June 15, 2007
Two weeks ago – randi.org/jr/2007-06/060107.html#i1 – we led off with Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s earnest plea for prayers from the devout for rain to relieve serious drought problems Down Under. Both readers Richard Cove in Melbourne, and Alex Brown in France, observed:
I’m sure that you have noticed that parts of Australia (Northern New South Wales) have gone from drought to devastating floods. Our praying Prime Minister is at it again with the following comment, at tinyurl.com/2fyr8t
Prime Minister John Howard said his thoughts and prayers were with the victims of the storms and floods that have struck NSW. Perhaps he forgot that only a couple of weeks ago he was telling everyone to pray for rain. The conclusion I can make from that is that we didn’t pray properly and God sent us too much rain, or maybe there is another reason...
John Howard should stop praying before he causes any more damage to the country.
I remember being told that God works in mysterious ways. Perhaps in malicious ways, too…?
LET’S DO SOMETHING
Reader Richard Spacek comments on a dismaying fact:
I have come across the worst news of its kind I have encountered from the UK (lately, at least). Professor David Colquhoun has been ordered to remove his very informative and entertaining anti-quack site from the University College London server by the Provost at the request of Alan Lakin, husband of nutritionist Ann Walker. Colquhoun commented that "cleanser of the lymphatic system," a claim Walker made for red clover, was "meaningless gobbledygook." This was enough to get him kicked off. I find it hard to reconcile the existence of radical suspicion about the cause of the destruction of the World Trade Center on the one hand, and passionate belief in red clover on the other.
Ben Goldacre is already on the case: tinyurl.com/2lyv8j.
David Colquhoun has a new website: www.dcscience.net/quack.html.
And we highly recommend readers to read the Goldacre account, then go to this new website, but be prepared to spend an hour there just assessing the sad state of affairs in UK medicine as it competes with quackery.
JREF made an offer to assist Dr. Colquhoun financially if he requires it to offset the costs of changing web locations – though we hoped that the UCL Provost would reconsider the decision to oust him from their server. Colquhoun has told us that what he really needs is someone to help him to convert it into a proper blog format. Any volunteers…?
Professor Richard Dawkins has also appropriately reacted to this situation:
I agree that the UCL Provost should be ashamed of his cowardice. I had already been contacted about this by Lucia Sivilotti, a colleague of Colquhoun. I do not think I have met Colquhoun, but I had long ago noted his blog as an EXCELLENTLY courageous one, debunking pseudo-science with great effectiveness, consonant with UCL's great tradition of free-thinking. If any of you think it appropriate to publicize this piece from the Guardian on your respective websites, and perhaps add comments of your own, it might do some good. I don't know the address of Arts and Letters Daily, or I would have sent it to them. I think it is somebody in New Zealand.
I myself have a two-hour television program coming out on Channel Four in July, called Enemies of Reason, made by the same team as Root of All Evil. It is in the can and presumably too late to insert anything about the Colquhoun affair, although it would have been highly appropriate. But I shall probably be asked to do publicity journalism in connection with the show, and I should be able to make some mention of Colquhoun there.
Well, though there are mixed reactions to what follows, it is good news by any standards. The UCL Provost, Malcolm Grant, reacting to the storm of protest – and very likely to the sharp comments of Richard Dawkins! – has just issued an appropriate response. Now, I agree that UCLs alarm can be somewhat understood. Professor Colquhoun, a distinguished UCL pharmacologist, had made strident – but factual – statements in regards to claims made by a Dr. Ann Walker for the totally unsupported “blood cleansing” properties of red clover extracts, and Dr. Alan Lakin – Dr. Walker’s husband – demanded that his website be taken down. Such a demand is certain to gain the rapt attention of the Provost.
Dr. Lakin averred that Colquhoun’s comments were “incorrect, misleading and defamatory,” and he added that there were also breaches of copyright and data protection involved – sounding very much like the current Geller brouhaha concerning available video data that is not to his liking. Note that, similarly to the Geller complaints, Dr. Walker did not address any of the scientific arguments made by Professor Colquhoun, as he had requested. Instead, she chose to try intimidating UCL authorities with legal threats, rather than invoking the science she implied was involved. UCL, with its long and outstanding liberal tradition and commitment to encouraging free and open academic debate, was simply abandoning those principles out of fear of litigation.
