July 27, 2007
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CANDIDATES FOR THE PRIZE
Reader Lawrence W. Lee Jr., in Staten Island, New York, tells us:
A magazine I subscribe to, recently had an article on dowsing I thought you may get a chuckle out of. It’s called "Reminisce Extra," and readers submit their memories and stories – true, not fictional – of "the good old days." The May 2007 issue contained a story entitled, "The Water Witcher." I won't bore you with the entire article, but here's the excerpt where the writer explains dowsing itself:
In order to protect the deluded, I have omitted the author's name. But as soon as I send this email to you, I'm sending a response to the magazine's editors, suggesting he [the author] consider the Million Dollar Challenge. Would this publication meet your new standard of a "media presence"?
I'm not getting my hopes up, but maybe you should get your checkbook ready, just in case. (Just kidding!)
Well, this would probably qualify, but finding an academic endorsement might be more difficult. In any case, neither the authors of this claim, nor the other “competent dowsers,” will apply. But, we’ll just wait…
A scientist friend in Hungary has looked into Uri Geller’s background and discovered that his original name appears to have been “Gellér György.” (Formally, the family name appears first, in Hungary.) “György” is the equivalent of George, and in the diminutive form “Gyuri” – the equivalent of “Georgie” – is pronounced to sound like “Uri.”
My, my! This man is just full of surprises!
TEXAS LEADS IN SCIENCE-BASHING
From our good friend Phil Plait – badastronomy.com – comes news that Texas governor Rick Perry has appointed a creationist to head the Texas State Board of Education. Yes, you read that right. As Phil writes:
At first I thought, "No, not even a politician in Texas could possibly do something that dumb, that contrary to reality, that horrifying to their kids. DefCon Blog must have gotten it wrong!" And then I did a few searches. DefCon Blog got it right. According to the Dallas Morning News:
Freedom Network president Kathy Miller… noted that in 2003, Dr. McLeroy was one of four board members who voted against proposed high school biology textbooks because he felt their coverage of evolution was “too dogmatic,” and did not include possible flaws in Charles Darwin’s theory of how life on Earth evolved from lower forms. That is straight out of the creationist tactics notebook. In case you’re not sure, the article goes on to quote McLeroy:
Pssst! Someone needs to tell him it’s also unconstitutional to teach religion as science.
In 2001, McLeroy and a majority of the board rejected the only Advanced Placement textbook for high school environmental science because its views on global warming and other events didn’t comport with the beliefs of the board majority. The book wasn’t factual and was anti-American and anti-Christian, the majority claimed. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges and universities were using the textbook, including Baylor University, the nation’s largest Baptist college. In 2003, McLeroy voted against approving biology textbooks that included a full-scale scientific account of evolutionary theory.
Here is a letter McLeroy sent out to his fellow State Board of Education members:
Brilliant! This guy doesn’t understand the most basic principles of biology, and he’s going to chair the State Board of Education. And hey, if he doesn’t understand something, why should it be taught at all? From the “Favorite Quotations” section of McLeroy’s own website:
Think that one through for a moment, folks. The new head of the Texas State Board of Education is an anti-intellectual. Note: he didn’t say this himself, he is quoting someone else; but it’s clearly a quotation he agrees with.
You can rail all you want and complain that I write too much about anti-science in the form of religious fundamentalism, but you would be wrong. I can’t write about this enough. It’s a disease, a virus, and now the brains of millions of schoolchildren in Texas are at risk. Worse, Texas (along with California) has an unusually large influence on what textbooks get used in the rest of the country, because they are such a large market for the publishers. If this antiscience, anti-intellectual, anti-reality man gets to help choose what textbooks go in Texas, then you parents out there who are reading this in New Hampshire, in Wyoming, in Oregon, in Virginia – your own kids are at risk here too.
Right on, Phil!
