. When I asked for any evidence, all I received was a knowing look, and a promise that one day the “truth” would come out. Well, time passed, and wreckage was spotted on a mountain. My students immediately responded with “Well, sure, that wreckage was planted. You will note that it has not been identified as A-10 wreckage.” Shortly after rescue teams arrived, they confirmed the debris was from an A-10 aircraft, and upon informing my students of this, I was promptly greeted not with an acceptance of evidence, but with a new variant: “Sir, you will note that they have not said it was his aircraft, just A-10 parts. They planted the wreckage as part of the cover-up.” Sigh… OK, well, a few days pass, and the serial numbers in the debris field show it was that particular aircraft. My students’ response? “Sir, sure, they fixed the serial numbers, but you will note they have not found any human remains.” And of course, not long thereafter, human remains were recovered. Cadet response? “Sure sir, they can plant human remains, but you will note they have not identified the remains as his.” And when the DNA proved that it was, in fact, the missing pilot, the cadets chimed in with, “Well sure sir, they had his DNA on file, they could easily plant it.”

Thus my ongoing battle with conspiracy theory. Very frustrating, and ultimately unwinnable due to the non-falsifiable nature of the claim. And these are not silly or stupid people. In my 15 years of teaching at the Academy, I greatly enjoyed my interaction with these future leaders of the military. But it was disquieting to learn first hand what you have known for a very long time: very smart people are capable of remarkable self delusion. Not long after that event, I introduced a lesson on critical thinking to the course, spending a day on Dr. Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. Unfortunately, a few years later when I had transferred to the State Department in Washington, my successor removed that lesson on the grounds that it had little to do with political science. Double sigh…

One never knows what seeds will take root, and a teacher never knows what lessons may matter to a student in years to come. Perhaps the lessons on critical thinking will be of use to some officer at some point, and if so, the credit rightfully belongs to you.

Rather, to the skeptical community, I think, Hal. We’re growing in numbers and in influence, and I look forward to seeing more of those in politics coming our way…




I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN

At the end of the item at www.randi.org/jr/2006-06/060206nothing.html#i16, I gave you the exotic word “terepace,” in a claim made by a Japanese applicant. Reader Tony Kehoe has solved what the chap was trying to tell me – and it should have occurred to me from my familiarity with Japanese pronunciation and my experiences in that country. The Japanese have no proper “L” sound, for which they often substitute an “R” sound. Nor can they manage the “TH” sound, as in “think.” Tony tells us that “terepace” should not be pronounced “TERRA PACE,” but as “TEH REH́ PAH SEE,” which when you pronounce it with the accent on the “REH,” and allow for using the “SEE” in place of “THE,” gives you “telepathy”! Yes, it takes a bit of a stretch, but after dealing with “I rike a grass of rubbery wine” for “I like a glass of lovely wine,” I should have spotted this.

Hey, in Germany, I mastered “Entfesselungskünstler.” 




AGAIN?

Gordon Ritchie, a mathematician-turned-biblical-scholar in London is now claiming that a Bible code predicts a bomb attack on the United Nations building in NYC after sundown this June 30. Not just a bomb, but a nuclear bomb, though a “small” one…

Mr. Ritchie has frittered away some 14 years of his life doing the intensive research necessary to find information where it doesn’t exist. That’s tough work. His prediction, he says, will be 98 percent accurate. That shows how modest and cautious he is. The bomb may be popped by Al-Qaeda agents or simply by disgruntled Americans.

I think we can take consolation in the title of the site he suggests we visit: www.lordswitnesses.com. Just for a moment there, I thought it might be serious…!

The Home for Failed Psychics is still open…




IN CONCLUSION

Next week, some old stored folders re-visited, and the coming Australian Skeptics National Convention...