In any case, both the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have now sought and taken advice from a senior defamation Queen’s Counsel, and have announced that Colquhoun’s website – with some so far unspecified modifications by him – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers. UCL has also verified that it continues to support and uphold Professor Colquhoun’s expression of uncompromising opinions concerning the claims made for the effectiveness of treatments by the “Complimentary Medicine” industry or other similar bodies.
My personal opinion, from this distance, is that the matter should not have gotten to this point. Had proper means been employed by all concerned, Dr. Walker could have been formally asked – by UCL – to provide evidence supporting her claims. She could not have done so, and could then have withdrawn her claims, gracefully. This was not done, and now the world has been treated to a battle that should not have been engaged…
And, on another similar matter of equal importance, go back to last week, at randi.org/jr/2007-06/060807.html#i8, concerning the Dutch lawsuit problem. JREF has offered to similarly assist this cause financially, and we are awaiting a response from the Dutch Association Against Quackery. To stay in existence, they will need a large sum indeed. We’ll donate, and we’d like to hear from persons, anywhere, who are willing to help as well.
While we’re in the Netherlands, Reader Mike Johnson tells us:
You'll be happy to hear that there's still some sanity left in the world. In the Netherlands the Bruno Santanera's Biostabil magic-healing-fairy-magnet commercials have been forbidden by the Dutch Commercial Code Committee. Some of the criticism, translated for your convenience:
This wouldn't mean a thing if it had been granted anyway, as we all know.
The only bad news is that the Dutch Commercial Code Committee isn't a legal court of law, it just decides which commercials can air and which can't. In this case it has taken them 5 years, by the way... We would all like to see a legal ruling in such a case. It also makes me wonder why the commercials about homeopathic medicines don't get banned for the same "nope, not proven yet" rule?
See randi.org/jr/111204 for a mention on SWIFT of this silly medallion.
Deepak Chopra, Guru of the True and Uncritical Believer, provides our chortle of the week. In response to a question sent him by one of his naïfs, “Should I Listen to an Astrologer?” he replies in true woo-woo fashion. Here’s the exchange:
Q: How does one let go of ideas that were implanted in our minds at such a young age? For example, when I was in the 7th grade, an astrologer told me that I would have a nervous breakdown at 35. All these years, I have been plagued by anxiety and now as I approach my 35th birthday, it’s getting worse.
Yes, the thought crossed my mind that this might be someone just trying to elicit a particularly hilarious response from Chopra, but in any case it serves as a wonderful example of the blend of medieval thinking and authentic quackery that he turns out.
A: First of all, any astrologer who tells you that you are going to have a nervous breakdown, without telling you what you can do to avoid or eliminate the problem beforehand, is doing you a grave disservice. The value of an astrological reading is to discover the likelihood of certain potentialities and then to provide information and techniques to help you manifest the outcome that you actually want. It should empower you with knowledge of how to shape your destiny, not make you fatalistic about it.
Don’t allow your anxiety about this prediction of a nervous breakdown to manifest the very thing you fear. If you have psychological issues and defenses that you think might make you susceptible to a nervous breakdown, then work on those issues now to develop the emotional strength and resiliency you need to face whatever the future brings.
Here we have “Dr.” Chopra’s unqualified acceptance of astrology, his evaluation of its tenets, and an endorsement of the latest Oprah-endorsed crapiola à la “The Secret” – wishing will make it so, but avoid wishing for disaster… Will Deepak Chopra never grow up, or is the money too good playing the juvenile role…?
Reader Walter Beals forwards this to us. I find it the best treatment of the dowsing/divining delusion that I’ve seen in some years…Asheville Times
Dowsing is a lot like playing the lottery. I was disappointed by Rick McDaniel’s article, “Water witches” (Asheville Citizen-Times, May 27). McDaniel lacked rational and critical examination of outrageous claims made by dowsers.
A quick search is all it takes to discover science has shown dowsing as nothing but self-delusion. The James Randi Educational Foundation (www.randi.org) has, for years, offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who can prove that dowsing works. For an example of a proper scientific investigation of dowsing go here: skeptics.com.au/articles/divining.htm.