ROYAL SPEAKS TO ANGELS AND HORSES
Reader Kristin Carlsson, a master's student in astrophysics in Oslo, Norway, got a shock:
Before I start my day at the university, I always have a look at www.aftenposten.no, the online edition of one of Norway's leading newspapers. Today [July 24] I was greeted with a bold headline that nearly brought half my cup of coffee down onto the keyboard:
Now, in normal circumstances, this would be a disturbing read in many ways, considering the fact that Aftenposten still remains one of the more distinguished newspapers which haven't yet totally succumbed to the temptation of tabloidism. The important reason that this newspaper would even consider having such a main headline was a bit unsettling to me: The "Märtha" mentioned here is none other than HH Princess Märtha Louise of Norway. Quoting a bit more from the article:
While I am writing and translating, an English version of the article has been laid out on www.aftenposten.no/english/local/article1901846.ece. You can read on and quote from it there, should you find it interesting and/or amusing. Note especially the very classic "psychic as a child encounters random woman and gives heebie-jeebies" story.
As it seems Her Highness and "Astarte Education" now technically qualify for the million dollar prize, I thought I'd let you know about this rather entertaining piece of trivia. My opinions on whether Norway's monarchy should be replaced by a republic in the near future – together with the abolition of the state Church – will have to be another story.
Always looking forward to the next SWIFT!
Reader Martin A. Lessem also chimes in on this farce:
The Princess feels the need, as I stated, to "share" this education with her fellow Norwegians. For a "modest fee" (my words – quotes added for sarcasm) of $2,088 at today’s exchange rate, you too can learn from the Princess how to free your inner psychic self and commune with the angels and spirits. Yet that only buys you half a year’s instruction. The kicker is that to get the full course experience, it is a three-year program!
They offer a total of three courses. The first on "Readings," the second on "Healing," and the third on "Contact," by which – according to their website – they mean contact healing. As a side note, the word they use, “berøring,” does not appear in the Norwegian to English Lexicon I used, and I had to take the definition from the similar Swedish word. They also offer two intense courses over a three-day period each, the first on what they call "Grounding," which according to them deals with our connection to the Earth, and in the second course – and for this one I will give you the full translation –
I, for one, would love to see them try to claim the JREF million. I mean, if they are starting an educational institution, what better claim to fame than "We won the JREF million to pay for all this quackery!"
Anyway, I hope that this finds it's way into your weekly SWIFT as I think stuff like this needs to be exposed, especially when a member of a Royal Family – and we know the Royals are respected in Europe – lends their name to this kind of trip.
Martin, our JREF colleague Jeff Wagg suggests that perhaps Norwegian Princess Märtha Louis should arrange to meet Prince Charles of Woo-Woo – excuse me, of Windsor. They seem ideally suited to one another, and the psychic bond between them should be strong… They use the same language – Woowooian – as shown by the princess’ gushing declaration that she’ll show Norwegians how to "create miracles" in their lives and harness the powers of their angels, which she describes as "forces that surround us and who are a resource and help in all aspects of our lives." How reassuring.
Reader Håkon M. Monssen tells us that the Princess also claims she can talk to horses – which I can also do, though any answers are rather vague – and she offers her course as a means of "getting in touch with your own truths" through "readings, healing, crystals and hands-on treatment."
Okay. Maybe this is proof that the inbreeding idea isn’t wise…
From time to time, readers review the stunning prophecies that are issued by Sylvia Browne, and find – surprise! – that she speaks with forked tongue. Jon Blumenfeld provides this selection of only ten:
1. Pope John Paul II will not live beyond April 2005. A hit! But then, he was so sick that you didn’t have to be psychic.
2. Replacing John Paul, a black pope will be elected either this time or next. Well, not this time.
3. After that, a triumvirate of Popes will be elected, each assigned to a different geographic area. Still open.
4. In February/04 Seattle will have a 5.4 earthquake, but it will not cause much damage. Wrong
5. In July/04 unemployment will hit an all-time high before improving with the advent of new technology from Texas and Nevada. Wrong
6. July/August/04, the employees from two major airlines will go on strike and cruise line travel will increase to an all-time high, as people will feel safer with this form of travel. Wrong
7. August/September/04: Hurricanes will hit the Florida Keys and Mexico. Again, do you need to be psychic?
8. November/04: President Bush will not be reelected. Wrong.
9. Anytime in 2004: 6.0 earthquakes will hit both Alaska and Japan. Wrong, I think.
10. December/04: Saddam Hussein will die. Wrong, in 2006.
THAT DREADED NUMBER AGAIN
Jordanna Thigpen is an assistant executive director of the San Francisco Taxi Commission. That sounds heavy and authoritative, right? Well, she’s alarmed over the terrifying plight of taxi driver Michael Byrne, who was assigned medallion No. 666 by the Commission last August. Since then, Byrne has been involved in at least one accident, even though he had his cab blessed at Mission Dolores! This mission, founded in 1776, is properly known as the Mission San Francisco de Asís, and such efforts to ensure against misfortune are not uncommon with the faithful in that area. But surely, this is proof of the powerful influence of this dreaded number?
