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James Randi Educational Foundation

September 17, 2001

Vapid Vultures, Conrad Comments, Grodin Goof, Sleuth Sylvia, Nostradamus Notes, Etc.

Thank you for your understanding of the suspension of this page last week. We were just so preoccupied with our sorrow and dismay, that it seemed the only thing to do. This present page has gone up a few days early, to try making up for the discrepancy. I'll try to answer many of the questions and comments that were received from you in the past week.

As you all know, at the JREF we teach and promote critical thinking so that others can think about matters, instead of playing pretend games that are more attractive than reality. When religious zealots show the savagery we saw on the 11th, our goal takes on a new and far more immediate importance. Certainly, the process of critical thinking would have been totally foreign to these people, and is I'm sure a process that cannot occur to their successors. As long as blind fanaticism rules a culture, those who are poisoned by it will not be able to think their way to a logical and reasonable solution of problems. Those who instructed these suicides, who gave them the framework upon which they constructed their view of the world and of themselves, made hatred and bigotry into virtues. Examining evidence and coming to logical conclusions, was not part of the process for these misguided people. There are two kinds of bravery, in my opinion: one can enable a man to kill himself and others with the unwavering expectation of paradise, the second kind enables us to look at the world honestly and directly, and to do whatever we believe is right, without expecting rewards from imaginary friends who live somewhere in the sky.

(I will mention here that my own personal views of mid-Eastern politics and our involvement, have undergone serious changes in the last week. I may expound upon that subject on another occasion.)

I begin this week with the observation that not one "psychic" foresaw the horrendous World Trade Center/Pentagon destruction that took place last Tuesday. And, "psychic" John Edward appeared on TV for a full hour with Larry King just the night before, but didn't pick up on the event, which was less than 12 hours away. The Edward appearance was also, by opinions I've received, a fiasco that King tried to salvage, to little avail. In a week or two, we'll run here a complete analysis — from a skeptical point of view — of that show.

On her Internet page, Sylvia Browne, not missing a beat, assured us — as if we needed to be reminded — that she is "not omniscient," and therefore didn't see this greatest disaster in US history coming. She said that though "in 1999" she had "warned of terrorism, clearly the timing was wrong." No, Sylvia, that was in 1998, for events you predicted would happen in the year 1999! Yes, the timing was off — by two years and seven months — and it referred to "terrorist attacks in Florida and London," not in New York, nor in Washington. And now, Sylvia warns us on her page, "Be aware [beware?] of the Palestinian Republic of Bundi." Okay. Bundi is a town in India, not a republic, and it's not Palestinian, but I'll sure keep on the alert. Get this: just at the time that the authorities were investigating about whether Osama bin Laden or another agency made the attacks, Ms. Browne told us that she'd "been given the information" that "Bin Laden and another group" was behind them. No comment.

But I ask you to remember that Sylvia also predicted in 1998 that Bill Clinton would be exonerated in the Paula Jones case, and that AIDS would be in full remission and breast cancer was going to be absolutely preventable and cured by the end of 1999. Louis Farrakhan, she averred, would move to the Middle East to live. In 2000, she predicted, the Democrats would win the election with Bill Bradley, and David Letterman would quit his nightly late show that year. These whoppers were accompanied by a whole string of earthquake predictions, all just as accurate. Prediction appears not to be one of Sylvia's strengths.....

In a box beneath the vapidities she offered about the terrorist events, after asking readers to pray for everyone involved, dead and alive, Sylvia Browne advertised that for a mere $4,867 you can go to Greece and Turkey in October and celebrate her 66th birthday with her. While we're reeling from this tragedy, trying to bring consolation to those people who were murdered while pursuing their daily labors, leaving orphans and grieving friends and family behind, Sylvia Browne wants us to go on a party with her? I cannot imagine that anyone would take this occasion to promote her business, but Browne has done so.

A reader commented on this kind of opportunities that "psychics" would have as a result of the terrorist disaster:

I fear for the families and friends of the victims of this terrorist attack, not for their loss and grief, but for the human rubbish that will take advantage of these innocent people by bringing them "messages from beyond" from deceased loved ones. I'm sure there are "psychics" already circling like vultures to feed off the carnage.

