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SWIFT November 2, 2007 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

Incredible Naivety?, Is CNN Serious?, More “Phenomenon”, News Flash, Re the Cable Nonsense, Popoff Does Rather Well, Useless Woo-Woo Therapy, Ignorance Prevails, It’s Still Nonsense, You’re Kidding – I Hope, Nietzche at a Séance, and In Closing…

Zimbabwe

When spirit medium Nomatter Tagarira, 35, of Zimbabwe announced that she could magically cause refined diesel oil to come out of a rock just by striking it with her staff, the ministers in President Robert Mugabe’s Government apparently believed her, and they gave her five billion Zimbabwean dollars in cash – worth US$3.5 million at the start of the year, but now worth one seven-hundredth of that – for this fuel bonanza. President Mugabe had already come up with a clever scheme of simply printing money to end inflation, so this was no stretch of the Zimbabwean imagination, I guess.

The woman was also given a farm, as well as food and services that included a round-the-clock armed guard on the magical rock located 60 miles from Harare, the capital city. A year passed, and the officials actually realized they had been deceived! Ms. Tagarira is now awaiting trial on charges of fraud. Court papers said that over fifteen months, until July of this year, the enchantress continued to convince Cabinet ministers, ruling party politicians and top army and police officers of Zimbabwe that by striking the rock with her staff she could produce enough fuel to supply the country for the next century. It was discovered that this was an exaggeration…

Table of Contents
  1. Incredible Naivety?

  2. Is CNN Serious?

  3. More “Phenomenon”

  4. News Flash

  5. Re the Cable Nonsense

  6. Popoff Does Rather Well

  7. Useless Woo-Woo Therapy

  8. Ignorance Prevails

  9. It’s Still Nonsense

  10. You’re Kidding – I Hope

  11. Nietzche at a Séance

  12. In Closing…



INCREDIBLE NAIVETY?

Zimbabwe

When spirit medium Nomatter Tagarira, 35, of Zimbabwe announced that she could magically cause refined diesel oil to come out of a rock just by striking it with her staff, the ministers in President Robert Mugabe’s Government apparently believed her, and they gave her five billion Zimbabwean dollars in cash – worth US$3.5 million at the start of the year, but now worth one seven-hundredth of that – for this fuel bonanza. President Mugabe had already come up with a clever scheme of simply printing money to end inflation, so this was no stretch of the Zimbabwean imagination, I guess.

The woman was also given a farm, as well as food and services that included a round-the-clock armed guard on the magical rock located 60 miles from Harare, the capital city. A year passed, and the officials actually realized they had been deceived! Ms. Tagarira is now awaiting trial on charges of fraud. Court papers said that over fifteen months, until July of this year, the enchantress continued to convince Cabinet ministers, ruling party politicians and top army and police officers of Zimbabwe that by striking the rock with her staff she could produce enough fuel to supply the country for the next century. It was discovered that this was an exaggeration…

How was this oil caused to come out of the rock? Well, according to the police, last year Ms. Tagarira had discovered a large abandoned tank of diesel. She laid pipes from this tank to a point at the bottom of the hill, and arranged that when she struck a rock with her stick, an assistant at the top of the hill would open the tap and fuel would pour out. From then on, after the tank ran dry, she would purchase more diesel oil from lorry drivers and keep it flowing that way. When the government finally decided to conduct an official investigation, however, they dispatched a large “task force” of politicians and members of the security forces, led by the deputy commissioner of police. That task force reported to Mr Mugabe’s politburo, the most powerful body in the country, that the liquid appearing at the rock had been put into trucks, and that they had driven off without any problem. Then a second “task force” of ministers was sent by the politburo a month later, and the ruse ended. Perhaps there was at least one smart person with this new group, since the witch disappeared and was arrested later this month.

A local lawyer who wisely asked not to be identified, commented:

It is not the woman who ought to be arrested, it is the idiots who authorized this criminal waste of public money.

You think…?




IS CNN SERIOUS?

Reader Joshua Zelinsky is shocked at CNN’s willingness to tout what appears to be a serious item about “presences” in houses, written at a sophomoric level. He writes:

The level of credulity combined with religious bigotry of this article is really appalling:

If natural explanations cannot be found, and it’s determined that there is indeed a presence in your house, the investigators will likely suggest you get in touch with a family minister so he or she can come to the house and to pray for the soul of the spirit that is present. This is not an "exorcism," but simply an attempt to get the ghost to leave in peace.