Invoking such obvious realities as Armageddon, St. John the Divine, Good Friday, the Book of Revelation and the Mark of the Beast, Ms. Thigpen pointed out – from her executive position – that
The problems... are of great severity. The number 666 has been associated with evil and with Satan for hundreds of years. The number first appears in the Revelation of St. John the Divine. Revelation describes Armageddon and offers the number 666 as a method of recognizing the followers of “the beast,” or evil.
Ms. Thigpen apparently relies on reports for her authority. She accepts that a few years ago, the cab owned by the previous holder of medallion 666
…burned to a crisp on Good Friday... and the only thing remaining after the fire were the numbers 666, visible in the rubble
Now, this I must accept as strong evidence. Imagine a taxicab entirely consumed by fire – chassis, engine, the whole thing – with the digits 666 triumphantly evident! Mind you, we don’t find any reports of medallion numbers 1205 or 751 being burned up on April Fool’s Day, or on my birthday. I wonder why not? The mind boggles… Then, in a strange mixture of woo-woo and disavowal of same, Ms. Thigpen asserts:
Do I believe in the Mark of the Beast myself? No. But there is a lot of negative energy around that cab. If we can help somebody out, why not do it? If something's a nuisance, it's our duty to get rid of it, right?
Right, ma’m, but I think that those 45 words could have been condensed down to:
If we can help somebody out, if something's a nuisance, it's our duty to get rid of it.
Thomas George-Williams, chairman of the United Taxicab Workers union, had a very sensible and pragmatic attitude about this matter. He said that cabbies love to tell ghost stories about the 666 cab between fares, but that the commission ought not to get involved in superstitions. Now, that’s my kinda guy. He also pointed out that that there is no 13th Avenue in San Francisco – the thoroughfare between 12th and 14th avenues. That was long ago re-named Funston Avenue, apparently to keep Armageddon at bay. Well, it seems to have worked, I must admit…
Think about it: a major government agency in the city of San Francisco is actually giving – though grudgingly – some recognition to the juvenile notion of magic numbers, instead of simply going ahead with their business.
AND IT POURED…
Incredible. Following my item at www.randi.org/jr/2007-06/061507.html#i2, a “National Rain Day” scheme was dreamed up in Australia that perfectly demonstrates the lack of cause-and-effect reasoning by prominent persons who should know better. Marketing CEO John McCallum, of Melbourne, came up with this wishful-thinking notion. The fact that rain fell after some citizens prayed for it to happen, is apparently all the evidence that McCallum needs, regardless of such factors as natural atmospheric changes, since these folks don’t believe that rain results when water vapor condenses and falls as liquid; to them, it’s all woo-woo magic, you see.
Nowhere do they discuss the alibis they might have used – and they would have – if the rain had not fallen. They ignore completely the fact that parts of Australia (Northern New South Wales) went from drought to devastating floods, and that Prime Minister John Howard then had to ask for “thoughts and prayers” for the victims of the storms and floods that struck NSW, obviously forgetting that only a few weeks before that, he’d asked everyone to pray that rain would fall! Is this short-term memory failure?
But you have to see just what they said about this event, and I quote:
This was not mere coincidence. It was a co-inside-dance [groan] of the hearts of all who imagined rain and directed love and gratitude that rain be received, who, quite literally, "prayed rain." The results are even more fulfilling when we recognize that our intention was centered around our intimate connection with nature, and the single minded focus of inviting rain into our experience, provides some understanding of how we can play an important role as conduits between the universe and planet earth, to effect balance and harmony.
National Rain Day is here to stay and we look forward to your continued support in making the next one an awesome event, as we will have the time to create a far greater awareness. Thank you so much for being one with the beginning of a new paradigm in this land we love so much.