How true. And as an observation on the usual banality and unfailing uselessness of the psychics' declarations, another reader wrote:

It sure would have been nice if Sylvia could have tipped off New York City. How can it be that the most impactful event in recent history, an event that profoundly affected hundreds of thousands of souls, can completely slip by a master psychic's radar? But it sure is a relief to know that Brad and Jennifer's marriage won't work out, though.

This tragedy brought us together as perhaps nothing else ever has. The world rallied to our situation in a show of support that dwarfed other examples. New Yorkers, usually labeled "unfeeling and callous," showed their true character by pitching in and doing incredible feats of selfless rescue and relief. The hundreds of NYC firemen who marched to their deaths, are martyrs whose heroics we cannot ever honor sufficiently. Volunteers stepped forward without hesitation, by the thousands. America chose to become stronger in the face of horror. We fought, rather than retreating from our injury. Personally, I feel a fierce pride that I asked this country to adopt me, and that my wish was granted.

Immediately, the question was asked: Why did this happen? When I heard President Bush designate the attack as an act of war, I perhaps took a different view of what he meant, and what I agreed with. To me, this is not a time to look for revenge. That's for people less civilized than we. I'm looking for protection of those I love, and I see two ways of arriving at that goal. First, obviously, stop the fanatics. They are working with medieval notions of what's right, and the rewards that await martyrs. Second, stop the system that teaches ignorance, fear, superstition, and bigotry, the system that has infected those zealots for whom there can be no re-education.

And, I must add, please do not make the error of thinking that these Taliban-inspired terrorists are typical of the Muslim population. They are exceptions, radicals who are rejected by the followers of Islam. We will not agree with certain Muslim principles — that husbands own their wives, for example — but we also have no right to impose our social mores on them. If, that is, the inscription on the Statue of Liberty is not to be re-worded. We have already had groups of youths attacking mosques to vent their understandable but misdirected anger. This cannot be any sort of response worthy of our citizens.

Here are the closing paragraphs of Richard Dawkins' recent piece in The Guardian newspaper, UK:

There is no doubt that the afterlife-obsessed suicidal brain really is a weapon of immense power and danger. It is comparable to a smart missile, and its guidance system is in many respects superior to the most sophisticated electronic brain that money can buy. Yet to a cynical government, organisation, or priesthood, it is very very cheap. Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary cliche: mindless cowardice. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalising of a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on September 11. Those people were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards. On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from.

It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.

The crass, narrow-minded, intolerant, insensitive, savage, statement that "religious leaders" Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson issued about the incident — saying that New York City deserved this disaster as God's punishment for allowing the homosexuals and the feminists to function freely there — was a shock, but not really a surprise. These "leaders" are as filled with hate as were those who guided the jet planes into their targets and were vaporized along with their victims — but they haven't that degree of courage and conviction. I abjure these men and their despicable statements. If we in the United States have our version of a Taliban, it's hiding behind their doors.

I apologize. Those were a few things I just had to say.

James A. Conrad, who I mentioned on this page two weeks ago as having remarkable (claimed) telekinetic powers, but had declined to apply for the JREF million-dollar prize, has sent me a notice about the current state of his ability. Here is an excerpt from that communication:

. . . I began losing the ability in late 1999, a situation that fortuitously allowed me to identify what causes it (my claim), which of course, like any claim, should be treated as just an opinion or theory until convincing evidence can be provided or demonstrated as proof. . . . I have hard-copy medical lab tests to back up my claim that a particular substance in the body and brain is, I believe, a significant factor in the functionality of telekinesis. . . . Because the substance can be dangerous at high levels, the process of restoration has to be done slowly and monitored by regular medical lab tests, to which I do have access. . . . Since my research is, like most scientific and medical research, commercially motivated, I am unable to disclose more specific information (name of alleged substance TK, mental triggering process, access to my medical tests, etc.) except on a confidential basis to business associates.

Okay, Mr. Conrad. If you get up and running again with this mysterious "substance TK" in place , please apply for our prize.

I'll tell you about a strange event that took place three years ago, when Charles Grodin, the actor, had a late-night show on CNBC, on cable TV. I was asked to go into Miami and participate via satellite hook-up in a program originating in New York City that had both "cold-readers" James Van Praagh and John Edward as guests, at a time before Edward was as well-known as he is now. They were both doing the same tired old act with a live studio audience. As always in such participations, I was at a distinct disadvantage because I was not on-the-scene but instead at a remote location.

