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While visiting the onboard library during the Bermuda Triangle cruise a week ago, I found a book that had obviously been planted on the shelves by an advocate of the coming-soon Rapture. This is the promised event in which The Faithful will suddenly vanish, float into the air and ascend to Heaven. Some say that only 144,000 of them, among the 6,500,000,000 or so persons presently inhabiting this planet – only .0022% of them! – will be so chosen. Driverless cars and pilotless aircraft will crash all over the place… Well, you get the idea. It’s Flash Gordon without the cool costumes and ray guns. The Rapture nuts have been entertained for the past eleven years with a series of fifteen fiction books – total sales 62 million copies – conjecturing on the results of this calamity. And there’s another book due…!
The books have been written by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, the latter with a bad wig that makes Ernest Angley’s look good. I thumbed through the 12th in the series, “Glorious Appearing.” This was my first taste of a collection of breathless adventures that would appeal to 14-year-olds, but to no one else. Vapid, naïve, and with a cast of characters that came straight from early Westerns. The names of the actors alone, are laughable by themselves. Get these:
We have Rayford Steele, late forties, former 747 captain for Pan-Continental; he lost his wife and son in the Rapture. Buck Williams, mid-thirties, a journalist whose wife was guillotined by the bad guys. Abdullah Smith, mid-thirties, driver, go-fer, etc. The Big Bad Guy is Nicolae Jetty Carpathia, late thirties, assassinated in Jerusalem by a Dr. Chaim Rosenzweig, but then resurrected in New Babylon. He’s the designated Antichrist, as well as the Secretary-General of the United Nations and a former president of Romania, obvious positions for such a rascal.
The plot is as juvenile as the casting. Jesus, really pissed off at the millions of Antichrist minions – the “Unity Army” – rattling their swords at him, macerates them all with a few words. They’re killed by pieces of falling hail “the size of a dining-room table, half a foot thick” which fall on command and crush them. Wheee! But read an actual excerpt from the juvenile text of “Glorious Appearing”:
Rayford had assumed he was way past being shocked by now. What could he see that would be more surreal than the last several hours? Yet as Abdullah kept a careful but watchful distance from Carpathia's Humvee, all Rayford could do was stare at the result of the last so-called battle. Of course, there had not been a battle at all. The Unity Army had rattled its sabers, loaded its weapons, and made a lot of noise. And Jesus had killed them all, with mere words.
Of course those words were the words of God, and the effect was overpowering. Mile after mile after mile, Abdullah drove next to a river of blood several miles wide and now some five feet deep. Carpathia's whole-world fighting force of several million troops had been reduced to perhaps a million. That was still huge, of course, and from a human standpoint the rebels could never match it. But the devastation to the Unity Army in a short period should have made plain to Carpathia that his days were numbered.
Randi interrupts the story, and comments: First of all, how did our heroes know the depth of the blood, except by going wading? Let’s do a calculation: if we assume that “several miles” is three, that’s 16,000 feet by 5 feet just for the area of a cross-section of this mighty river of evil blood. A one-foot-wide slice would contain 600,000 gallons of blood, if the river cross-section is rectangular. Since the average body of an average Bad Guy contains 1.25 gallons of blood, assuming that each body was drained bone-dry – by some further miracle – the “slice” of the river would represent 480,000 dead soldiers. Again, assuming that “several million troops” means three million, that would account for only about 6 feet of the river… I’d think the river would be longer than that, so I have a real problem understanding the figures…
Oh, I forgot. It’s yet another miracle. Silly me!
Moving right along, it seems that the Antichrist is impervious to the message delivered by the river of blood:
Rather, to hear him talking earnestly to Leon in the car and to the remaining troops by radio, what had happened served as mere motivation. "Our goal remains," Carpathia said, "and our task is clear. Take the Father's city, wipe out His chosen people, and kill His Son.”
In another scene later in the book that surely gives heart flutters to the dedicated readers, the heroic Mr. Steele is summoned forth by Jesus Christ himself in front of millions of the assembled faithful. How all of them could see him, we’re not informed, but this is a miracle, so we have to accept:
He had called him by name and told him, "Come to Me, My child."