It’s really a comedy act. Imagine those thousands of people who tried to attract rainfall by standing around barefoot while being led through a “visualization” reading by an indigenous Australian. CEO McCallum was inspired to promote this farce through a book by Greg Braden, “The Isaiah Effect,” subtitled “Decoding the Lost Science of Prayer and Prophecy,” which we’re told draws on
…new discoveries in quantum physics, as well as a variety of spiritual traditions and religious documents including Tibetan, Mayan, and Hopi prophecies, Nostradamus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Well, that’s all the proof we need, right?
We’re also told that Mr. McCallum was thus inspired during an “XL Wealth Shift seminar” he attended. And what is that? Obviously, it’s a system to shift money – presumably from someone else’s pocket to yours – and its warning mantra is: “The more money you have, the more opportunities you have to lose it.” Yes, I guess that’s true…
A highlight of the National Rain Day ceremony was an
…imaginative description of rain forming and falling, with the earth receiving it in gratitude, supported by the mystical sounds of the didgeridoo played by Lewis Langdon. Isira, a global peace ambassador said:
Yes, it’s obvious that these folks are all wet, in more than one sense. Now, if that isn’t woo-woo, I don’t know woo-woo.
HOMER AT WORK
Reader James Gordon of Southport, UK, tells us of another pray-or-dance-for-rain effort somewhat differently directed:
I've just spotted this (news.bbc.co.uk/) on the BBC News website and it made me chuckle. It seems that the Pagan Federation have gotten a tad upset here in the UK over a publicity stunt created for the new Simpsons movie. A giant Homer Simpson holding aloft a donut has been laid out in biodegradable paint next to the famously aroused Cerne Abbas giant.
Apparently, "many believe the ancient chalk outline of the naked, sexually aroused giant to be a symbol of ancient spirituality." The best bit of the entire piece is this quote from Ann Bryn-Evans, joint Wessex district manager for The Pagan Federation:
Strangely, the presence of a gigantic line drawing of Homer Simpson on a hill in England doesn't strike me quite as ridiculous as a bunch of Mother-Earth-worshiping pagans dancing around without their pants on, in a misguided effort to make the rain come and wash the offending symbol of capitalism away. Even worse is the suggestion that they're going to do this mumbo-jumbo because the area is of scientific interest! Obviously I'm just a grumpy cynic who hasn't managed to align his aura with that of the Great Mother's.
I am reminded, however, of that old Dan Akroyd movie, Dragnet, where they suggest that PAGAN is an acronym for People Against Goodness And Normality...
An anonymous reader writes:
First of all, I have to say what a huge fan I am of yours. Although I'd been a skeptic for years, it wasn't until I discovered the JREF webpage and began reading your commentary that I began to feel passionately about defending and spreading skepticism. I am becoming a prominent video blogger on YouTube (My first CNN interview is going to be this week), though I've been mostly talking about politics so far, my plans are to begin making videos discussing skeptical and science topics very soon. I think that video blogging, or vlogging if you will, is a medium that has a lot of potential and I plan on taking full advantage of it.
Anyways, on to what I really wanted to talk to you about. I’m a federal government human resources employee. One of my jobs is to "rate" resumes as to whether or not they meet the qualification standards for a certain position. In many cases, all a person needs is an accredited degree to be qualified for a position. In order to make sure a degree is accredited, we run a search on questionable universities at the US Department of Education's (USDE) website – www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/Search.asp.
Recently I came across a resume claiming a degree from the Academy of Oriental Medicine. I thought for sure it couldn't be an accredited University. Unfortunately, a search at the USDE's website found it to be an official accredited university. Having to write "qualified" on top of that resume just about killed me. More searches for "oriental," "alternative" or "acupuncture" found a whole host of other accredited universities. How is it that someone can get a degree in Acupuncture and it is worth the same as my Bachelor's? It really saddens me that these Universities can claim official government accreditation when they are teaching things that don't exist.
Keep on the fight against ignorance! And I’ll see you at TAM 6 even though it seems so far away at this point.
REALITY CAN BE ROUGH
Another anonymous reader writes:
I'm 32 years old and have believed in some form of fundamental Christianity my entire life. I've always considered myself a rational/objective person, yet for all these years, my beliefs in an “after-life” were stronger than ever, and I simply accepted things such as Jonah surviving his dubious swallowed-by-a-fish experience.