I was seated on a stool, outdoors, with a balmy sub-tropical skyline behind me. There was no TV monitor, so though I was being seen by the TV audience, I did not have visual feedback, and had to get all my information via an earpiece. Grodin, the host, told me I'd have a clear 40 seconds at the end of the show to tell the TV audience what I thought had taken place.

First, I spoke to Grodin and asked him to be sure that neither of the "readers" had a chance to speak with the audience members in advance. He assured me that he would do that. When I got "on air," I suggested the "20 Questions Game" scenario, the basis for the "cold reading" process, as a modus for the act that was being shown. Immediately, Grodin showed his colors by interrupting me and denying that any such thing was taking place, and Van Praagh and Edward soared ahead while I sat mute.

Then there was a commercial break, and as soon as the studio audio feed was broken, I heard Grodin screeching at the audio man in the studio, telling him that he wasn't going to change something-or-other, that it was that man's ******* job to do so, and he'd better get his **** together. Grodin apparently threw his own earpiece down, and stalked away.

Grodin is known as having a bad temper and being very difficult to work with. In fact, I've been told, technical folks on his show are known to have walked off when he threw one of his tantrums. On this occasion, through my earpiece, I heard the audio technician expressing very colorful opinions of the host, then I became aware that I was overhearing a conversation between the two guest "psychics" and audience members! During that break, I heard how they got the relationship, first name, and other facts about a deceased person that an audience member wanted to contact! A call of "30 seconds, Mr. Grodin" was heard, and the host returned, still bitching away, to his position on-camera.

The show re-commenced, and guess what? The very first things that Van Praagh and Edward "revealed" to this audience member, were the bits of data they'd extracted during the commercial break!

Let me relate something here. In the U.K. many years ago, there was a very popular "reader" who, during her live shows, occasionally floored her audience with highly accurate and specific declarations to audience members right up in the front row of the auditorium. In a typical reading, she might point to an individual and say, "Are you the man looking for Gladys?" The man would nod, "yes," and she would continue, "Your grandmother, was she?" The man would again agree. She would add, in a questioning tone, "It was a bad fall that she died from, wasn't it?" and there would be another nod of agreement from the tearful subject. The reading would continue, considerably enhanced by this strong beginning.

Now, days before appearing at that auditorium, the reader had held several days of private sessions locally — at very high rates — where individuals had been given the regular one-on-one across-the-table treatment, and bits of personal data had been guessed, developed, and validated. The reader had concluded the sessions by giving each person a free ticket to the public performance, front-row seats, saying that she would see them there, and just might be able to get stronger impressions because the crowd would add to her strength. Of course they showed up, hoping for more information, and they sat in the numbered seats assigned to them. Well, what the auditorium audience never knew was that the man the reader addressed in this example, had been one of those private readees, and the data about his grandmother Gladys who died in a fall downstairs, had already been determined! Her phrasing of the questions to the man, gave the impression to the crowd that this was "new" material for a total stranger, while the man himself treated it as if the reader was merely checking his identity and her recollection of his data. Follow?

It was the same procedure with the two readers on the Grodin show. When they "revealed" the data they'd casually gathered during the commercial break, they similarly couched it in terms that had a far different meaning for the subject, than it did for the audience.

When the end of the Grodin show approached, I got ready to use my 40 seconds to reveal this fact, but Grodin just talked right through the closing of the show, and I sat silently. He was obviously loathe to spoil a successful event by allowing me to do any explaining. His show was canceled about two weeks later, and I harbor the fond notion that I was responsible.....

Very interesting material and more questions about Sylvia Browne are still pouring in from those who viewed the September 3rd broadcast. You might recall this exchange between Larry King and Sylvia, occurring immediately after coming out of a break, very much as though the comment had been suggested to Larry by Sylvia:

LARRY: . . . You do a lot of work in crime?

SYLVIA: Yeah, I'm — in fact I'm working with Stephen Xanthos out of the Rumson, New Jersey, police department right now, on a case that I'm getting ready to close.

KING: On a case?

BROWNE: On a case that I'm getting ready to close.

What a load of drivel! First, there's no such person at the Rumson, New Jersey, police department, and there never has been. There used to be a Xanthos with the Middletown, New Jersey, police, but he was thrown off the force when he and another officer there dragged a young man — not even under arrest, nor charged — out of his home into the street, and beat him up badly, in front of witnesses. And Sylvia is "getting ready to close" a case? Get real!

