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April 6, 2007


 "...the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it." - Jonathan Swift

 

  1. Fiasco in the UK
  2. They're Back!
  3. Scamming Profession Rescued
  4. Balancing Your Dog
  5. Serious Research
  6. Harry's Back
  7. Silly Stuff
  8. That Persistent Film
  9. Dirty Foot Cure
  10. Another Failure of Prayer
  11. On the "Art" of Dowsing
  12. In Closing

 

Coming August, 2008
Details Soon...


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FIASCO IN THE UK

We in the USA have the CIA; Britain’s equivalent is their “MI5.” Jonathan Evans, the new MI5 chief, has learned that a special unit had been commissioned there to recruit both “psychics” and “palmists” – from their ads on the Internet. These 24 woo-woos were then asked to provide information about Osama bin Laden – remember him? Examining the results obtained, Evans has now dismissed the project as having “no intelligence value.”

No surprise there at all, and if that setup sounds familiar, it’s because we in the USA have already been embarrassed by spending time and money on such nonsense. The MI5 program, we’re told, was directly based on the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s “Stargate” paranormal espionage program, and that was a resounding failure which wasted twenty million dollars of tax money, and ten years. See www.randi.org/jr/112301.html. David Morehouse, who advertises himself on his webpage as

…the world's leading teacher of Remote Viewing and Spiritual Transformation

– see www.randi.org/jr/080505potential.html#1, was connected with that project, and described it as a program to

…select people to try and transcend time and space, to view persons and places and things in remote time and gather intelligence by doing that. I guess you could say we were trying to produce psychic warriors.

I’d say that Mr. Morehouse reads far too much L. Ron Hubbard fiction, though it’s already evident that he’s a certified woo-woo. For the Stargate project, CIA psychologists and behaviorists interviewed “psychics” and “clairvoyants” such as Morehouse to take part in “educational research surveys.” Then, for some strange reason – after it bombed so completely – the CIA then recommended to Britain’s Ministry of Defense that they should conduct similar experiments! If that’s what we recommend to our friends, what do we offer to the bad guys?

At one point in the UK experiments that ensued, the MI5 recruits were presented with sealed envelopes containing unseen pictures of public figures, to which they were asked to apply their awesome powers of divination. What did they get? Every one was wrongly identified, both in gender and physical description. As a result, that idea was abandoned, but only after some £50,000 (US$100,000) had been spent. The UK Ministry of Defense said the research had been “carried out to assess claims made in some academic circles and to validate research carried out by other nations.”

Ah, but I’m sure that both MI5 and our CIA will find other ways to squander time and money. Fear not.




THEY’RE BACK!

While we’re in the UK – most of us are familiar with the Cottingley Fairies story. If not, please see www.randi.org/library/cottingley/index.html. Well, reader Michael J. Wyatt tells us that the Brits still have apparently not given up on the wee folk, a myth they continue to embrace rather closely. You see, a mummified fairy was recently reported to have been found by a dog walker in Derbyshire, and photos of it promptly appeared on a website, which got 20,000 hits in one day from the curious. That’s understandable, of course, but then the creator of the April Fool’s Day joke, former resident Dan Baines, 31 – who designs illusions for magicians – admitted frankly that he’d made the figure as a prank. Said Dan:

Although I've said it's a hoax, people still believe that it's real. They believe this [admission] is just a cover-up, so let the illusion continue. I've had all sorts of comments including people who say they've seen exactly the same things and one person who told me to return the remains to the grave site as soon as possible or face the consequences.

Dan was a careful hoaxer. He added details to the tiny figure, such as a navel, ears and hair, for authenticity. For many, that definitely clinched the case.

What’s the lesson we learn here, friends? No, not that people are stupid. However, they’re often very naïve, and will accept things that don’t make any sense, so long as they match a favored expectation. For example, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1922 book, “The Coming of the Fairies” – which he wrote in all seriousness, – he quoted many of his correspondents who averred that they’d seen fairies, and he believed them, even though he had to admit that he himself had never had that experience. But then when he received descriptions of tiny fairy coaches pulled by tiny fairy horses, even his very elastic credulity was strained. He wrote:

The little fairy horses are mentioned by several writers, and yet it must be admitted that their presence makes the whole situation far more complicated and difficult to understand. If horses, why not dogs?  And we find ourselves in a whole new world upon the fairy scale. I have convinced myself that there is overwhelming evidence for the fairies, but I have by no means been able to assure myself of these adjuncts.