Dowsing is nothing more than the Ideomotor Effect, a “psychological phenomenon wherein a subject makes motions unconsciously (i.e., without conscious awareness).” Most dowsing “devices” are so sensitive it takes very little motion to cause a response.
As gambling addicts who brag proudly of past winnings, dowsers focus on successes and ignore the misses. Science has shown that when comparing the number of hits to the number of misses, they fall within the range expected by chance alone. There is no evidence dowsing works.
The scientific method is the most reliable way of viewing the world. Science has discovered and continues to discover our universe is incredibly fascinating – so fascinating that we’ve no need to make things up.
Reality is good enough as it is.
Reader J. Aaron Mattia chimes in on this same subject:
Just wanted to let you know, I was watching a broadcast of the UK TV show "Braniac" on the cable channel G4 on Saturday, when they did a common sense experiment to bust dowsing. 50 buckets in a field, 4 with water, all covered with towels and agitated with tub toys. The host took a pair of dowsing rods and picked 5 buckets based on their reactions. He found one bucket with water and stated that that was the result you would expect from chance, then called dowsing "A bunch of tosh." Although not mentioning the ideomotor effect, it was entertaining and to the point.
Just thought it was interesting that on even a kids science show that seems to specialize in blowing things up, that they'd keep it on the level. Also, G4 is a channel dedicated to pop culture of the young adult variety, video games, comic books, Star Wars and such. The message does seem to be getting out. Not a place you'd expect to see a show busting woo-woo.
Enjoy your weekly newsletter immensely, I've been reading weekly for almost two and a half years now. You and your website have helped me organize my thinking about how the world works and enabled me to question things I see, more intelligently. I just wish I had the time and money to make it to one of the TAMs.
MORE ON THE STREETLIGHT DELUSIONALS
Last week’s piece at randi.org/jr/2007-06/060807.html#i1 brought us a flood of responses from various informed readers. The value of the Internet as a source of information is once more demonstrated. Reader Bruno Putzeys of Belgium tells us:
The use of (ultra)sound for remote controls has gone out of fashion about 20 years ago. They now all use infrared. The "spontaneous change" of volume levels on TV sets is due to a much more insidious problem, namely the lack of standardized audio signal levels in TV production. As with modern CD's, there's a loudness war on – squashing the dynamic range to maximize average loudness, even though maximum loudness is physically limited – and it's won by the commercial slot. There are no artistic values in ad production, so their dynamic range can be reduced to 4dB or less. Movies, though, are mixed with 20dB of dynamic range. Using a compressor to reduce this after the fact quickly produces unacceptable results. So, when the ads come on, the loudness level jumps by over 10dB. That sounds like "twice as loud" to humans.
People love to ascribe natural phenomena to conscious agents, and mistakes and accidents to inanimate objects. I blame the Andromeda Galaxy for this.
And rightly so, Bruno!
Reader Thaddeus Jacob Nelson, at Columbia, gives us this clue:
I thought I would send you an old story (from when I was in high school) about street light interference. One of my friends was a track and field runner, and so he often ran through the local neighborhoods. In one area there was a light he was convinced would go off for him whenever he ran underneath it. For a while we were a bit amazed, as it also seemed to work when we drove beneath it with him in the car. However, someone figured out to count and see how long it was on and off for. Yup, it was on a timer, and being pattern seeking animals, we all had found/believed the explanation of this person running underneath it.
So, there's another possible explanation for everyone.
Thanks for the good work as always
Richard Scheffler adds:
Many years ago when I was a law school student, I participated in the local police department's "ride-along" program wherein about-to-be-minted lawyers would ride with a policeman for an entire shift for several evenings. A policeman's life is mostly utter boredom divided by moments of sheer terror.
To alleviate the boredom we'd wait until some poor soul wandered out of a bar and then use the car's spotlight to turn off the street lights as he – usually – walked under each in turn. This always resulted in total bewilderment as the spotlight was directed at the top of the pole and was mostly invisible to a pedestrian on the ground. I still sometimes wonder what these folks thought was going on.
Perhaps I'm partly responsible for these SLIders.
Reader Colin Frayn offers:
Your recent article about Street Light Interference reminds me of a story that a friend told me back at University. He used to live in a second- or third-floor apartment above some shops that overlooked a moderately well-lit pedestrian route. All along the street were light-sensitive street lights with the light sensors on top.
