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June 1, 2007

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


  1. Howard Prays for Rain
  2. A Note to the Wise
  3. Where′s Debbie?
  4. Strong Letter
  5. That Huge Journalistic Blind Spot
  6. A Late Comment
  7. The Secret Secret
  8. and In Conclusion...
An Evening with DawkinsThe Amaz!ng Meeting 5 DVD Set with Bonus Critical Thinking Workshop
and Sunday Papers

Video documenting the fifth Amaz!ng meeting in Las Vegas. Speakers include: Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, The MythBusters, John Rennie, Scott Dikkers, Phil Plait, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Neil Gershenfeld, Hal Bidlack, Richard Wiseman, Peter Sagal, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey, Eugenie Scott, Lori Lipman-Brown, Jamy Ian Swiss, James Randi, and many more! Includes all Sunday papers! 6 DVDs total spanning over 17 hours.

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Aussie reader Rod Langlands reports:

It seems, unfortunately, that our Prime Minister has been infected with a bit of the old bible-bashing after all the time he has spent so close to George Dubbya. See We should pray for rain because of our long drought. He says, "So we should all, literally and without any irony, pray for rain over the next six to eight weeks."

I′m not sure which explanation is worse – that he actually believes that this would work, or that he is callously chasing a perceived political advantage during a tight election year. The logic (or lack of it) in appealing to the supreme entity that has just gone to the trouble of creating the lack of rain, to then change its mind and send some rain, is astonishing.

What happens if some over-excited God Botherers pray too long, and we get too much rain? Who do we blame? Can the Supreme Thingy in the sky be pushed around so easily? Just because we said we want it, He/She/It has to do what we say? If we should pray for rain, are we to be asked next to pray for the return of the Howard Government, because that would be good for the country too, in his opinion. As Frank Zappa once said – or in words to this effect – "Stupidity is the basic building block of the Universe."

Almost, Rod. Actually Frank said:

Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.

I’d vote for hydrogen. Sorry, Frank…


Reader Donn Ingle, in South Africa, sends us a note he wrote into the end-page of a proselytizing book given to him by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps the addition was actually read by someone, but in any case he shares it with us here:

I am not a scientist, nor an educated man, but even I can appreciate the hard work and brave, fragile beauty of human-won and human-earned knowledge. “Science” is not a thing. It′s not an opponent, it′s not a threat. What it i>is, is a way, a method, a technique.

It′s like a Swiss-army-knife that is hundreds of years old and all the tools inside it have been well-used and are reliable. Some tools have come and gone, broken or failed in some way. Some of them are still in the knife, but are unused. Time will see them removed, for you see – we, humans – hold and use that knife and we constantly improve it, fix it and in return we get to cut away illusion and doubt and error, and reveal the shining heart of matter and energy and space and time and all that is wonderful and REAL!

When you reject “science,” you reject reason and all those tools. When you reject any of those tools in the knife then you reject the whole thing: Science. Blind belief in this book, or in any book, is the same as rejecting reason. You do not become holy and wise – faith makes you ignorant and dangerous.

Adds Donn:

I did not have more room, and it′s not elegant, but I hope it starts someone thinking.


Sent in by reader Ian MacMillan:

Here is an article from the UK Daily Mail about some research done in Norway about the health risks associated with mobile phones (or cell phones in US English). It is not rocket science to work out that if a person did not know whether a mobile phone was turned on or not and guessed, they would get it right on average only 50% of the time. The 68% positive figure here does not support the theory that the test subjects had an accurate idea of whether the phone was turned on or not. Would Debbie Bird agree to a test like this, instead of making a huge fuss in the media?

The “Debbie Bird” referred to by Ian showed up here at

Mobile phones do not cause headaches despite claims by some consumers, a scientific study has found. Instead, people experience such symptoms because they expect them to occur.

Dr. Gunnhild Oftedal and his team at Norway University in Trondheim recruited 17 subjects who "regularly experienced pain or discomfort in the head during or shortly after mobile phone calls lasting between 15 and 30 minutes." The participants were tested during mobile phone radiofrequency exposure and sham exposure, without knowing which session was which. Each session lasted 30 minutes, and 65 pairs of trials were conducted.