That makes so much sense, because everyone is a Protestant with a "family minister.” If one assumes charitably that they mean clergy of any religion, then it becomes even more incoherent; it implies that a clergyman of any religion will be able to do ghostbusting by "praying for the soul of the departed," never minding that all these religions are mutually contradictory. I’m appalled that a news source that I generally consider to be reliable is willing to publish this sort of junk.

Joshua wrote CNN:

I’m appalled that this sort of drivel would be on the front page of CNN. Amidst all the problems and news and we need to have a credulous article about how to deal with ghosts? This article doesn’t even mention the possibility that these entities don’t exist at all. If you think you’ve ruled out all possible natural explanations for a phenomenon you shouldn’t be living with it, you should be calling James Randi. The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a one million dollar prize to anyone who can give, under controlled conditions, evidence of the paranormal. See Million Dollar Challenge

If you think your house is haunted you should try to go for this prize. If it's haunted, you’ll be famous and a million bucks richer. I wonder why people don’t go for the prize?

Joshua, that would ruin a perfectly good – but trashy – Halloween story.




MORE “PHENOMENON”

Reader Jon Waller comments:

A little more on the "Phenomenon" phenomenon. The show is the subject of the editor’s note in last week’s issue of "TV Week" magazine, a British Columbia publication that has TV listings (well, with a name like that, what else did you expect?) and reviews. After a brief description of what the show is all about and a quote from a network VP, the column reads:

While [Criss] Angel has never made any claim that his jaw-dropping stunts (did you ever see him levitate from one building to another?) are anything other than carefully crafted illusions, Geller has been accused of passing off a repertoire of cheap sleight-of-hand parlor tricks as actual paranormal powers. In fact, after a clip from "The Successor" showed up on YouTube in which Geller appeared to use a hidden magnet to move a compass, magician/skeptic James Randi (who’s made debunking Geller and other so-called psychics his life’s work) appeared on "The View" to perform the exact same trick while demonstrating how it was done.

Whether viewers will want to journey into this murky abyss each week is anybody’s guess, although my crystal ball tells me "Phenomenon" will be anything but.

Look at this shot from the 1997 Geller choose-an-ESP-symbol trick, at which David Frost was the presenter: this is exactly the same setup as last week’s NBC “Phenomenon” show, with the star symbol in the expected #2 position except that he only used four symbols, thus increasing his chances…!

GellerFrost GellerSymbol


NEWS FLASH

From our John Atkinson in the Isle of Man comes this startling item, extracted from the UK Daily Mail of October 27th – just in time for Halloween:

Villagers had been baffled for years over the way their toasters and TVs regularly burst into flames. But now the mystery has been solved.

A £1 million [US$2,050,000] two-year official investigation has concluded that the phenomenon is down to visitors from another planet. It was three years ago that the people of Canneto di Caronia on Sicily began reporting everyday objects – from fridges and mobile phones to cookers and furniture – igniting apparently at random.

exorcist Dozens of scientists, engineers and military experts were drafted in to solve the mystery. Locals were quick to blame supernatural forces, with the Vatican’s chief exorcist attributing the fires to demons. But in an interim report leaked to the Italian media yesterday, the Civil Protection Department says the most likely cause is “aliens testing secret weapons.” Francesco Mantegna Venerando, Sicily’s head of Civil Protection, said:

We are not saying little green men from Mars started the fires but that unnatural forces capable of creating a large amount of electromagnetic energy were responsible. This is just one possibility.

I think that Signor Venerando might have come up with a few other more likely scenarios – for a much smaller investment by the citizens of Canneto di Caronia. And the town might now be in deep trouble with the Vatican. After all, could their Chief Exorcist be wrong? Ever? He takes care of those pesky demons, y’know. He’s no fool…




RE THE CABLE NONSENSE

Concerning the acceptance of the “Transparent Opus MM” cables, I’m told by experts that they’re equipped with some sort of "network" box, and that these very often have frequency-response effects that can possibly introduce or reduce various kinds of detectable distortion. Before accepting these cables for a test, I’d have to be sure that the added “box” element doesn’t constitute a contributing factor; if that were the case, this would not be just a straightforward set of cables, but a designed device. On the Transparent Audio website at www.transparentaudio.com, there is no specific info on the Opus MM that clearly answers this question.

