Center for Inquiry
: Skeptical Briefs newsletter
: Mar 2004
The Disappearing Writing Guru, Sweetwater, and Chicken McNugget
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One BeforeBarry Beyerstein
As every conscientious skeptic knows, we are obliged to let all but the most patently absurd claimants have their day in court. If we hope to gain the respect of fair-minded occupants of the middle ground in such debates, we must be willing occasionally to conduct tedious and time-consuming tests on some pretty unpromising candidates. Unfortunately, there are some who will cynically take advantage of this willingness to keep an open mind. The bane of the worthy skeptic’s existence is the occult or pseudoscientific entrepreneur who pesters and cajoles his critics into designing and setting up a test, takes credit in the media for being willing to submit to such a grilling, and then bugs out at the last minute, citing some affront, the threadbare “shyness” dodge, or some other lame excuse.
We in the British Columbia Skeptics have been stung a number of times in this way. Our longtime supporters will probably recall the case of Linda Pitney, the Toronto graphologist who surfaced in the wake of The Write Stuff, the book debunking handwriting analysis my brother Dale and I published in 1992. Pitney contacted us via a national radio program we were on. She congratulated us for helping to weed out the many unqualified amateurs, crooks, and charlatans in the graphology business and grandly volunteered to show us what a “scientifically trained” graphologist like herself could accomplish. Dale and I set about designing the testing protocols and Pitney set about milking the media for free publicity for herself, based on her consent to the upcoming trials. Since all claimants must agree in advance that a proposed measure is a fair and adequate test of what they say they can do, they must be involved from the outset. Pitney strung us along for quite a while, gathering more publicity while she dragged things out with increasingly irrelevant quibbles. Once she began attributing our refusal to weaken the experimental controls to bias on our part, it became apparent that she was not going to agree to a decisive test of her abilities and negotiations broke off. Nonetheless, we heard from members of the Ontario Skeptics that Pitney continued to trade for quite some time thereafter on her assertion that she was about to take part in a scientific test to be run by the BC Skeptics.
Our long-suffering friends will probably also recall the infamous case of the Vancouver qi gong master, Mr. Ge. Mr. Ge, a recent immigrant from China, made all the usual claims of this nonsensical sect and offered to back them up with a demonstration before a meeting of the BC Skeptics. We said that he could address the group as he wished, as long as he consented to being tested after his talk. One of his many fanciful declarations was that he could beam his mystical qi energy into pure water, imparting a sweet taste to it. This seemed like the sort of thing that was amenable to a test at one of our meetings, so my then-graduate student Elliot Marchant and I set out to design a double-blind trial. We obtained two vials of distilled water from the Simon Fraser University Chemistry Department. On the night of his talk, Mr. Ge was to have beamed his qi into either (randomly chosen) vial A or vial B. This would be in Elliot’s presence, but out of sight of the audience and me. I was then supposed to administer with an eye dropper to the tongues of audience members a drop of first one then the other liquid, in randomized order. Each participant would have been required to guess which of the pair was the “irradiated,” and hence now sweet, droplet. At the end of the trial, the code was to be broken and we would have seen if the audience did any better than chance in telling which vial had received Mr. Ge’s ministrations. We’ll never know the result, because Mr. Ge didn’t live up to his end of the bargain. We agreed that he would have forty-five minutes to tell us anything he wanted us to know about the history and achievements of qi gong, to be followed by the test, whose exact procedures he had promised to follow. After rambling on for more than two hours in the most disjointed and vacuous lecture I think our group has ever had to suffer through, Mr. Ge announced that it was now too late in the evening; he was exhausted and wouldn’t be able to do the test after all. His qi was just too drained to proceed. We remained civil in the face of this cop-out and he promised to make himself available for testing at a later date. We phoned him repeatedly after that, but there was always some reason why he just couldn’t make it. We’re still waiting and he’s still taking credit for having taken on the skeptics on their own turf.
Which brings me to our latest drubbing. One day last year I received a phone call at my office. A Mr. Frank McL. (we’ll call him “Big Mac” for short—I promised him anonymity) wanted to tell me about the miraculous diagnostic abilities of his psychic teenaged son (we’ll call him “McNugget”). Apparently, several local physicians (none of whom had agreed to be quoted or contacted, of course) had been impressed with McNugget’s astounding ability to diagnose illnesses, not only from a brief visual inspection of a fully-clothed patient, but even from a photo of said sufferer! Now, I get several crank phone calls a week and I was rushed and harried that day, as usual. In my invariably polite way though, I declined to investigate his son because, I said, I had seen too many failed demonstrations of this sort in the past. Big Mac responded in a hurt voice, saying that apparently I wasn’t the fair-minded skeptic he’d been told I was, because I was obviously too closed-minded to examine the evidence when it was being offered. Bang! He had me. Citing (real and pressing) time constraints, I said I wouldn’t be able to get to McNugget until after the current Semester-from-Hell was over. He said that would be okay and that he’d call to remind me (which he did practically on a weekly basis, by phone or e-mail).
