August 17, 2007
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PECKING AT THE ANKLES OF A GIANT
A man named Neil Spencer � the official astrologer for the Observer in the UK, so not an intellect with whom to trifle! � has written an hilariously poor article, critical of the new Richard Dawkins two-part TV series, which debuted this last Monday and concludes on the 20th. Any in-depth review of the Spencer article would take more time than I can afford, but I'll touch a few of the highlights. In summary, it's the usual display of ignorance on the part of a confirmed woo-woo artist. It�s to be seen at observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2146775,00.html.
Spencer takes great delight in pointing out that both Galileo and Robert Boyle showed interest in astrology, thus simultaneously claiming to belong to their fraternity and scolding Dawkins for implying that these giants of science saw a Truth to which he remains impervious; similarly, Spencer takes refuge in citing Isaac Newton�s pursuit of alchemy � ignoring the fact that one of the greatest minds of our species existed in a period before chemical transmutation of elements was known to be beyond reach.
The author exults over his own ability to experience wonder "when contemplating nature or the night sky." The implication, of course, is that no one with a scientific point of view can have such delight. No, Mr. Spencer, our enjoyment of such phenomena is far better, the more we understand their true quality; we need not summon up the frills and the mythology, the pixies and the “vibrations,” to enjoy a universe with still so many exciting questions to be answered, and we know that those answers are to be found by a systematic examination of the evidence that presents itself � when sought after.
Says Spencer, "Scientism, of course, hates meaning. "This statement of his � by itself � establishes his ignorance. He uses "scientism" here as a demeaning term for "science," then continues to rant on with the usual erroneous summing-up of science�s present understanding of the world and how it works. He cannot be ignorant of the real position of science; he merely chooses to be so, to support his stance.
He writes, "…there are frauds, scamsters and incompetents in the mind/body/spirit arena, but the same is true of applied science." Yes, Mr. Spencer, but you fail to note that science � unlike your chosen flummery � is not only willing to correct its failings, but eager to do so. No matter how much astrology fails, and it fails unfailingly, we never hear of astrologers opting to reverse their convictions.
Turning to the tried-and-true ploy of misquotation, Neil Spencer quotes Richard Dawkins as saying, referring to the poet Yeats, "… he wrote a lot of pretty words, whether they mean anything is another matter." This, in Spencer's translation, turns into an accusation that Dawkins is referring to the poet's work as, "pretty but meaningless words."
Spencer refers to Dawkins� view of the world as, "one-eyed.” Sir, I assure you that Richard Dawkins has both eyes wide open, he seldom blinks, and he looks upon individuals like yourself as risible targets � especially because you specify in your article that you take pride in being classed with such "esteemed company" as “Dr. Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital and the Queen�s physician." Even a cursory examination of the state of the House of Windsor would indicate that perhaps such an appointment might not have been wise.
But Spencer is not merely commenting on Dawkins. He�s trying to neutralize the fact that he has studiously avoided accepting Dawkins� challenge to perform a definitive test of the power of horoscopes, a test which he has rejected. Dawkins is therefore a serious and present threat to Spencer and his “art.”
I rest my case.
Before we leave this subject of belief in nonsense, please go to tinyurl.com/2r98ox to see an article by UK critic Charlie Brooker in the Guardian which sums up very neatly and exactly my opinions and stance on the matter. Dawkins is right to be impatient and angry with those who ignore the substantial peril that confronts reason today. I and the JREF stand alongside these warriors who fight nonsense, and they have our unqualified support. Bear that in mind when considering your support for this Foundation.
Back last December, we ran an item on one of the most juvenile claims we�ve ever seen about any product � coming close to homeopathy, but only slightly less silly. It involved a skin spray that would protect consumers against cell phone radiation. The cosmetics company � a French firm named Clarins � advertised that “electromagnetic rays” from handsets can cause skin wrinkles, and that its “Expertise 3P lotion” would protect the user from these nasty emanations. A 100ml spray bottle of this juice sells for �50 � that�s $30 a fluid ounce! I kid you not. Go to that item at randi.org/jr/2006-12/120106dumb.html#i1 and learn…
Alerted by UK reader Ian MacMillan, we see that the UK Advertising Standards Authority has just ruled that those ads should be banned because Clarins� claims are not backed up by evidence. Seems, to me, like an excellent reason. The Expertise 3P lotion spray was sold with these encouraging words:
If electromagnetic waves can penetrate walls, imagine what they can do to your skin. Today, electromagnetic waves generated by a host of modern day electronic devices join a list of well-known pollutants which can damage skin. For the first time, Clarins Research reveals the link between exposure to artificial electromagnetic waves and accelerated skin aging.