Therefore, we would not be testing cables, but pitting a set of cables against a set of conductors equipped with additional features. Not acceptable, and in any case, the challenge is for the Pear Anjou cables.

We’re awaiting the next move…



POPOFF DOES RATHER WELL

For a man who was thoroughly exposed as a scam artist on TV on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, as well as in several other media confrontations and investigations, Peter Popoff continues to do rather well. Here’s an extract from an item carried on KOMO-TV Seattle, Washington, about the infamous TV evangelist:

The only insight into Popoff’s organization comes from IRS documents. In 2003, people donated $9.6 million to Popoff’s organization. Nearly a million of that, $909,133 went to salaries paid to him, his wife and children. By 2005, donations soared to more than $23 million. And so did the salaries of Popoff and his family, jumping to $3,137,929. When we told Clement [a minister] the numbers, he was stunned. "$23 million dollars? That’s ridiculous," he said Pastor Fuiten has a different answer: "I think it sours people toward religion."

Even more surprising, Popoff has a history of televangelist fraud. In the 1980’s, he held faith-healing crusades around the country. A video widely available online, shows one of those crusades where he ministers to people with such serious ailments as cancer.

On the video, Popoff can be heard saying, "And God told me he says you smite that cancer with your fist!"

Professional skeptic and debunker of faith healers James Randi didn’t believe Popoff’s miraculous stage abilities, where Popoff appears to know the names, addresses, and ailments of people in the audience without them apparently ever saying a word. But Randi proved they were fake when he used a radio scanner at one of Popoff’s religious crusades. In Randi’s video, you hear a woman’s voice say, "Hello Petey, can you hear me? If you can’t you’re in trouble."

Randi says it was the voice of Popoff’s wife, Elizabeth, and that she was secretly talking to him through an earpiece, feeding him information taken from prayer cards the audience filled out in advance. After Randi went public with the fraud, Popoff declared bankruptcy. But he’s made a significant comeback, with paid infomercials playing on at least five different local cable networks.

Yes, and he’s making even more money than before, simply because no government agency will close him down – or cares to do so…



USELESS WOO-WOO THERAPY

The Maryland Shock Trauma center is now using Reiki as a treatment. The Baltimore Sun story is at tinyurl.com/yuvwwb.

On WBAL radio, the afternoon talk show had a very unbalanced discussion of the greatness of Reiki treatments. About a dozen and a half "Reiki Masters" called in to laud the benefits of Reiki, and explained how it worked: The "life energy" flows from the master’s "chakras" into the patient, healing them. One doctor believed in Reiki because it helps cause the patient’s brain to release healing chemicals.

The doctor refused to use the word "placebo effect," but he described it perfectly. I actually don’t mind the fact that shock trauma is harnessing the placebo effect to help with pain management. It is a real effect. I just wish they’d do it without the pseudoscience. I didn’t have the time between customers to call into his show, but here is the email I just sent him:

Jack’s letter to the doctor:

I have a different take on Reiki than the scores of "masters" that you’ve had on your show today.

First off, I’d like to say that I do agree with the decision for Shock Trauma to offer Reiki as a supplemental treatment for pain. However, I disagree with all the Reiki practitioners on the science behind how it works. Reiki is nothing but a way to induce the placebo effect.

The placebo effect isn’t some cute phrase that doesn’t mean anything... the placebo effect is a well-documented process in which the body can help cure itself. The doctor you had on the air early on in the discussion was alluding to it. Reiki works in the same way that prayer does... or the same way that a sugar pill does. If you’re convincing enough that the "treatment" works, and the patient believes you, the patient will often begin to feel better even if nothing physiologically happens directly from the "treatment." Even if no "chakra energy" flows from a Reiki "master" into the patient, the patients brain may release the proper chemical compounds to ease the pain.

The Reiki "masters" that have been calling up and saying that you need special training, and your "chakras need to be attuned" and all of this BS is just what they say to the patients to get them to believe it is a real treatment. I am 100% certain that if you were to take a Reiki "master," and somebody who has never done Reiki in his life, had them both say the same lines, they’d have scientifically identical results in pain relief. If they don’t, the James Randi Educational Foundation may have a one million dollar prize. www.randi.org

Additionally, the Reiki masters will perpetuate the lie that you need to be specially trained in Reiki to be effective because it allows them a source of income in teaching people the "correct" way to "align their chakras." It’s a scam... A scam that happens to have a positive effect on people that believe it does something.

