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SWIFT February 1, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

More Superstition in High Places, In Australia Too, Hidden Motives, I’m Properly Scolded, Snap It Up!, Psychic Well Busted, Crisis For Quackery, It’s Certainly Remote, More Tiresome Details, We’re Blocked, Please Define “Crackpot,” Starbuck Wisdom, and In Conclusion…

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Reader Adam Beach, in New Zealand, reports:

I just thought you and your readers might find this interesting, recently our country has had an unusually large number of brutal murders and attacks, which has made the politicians whip up into a frenzy, as it makes for good issues to gain votes on. However, some have some rather silly explanations. Here is an excerpt from one of the local papers:

Table of Contents
  1. More Superstition in High Places

  2. In Australia Too

  3. Hidden Motives

  4. I’m Properly Scolded

  5. Snap It Up!

  6. Psychic Well Busted

  7. Crisis For Quackery

  8. It’s Certainly Remote

  9. More Tiresome Details

  10. We’re Blocked

  11. Please Define “Crackpot”

  12. Starbuck Wisdom

  13. In Conclusion…



MORE SUPERSTITION IN HIGH PLACES

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Reader Adam Beach, in New Zealand, reports:

I just thought you and your readers might find this interesting, recently our country has had an unusually large number of brutal murders and attacks, which has made the politicians whip up into a frenzy, as it makes for good issues to gain votes on. However, some have some rather silly explanations. Here is an excerpt from one of the local papers:

Police Minister Annette King yesterday visited the scene of the shoot-out in Flat Bush, south Auckland. She said the hot summer and full moon were to blame for the recent "unusual events" that had created mad January in south Auckland.

"It's well documented within the police – and we've had a long hot summer – and the view is that we often get things happen in this month that we wouldn't have happening in winter."

The rest of the article can be read here: tinyurl.com/yw449p. I find it sad to think that a government minister – especially one in charge of the police – can come to such a ludicrous conclusion. Luckily the ridicule is coming on quick and fast from all corners over this one.




IN AUSTRALIA TOO

Down Under, a similar situation is shaping up, to my great delight. “Complementary Medicine” in general is being questioned after the Australian federal government asked the National Drug Regulator to investigate claims that the present system is too lax. Senator Jan McLucas, Parliamentary Secretary to Health Minister Nicola Roxon, has asked the Therapeutic Goods Administration [TGA] to provide an official response to data published in the Medical Journal of Australia outlining ways to tighten the rules that now apply to herbal and other alternative medicines. The “herbal” label has been used for decades to soften the identity of quack nostrums.

Claims made for weight-loss products, for example, often aren’t supported by the limited scientific evidence available. The Medical Journal is suggesting that medicine labels state whether they have been assessed for efficacy by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, that complaint procedures and penalties for inappropriate or misleading advertising be simplified and strengthened, and that the TGA to do better checking of the composition of herbal products and the claims made for them.

These proposals have of course infuriated the Alternative Medicines industry.

Queensland scientist Loretta Marron, one of the co-authors on the Medical Journal paper, won the Skeptic of the Year award from the Australian Skeptics last year in recognition of her work to debunk bogus medical claims. This government is clearly more interested in these ideas than its predecessor was.




HIDDEN MOTIVES

An anonymous reader tells us:

In 2000 I was working for CNN International, and we received an offer from the Hong Kong tourist board to do a feature on the island of Cheung Chau – a small island popular with windsurfers, vacationers and Hong Kong businessmen with mistresses who liked to take a room for the weekend. We accepted the offer and were flown in Business on Cathay Pacific and given guides, luxury rooms etc., etc., presuming that the HK Tourist Board were simply keen on promoting destinations that were less-well-known internationally than HK Island and Kowloon.

Chatting with locals on Cheung Chau we soon discovered the real reason the Tourist Board were so keen to promote the island...