But there's a reason behind Sylvia making this ridiculous claim: first, it's designed to give the impression that she and the police are working hand-in-glove, and it was supposed to scare me. On one of those "anonymous" Internet web sites that attacks me regularly, there's a story that this police officer sued me and settled out of court for millions. That, too, is a total fiction; no such action ever took place. Sylvia is bringing this up because, despite her vast psychic powers, she chose to believe the fiction and thinks I'm afraid of it being circulated. Hey, Sylvia, wrong again! I was rather a nuisance to officer Xanthos, because I got him into The New York Times as one of the Middletown cops who were regularly harassing young people who passed through that town by stopping and searching them without "probable cause." This was when Bruce Springsteen, who came from Middletown, was just beginning to make his mark, and anyone who liked "that kind of hippy music" was not welcome in that part of New Jersey. Xanthos might have wanted to sue me, but he didn't, because he had no grounds to do so.

So, it appears that this god-fearing, compassionate, angelic, caring, woman has spoken with forked tongue? How can that be? Last week, calling me a "godless bigot with one mission — destruction," Sylvia's Internet page directed readers to one of the character-assassination web sites. We saw that site vanish almost immediately: the Internet folks aren't playing that vicious game. What really offended me was her use of the word, "bigot." Those who know me, are very well aware that I have not a grain of bigotry in my makeup. I'm free of that curse, and I have exhibited that fact over and over again. As a kid, I was beaten up several times for not going along with racist, ethnic, attitudes of those around me — including, to a small degree, my family, I'm ashamed to say — and Sylvia has deeply insulted me by inventing this vicious lie. Well, she's chosen the rules and the battlefield. Now that all that's settled, stand back and stay tuned. I've lots to tell you about Ms. Browne!

In passing, I must tell you that about 80% of the applications we have received from persons who want to be part of the test of Ms. Browne, also contain details - often full details - about the deceased individual, the circumstances of that person's death, pet names, numbers, city names, dates, and other specific evidence that the applicant would consider to be significant! We have to ask these people, "Why do you give all this information?" Remember, I only asked applicants to assure us that they'd lost a loved one within the past year. Here is just an excerpt — only about one-third — of what one applicant sent to me, unsolicited:

My father shot himself in the head within the last year. I had talked to him a few hours before it happened and he seemed ok. My brother-in-law seen him about an hour before it happened and he was ok then also. But he went in his bedroom, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. . . . I don't know why he did it, except for he was mentally ill most of his life, but he always took his medication and handled it. I think what bothers me most is, I have the same mental illness, its hereditary. . . . Does she know that he killed himself? Does she know why? Where is he? My dad believed that if you killed yourself, you would go to hell and not heaven. . . . I have very vivid dreams of him, and I ask him if he's in heaven and he said no. I asked him if he's in hell, he said no. Does she know what this means? I really want to talk with her about my dad. I would not give her leading questions. . . . I'm a creationist. I use [sic] to believe in UFOs, but don't anymore. I do believe in the holocaust, but do not believe 6 million Jews were killed, etc.

Most importantly, we must wonder whether, when these folks write to Ms. Browne to apply for an expensive paid reading ($1,500 an hour!) do they include that sort of data? I have a suspicion that this is a method — one previously unsuspected by me — that might be a factor in the success of a reading. And, if it's true that there is up to a full year waiting period before readings are actually done, surely applicants might tend to forget what they've already so freely offered? A year is also lots of time to do research on an individual, too.....

The last ten days have been spent sending out responses to the storm of e-mail that came in about the supposed Nostradamus predictions of the NYC/Washington terrorist attack. The vultures are at work again.

This is something that happens immediately following every major disaster. It was done following the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion, the death of Princess Di, and most other prominent tragic events. Some juvenile out there manufactures a "new verse" or re-writes an old one that appears to cover the event, and the media immediately pick up on it and promote it. There were several versions of the hoax, some consisting of just one quatrain, the others two full quatrains. All of it was probably written a few hours following the attack, and put into circulation on the Internet. I was interviewed on this event a few dozen times, by reporters from New York to Singapore.