The only damage that this can cause is when people eschew real treatments for serious diseases in favor of these alternative "treatments." One lady called in and said it can help with cancer... if they’re on chemotherapy. I’m afraid that some people will listen to the first part, then ignore the "chemotherapy" part. I have read stories of people dying early from completely treatable cancers because they were told that one alternative medicine or another would cure them. I read a story where a person died of treatable cancer because a fraud told them that drinking lots of orange juice would cure it.

So, please don’t fall victim to the pseudo-science of "energy flowing from the Reiki master’s chakra into the patients chakra to heal them." The doctor you originally had on nailed it with the placebo effect, even if he didn’t use that phrase. I was tempted to call in and say this on the air, but I didn’t want to ruin the benefits of the placebo effect for the people that believe in the Reiki. As you can see, I’m kinda torn on the issue. On one hand, it induces the genuinely helpful placebo effect in people. On the other, it spreads lies and pseudo-science.

Jack, I disagree with one statement that you made: “I do agree with the decision for Shock Trauma to offer Reiki as a supplemental treatment for pain.” If patients begin to accept one sort of woo-woo, they’ll also embrace other sorts that can drastically change their rational point of view, and damage them seriously. That’s the problem with allowing imagination to take over. It’s the thin-edge-of-the-wedge problem…



IGNORANCE PREVAILS

Reader Lior Dagan – we heard from him last week – tells us of a frustrating discussion…

I hope that I have something to contribute to JREF. Just wanted to share with you a meeting with an environmentalist that I had a year ago. He ranted about cell phone antenna radiation, how dangerous it is, that the cell phone companies stop research from getting published... Conspiracy 101.

And they put antennas on kindergartens! School, radiating our poor children. Everybody will die from cancer!

I smiled at him: "Do you know anything about electromagnetic radiation? Maxwell’s equation? Friis formula? The basis of all wireless data transfer, Radar, you name it." He looked at me with a pair glassy eyes. "No", he answered.

“I do,” I told him, "and I even majored in it at my university. You see, the more antennas you put per area, the less radiation you get, from the cell phone and from the provider’s stationary antenna. Without delving into too many details, it’s got to do with the inverse square of the formula, kinda like having one huge lantern instead of many small ones. If you don’t believe me, contact physicists, antenna engineers, or grab a measurement device by yourself, and check it out. If you are right, and they are wrong, there’s a Nobel prize for you in there. If what you want to do is to decrease radiation, you should have three antenna on the kindergartens and schools! I am right now taking your word for it that it’s dangerous, but the big evil companies stopped the data from getting out.

"That’s not the issue", the guy answered, "it’s the third generation." and he continued to rant about how the cellular companies kill us. If it wasn’t the issue, why did he bring it up first? Maybe because the chances are that I could not know better?

I could not get him to say that he’ll promote putting antennae as densely as possible. He can’t say that the cellular providers were right! Are the cellular providers the devil re-incarnate? Of course not, he’s an atheist, so he’s rationally minded, and doesn’t believe in demons. It’s just, well, they – the cellular providers – are bad. We just move from one argument to another until we get it right, or at least, not totally wrong. Some people – celebrities – play along with this, and refuse to hear from the experts, because, well, it’s not sexy.



IT'S STILL NONSENSE

Reader Paul Claessen, in Palm Bay, Florida, tells us:

I was a bit surprised to find a link on today’s www.cnn.com website (a site read by more than just a handful of people) with the title, "Five alternative medicine treatments that work." This would really be "news," so I clicked the link which took me to this page: cnn.com/2007/HEALTH

I was not surprised to find the name of a certain Dr. Andrew Weil there, but I was a bit surprised to hear him say "there also is a lot of quackery out there." Really? Who would have known?

I was also surprised by the claim "A number of alternative medical practices have solid science behind them"... then... what’s so alternative about them? Another suggestion sounded interesting, but I really have no clue how to actually "do" this:

“Go to your happy place” has become a cliché, but our experts say it really works.