As reported in the medical journal Cephalalgia, the subjects said they felt an increase in pain or discomfort during 68 percent of all trials. The degree of symptoms was not associated with the order of trials. The researchers observed no statistically significant correlations between actual exposures and the subjects′ reports of symptom severity, and no effects of exposure on changes in heart rate or blood pressure.

Oftedal′s team concludes that the most likely explanation for the headaches and discomfort reported by the subjects "is that the symptoms are due to negative expectations."

Well, we’ve yet to hear from Debbie, but competent researchers are standing by… The JREF recently tested an applicant for the million-dollar prize who in insisted that all cell phones in the area had to be switched off, or he could not operate. Even in the absence of this interference, the results were exactly what chance would call for… I wonder why…?


At was an item on recent criticism of homeopathy in the UK. Now we’ve heard from Frank Odds, Professor of Medical Mycology at the Institute of Medical Sciences in Aberdeen, UK, in response to that article. He writes:

You’re right. Too many of us sit by tut-tutting but taking no action. This week’s Swift item on the Royal Homeopathic College led me to read their current plea for support. I was very disappointed and have mailed the director Peter Fisher, as below, to say so:

Dr. Odds’ letter:

Subject: The Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital needs your support.

Delighted to see that NHS Trusts are increasingly removing their support for the voodoo you propagate for patients too gullible and unknowledgeable to recognize snake oil when it’s prescribed for them on the NHS.

If it’s acceptable for the NHS to prescribe “complementary and alternative” medicines (i.e. things that work only on a post hoc ergo propter hoc basis), why shouldn’t the NHS also similarly accept and support diagnoses made by pendulum waving, aura feeling and the many other crazy methods available to the unscientifically minded? These make exactly as much sense as homeopathy.

I hope your campaign fails and that your hospital is officially removed from NHS support. The mere fact that you ask people to advise of celebrities willing to aid your campaign is clear evidence that your “medicine” is unable to stand on its own merits. Truth is something arrived at by a process of reasoned evidence gathering, not by public flaunting of the misguided views of people with a claim to fame in entertainment.

It remains to be seen whether Dr. Odds’ letter receives any response. I suspect that it will not, because it nails the homeopathy notion squarely…


Reader David V. writes:

I was attracted by the following blurb in the RSS feed for MSNBC Tech:

Science has the power to harness energy, allow human flight, help cure the sick, and explain much about the world. But as amazing and beneficial as science is, it can′t explain everything. Scientists may never know exactly how the universe began, or help to settle matters of faith. The same is true for the paranormal world. Though science can explain many strange phenomena, some mysteries remain to be solved.

So I followed the link to the “article”: There I discovered that the so-called "unexplained" phenomena are, in most cases, phenomena the mere existence of which is highly questionable. (Indeed, the existence of which I personally discount.) Yeah, those are indeed hard to "explain." I guess the mention of "paranormal" above should have alerted me. To claim that such phenomena cannot be explained implicitly accepts that the claimed phenomena actually occur. Thus this article, superficially about science, gives credence to a lot of nonsense.

Very despressing. There are real, repeatably observable phenomena that do perplex scientists and such as-yet-not-understood-phenomena fascinate me. (E.g., how are little globules of water (NOT bubbles) able to sit on top of a water surface without coalescing.) Pondering such phenomena is fun and fascinating, and I naively thought I was going to get a dose of such phenomena which perplex scientists. Sadly, none of the phenomena mentioned in the MSNBC article are of that sort. Too bad that there are so many journalists who have a faulty appreciation of what science is about and what scientists do. The ultimate effect of an article like this is actually anti-science.

David, that globules-on-water phenomenon is a surface-tension effect, mysterious-looking but quite explainable. This journalist seems to be easily misled by the popular press, but we must remember that journalism is a “humanistic” profession, not a scientific one. That’s no excuse for such a piece of nonsense, of course, but ignorance is not a crime…

At you’ll find another glaring example of journalistic blundering. To quote from this UK Telegraph article by Dr. James LeFanu:

The claim that homeopathy is "unsupported" by evidence would be contradicted by the many tens of thousands of people worldwide who say that it has cured their asthma or eczema or markedly reduced their reliance on conventional medicines. Are they all, as he would suppose, foolish and self-deluded?