How skeptical and discriminating of you, Sir Arthur…




SCAMMING PROFESSION RESCUED

Australian reader Dean Malandris:

You may (or may not, I know you're busy) recall an email I sent you a few months ago regarding my efforts in trying to get RangerTell [see www.randi.org/jr/082903.html] removed from advertising on ebay, and from trading in general, because of their fakery in selling you an empty plastic box that they claim can locate metals from miles away, and also detect DNA, to boot. Well, I received the official response from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), and I've attached a scan of the letter they sent me.

I think I've received an education today on how these scam artists work, at least here in Australia. From what I can work out, it's OK for you to sell any old crap and rip people off, providing that you don't get too many complaints about it from the punters you've ripped off. The letter from the ACCC basically says, if I read it right, that they can't be bothered investigating it although it certainly falls within their domain. No doubt they see my complaint as a one-off crackpot whinge [whine] and dismiss it. I realize government departments don't have infinite funding so that they can investigate every little thing that comes their way, but I suppose I'm still surprised that they won't chase and crack down on something that is so easily proven as fraud.

So there you have it: the official position of the Australian government seems to be, it's OK to sell fraudulent junk to the punters and rip them off, but if you do and not too many people complain about it, then we couldn't really give a stuff.

Are things just as silly for you over there in the USA?

Well, at least I tried.

BALANCING YOUR DOG

Reader Dan Wilson tells us:

The American Kennel Club 2007 Agility Nationals start tomorrow.  As a part of the welcome kit – given to every participant! – they included a pamphlet entitled, “Is Your Dog Balanced? Zero Energy Balancing for You and Your Dog.”  It contained advertisements for products that use “Zero Energy Balancing” to cure everything from doggie neck pain to poor gas mileage. No, I’m not making that up!

I’d have thought that a well-known and respected organization like the AKC would be above perpetuating this sort of silliness to their members, but apparently they’re not.

The web site for the company that published the pamphlet is www.caninebalance.com/index.htm. It makes for pretty entertaining reading. I’m seriously considering reporting these people to the FTC for fraud for their Fuel Saver advertisement, not because I think it would actually result in any action on the FTC’s part, but merely because it would amuse me to tell the company that I did so. They can duck FDA oversight via their health disclaimer, but the disclaimer wouldn’t apply to the Fuel Saver product, as that’s being advertised as an automotive add-on.

Dan, you’re not being fair. These scammers also adjust “auras, meridians, and chakras” for dogs. I’d hate to see a dog dragging around an unadjusted chakra…




SERIOUS RESEARCH

Though I hate to rain on a genuine scientist’s efforts, I must tell Dr. David Voas of the University of Manchester, UK, that his recent discovery that zodiac “love signs” have no impact on anyone’s chances of marrying – and/or of staying married – will not dampen any True Believer’s conviction to the contrary. In what’s being advertised as, “the largest test of astrology ever carried out,” the Senior Research Fellow at the University's Centre for Census and Survey Research, using 2001 census data, analyzed the birthdays of some twenty million husbands-and-wives in England and Wales. He failed to find any evidence of what astrologers seem to think is an attraction between certain traditional “star signs.” He wrote:

If there is even the smallest tendency for Virgos to fancy Capricorns, or for Libras to like Leos, then we should see it in the marriage statistics. When you have a population of ten million couples, then even if only one pair in a thousand is influenced by the stars, you'd have ten thousand more couples than expected with certain combinations of signs. There's no such evidence, though: the numbers are just what we'd predict on the basis of chance.

And, he said, anticipating the usual tired old alibis dragged out by the practitioners:

Astrologers are likely to argue that full birth charts are needed to predict personality accurately. But what ordinary people talk about is sun signs; if those are useless when it comes to sizing up a mate, then that knocks a big hole in everyday belief. In any case, the basic sun signs are important even in professional charts. If they had any influence at all, however small, the giant magnifying glass of this huge sample would detect it. There's nothing there.

But Dr. Voas, who is with Manchester's School of Social Sciences, is a practical and realistic person. He realizes that the believing public will ignore any and all of the scientific evidence, and persist in their collective delusion. To the delight of believers and practitioners, the popularity of such UK astrologers as Mystic Meg, Russell Grant and Jonathan Cainer, will continue – regardless. Says Dr. Voas:

I'm under no illusion that these findings will undermine astrology's popularity. The enthusiasm for zodiac-based personality profiling seems undiminished by hundreds of previous studies debunking astrology. An internet search on Google for “love” and “astrology’ produces three and a half million hits, and the books on relationships by the astrologer Linda Goodman – including “Sun Signs” and “Love Signs” — have sold more than one hundred million copies worldwide in the past 40 years. The public appetite for horoscopes makes media astrologers wealthy. These results won't put them out of business. When it comes to love, people will try anything.