However, after months of arduous, objective, and scholarly study, I came to a conclusion that I wasn't prepared to come to. Christianity is an outdated, whimsical and washed-up canard and needless to say, no match for science, rationalism & materialism – or simple logic, for that matter.
Up until three months ago, my contentment and joy in life literally revolved around my perceived “relationship with God/Christ,” efficacy of prayer, and gracious heavenly payout. Now that I know this mode of thinking and dream isn't reality, I am experiencing very real – and I'm told, “clinical” – depression, something I have never experienced before. I have endured any past tribulation through reasoning, "God 'has my back'” and is somehow using this adversity to “make me stronger,” and “I can get through anything in this life because it's only temporary and in the end, eternal bliss awaits me.” I thought that, like other Christians, I had effectively already won the "after-life lottery."
Now I know my winning ticket is worthless. I had been duped, and worse, my life-sustaining purpose crutch had been yanked out from under me. Side note: I truly believe that if you could convince Christians in the USA that there was no Jesus/God, there would be a major, depression-laden backlash.
I have sought medical treatment. Ironically, the two psychiatrists and three psychologists I have seen, sincerely believe that a belief in a “higher-power” is essential to recovery. Further, they have all suggested, or flat out told me, that “my lack of faith” could be the cause of my depression. And the psychiatrists have also loaded me up with a litany of pills – none of which have worked. It's as though my psyche “can't handle the truth,” and I've even taken a leave of absence from my job. FYI – I live in a suburb of Houston where, generally speaking, if you aren't some sort of Christian, you'd be better off having leprosy, and Rick Warren is the next best thing to the Messiah himself.
I know you are not a medical professional, and I won't view any advice in that light. However, I do respect your objective, clear-minded approach to life and am indeed asking for some advice.
Yes, it’s often a very difficult thing to radically change your basic philosophy. In my own case, that wasn’t really necessary simply because from a very early age I doubted stories of supernatural influences and beings, and seriously wondered how so many people around me could embrace those notions. There was never any moment at which I had to “switch” to a more realistic approach. This differs radically from the experiences of many of my friends. One example of this would be Michael Shermer, who at one time in his young life was a convinced Bible-thumper, until he began to seriously think about his basic philosophy; the rest is history.
There is no question about it: you need a certain degree of bravery to abandon a comfortable philosophy and adopt reality. To accept that Nature simply doesn’t care about individuals such as yourself, but has much greater concern for the species, is scary. But I can tell you this: the vast majority of those I know who have made the switch, look upon it as one of the greatest days in their lives, and recall the great sense of relief and accomplishment that they experienced when they realized that there was no Great Spirit in the Sky looking down on them from a throne and making sure that things were okay so long as the incantations were offered and the abasement was sufficiently genuine.
The fact that you’re aware of your situation indicates to me that you’ll be able to overcome it adequately. I certainly hope so, and I look forward to hearing from you that you’re more comfortable and at-home with your decision.
TROUBLE IN DILUTION LAND
Back at randi.org/jr/121903lins.html – do a search for “Zicam – I revealed that this popular “remedy” for cold symptoms is not homeopathic, as they advertise it to be. It has one part in ten of the active ingredient, zinc gluconate – C12H22O14Zn, for the fastidious – and that's so much more concentrated than any homeopathic dilution, that it’s comedy time. Homeopathic preparations typically have one part of ingredient in several billion parts of water or lactose…! But Matrixx Initiatives, a chewing gum company turned cold remedy manufacturer, the manufacturers of Zicam, obviously found that their product was far more popular with a woo-woo designation, and that they could also charge much more for it! So, they claimed it was homeopathic, and it entered the medicine cabinets of the naïve. And that name, Matrixx, has to have been thought up by a Hollywood ad man – or a 14-year-old kid.