“Clarins Research” also claimed that its product could protect from the effects of other pollutants, including car exhaust fumes, industrial pollution, acid rain, and synthetic carpeting. But not, apparently, from terminal gullibility. The cosmetics firm, however, insisted that their claims were "factual and informative," and based on “years of research.”
Says reader MacMillan:
This is interesting, because back in April this year I submitted pretty much the same complaint [as shown in SWIFT] about the website and point of sale material of the Clarins spray, only to receive the following reply from Barrie Smillie of the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency) at www.asa.org.uk/asa/
To which you [Randi] replied:
I had complained about the Clarins spray [by giving specific Code references and asking whether any peer-reviewed tests of the Clarins 3P Spray had been carried out.]
All's well that ends well, I suppose, but this still means that people can say what they like on the internet and in point of sale material, without facing censure from the ASA. This ruling came about only because Clarins placed an advert making the same claims in the press, which would be covered by the ASA code.
All too true, Mr. MacMillan. Ethics and honesty take back seats when the profit margin is being considered. Clarins got a rebuff this time, but we can be sure that their spin-doctors and merchandising experts are now busily casting about for another way they can sell nonsense…
Reader “Joe Kerr” sends us this:
I've been following your career for some time now. Before learning of you several years ago, I had always suspected psychics and such were frauds, but could never figure out how they managed to seemingly know things. Thanks to your videos, books and web site, I've found a ton of valuable information that I have used over the years to argue the skeptic point of view. So it is with great pleasure that I would like to relate to you the happenings of just a couple of days ago. It's somewhat long, but hopefully you'll find it worth your time to read it. And I also hope you enjoy reading it just as much as I enjoy telling it.
A couple of days ago I was in town getting groceries. There happens to be a pagan/mystickal/woo-woo store on the same block as the grocery store. Outside, there was a platform with a lady on it with a large crowd gathered around. After tossing my groceries in my trunk, I wandered over to see what was going on. One of the local "psychics" was putting on a show. She was doing the same old worn-out routine: calling out vague names, spotting a person in the audience that seemed to be attracted to the name, and pointing in that general direction. You know the rest.
As I watched, I got the idea to have a bit of fun, and the following ensued:
Ok, it's a common name. Odds are someone in this audience is going to know a Bill, Billy, or William. Then it dawns on me: I know a Billy! So, remembering the Doris Collins video (available on Youtube) I knew exactly what to do!
As this so-called psychic was searching the audience for a face that might know a Bill, I stood there with a dumbfounded look on my face and stared at her, hoping I looked as if a connection had been made. And guess what? It worked like a charm. From the best of my recollection, the conversation went like this:
Now that she's clued in to an older gentleman, which apparently has (or had) a deep hold on me, she rushes full steam ahead.
And I walked away.
Mr. Randi, I hope you enjoyed reading about this stunt as much as I enjoyed pulling it. And I also wish you many, many more years of very entertaining debunking. May you bring others as much pleasure (and education) as you have brought me. I'd also like to add thanks to my old drama teacher, Mrs. Householder. Without her training, I would have never been able to pull this off. I'm still in contact with her, and I know she'd get a big kick out of seeing this on your site.
This communication arrived from a reader who will remain anonymous, and the name of the subjects � a recently-deceased man and his still-living wife � will not be revealed, to spare his wife embarrassment. The reader writes:
Not sure where to begin. I thought you might find this interesting, as some of the only information I could Google on [the subject] came from your website. So I would have to conclude that you knew who he was. I run a small computer repair call-out company. Last week I received a phone call from [the subject�s wife] who seemed fairly distressed, judging from her voice. The conversation ran something like this:
"I'm worried my computer isn't secure." Not a problem, I thought. "Easily solved with the right software and settings." But she protested, "I've had people staying over, they've been trying to steal my sensitive information." "Really?" I said, taken by surprise.