My friend realized that he could trigger those sensors during the night by shining a sufficiently powerful laser pointer directly at them, thus making the streetlights react as if it were daytime and hence switch off. This was used to hilarious effect by following pedestrians down the street and switching off the lights one by one as they walked underneath them. I imagine quite a few people returned home convinced of poltergeists!
I'm not sure if I should thank him for a good laugh, or worry that he's just perpetuated another generation of superstitions. But I suppose people are going to believe that kind of thing with or without sufficient evidence. It's amusing though, that people seem to jump to the supernatural explanation first, without trying to work out if there's any other possibility.
Ken Alexander tells us:
As someone who walks several miles in the dark every evening, I feel compelled to point out another explanation for the Street Light Interference business that I think is much more common than anything to do with photocells. It is the "cycling" behavior of aging sodium vapor streetlights. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_vapor_lamp#End_of_life.
In summary, it is normal for older streetlamp bulbs to periodically overheat and shut off for minutes at a time. I can tell you from frequent experience that this random effect combined with a common thought fallacy can give a very strong feeling of a personal darkness field directly affecting the lights. When no lights do it, you don't think about it; when a light behind you does it or a light around the bend does it, you don't notice; if one does it before you get there, it seems like any other burnt out light; but when one near you shuts off as you walk by, then you certainly notice. And when this happens for the hundredth time, it would seem quite eerie if you weren't armed with knowledge of sodium vapor light behavior – and of confirmation bias.
So I don't blame someone for getting the feeling that something weird is happening with them and streetlights, but of course I absolutely do blame them for not seeking reasonable explanations.
Reader Steve Kozachik comments:
As an electrician, I can tell you that what is more likely than photocell operation is the automatic cycling of the light fixture on thermal safeties or the gradual failing of the bulb itself. A short search will locate a fixture that goes out or dims to a dull orange color, and then mysteriously comes back on in a short time ranging from a few moments to several minutes. The length of time depends on the component that is failing and the mode of failure.
Amaze your friends! Find one and point at it to make it go out. The magic words, and careful timing, will enable you to turn it back on soon.
By the way, note the number on the pole and report it to the local utility. They appreciate hearing about the ones that are failing so they can be repaired.
And reader Paul Little closes the subject with:
The explanation for why streetlights occasionally go out when people pass beneath them is even simpler than your supposition that their photo-sensitive cell has been tripped. A couple of years ago I noticed that a certain streetlight would go out almost every time I walked under it. It was on the regular route I took walking my dog every evening, and so I passed under it very often.
Now, being a skeptical sort, I did not immediately jump to the conclusion that I was somehow causing the effect, as it was the only one of dozens of lights that I passed beneath nightly to display the behavior. One night I had occasion to stop a short distance past this streetlight, and wait for a few moments, and then stoop and scoop, and I witnessed the light turn back on again. Curious, I stayed where I was, and watched the light for a while longer. After about five minutes, it went dark once more, stayed off for about ninety seconds, and then came back on again. Five minutes later, the cycle repeated. So, the streetlight was not turning off due to my presence. It was simply turning off every five minutes, all night long, so I was bound to be near it when it happened on a regular basis.
You see, these streetlights have a thermal circuit breaker in them which turns off the light if it overheats, to prevent it from failing catastrophically. That is, to prevent the bulb from exploding, and possibly harming someone. During the bulk of their lifespan, the bulbs operate within a safe temperature range, but as they age, they become prone to over heating, and will fall into a cycle whereby they reach the threshold temperature, the circuit breaker turns them off until they cool slightly, and they turn back on again. At first, the cycle might take an hour or more to repeat. As the bulb gets older still, and closer to failure, it heats up more quickly, and so the cycle speeds up considerably.
Needless to say, after a few weeks the town works department came by, and I no longer caused the bulb to go out as I walked under it after that.
Thank you for your continuing efforts to promote reason and critical thinking in our world. I believe you are making a difference.