Rayford tore his eyes away and looked to his right and his left. Both Abdullah and Mac looked shocked, also staring at Jesus and questioning, by gesture or word – Abdullah in Arabic – whether He was talking to them.
But He was not, Rayford knew. He is talking to me. Rayford pointed at himself with both hands and raised his brows. And Jesus nodded. He began to move toward his Savior. How could this be? How could Jesus give individual audiences before a crowd this size? How much time could He give each person? This could take months! And how was it possible that Rayford was selected first?
As he moved stiff-legged toward Jesus, Rayford's mind reeled. What were the odds? How could he quantify the privilege of locking eyes with the eternal God of the universe? He began to hurry, and Jesus said, "Come unto Me, Rayford, and I will give you rest."
Though his eyes were on Jesus and his body moved forward, Rayford suddenly became aware of everything. He was coming out of a crowd of well over a million. Five angels stood sentry behind the Master. Rayford's friends and family would see him. What had he done to deserve this privilege? Rest – yes, for the first time he felt that need. The fatigue of the last several hours washed over him and he felt as if he could sleep if only given the opportunity.
But as he came within steps of Jesus and saw His welcoming smile, he was struck that the Lord seemed as thrilled to see him as he was to see the Lord.
And so on, and on, and on…
Mindless pap, but carefully designed by the authors to charm the ignorant, to assure them of their place in Heaven, and inform them who the Bad Guys are. Beware of the United Nations, communism, liberals, and Big Business. I note that Jews are kindly treated by LaHaye and Jenkins, since they are provided with an opportunity to be saved and not Left Behind, if they’ll just convert to the Right Side…
Reader Jeffrey Thorne alerts us to yet another example of the Vatican retreating to the 14th century. He refers us to the UK Daily Mail at http://tinyurl.com/kc59t, and says:
Of interest to your readers, at the above link, is an article, which, if the Daily Mail can be believed, tells us that the Vatican's chief exorcist has little faith in the efficacy of prayer. According to secret Vatican documents recently released, wartime pontiff Pope Pius XII attempted a "long distance" exorcism of Hitler which failed to have any effect.
Really? That’s so hard to believe, isn’t it – that it failed, I mean? But the Pope’s new chief demon-dumper, one Father Amorth, president of the prestigious International Association of Exorcists – so not one to trifle with – explained this error by Pius:
It's very rare that praying and attempting to carry out an exorcism from a distance works. Of course you can pray for someone from a distance but in this case it would not have any effect. One of the key requirements for an exorcism is to be present in front of the possessed person and that person also has to be consenting and willing. Therefore trying to carry out an exorcism on someone who is not present, or consenting and willing would prove very difficult.
Ah, there’s the problem. Hitler wasn’t present, and probably didn’t want to lose those demons, anyway. Silly Pius! Didn’t he read the book? Or maybe his membership in the International Association of Exorcists had lapsed? But Amorth tries to get him off the hook:
However I have no doubt that Hitler was possessed and so it does not surprise me that Pope Pius XII tried a long distance exorcism.
Tell me what you think, folks: do these dumbos in dresses and funny hats ever get together and chuckle over just how silly their pronouncements are? Surely they’re smart enough to know that it’s a really pathetic – but deadly – charade they’re involved in? Amorth, in his considered wisdom, has also taken off after the Harry Potter books, claiming that reading the stories of the fictional wizard can open children's minds to dabbling with the occult and black magic. Amorth said of the J. K. Rowling books:
Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil.
Is this man serious? He’s most certainly a mature adult, and he has an excellent education, yet he represents that he really believes this crap. Incredible. Go to http://tinyurl.com/pk77x and decide for yourself. He said that the Rowling books contain innumerable positive references to magic, which he ominously defines as "the satanic art" and that the books attempt to make a false distinction between “black magic” and “white magic” – presumably such things as curses and cures – but he avers that such a distinction
…does not exist, because magic is always a turn to the devil.