An observation: the JREF library is probably much better populated by real science books than many others, yet astrology books outnumber astronomy books, 57 to 33…




HARRY’S BACK

Well, not much surprises me any more.  There has arisen – courtesy of a new book based on the life of Harry Houdini – a fierce debate about the cause of the magician's death in 1926. We'd always accepted that peritonitis, a serious and often fatal inflammation of the abdominal cavity, had brought about Harry's demise following a blow to the abdomen. This story has been told many, many times in various biographical accounts.

Now, the authors of “The Secret Life of Houdini,” William Kalush and Larry Sloman, have brought about a discussion that looks into the possibility that the spiritualists – who seriously resented and feared the investigations that Houdini had initiated re their shenanigans – just might have arranged to have the magician removed from the scene via arsenic or some such means. There’s a move afoot to have the remains at Macpelah Cemetery disinterred and examined forensically.  If arsenic was used, that most certainly would show up in an autopsy, though other possible means of dispatch might not.

I've received a number of calls from distant relatives of the great magician, asking me to add the weight of my opinion to discourage such an investigation.  Frankly, I think that Harry Houdini would have been thrilled to know that 81 years after his death, the public was still interested enough in him to dig him up.  And, since I find nothing sacred or inviolate about human remains – except insofar as the feelings of relatives might be concerned, and these are distant relatives indeed – I find nothing too objectionable about this matter, at all.

I wish I could believe in the talking-to-the-dead phenomenon; it would be a real hoot to hear Harry's reaction to this – at least partial – resurrection!




SILLY STUFF

I referred to this BS previously at www.randi.org/jr/2006-12/120106dumb.html#i1 and www.randi.org/jr/2007-03/030207harpo.html#i8 and was just sent a leaflet distributed by the manufacturers of the Clarins super-magical spray. It reads:

If electromagnetic waves can penetrate walls, imagine what they can do to your skin.

The deadly wall thermostat and the toxic electrical cable emerging from behind the sign, attest to the ubiquitous threats from which this magical spray can protect us. Better get some, fast! Is there no end to the rackets that the public is exposed to? And are there no federal or state agencies who will stir to bring action against these criminals?




THAT PERSISTENT FILM

Yes, persistent, and rightly so.  I'm sure you’ve had situations arise where you made a casual comment and then wished that you hadn't. My recent endorsement of the Al Gore production, "An Inconvenient Truth" brought about a great deal of correspondence – both pro and con – from my readers.  I must admit that it's heartening to see that such a fuss can ensue; it indicates that SWIFT is read seriously and gets the amount of attention that I hoped it would.

From what I've discovered in the last two weeks, I've had to conclude that my original endorsement is probably validated.  Many persons whose opinions I greatly value and respect wrote me to express their horror of my having accepted something from a politician – that's essentially what it came down to.  Well, I've looked into the matter in depth, I've examined the evidence for both sides of this argument, and what I've discovered really disturbs me.

I'll ask you to go to my friend Phil Plait’s site at www.badastronomy.com/bad/movies/mib2_review.html where he writes:

And to prevent the flood of email from people who want to berate me politically for saying we are causing global warming, I will say:

• Some amount of natural global warming exists.

• Without it, the Earth would be a giant iceball.

• Like it or not, we are pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

• Even the U.S. government, which lately has been pretty pro-business, has admitted that global warming is a reality.

• Some global warming is good. Too much is Venus. That's a fact. Deal with it.

Where would I be – no, where would we all be – without Phil to explain the world to us?  Now go to see www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/seasons.html, and be further informed, though most of you will know the data that's outlined there. I suggest that you should spend some time browsing around Phil’s site, so that you can be well-informed about the basic matters that should be shaping our opinions about the Global Warming question.

Reader Tom Chester sent me more information than I could examine in a full week of reading, mostly concerning the “Great Global Warming Swindle” film that was produced and shown in the UK on March 8th, and was much cited in opposition to Al Gore’s statements. What really stands out here is the fact that Martin Durkin, the producer of this film, has a bad reputation and a long record in the UK for distorting facts, editing testimony, and manipulating graph material. The Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, who I have found to be a sober, skeptical, reliable source, discusses – along with copious reader comments – the perfidy of Durkin. This discussion consists of more than 27,000 words! Go to www.badscience.net/?p=383.

It turns out that producer Martin Durkin also “edited” his graph material, to produce a spurious conclusion by disregarding all information obtained after 1980 and “stretching out” the remaining results to fill up the graph space!  If you’re still unconvinced that the UK/Channel 4 film was a purposeful sham, go to portal.campaigncc.org/node/1820.