Dr. Joe Schwarcz is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society in Montreal, Canada. He recently wrote a column on “Adam Dreamhealer” – see randi.org/jr/2006-10/100613who.html#i1 – for the Montreal Gazette. With permission, I reproduce that piece here:
We spend millions of tax dollars on MRI imagers, CAT scanners, PET scanners and radiation equipment. Maybe we should rethink the way these funds are spent and use them instead to find a way of cloning Adam McLeod, a twenty-year old British Columbian. Why? Because Adam, it seems, doesn't need any of this sophisticated instrumentation to diagnose or treat illness, he manages to do it just by connecting to a person's "holographic energy system." And the patient doesn't even have to be present! Adam is a whiz at "distance healing," which requires nothing more than viewing a photograph of the subject and remotely adjusting his "quantum hologram." Just imagine the savings to society if we could clone this amazing fellow and have a collection of Adams sitting in a control room, diagnosing and curing people around the world.
But there is an incy wincey problem here. So far, the only talent Adam has convincingly demonstrated is the ability to attract crowds. There is no shortage of people willing to plunk down a hundred dollars for a day-long seminar with the man who claims to have cured legendary singer Ronnie Hawkins of pancreatic cancer by treating his tumor on the "energetic level." Little surprise then that people flock to his sessions, dreaming of being healed by Adam “Dreamhealer,” the name McLeod has adopted for his professional career. And quite a career that is turning out to be.
By his own account, Adam first noted his special powers when he was fifteen. All of a sudden pencils and erasers began to fly out of his hands. Actually, I noted similar effects around the same age. Objects moved strangely around me. Wads of paper mysteriously lifted into the air and metal spoons bent as if they were made of putty. Of course in my case they were helped by that "special something" I purchased in magic stores. But I digress. Strangely, no one other than Adam ever saw the pencils and erasers perform their acrobatics, so we have only his word for the occurrence of these kinetic events. I know if I saw objects spontaneously take flight around me, I would make every effort to document the gravity-defying phenomenon. While it seems Adam alone witnessed the flying school supplies, he did have company when his life was changed by an encounter with a giant black bird that "downloaded all the information in the universe" into his brain. I kid you not. I couldn't make this up.
When he was sixteen, Adam had a dream in which a big black bird told him to go to Nootka. He described the dream to his parents who apparently thought it important enough to research where Nootka was. After all, they were already convinced that their son had special powers, since Adam had healed his mother of trigeminal neuralgia, an excruciatingly painful facial nerve condition. Or so they say. Nootka turned out to be an island near Victoria, only accessible by boat. And off the family went on a wild adventure to search for the big black bird. Once on the island, Adam knew precisely where to go because the landscape was exactly as in his dream. And suddenly, there it was! A four foot tall black bird staring at Adam. Surely a sight that would make any ornithologist's mouth water. In any case, faster than you can say Google, the bird downloaded all the information in the universe, whatever that may mean, into the teenager's brain, and his healing career took flight. If you are interested in more details of this amazing escapade, you can find them in Adam's books. Logic would send you to the humor section of the bookstore, but chances are you'll find then in "New Age."
Of course the real question here is not how a bird came to accumulate all known wisdom, or why it selected a Canadian teenager to become a human bird brain. The question is whether Adam can really do what he says he can. If so, he will go down in history as the man who rocked the very foundations of science. Let's face it, science just can't explain how looking at a photograph of a person who may be halfway around the world can cause chemical changes in that person's body. What kind of energy can be emitted that doesn't fall off with distance? Since energy cannot be created or destroyed, just changed from one form to another, where is it coming from? And how does it target one specific person? Why isn't everyone in the path of this mysterious force healed?
The ABC television program 20/20 took a shot at appraising Adam. First, he was asked to evaluate the medical status of a woman volunteer. Adam correctly determined that she had a minor back problem (who doesn't) but completely missed her breast cancer. He failed to affect a reporter's brain waves, which he claims to be able to do. No documented evidence of unusual healing was turned up by the investigators and it seems that Ronnie Hawkins’ pancreatic cancer was never confirmed by biopsy.
This is not to say that people who flood to Adam's seminars derive no benefit. Belief can be very powerful and there is no doubt that some people will feel better after one of his healing sessions. But feeling better is not the same as being better. That requires clinical evidence. My advice to Adam: show what you can do under proper controlled conditions. James Randi will hand over his million dollar prize if you can move pencils, detect auras or diagnose illnesses from pictures. A Nobel Prize in medicine would surely follow. Otherwise, restrict yourself to motivational speaking and forget about bamboozling people with "quantum holographic healing." That's for the birds.