As an aside, when I recently completed a 10-week set of rehabilitation sessions at the local hospital gym, I got a perfect example of religious superstition at work. Many of those attending had chosen to post photos of their pets on a large bulletin board behind the exercise machines. Taken by an attack of whimsy, I pinned up the photo shown here, of a previous pet I had. This was a kinkajou, a gentle, active, excellent creature to which I was closely attached. You see his marvelous prehensile tail wrapped about my neck, in our usual walking-about mode. Ellen, one overly-chatty member of our exclusive group was fond of regaling us on Monday mornings about what her priest had preached the previous day, in detail, as if to warn us of our transgressions. She pretty well lived for Sundays and for her Church. When she noticed the photo of Sam and me on the wall, she audibly gasped, and mumbled, “familiar!” as she stepped back in shock.
The term “familiar” – as Ellen used it – denotes a demon, usually in the form of an animal, that is said to accompany a witch on her/his travels. Now, I admit that Sam did look a bit formidable, and he had huge incisors and big black eyes, but I’m sure he had no such function – certainly not for me, at least. Ellen was genuinely concerned, and for the three days more she used the gym, she carefully avoided eye contact with me, and actually crossed herself if I passed in front of her. She was serious about this. But, back to the Vatican’s familiar-tracker…
Father Amorth claims that he has performed more than 30,000 exorcisms in his career. That is to say, this educated man has pronounced words over people who think that imaginary demons are infesting their bodies, he has sprinkled charmed water over them, and he has ordered the invaders to go away. Wow. What a wasted life. It’s the year 2006, yet we still have witches, demons, devils, spooks, and banshees from which this man will protect us?
As reader Jeff Thorne observes,
There we have it, in black and white. "Of course you can pray…it would not have any effect."
Last week I wrote about the Vatican astronomer being replaced. Some readers have informed me that Father Coyne is currently undergoing chemotherapy for colon cancer, and that is the reason he is no longer in his former position. That may very well be, and in any case I express my hope that the gentleman will be successfully treated for the condition. From the evidence at hand, I drew the conclusion that Father Coyne was out of his former position because of his widely-stated differences with the Pope over the notion of “intelligent design” – and I expressed that conclusion – but the illness explanation may be a more pertinent reason. If so, I correct myself, and I apologize.
Looking at the current reason-versus-superstition situation, we find some encouraging signs. Following 9/11, intellectual giants like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson announced that God – they meant that angry, jealous, capricious, vengeful one, also known as Jehovah – was mad at America because we allowed feminists, gays and civil libertarians to exist. Author Sam Harris had his own response. In August of 2004 he produced a bombshell of a book. It was "The End of Faith," and it was awarded the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. A paperback edition followed. It entered The New York Times Best Seller list at number four, and remained on that list for a total of eighteen weeks. An encouraging sign, I think we’ll all agree.
Harris looked at the highly popular practice of slaughtering people in the name of religion, though as he points out, that has been going on since long before 2001. He suggests, convincingly, that the problem is religion itself. "The End of Faith" sold 270,000 copies. Now we can see further evidence of this problem in a new book by Mr. Harris. His "Letter to a Christian Nation" will be published this month with an initial press run of 150,000.
But others have added their efforts to keep this torch of reason alight. Last February, "Breaking the Spell," by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, was published. It examines how and why religions became so widespread, so accepted, in society. Dennett points out that that major religions are, by and large, mutually incompatible. Even a superficial study of religion, he says, deprives it of much of its highly-touted mystery and power. And, next month, we’ll see "The God Delusion," biologist Richard Dawkins’ new book in which he writes that we must include all religions, not only Christianity, when we censure the irrationality and superstition that plagues our social systems. He says, "It's time to get angry, and not only with Islam."
We can celebrate the fact that authors of the caliber of Dennett, Dawkins and Harris have produced such effective, carefully-crafted, attacks on the dangerous and outdated superstition known as religion. They point us in the direction of reason and encourage us to discard mythology by summoning the courage to face the real world as it is.