First, let me respond to that last question: yes! A modicum of knowledge about patients’ response to suggestion, would serve this writer well, though it might hurt a little. LeFanu goes on to claim that acupuncture, too, has similar anecdotal “proof” of its efficacy! Reader Richard Dale of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, wrote to The Telegraph, thus:


As a science graduate I am appalled at the unscientific ramblings of a correspondent with a scientific background. Dr. James LeFanu betrays his readers, NHS patients, the tax-paying public and most of all, science, in his column on 28th May.

Homeopathy is not only unsupported by evidence, but every double-blind study has shown it to be no more effective than the placebo control, so much so that proponents claim homeopathy is not susceptible to double-blind studies – meaning of course that it does not work. Dr. LeFanu accepts anecdotal evidence, even "tens of thousands" of cases, without any knowledge of what those cases involved, let alone of the broader context of information on all relevant "treatments" that were not successful. Thus he completely misunderstands scientific technique.

As for "undoubted" success of acupuncture one can only despair and point Dr. LeFanu to the website of James Randi ( If Dr. LeFanu can indeed prove this to be the case, then he will be US$1 million the richer, and I would like to claim 10% for pointing him the way. Moreover, if homeopathy could be shown to work, that US$1 million could help solve the Homeopathic Hospital′s funding problem.

I have copied Mr. Randi in by way of introduction.


You might go back and re-read an entry at that I made in SWIFT three years ago, noting that Sunday Times science editor Jonathan Leake had at that time described the reaction of Richard Dawkins as “qualified support” for some farfetched notions that astrology might have some validity. That “support” consisted of a comment that the ideas “sounded interesting,” which I took to mean that – as with a discussion on how Santa Claus might get down a chimney – such meanderings were amusing, rather than meaningful.

Dawkins responded to my inquiry about this, as I might have expected, with, “I am furious…” Well, Mr. Leake has now become aware of this exchange, and has urged me to explain his interpretation. He sent me this prepared statement by him to publish, which I gladly do:

Jonathan Leake has asked us to make clear that, in his conversation with The Sunday Times, Richard Dawkins was not approving of traditional astrology. Seymour′s book The Scientific Proof of Astrology, the subject of The Sunday Times article, was proposing a scientific mechanism whereby living organisms could be affected by the movement of distant bodies in space. It was a very unlikely and ill thought-out idea but, unlike most astrology, it was at least scientifically testable and that is why Dawkins said it was both different and interesting. Dawkins′ remarks were wholly consistent with his other powerful criticisms of astrology. Jonathan asks us to make clear he shares those skeptical views.

I will leave our readers to decide whether Mr. Leake’s statement was presumptive…


Go to (Windows Media) or (Flash Video) for a revelation. It’s a very awkward-to-view 11-minute video from Australia’s “Current Affair” program. I suggest you give it 2 minutes to download after clicking on the url above, scroll down to “The Secret Exposed,” bear with the 30-second commercial, then enjoy. This item gives a somewhat different view of the insidious “Secret” video that so captivated Oprah Winfrey recently, and has enraptured the whole woo-woo community.


For some fun and information, go to and be entertained… Then go to for more fun… Finally, in working the never-ending battle to keep the JREF library in order, I came upon this book, “Angel First Aid: Rx for Miracles.” No, I don’t make this up, folks. The “Angel Lady” is Sue Storm, who lists a Glossary of Angels in her book, for every conceivable appeal. We’re hot on “Cameron, Angel of Weather,” who “brings nice weather. Cameron will be on everyone’s mind during hurricane season in Florida, I assure you… Reader John Beaderstadt, of Alburg, Vermont, sent us this book donation, with a letter that said, “The author’s picture on the back cover pretty much says it all.” I agree, and here’s that picture:

Jeff Wagg and I are on our way to Japan as you read this, we will be testing a JREF-Prize applicant for a major TV station there, to be aired very soon. A diet of sashimi agrees with me, I must admit. The testees will, as always, obtain chance results, but they’ll still believe they have the powers…!

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