"Yes, I'm doing important research and people are trying to get hold of it at all costs." "Are you a scientist?" I inquired, with much hope that I might actually meet someone doing cutting-edge research into the universe.
"Heavens no, I'm continuing my late husbands work." I could only guess what, but I didn't like to ask.
"I'm receiving information from my dead husband. You can understand now why all these scientists are after me." Turned out I didn't have to ask!
At this point I switched to dry humoring. We booked a time, and the following day I went over. I knew I was in for “one of those” when she led me through to her office, which was so amazingly messy I could only imagine what any surface looked like. Some of the books looked like they might contain credible facts, but most were colorful and glossy, with subjects relating to psychics and the paranormal, which worried me. I checked that the window was open and made a guess at how long it would take me to scale a mountain of books with an old woman holding my ankles.
After only 10 minutes talking, my cheeks were hurting from suppressing a hearty laugh. The problem was not what she was saying � well okay, it was � but more that she was so inconsistent.
"I can't tell anybody about what I'm doing � it's super secret and will change the world."Then 2 minutes later..."Let me tell you what I'm doing."
She said she receives his thoughts every Sunday and types them up to go on her website. As I was leaving, we passed through the kitchen, and although it was immaculate, I couldn't help but notice the hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of pharmaceuticals on the worktop. I didn't manage to read any of the box labels, they could well have been herbal. But still, I draw my own conclusions. Not even a pharmacy carries that much medication.
Then we walked through the living room, and she turned to an urn I had completely failed to notice in the middle of the room. She patted it and said, "Just popping out for a bit, dear." In my uneducated opinion, I would have to diagnose: paranoia, delusions (including of grandeur), post-traumatic shock, and finally, she's completely insane. She claims on her website � I had fun reading that one � that her husband didn't even die, and she thinks the death certificate, which is online for all to see, is wrong.
However if she is sane, and I'm just out-of-touch with reality myself, then she said the date to watch out for is September 11th, 2007. Something big is going to happen, and don't go to Los Angeles any time soon, as there is going to be an earthquake.
I survived to tell the tale. But as you may guess from my tone, I may be one of the biggest skeptics alive, and I tend to question everything. I feel sorry for this woman, but then again, I'm sure that these people do it for attention, or for a sense of belonging to a group or purpose bigger than themselves, when there really are no big answers, only big annoying questions.
Anyway, I trust this email has gone to someone who cares, I won't be writing to anyone else. I just felt like sharing my experience in the home of a psychic warrior.
My correspondent sent a subsequent note:
I forgot to mention, there was a second lady present the whole time, but she barely spoke, she was dressed in almost completely see-through clothing, and wore a lot of jingly bangles. She interjected occasionally to feed into [the subject�s wife�s] fantasy. A hanger-on perhaps, or someone conning her out of her cash…
Do you know anything about a man named [anonymous]? He is trying to convince [the subject�s wife] that a wireless laptop will help her receive spirit communications. Personally I don't think I can get hold of wireless adapters with that capability!
No, I was not familiar with the man named, but I�m watching for September 11th to arrive…!
From a recent UPI news flash relating to a UFO museum:
The museum�s Web site describes the incident as “the crash of an alleged flying saucer, the recovery of debris and bodies, and the ensuing cover up by the military.”
I think this would have been more correct as:
The museum�s Web site describes the incident as “the alleged crash of a flying saucer, the recovery of debris and bodies, and the seeming cover up by the military.”
CENTER FOR INQUIRY ANNUAL AWARDS
The Independent Investigations Group (IIG) at the Center for Inquiry/Los Angeles has announced their annual awards recognizing the advancement of science in movies and television, and people in the entertainment field who promote scientific knowledge and values. Says the Executive Director of the Center, James Underdown:
It�s time we acknowledged those film and television producers, writers, directors, and others in entertainment who have advanced the cause of science and helped expose superstition and other nonsense. This awards program is our small token of gratitude to those productions and people that have made a positive contribution in this area.