A LOSS TO REASON
Our friend Bob Park notifies us of this sad news. The first director of the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at NIH, Stephen E. Straus, 60, has died of brain cancer. He was directed to turn the quack-dominated Office of Alternative Medicine, created by Congress, into a genuinely scientific center. He did it the only way possible, subjecting one claimed cure after another to randomized double-blind tests, while enduring attacks from scientists who thought he moved too slowly. One after another, all the quack methods failed the tests, otherwise there would have been interference from Congress. Bob Park was fortunate to serve on Straus’ Steering Committee.
HERE’S THE ANSWER
To answer the often-asked and popular question, go to earthmove.info/. Perhaps more information than you can use…?
MISSED THE BEST PART
Reader Ty Fenton, in Norwich, England, writes:
I read an article in the UK newspaper, The Daily Express, on Saturday 9th June 2007, and decided to look this up on Google for further info. I am amazed that people with these beliefs actually exist, let alone teach in our schools (or did until she decided on this course of action). See tinyurl.com/2z264z.
In case you do not have time to read the article, basically the teacher refused to allow a child to read from a Harry Potter book, to her, because she could be cursed as her religion forbids “white magic.” Religion = Christian – Pentecostal Church. WHITE MAGIC? Who the hell believes this? That this woman can actually function on a day-to-day basis with beliefs like this, astounds me.
At least she lost the tribunal against her employers for religious discrimination. Keep on doing it, Mr. Randi. Most of my friends read Swift, and we’re all behind you.
As I said, Ty missed pointing out the best part of that article. Just look at the “Comments” section and see how our UK cousins have refused to accept nonsense…!
DERREN BROWN ON SCI-FI CHANNEL
Excellent news! The prominent UK performer Derren Brown, only available to UK audiences until now, will be seen this summer on our Sci-Fi Channel. This man is a highly inventive and very strong performer of mentalism, an illusionist who weaves fascinating stories into his mind-blowing shows. As soon as dates are decided, we’ll run his schedule here..!
-From the Scifi.com Website
'Mentalist' Brown Due On SCI FI
SCI FI Channel announced that it is developing a series around British "mentalist" Derren Brown, described as "part James Bond, part Yoda." With numerous top-rated series and specials to his credit, Brown has amazed U.K. television audiences. SCI FI's original U.S.-produced version of the tentatively titled Derren Brown Project will consist of six one-hour episodes. Andrew O'Conner and Michael Vine will serve as executive producers for Objective Productions. SCI FI made the announcement at its upfront press event in New York on March 21.
Brown is described as a man who can inspire people to rob an armored car or freely give up their car keys and wallet to a stranger on the street simply by asking. The British press has called him "mind-blowing," "fascinating" and "a warlock." He doesn't claim to be a mind reader, though he appears to predict and control human behavior. He describes his craft as a mixture of suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.
A reader just named “Doug” has informed us:
Don Herbert was a hero bomber pilot in WW2 who then came back to the States and spent the rest of his adult life educating children about the wonders of science. He hosted the shows "Watch Mr. Wizard" from 1951-1965 and "Mr. Wizard's World" from 1983-1990 and helped to get innumerable children, myself and my brothers included, interested in science and the world around us.
Mr. Wizard passed away from bone cancer on June 12th at the age of 89, and I was hoping that you could find a way to mention him in an upcoming edition of Swift. He touched countless lives for the better and paved the way for modern science popularizers like Bill Nye.
Herbert was very popular, an excellent teacher, and a hero to many kids in his long and active life. We can only hope that Bill Nye will return to a full-time science-teaching position on TV, soon. We miss him…
Go to nydetox.org/gallery6.htm and just read the caption under the first photo. I must admit, if the process actually produces shards of 9/11 glass debris, these folks have most certainly won the JREF million-dollar prize. But what kind of group would make such a bizarre, juvenile claim? Mystery solved: The “Association of Human Detoxification Specialists,” which now calls itself the “International Academy of Detoxification Specialists,” is a Scientology offshoot, and L. Ron Hubbard would be proud of such a hilarious farce being performed by his comedy repertory group. I thank reader Bob Pagini for alerting us to this item.