Well, now it’s being claimed that this nasal spray destroys a users sense of taste and smell, something that’s sure to cause a certain degree of dissatisfaction among customers. Over 400 lawsuits have been filed by unhappy clients, and Matrixx has already spent $12 million to settle some 340 of these. My question: why didn’t the FDA get involved, long ago? The false advertising and the possible heavy side effects should have been something to get their attention? Oh, wait. That’s is a federal agency, isn’t it? Pardon my presumption…
Now, instead of just settling the remaining lawsuits, Matrixx is challenging the expertise of doctors who claim the link between sensory loss and the product. This has become a battle of “experts,” with Matrixx casting about for doctors who will pontificate on their side. And, they have the colossal gall to point out the rather larger issue of the FDA's limited oversight of homeopathic treatments, though since their product is not homeopathic, it’s hard to see what ground they stand on. Quicksand, perhaps? Also, unlike conventional medicines, “natural” remedies are not subject to any approval process, nor are they put through clinical trials – but there’s nothing at all “natural” about zinc gluconate. Who’s watching the store, here?
As a reader points out to me, Matrixx is clearly lying about being a quack operation, and they seem proud of it!
The FDA claims that looking into this would cost them too much time and money. And the world turns…
We're happy to announce the inclusion, beginning this week, of the index to the JREF library, proudly labeled "The Isaac Asimov Library.” This is accessible to all readers by a simple click. It's in the "Excel" format, sorted under title (A), author (B), and category (C). There are a total of 2,035 titles to be found here. They run from "Abduction" (9 titles) to "Witchcraft" (36 titles), with much more extensive categories such as "Parapsychology" (212 titles) and "Religion" (211 titles) to be found along the way. We have perhaps the largest collection on the silliest subject – Phrenology – of any library, with 39 very thick and ponderous volumes dealing with bumps-on-the-head matters. Our 59 books on Astrology – as you might expect – give so many different opinions on this ancient claptrap, that they're all different – and all equally useless.
If you do not currently own excel you can download the Microsoft excel viewer directly from their site by following this link: Excel Viewer
Alternatively if you do not have windows or just would prefer not to use Excel you may also down Open Office This is a free office suite which will allow you to view spreadsheet files.
The library index will be regularly updated, without notice.
There are 65 books that are not included in this index simply because they are separate volumes in collections of woo-woo such as the Time/Life series "Mysteries of the Unknown," as well as "Man, Myth, and Magic," and "Mysteries of Mind, Space, and Time." In these sets, each slim volume contains a great variety of subjects, so they cannot be categorized. We also have the excellent Lynn Thorndike seven-volume collection "History of Magic & Experimental Science," which similarly defies categorization.
One shelf contains only books that I have written – in the Chinese, English, English/Braille, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Punjabi, and Spanish editions. Since that 29-inch shelf is now jammed full, and I still have two books-in-progress to come – “Wrong!” and “A Magician in the Laboratory” – we’ll have to expand, once more…
In addition, the JREF has encyclopedias galore. There's a 12-volume set of the 1896 "Americanized Encyclopaedia Britannica," a 24-volume set of the 1945 "Encyclopaedia Britannica,” and 32 volumes of the 15th edition (1987) of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica” – including the “Propaedia” and annual updates to 1992.
Think of this: The Isaac Asimov Library – the main room – occupies 303 feet of shelves! And that’s not only the books we have in English; part of that is a 9-foot-long sector consisting of books that deal with our area of interest, but in other languages. But that’s not all, ladies and gentlemen. Around the corner from the main room – since we simply ran out of space – we have thirty feet of shelves with periodical collections ranging from the “American Council on Science & Health” to "Western New York Skeptics." Adjacent to that, you'll find 762 DVDs, the JREF videotape collection now reduced from VHS to a much more convenient and permanent format. Some of those DVDs have several full-length programs on them, so the number of total items represented here is considerably greater than 762.
As soon as we can put someone on the job, we’ll be offering these books for loan by mail. This will extend the reach of the JREF considerably, providing access to data that can serve students, writers, publishers, and the merely curious reader. We're proud of the JREF library, and fully aware of the bonanza this could be to future researchers who might look into the past to examine the point at which our species began to abandon dependence on flim-flam and learned to face reality.
Full credit must be given to our hard-working interns, chief among whom is law student Chris Cochran – who almost single-handedly re-organized the JREF book library. We are very grateful to him for his contribution of many, many, Saturday mornings over the past two years.
©James Randi Educational Foundation
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