The awards presentation will be held on Saturday, August 18, at the Steve Allen Theater at the Center for Inquiry-West at 4773 Hollywood Blvd, at 1 pm. The awards are presented in two categories, good and bad. “Good” movies and TV shows are those that have promoted scientific values. “Bad” movies and shows are those that incorrectly represent science, promote pseudoscience, or help foster belief in the supernatural, paranormal, or other nonsense.
The winners of “Good” awards for 2006 are:
“Psych,” USA Network, Episode: Pilot.
“The Simpsons,” Fox TV, Episode #1721, “The Monkey Suit”
The winners of “Bad” awards for 2006 are:
“The Montel Williams Show” � for episodes featuring Sylvia Browne
“Psychic Detectives,” Court TV
In addition, the IIG announces the induction into their Hall of Honor of both Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weiss) and Carl Sagan as individuals from the entertainment field, for their significant lifetime contribution of promoting scientific knowledge and/or exposing charlatans and hoaxers, for the benefit of the public.
For more information: contact James Underdown at (323) 666-9797 ext. 101, or JimU@CFIWest.org.
THE LATEST POPOFF PUFFERY
Reader Paul Christus informs us:
Peter Popoff says on his television show that he has the key to success and healing: a small plastic packet filled with Miracle Spring Water. I just saw his new ad and now he�s offering Miracle Spring Water in a "Larger Size." I guess that means either more or bigger miracles. I can't decide which.
THAT DAMN CAT
Referring to last week�s item at randi.org/jr/2007-08/081007reason.html#i3, reader Steve Mann, who tells us he�s “catless in New York,” writes of a possible angle to the story:
I can think of one reason the cat seems to do what people claim: If you weren�t at death�s door and got a visit from the Death Cat, wouldn�t you beat it off with all your might? Only those too far gone to repel this vile harbinger of doom will have the dubious pleasure of its company long enough for anyone else to notice, thus skewing the stats.
Science and reason march on… Thanks, Steve.
THAT WEIRD KOREAN OBSESSION
Re our item at randi.org/jr/2007-03/032307tx.html#i10 reader Jon Dunbar in Korea tells us:
I e-mailed you a few months ago at the beginning of the Fan Death season in Korea. As you recall, it's the pseudoscientific belief that sleeping in an enclosed room with a fan on is fatal. This year we have had the usual number of fan deaths, with the truly hot weather yet to arrive. Months ago, a group of Korean men attempted suicide by locking themselves in a hotel room and turning on the fan. They survived the first night, and on the second night one of them chickened out and turned off the fan, which is attributed with saving their lives. Unfortunately there is no English source for this remarkably ridiculous story.
Korean broadcaster KBS recently aired a daring report questioning the validity of fan death. A translation has been provided by the folks of Korea Beat at: koreabeat.com/?p=184. Here are some interesting excerpts from the transcript:
Quoting from an observer:
Don�t ask me. I, too, read it several times…!
People say that the pressure difference created above your nose will make it difficult to breathe. And many people are worried that fans will diminish the amount of air for breathing. Another quotation:
The amount of air is limited but machines stir it all up and so no matter how little oxygen there is, it poses a danger. Here the fan causes temperatures to lower so that there is a risk of death by hypothermia.
To test these claims, KBS ran a single test and concluded that fan death is, to quote yourself, “woo-woo." Three healthy men were put in separate rooms, first where nothing was moving, then later in rooms with fans and air conditioning turned on, and their conditions were carefully monitored as they slept. In the motionless rooms the sleeping mens' internal oxygen levels were measured to be 90% and, perhaps due to the heat, they were not able to get more than 83% deep, efficient sleep. When they slept with fans turned on, the men had a 94% oxygen level, a gradual increase inside their bodies, and the rate of deep sleep was also higher, at 85%.
With the air conditioners turned on, the oxygen levels stayed steady at 94% while the rate of deep sleep was the best at 95%.KBS concluded that fans do not suck out oxygen. If in fact fans do move so quickly that the face is deprived of oxygen, then on windy days or in a moving car with open windows people ought to suffocate also.