You’ll find that those quoted in the film are claiming they were misled and deceived, and in view of this heavy evidence of blatant misrepresentation – plus the fact that Channel 4 has previously had to make public apologies for allowing Durkin to perpetrate a similar earlier fraud on their facility – just why did they decide, in this case, to repeat this blunder? One of those scientists interviewed, Dr. Carl Wunsch, professor of Physical Oceanography at MIT, was shown as supporting the film's anti-Global Warming thesis, but had no chance of seeing the film before it was broadcast. When he saw the final product, and realized that his statements had been cherry-picked out of context, Wunsch said:

I am angry because they completely misrepresented me. My views were distorted by the context in which they placed them... The movie was terrible propaganda.

I’m in sympathy with the man, having experienced many times, the same damaging misrepresentation. For an example, see www.randi.org/jr/021805a.html#1. Dr. Wunsch is considering legal action against the filmmaker.

Bottom line for Channel Four? Ratings, and the hell with the truth…

Finally, I have been accused of endorsing this spurious film. That’s not at all true. Last week, I described it as, “…perhaps more information than you require, but worth the investment of time.” I still think it is worth seeing, if not for dependable data, at least for a view of how misinformation can be made acceptable. Without examining the pros and cons of any situation, we are unable to form proper opinions. I see nothing wrong with being wrong; I see disaster in being wrong and failing to correct the situation. Al Gore’s film was not perfect, and we could not have expected it to be. However, I believe that Gore was essentially correct though he made a few errors.

Global warming, in my opinion, is a danger of which we should be aware. Yes, it is being substantially augmented by Man, and that situation needs serious attention.




DIRTY FOOT CURE

Reader Hayley Chambers of Henderson, Nevada, saw our item last week about UK kids getting magical foot-baths that were claimed to “detoxify” them. We offered readers our previous reference to this scam at www.randi.org/jr/100303.html (do a search for “Staggs”). Now, it turns out that partners Barbara Auer and Bonnie Ballinger, of Aloha Solutions, are touting their IonCleanse Footbath – which is quite the same fake instrument we wrote about back in 2003. Says Hayley:

Regarding those ridiculous “detox” footbaths, I would like to send my congratulations to a local reporter in Las Vegas. Beth Fisher of KVBC ran a pretty good test, in which she had the footbath company owner run the machine without any feet in the tub. The owner had predicted that the water would not change color. Of course, it did, because the color change was actually from oxidation of the metal rods, not toxins. The inevitable excuses were classic. Here’s a link to the story: http://tinyurl.com/3xzrlv 

We need more stories like this in the local news. Way to go, Beth!

Agreed, Hayley! A story was seldom better done!




ANOTHER FAILURE OF PRAYER

In what’s called the largest study of its kind, using some 1,800 patients at six medical centers, researchers have found that asking people to pray for heart bypass surgery patients – without the patients' knowledge that this was taking place – had zero effect on their recovery, and in fact, another group of patients in the study who knew they were being prayed for, had a slightly higher rate of complications! The project was financed by the Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion. They were quick to emphasize that their project wasn’t intended to test whether God exists, or whether he/she/it answers prayers. That would be too much to ask…?

Of course, the usual cop-out was offered: Critics said that the question of God's reaction to prayers can't be explored by scientific study. If not that way, how?

The full report was published in the American Heart Journal. Dr. Herbert Benson, director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and lead author of that report, notes it is not the last word on the effects of intercessory prayer. Questions raised by the study, he says, "will require additional answers." I agree. How about the question, “Why do we continue to beat this very dead horse?”




ON THE “ART” OF DOWSING

Reader Thaddeus J. Nelson refers to last week’s item on dowsing chicanery:

Just a couple of comments on the dowsing video from SWIFT this week.  These comments go beyond the actual fake of the video to those that propose this sort of power and go treasure hunting, etc.   As someone who has done archeology, going to a site where one knows people have lived, modern, historical, or ancient, it’s difficult to not find things, so dowsers who claim to always find something should not be surprised. They go to places where they should expect it and then dig to find it. People litter, drop stuff, and forget where they put things, this means that anywhere that has had habitation for a decent period of time becomes full of stuff, and wherever one digs he or she is likely to find something.

Second, one of the people in the video speaks of practice allowing him to sense where something is.  Well, this is something I have experienced, but it’s not a sixth sense. Practice simply improves your ability to guess where things should be.  When I go sample collecting for my girlfriend, a PHD student whose area of interest is in osteology [study of bones] I almost always am able to find something, but this is because I have practiced and know where to look.

Finally, people who hunt artifacts have issues besides their woo-woo lies.  It’s fun, but it also destroys important context and information and stymies the efforts of credible archaeologists.




IN CLOSING…

Yes, once more we offend your sense of charity by directing you to www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZFG5PKw504, and a man named Chuck Missler. He takes the misunderstanding of evolution to an entirely new level by offering a stunning observation that involves peanut butter – I kid you not! I only hope he was home-schooled by an idiot …

 

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