To see “psychic” Sylvia Browne floundering badly on the Montel Williams Show, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBNp1Y7fiwA and watch. You’ll see Montel – who seems to be cowed by Sylvia! – trying to patch up her blunder, offering rationalizations. When is Montel ever going to wake up – or get some ethics working for him? He’s smart enough to figure out Sylvia, isn’t he?
One of the most popular woo-woo beliefs is the phenomenon of receiving a telephone call from someone shortly after thinking about them. The fact is that the average person thinks about dozens of persons every hour and only notices this miracle when one of those persons calls within a certain period. All other persons – the vast majority who did not call, are – quite understandably – quickly forgotten about. This explains the delusion adequately, but is not usually brought into the discussion.
Now a scientist says he has proof of what he calls “telephone telepathy,” but would be more correctly designated as intuition or anticipation – if it were a proven phenomenon. There is no indication of telepathy here. Rupert Sheldrake, who we’ve referred to here on SWIFT previously, had his research funded – for some reason – by the Trinity College, Cambridge. He conducted experiments that proved, he said, that such precognition exists for telephone calls and even for e-mails.
Each person in the Sheldrake trials was asked to provide researchers with the names and phone numbers of four relatives or friends. These persons were then called at random and told to call the subject, who tried to identify the caller before answering the phone. "The hit rate,” Sheldrake reported, “was 45 percent, well above the 25 percent you would have expected. The odds against this being a chance effect are 1,000 billion to one," he told an astonished audience at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, known as the “British Association,” or BA. Technically, it’s a charity which exists to advance the public understanding, accessibility, and accountability of the sciences and engineering.
Sheldrake also said that he’d found the same result with people being asked to name one of four people sending them an e-mail, before it had arrived at their computer, and he wants to do experiments to see if the phenomenon also works for mobile phone text messages!
There’s a problem here. The sample size was small on both trials, just 63 people for the controlled telephone experiment and 50 for the email, and only four of the subjects were actually filmed in the phone study and five in the email. This gives cause for some skepticism. In addition, until a completed paper has been thoroughly vetted, the actual protocol will need to be viewed with some doubt, as well.
Mark my words – next will be tom-toms, then ouija boards, followed by smoke signals… Sheldrake is the perennial new-farce originator of parapsychology.
Reader Matt Hovde of Chicago commented sagely on this:
The link sent me to a short news item off the Reuters wire outlining a new “study” offering evidence of precognition as it relates to anticipating phone calls and emails. The study’s primary researcher? Rupert Sheldrake, a subject of many SWIFT commentaries.
How frustrating that CNN would run this flimsy article on flimsy research as one of its top headlines of the day, that the headline itself implies the validity of the study’s conclusions, that the article adds implied (and fallacious) authority to the study by saying the research is funded by “the respected Trinity College,” etc. Of course, Rupert Sheldrake’s questionable agenda about things paranormal is never mentioned.
I take small consolation in the article’s mentioning of the test’s small sample size, and can only hope that readers are able to give that fact proper weight in evaluating the experiment.
Allow me a prediction of my own…that the next phone call you receive will NOT be Rupert Sheldrake laying claim to the million dollar prize!
Upon this news hitting the media – and it was snapped up everywhere – a huge cry of dismay went up from more sober academics:
Lord Robert Winston, a former British Association president, said: "I know of no serious properly done studies which make me feel that this is anything other than nonsense." Oxford Professor Peter Atkins said: "Work in this field is a complete waste of time. Although it is politically incorrect to dismiss ideas out of hand, in this case there is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a charlatan's fantasy. It is extraordinary that the BA should consider [these subjects] worth a platform." Which “charlatans” Atkins referred to, he did not specify. As expected, our friend Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist from Hertfordshire University, said: "It is the principle that is important. If the issue were race and intelligence, and you had three people saying one race are less intelligent than another, that would be outrageous. If there is not a consensus within science, then any panel like this should be balanced. It would be interesting to see what happens if Sheldrake tries to re-run the experiment in collaboration with a more skeptical researcher." Perhaps Richard was applying for the job. I can imagine no better volunteer.