Are you still with me? It's nothing we couldn't have assumed based on our own folk knowledge of physics. The shocking part is yet to come. Read some of the reactions of alarmed netizens to this public service announcement.
A quotation from a victim of this dreadful influence who saw the KBS show:
Umm, the boozing had nothing to do with this, huh? And facing the wall is better? Why…?
Skeptics in Korea are starting to speak up, but this is one scrappy pseudoscientific superstition.
MORE MOON MADNESS
Following up on last week�s lead item, recent UK police work in Sussex seems to verify my observation that a full Moon facilitates anti-social behavior, which they find rises noticeably on the brightest nights, though they don�t seem to recognize that the simple presence of more illumination makes crime easier. They just characterize the facts as, “too striking to dismiss as coincidence,” after comparing the number of violent crimes recorded in the region last year with the date of each full moon, and discovering “a distinct correlation” between the two factors.
They noted, too, that ambulance personnel say they�ve also noticed a similar correlation.
A 2000 study by German scientists also claimed that the full Moon seemed to bring on a rise in “binge drinking.” Most of their drunks had been caught during the five-day full moon cycle, but again there was no reference to the fact that, not only were drunks more visible in better light, but they were easier to catch! My discovery is being ignored!
But the woo-woo crowd has much to offer on such a hare-brained idea, as usual. Jonathan Cainer, (see randi.org/jr/2006-01/010606netherlands.html#i11) the Daily Mail's official astrologer, sent forth from his perch atop Mount Strange, this thick slice of wisdom:
The ocean tides rise and fall with the moon and so do the tides of human emotion. At new moon our inner seas are deep but still. At full moon it is as if they are being furiously whipped up by a wind. Full moon aggression can, however, be turned into motivation. That's why many people achieve more during a full moon. But the reason why we have the word "lunatic" is because people famously go crazy when the moon is full. So, now that we have official confirmation of how a full moon can provoke violent crime, the only solution is to give the moon an “Asbo.” It's clearly inciting people to disobey the law and behave in a reckless manner.
In the UK, an Asbo is a civil order made against a person who has been shown to have engaged in anti-social behavior. As in following football games, even in broad daylight… Or when a homeopathic remedy is withheld…
MORE SOUTH AFRICAN WOO-WOO
Still fiercely resisting common sense and rationality in favor of superstition, South Africa pursues its path of retreat from the real world. Reader Paul Roberts tells us:
Recently the deputy Health minister has been sacked, ostensibly for making an overseas trip to an AIDS conference without the sanction of the State President, well known woo-woo, Thabo Mbeki. It actually appears that while her boss, Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang, renowned for her beetroot and garlic AIDS “cure,” has been in hospital getting a liver transplant (with or without the help of medicinal vegetables, I wonder), the deputy minister has actually been getting on with the job of distributing anti-retrovirals, etc. Silly woman! What was she thinking?
The full story can be read at: news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6938178.stm
Reader Martin Delaney, in Canada, also commented on this matter:
It gets worse every week. This set off a world wide campaign of petitions and institutional letters to President Mbeki demanding that he reverse the firing of the Deputy Health Minister, the most sane person in his government on the subject of AIDS. She has been fired for “not being a team player.” In other words, for not accepting his personal views and medical quackery as the last word on AIDS. This travesty is an incredible insult to all those who fought and died for an end to apartheid, only to discover today “Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”
I guess they did get fooled again.
An anonymous reader observes, re randi.org/jr/2007-08/081007reason.html#i8:
I had to laugh at the badge shown on your pages � “Certified Warm Former.” By the simple transposition of two letters, it could be changed to something useful � “Certified Worm Farmer.” Whether as a green method of making good quality garden compost, or to provide bait for anglers, worm farming is certainly a far more useful occupation than pointlessly ruining perfectly good cutlery.
Love Swift, keep up the good work.
During my recent trip to Japan for a test of a claim on the JREF million-dollar prize, I was delighted to have a pair of visitors call by at the Tokyo studio � Bona Ueki and Parte Koshi � old friends from �way back who have entertained audiences all over the world for the last 30 years. They�re known professionally as “The Napoleons,” the Japanese equivalent of our own Penn & Teller duo. I�ve worked with them on several occasions at conventions of magicians (yes, even we have such gatherings!) and they�ve always “brought the house down.” They�re still busy amazing their fans, and not slowing down one bit!