The quote being circulated reads: "In the year of the new century and nine months...." That would be September, 2001. No, Nostradamus wrote, "The year 1999, seventh month..." (Century X, verse 72) Nostradamus did write a verse that contained, "At 45 degrees the sky will burn, fire to approach the great new city...." (Century VI, verse 97) One problem here is that New York City is at 41 degrees north latitude, not 45. Other cities such as Portland and Salem, Oregon, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Rochester, New York, are much closer to 45 degrees north latitude. And, Turin, Italy and Bucharest, Roumania, are also at that latitude. But what about cities that are really at 45 degrees south latitude, or those at 45 degrees east or west longitude? Those don't "almost" fit, so they're ignored.

Also, "the great new city" hardly applies to New York. It's 315 years old! And the fire didn't "approach" the city, it blossomed right in its heart.

This hoax is a means of taking advantage of the grief and dismay that we all feel at this time in history. To those who put it in circulation, it no doubt appears to be a joke; it's not funny, it's cruel, and it's juvenile.

The ABC network has signed a contract with "psychic" George Anderson for a show to be called, "Contact," a one-hour prime-time special that also will double as a pilot for a possible series. They'll have Anderson attempt to contact individuals with whom the general public might be familiar — either dead celebrities, or those who've been involved in headline-making events. (Why am I hearing the name "Marilyn"?) And, NBC is in the early stages of production on an hour-long special featuring veteran "psychic" James Van Praagh. This show will also be celebrity-focused, with Van Praagh helping famous folks talk to deceased loved ones. He'll also travel around the country to "help" relatives of dead folks involved in headline-grabbing events. All this activity is obviously sparked by the success of John Edward and his talking-to-dead-people show.

A recent visitor to the Foundation from Italy was my good friend Piero Angela, who you saw on these pages a few weeks ago. He is involved in reporting on science for the RAI-TV network in his country. Piero expressed his dismay at the present poor quality of American TV, and I could not disagree with him. He brought up glaring examples of pseudoscience and sheer nonsense that embarrassed me, I must admit. With these new witless talking-to-the-dead productions on the horizon, is American television approaching some new peak of vapidity? Just how banal and inane can we get? And how long will the viewing public continue to accept this trash? How deep is the ocean? How high is the sky.....?

Just to somewhat clarify a situation described on the Internet that some of you have — understandably — asked about, consider the following:

Concerning references to the scurrilous web-sites out there that purport to tell "The Truth" about the dreadful man named James Randi, please bear in mind the motives and causes behind these accusations. For years now, there have been accusations of pedophilia (very popular as a sin, currently), prison incarceration, larceny, income tax evasion, membership in the Communist Party (no longer such a horrendous fault), and other peccadillos of assorted kinds, directed at me. They are absolutely false.

Those who oppose me and my work cannot argue against the facts I develop concerning the so-called psychics and other swindlers. They are dismayed and angry at the success of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and have resorted to the only means they have to fight us: defamation, innuendo, lies, and anonymous character assassination.

Rather than deal with all the ridiculous claims they make, I will just say this: in 1986, as a Canadian, I applied to become a citizen of the United States of America, at a time well after all these claimed "crimes and offenses" are supposed to have happened. Obviously, the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service was, and is, well aware of my history, and incorporated that into their consideration of my application; they did a complete checkup on me, as they have always done on all applicants. We would expect nothing less. Following thorough background checks, and two involved questioning sessions, I passed the requirements. I was granted U.S. citizenship and proudly received my naturalization papers in 1987.

Understand this: U.S. Federal law provides that any false or incomplete statement, or a failure to disclose pertinent facts, made by a naturalized U.S. citizen as part of an application process, will result in a withdrawal of that naturalization status, followed by possible imprisonment and most certainly by deportation. If any of the accusations made against me by these detractors were true, I would be subject to an immediate arrest, trial, and deportation. And you can be sure that the villains have enthusiastically pestered the I&NS with this matter.

I leave it to you to come to your own conclusion about the truth of these several poison-pen web sites, run from out of the darkness of anonymity. The grubby little cowards who express their hatred thus, cannot fight in the light of day, or they are exposed as the liars they are. On the other hand, I am here, in the open, available, recognized, and straightforward. Compare. Consider the quality of the enemy, and you will discover the truth of the conflict.

This page-change has been long. Thanks for your patience.

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