Fortunately, there indeed is some sound advice. The article ends with some:

Be wary of crazy claims.

Of course, what I find crazy may sound totally plausible to someone else, so this advice strikes me as a bit subjective and not too practical. But Dr. Weil then lucidly explains:

Anything that sounds too good to be true, probably is.

Which, to me, applies to the entire body of alternative medicine, so I wasted my time reading all this. The article ends with a reassuring:

Alternative medicine works, but sometimes not as quickly as taking a drug.

Note that they don’t use the expression “Some alternative medicine," but address the whole of alternative medicine! Now that’s a fine example of a very crazy claim, and I will follow this article’s own advice and be very wary of it.

(Off to my happier place)



YOU’RE KIDDING – I HOPE

Reader Paul W. Draper writes:

I found something that you may find of interest. As part of the adult education program for Granite School District in Salt Lake City, Utah, they are offering a class on "Fork Bending" with the power of your mind. I wanted to contact the local media about this to get a little air time, debunk the craziness and keep people from paying any money to practice with this psychic. However, if you would like to be involved, I would love to have your help.

A funny side note: it will be taught at a high school (Taylorsville), named after a city (Taylorsville), named after my great-great-grandfather John Taylor, who was the third "prophet" of the Later Day Saints church and 10 million Mormons today believe he had divine prophecy and the power to speak directly with God. I however, am not Mormon. But talking about him makes for good mentalism patter.

Here’s the blurb: tassie

Fork bending

Learn to harness the power of your mind to warm, soften, bend and sculpt stainless steel forks (or spoons). Try something new with family and friends. I’ll show you how Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can help clear away the doubts and fears that limit your success anywhere in life. Don’t be surprised if your young children are even more successful than you, because they don’t have limiting beliefs about what is possible. Bring an open mind. Two forks per person will be provided.

Taught by healing coach Utahna Tassie, LMT, EFT-ADV. tinyurl.com/26n8ag



NIETZCHE AT A SÉANCE

nietzche

Reader Anthony Metivier in Canada writes:

As part of my research, I have recently read an excellent book (excerpt below). I thought you would appreciate the addition of this anecdote regarding Nietzsche’s involvement with a séance to your collection. I would be thrilled if it were to appear for all of your readers to enjoy – especially after the 20 or so moments it took to type this passage into this tiny window, a sign of dedication to the skeptical cause if ever there was one! I should say, by the way, that I am not advocating Nietzsche here as an exemplary skeptic or as anything other than an interesting historical figure and philosopher of no small familiarity.

This is taken from “Nietzsche and Ree: A Star Friendship,” by Robin Small:

On the night of their arrival in Leipzig, Nietzsche organized attendance at a séance. The occasion involved a link with his past. The controversial Leipzig astrophysicist Friedrich Zöllner – whom Nietzsche had publicly supported ten years earlier – had later joined the then fashionable spiritualist movement and gained widespread publicity for the cause before his sudden death in April 1882. Demonstrations at Zöllner’s home had been attended by such eminent scientific colleagues as Gustav Fechner, Wilhelm Weber, and Wilhelm Wundt, although they remained unconvinced, and in Wundt’s case openly disbelieving. Nietzsche knew from Tatenburg that Lou [Salome] was dabbling in spiritualism and that she claimed a tendency to evoke mysterious knocking noises. In any case, he wanted to see one of Zöllner’s mediums in action and make his own judgment about whether Zöllner had been deluded as his many enemies claimed. Most of all, Nietzsche wanted to impress Lou and Ree with an explanation of spiritualist phenomena as produced by an unconscious “nervous force” passing between the participants. He may have hoped that the experiment would provide evidence of a group consciousness akin to the “herd mind” concept that he wanted them to accept. Yet he was badly disappointed by the event, and the next day told Heinrich Köselitz that spiritualism was “boring after the first half hour.” The medium’s performance had been so unconvincing and obviously contrived that no theoretical explanation of the phenomena was even called for. An irritated reference in “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to small groups of “apostates,” including a “scholarly half-madman,” who “wait in darkened rooms for spirits to come” was Nietzsche’s last word on the subject of spiritualism.

Thank you, Anthony.



IN CLOSING…

thekitchen

I’m off to NYC to attend the opening of Jose Alvarez’ new one-man art show at "The Kitchen" - The Visitors. See details at TheKitchen.org