IN THE WOO-WOO WAY
Reader Chuck Darwin comments:
The hucksters behind the QLink Pendant claim that it
Apparently, some scientists and engineers think �69.99 [US$140] is a fair price for a necklace consisting of a copper coil and a zero-ohm resistor � neither of which are actually connected to anything. The inventor claims that the QLink does not use electronics components “in a conventional electronic way” yet it "increases your capacity to function in EMF saturated environments." I guess golfers will buy anything that promises an improved score. It's the perfect accessory for my new Faraday suit.
My brother was sent one for free, and I just had a close look at the thing... it's hilariously science-free.
In any case, as several readers pointed out, a “zero-ohm resistor” would bring an absolutely certain Nobel Prize and perpetual motion. I�ll settle for the resistor, connected or not…
GELLER AND ANGEL TEAMED
Reader Robin Kuschniersch informs us:
I'm a member of the "Magischer Zirkel von Deutschland," the German Magic Circle. Yesterday, I got the new issue of our association's monthly published magazine "MAGIE."
Here's an excerpt taken from the editorial (!):
Much too euphoric, in my opinion, for a magician's magazine. I'm really afraid that the German Magic Circle might support the whole thing, just as the Israeli club did.
Your life will not get boring in the next years...
Thank you, Robin. For two weeks now, I�ve been inundated by notices of this impending program, about which I�ve been kept informed by insiders who are rather astonished at NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman�s decision to sign such a deal. I received a call from Criss Angel assuring me that he does not intend to endorse as “supernatural” anything that Geller or the others might choose to do, but I don�t know how much choice he�ll have in that respect… Why NBC has agreed to cast the 3-trick-pony to head up this show, I cannot tell. I guess we�ll just have to sit back and watch the train wreck…
I originally contracted to be in the NYC area October 14th to speak for the “NYASK” group, at which time I would have been available to perform Mr. Jack Myers� challenge, which I have already accepted as outlined at randi.org/jr/2007-04/041307mag.html#i5, if this would have been a suitable date for Mr. Myers to be present. In effect, I would be � once again � essentially poisoning myself by taking a massive overdose of sleeping tablets, as I�ve done several times before in various parts of the world. Not to worry. These are homeopathic sleeping pills, which of course have no active ingredients and work by suggestion only. Mr. Myers has agreed to donate $1,000 to the JREF if I survive the ordeal… Any yawning you might see from me would only be from boredom, not from the ingestion of the pills, I assure you.
However, I�ve now had to cancel that date, since NYASK has run into problems with the arrangements. As soon as I can get to NYC, I�ll be snapping up those pills, count on it…
A new skeptics group is forming up in New York City, so I�m hoping that they might be able to get me there for the pill-popping event… Mr. Myers has gone back to “holding” mode…
Go to: youtube.com/v/FYGeuPcKdko. Hallelujah! Here�s a definitive, double-blind, almost-perfect, 4-minute/43-second, video clip from Monday�s Dawkins program, of a test by Professor Chris French examining the dowsing phenomenon. I hasten to add that I refer to it as “almost-perfect” because I feel that they should have included (a) an “open” test � a preliminary one in which the targets were to be clearly seen, to show that the dowsing powers were working on that occasion, and (b) a signed agreement of approval of the protocol, set-up, conditions, atmospheric variations, magnetic fields, etc., etc., should have been obtained in advance from each dowser…
Please tune in to see Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists, on the CBS News program "CBS Sunday Morning" this coming Sunday, August 19, 2007, airing at 9:00 AM ET; check your local listings. Ellen will be discussing the latest wave of popular books on atheism, and the role that religion and atheism now plays in the USA. Other guests will include Julia Sweeney, Christopher Hitchens, and Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero.
I hope that our readers will tune in and then send their comments to CBS-TV at www.cbs.com/info/user_services/fb_global_form.shtml
And with great pride and delight…
The 2007 JREF Scholarships winners have been selected. And they are
For a detailed bio please visit the JREF Scholarship page Randi.org/scholarships
©James Randi Educational Foundation
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