During one of these pestering phone calls, Big Mac suggested we do a preliminary test, because McNugget could diagnose from photographs too, as he reminded me. I asked if he needed a full body likeness, but Big Mac said no, a head-and-shoulders one would do. So I suggested that they go to the Simon Frazer University Web site and download my photo and see what McNugget could come up with. Big Mac agreed and I gently resisted his efforts to pump me for a few clues as to what kinds of infirmities I might be subject to—he did manage to worm out of me the useful admission that I was in pretty good health overall though. I kicked myself afterwards for falling for that sucker punch. When Big Mac got back to me by e-mail a few days later, McNugget’s “diagnoses” were even more vague and open to retrofitting than I had expected. To the best of my recollection, this was the first time Big Mac had also asserted that his son could heal as well as diagnose. Here’s what he had had to say:
Recall that I had already told them I was a pretty healthy puppy. The things McNugget thought were wrong with me were way wide of the mark, even allowing for his generous built-in fudge factor. He didn’t identify the minor complaints I do have (which will have to remain secret in case I am dumb enough to get drawn into this kind of mug’s game again at some future date). Big Mac seemed quite surprised that I wasn’t impressed and perhaps I didn’t let him down as gently as I ought to have if I had really wanted to retain their cooperation. At any rate, I told him we were preparing a proper in-person test session and we began to discuss procedures and how the test could be worked around McNugget’s school schedule. Big Mac was quite concerned that his son’s gifts not be revealed to his school chums for fear of ridicule, hence the anonymity rule. Graduate student Ian Webb, my brother Dale, and I had begun assembling a group of people with various unobtrusive afflictions. At this point, I detected the first note of worry in Big Mac’s voice—he obviously wasn’t prepared for what a genuine test would entail.
Unbeknownst to me, however, Big Mac had already begun scheming behind my back. Though I might not have been moving as quickly as the Mac clan had wished, I had very firmly agreed to get the test rolling—and had begun to do so. Nonetheless, Big Mac decided to contact Dr. Bruce Clayman, SFU’s Vice President for Research, to complain. In his e-mail, he impugned the intellectual curiosity and questioned the open-mindedness of certain un-named SFU faculty. Luckily, Bruce Clayman is a friend and an ardent supporter of the skeptical movement. An eminent physicist before becoming vice president, Bruce and I had actually collaborated on some research years ago. He suspected immediately to whom Big Mac was alluding and forwarded the Big Mac attack to me. I replied to Bruce that I had in fact set things in motion before this had been sent to him and he responded to Big Mac with a marvelously terse rejoinder, copied to me. It was fun watching Big Mac try to squirm out of this embarrassment with one lame excuse after another, but it was sobering to think that, had his missive not ended up on the desk of a good friend and ally in the senior administration, his duplicity could have had unfortunate consequences for my reputation in the university.
At this point, enter McNugget’s mother, MacMom. Even though Big Mac had been a bit slow on the uptake regarding what a valid test would entail, MacMom had quickly sensed that McNugget might be getting in over his head. My less than enthusiastic endorsement of the preliminary “test” results had obviously set off her alarms. Believing that the best defense is a good offense, MacMom phoned to demand that I justify the enormous privilege I was being granted in getting a peek at their gifted son. Her holier-than-thou demeanor at this late stage was rather off-putting, but I decided to ignore her rude and condescending manner. MacMom said she had done some checking on me on the Internet (finally!), and she wasn’t quite sure I was the sort of fair witness they had been looking for. I seemed terribly negative and (horrors!) biased, she said. MacMom seemed inordinately interested in whether I had any religious or spiritual beliefs, as if that mattered for what they had been persistently begging me to do for them. Her son was a sensitive soul, she said, and she wasn’t sure he could perform adequately under the cold-hearted, sterile conditions we were imposing. All we had asked (and they initially agreed to) was that McNugget present himself at our lab where we would have assembled fifteen or twenty volunteers with properly-diagnosed and documented medical conditions—ones that would have no obvious outward signs like an arm in a sling or a death-rattle cough. McNugget would not be allowed to pump them for information, just look them over, as the MacFamily had repeatedly assured me would be sufficient. McNugget would then be asked to check off for each of our volunteers those items that he thought applied to each person, from a very specific symptom checklist we had devised. I had also insisted that the whole proceeding be videotaped, to deal with the expected attempts to wiggle out of the results with ad hoc pettifogging at a later date. MacMom and I sparred a bit more on the phone and she said they’d have to “think it over.” That is, decide whether to renege on what Big Mac had already firmly agreed to.
A few days later, I received the following e-mail from Big Mac:
So, after hectoring me for months, demanding my participation, the MacFamily backed out, claiming they are the open-minded ones and I am the one who refuses to challenge his entrenched beliefs. The following was my reply:
For some reason, I never got a reply.
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