A Royal Society spokesman said: "The Scientific and Medical Network, which is organizing this session, lies far from the scientific mainstream, and the list of speakers reflects this. Modern science is based on a rigorous evidence-based process involving experiment and observation. The results and interpretations should always be exposed to robust peer review."
I’ve received several notices from SWIFT readers that Cambridge’s Nobel Laureate Brian Josephson, who has been featured here several times (see www.randi.org/jr/090503.html or www.randi.org/jr/01-26-2001.html for examples) is now choosing to repeat the same old canards that have been drummed up and maintained on the Internet. This is perhaps because the ever-irritating presence of the JREF million-dollar challenge keeps interfering with his cherished sense of woo-woo. I’ll quote from The Times this man’s recent comments relating to the Sheldrake media-fuss described above, taking the four items one at a time. First:
Yang's point about the Randi award has been made many times.
Josephson seems to think that if anything is said a certain number of times, it must be true. Try this on for size: The Earth is flat, the Earth is flat, the Earth is flat, the Earth is flat, the Earth is flat, the Earth is flat…. Well, you get the idea. His second point:
The problem is that the Randi Foundation itself decides if an experiment is acceptable for testing or not.
Umm, yes, we do. You see, Brian, it’s our million dollars, and our challenge. For an example, we decide whether a gal in Australia is eligible to apply if she says she can fly by flapping her arms; we would tend to decide – though you might not, being a Nobel Laureate! – that this person should not be encouraged in her delusion. However, if an applicant appears to be rational, we confer with our experts in statistics, physics, psychology, engineering, chemistry, biology, etc., etc., concerning his/her eligibility. Most often, such a person is accepted. Certainly, Sheldrake’s claim is eminently testable, and we would accept it, but unfortunately he declines to be tested. Pity!
His next point:
Curiously enough, all serious contenders for the prize have found themselves involved in interminable discussions concerning procedures, the result being that no actual testing of a credible claim has gone ahead.
Well, that’s true, in one respect, though those endless discussions result from the objections made by the applicants. For example, a Dr. Wayne Carr, who runs a “remote viewing” school in California (see www.randi.org/jr/092702.html, and do a search for “Carr”) negotiated with us for two years, changing the protocol, objecting to details, issuing target lists and then changing them, and finally falling silent after making a few tries at testing his claim, but never reporting the results – which were obviously failures. We have always been fair, considerate, generous, and understanding – and we’ve never been able to get a real academic to actually do the thing! Years ago, you yourself, Josephson, challenged the American Physical Society – surely up to your high standards of scientific/academic status – to test the homeopathy claims of Jacques Benveniste, didn’t you? What were the results? The American Physical Society immediately agreed, not only to conduct an extensive series of tests, but also to pay all of the costs involved in doing those tests! What was your response? You vanished, Josephson. You simply didn’t ever respond, even though I offered – in writing – to put up the JREF million-dollar prize as an added incentive. You welshed, Dr. Josephson! I think that handles this point very effectively.
His fourth point:
Parapsychologists have accordingly concluded that it is a waste of time putting in for the Randi award.
Yes, I’d have to agree on that point. It’s a waste of time because we simply can’t get any parapsychologists – such as Sheldrake – to stand up and be counted. They run for cover, they lie about the conditions of the challenge, they waffle and complain, and they finally retreat into their Ivory Towers. And while we’re on the subject, Josephson, will you kindly provide me with one example of a scientist who says we gave him a run-around…? No, you won’t, because you cannot – though you’ll freely publish such a canard in a major media outlet.
Sheldrake is still clinging to some strange story he relates about a previous encounter with me, a tale that fails to make its point. He’ll depend upon this to avoid becoming involved with any testing process related to the million-dollar challenge, of course. I find it not at all strange that these folks fear involvement with the JREF more than they fear Hell itself…!
Reader Dr. Rick Spacek, University of New Brunswick, reminds me that I discussed the work of Petr Skrabanek a few years ago, and tells me that I should mention to readers that his books are now available online – free – as PDF files at http://tinyurl.com/mkgkt. His book "Follies and Fallacies in Medicine," is there, as are "The Death of Humane Medicine," "False Premises, False Promises," and a bibliography of his strictly medical publications.
Petr was a lucid thinker, a skeptic, and a wonderful author. I suggest that you visit his work.
Reader Olivier Van Cantfort, in Belgium, tells us of a disturbing finding in his country:
It's been a great day today for astrology in Belgium, and consequently a sad day for skeptics and critical thinking. An insurance company published their statistics about car accidents. The main fact was that accidents caused by women cost 5% less to the company than those caused by men. Well, although, we, Men, would like to think otherwise, this situation has been known for years...
The novelty in this report was that they also scored the frequency of accidents according to astrological signs. The very sad thing is that this news item was immediately repeated by the all the media. I heard it on the radio and it was also mentioned in all the major newspapers, to the point of hitting the front page of one of them as a big heading: "Capricorns: the most dangerous drivers"!
The article in this newspaper was in pure typical pseudo-science style: four tables of useless numbers that cannot be verified, nor used to do any statistical test, just there to support the "truth." No mechanism, no doubt nor critical thinking, just the new "truth" from the numbers...
Their Internet site had an important added bit of information: the insurance company has no intention at this point to change their pricing policy to take astrological signs into account... Phew...! We're safe!
I wrote an E-mail to this newspaper to point out that the obtained results were most probably just caused by natural random statistical fluctuations and that Capricorns were probably just the victims of the "Birth Month Fallacy" as explained at Numberwatch: www.numberwatch.co.uk/extreme_value_fallacy.htm
I also pointed them to the site www.astrology-and-science.com/ if they want more information about some real scientific investigations of astrology and the statistical significance of such correlations.
As I was quite bewildered and angry that such a great piece of info could hit the front page, I ended my mail by asking them "But what is the weight of investigation, critical thinking, or reader education, compared to a good front page title?"
I seriously wonder if I'll get an answer...
Reader Corey Watts in Australia asks for evidence:
On Tuesday 29th August, the Channel Ten show “9am with David & Kim” featured an interview with “Medium” and Pigasus Award winner Alison (Grandiose Delusional disorder) Dubois. As you would have already gathered, the interviewers gave Dubois an uncritical platform from which to make her absurd claims. There was one particular claim that sent my mind racing, when Alison commented that "mediumship ability is in the genes." Now there is a claim which can easily be fact-checked and best of all (for Alison) it requires no testing of her non-existing abilities in any way whatsoever!
So, as a result, I am forwarding the show an email detailing that I shall give a donation of $1,000 AUS to the charity of their choice on one simple condition: provide me with the scientific journal in which this history-making discovery was published. Say, “Scientific American,” for example. Seems straightforward to me.
Finally, skeptics were given a token ten-second mention, to which Alison's retort was "It's like they want to play a game of football but they don't know the rules."
Sorry, Alison. Deceiving the grieving, whether in mourning for those loved yet gone, or the torment felt by those hoping for good news on a missing loved one, will never be a game. It will always be sickening.
It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled sea of thought. – John Kenneth Galbraith, economist, 1908-2006.
From a recent item in The New York Times:
Gunman Kills Tourist and Injures 6 in Jordan.
Officials said they would consider the attack a terrorist act unless the man was found to be mentally unstable.
No, he wasn’t “mentally unstable.” He was one of those religious folks who thinks that piloting a jet plane into a skyscraper, detonating a bomb strapped to his chest in a café, or blowing himself up in a crowded shopping mall, are all rational acts. Others among us – because they read it in an old book – sincerely believe that their chosen hero fed 5,000 persons with five loaves of bread and a pair of fishes, that he walked on water, and that he rose from the dead, but they’re not looked upon as nut cases…? Yet another scientist – a PhD from Harvard, no less – believes that a fast-talking TV personality can confer with people who have died. He really does!
May I have a definition of “mentally unstable,” please…?
Next week, “Gentle Wind” is back in business…! And our friend Michael Shermer, having safely returned from the clutches of the Bermuda Triangle, has gone on tour supporting his lastest book: "Why Darwin Matters." Details are found at www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/index.html.