It transpired that businessmen had stopped using the island for illicit affairs, and instead had turned to using the weekend rental rooms as venues for suicide. The typical HK apartment kitchen contains a large indoor gas BBQ rather than a conventional oven, and large numbers of troubled workers had taken to renting a room for the weekend, turning on the gas and letting nature take its course. This convenient technique had been enticing increasing numbers of gloomy workers with the end in sight, to the island.

Suicides, in Chinese tradition, always come back as unpleasant ghosts, and Cheung Chau had now, as we discovered, become an island full of vengeful, unhappy spirits wandering the roads, tracks and beaches – with calamitous effects on the local tourist industry – after all, you don't want your valuable week off work turning into an episode of Scooby Doo. Thus the Tourist Board had stepped in and lured us in to do a happy, cheery half hour puff-piece with one of our best known local anchors on the happier side of Hong Kong's Haunted Island!

You mean to tell us that money and superstition were behind all this? Who would have believed that…?




I’M PROPERLY SCOLDED

I erred last week when giving my example of how science accepts new ideas and constructs. See randi.org/joom/content/view/151/27/#i1. Several readers pointed out the error, and Rick Ward in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, provided me with the most comprehensive outline of the facts:

You write "Relativity itself was subsequently relegated when quantum theory emerged…" Not at all, Mr. Randi. Relativity and quantum theory are two of the three best attested, most successful scientific theories we have (the third of course is evolution). Relativity and quantum theory generally deal with very different things, and within their limits they have proven to be extraordinarily accurate and have passed every test anyone's been able to think of. The difficulty is that they're fundamentally inconsistent and thus cannot both be true, but it's only when they come together under very extreme conditions, such as in the core of a black hole or in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang, that they break down, and give results akin to dividing by zero.

Some version of “string theory” may or may not resolve this, the jury's still out on that. But while neither is "true" in any absolute sense, and science would not make such a claim anyway, they're close enough to whatever the truth actually is to be useful. GPS satellites, for instance, require relativistic corrections to their synchronization signals, and the computer I'm using to compose this depends on quantum effects for its operation. There's at least one more layer of reality that subsumes them both that we haven't figured out yet, but both are flourishing in practical, useful ways in the real world. I'm inclined to think there are many more layers, that reality is in some sense fractal, but that's another long digression. In the meantime though, it is simply not correct to suggest that quantum theory has in any sense relegated relativity.

Again, my admittedly limited knowledge has surfaced. I thank Mr. Ward and others for this richly due comeuppance…! However, I expect that science-bashers might choose to use this perceived Uncertainty of Science to crow over, as they often do. Au contraire; this is a further example of the way that science accepts what works, uses it, and makes attempts to reconcile seemingly disparate and conflicting ideas and theories, rather than falling back on dogma or “authority.”

In any case, touché!




SNAP IT UP!

No more incredible than other religious appeals and/or sales pitches, this is one forwarded to me by some automated spam agency. Peter Popoff, with his Holy Water and Manna story, or the Golden Plates of the Mormons, are just as irrational. It appears that Islam has embraced Apple, since two critical elements in the faith are determining exactly when prayers are offered up, and in what direction:

FREE iAthan Software for iPhones and iPod Touch!

Get Prayer Times for millions of cities!

In the Name of Allah. The wait is over. Guided Ways brings you iAthan for iPhones and iPod Touch. A native application that gives you Prayer Timings, Athan and Qibla direction for thousands of cities world wide. The design of the software has been based on our popular Prayer Times for Mobiles software, which has been loved and welcomed by many. This is an initial Beta release and so your feedback would be highly welcomed as it would allow us to improve the software. Come and download the software for FREE.

Athan and Qibla translate as, “time and direction.” Wouldn’t want prayers going off somewhere into space or at the wrong time! Back to the directions:

LET OTHERS KNOW

All these efforts are of no use if they aren't being utilized. Help Us. Help Islam and Help Yourselves – Spread the Word and Earn Ajr from The Most Merciful, the Oft-Forgiving Lord of the Worlds. If you know brothers and sisters who would like to have this software on their iPhones, please forward the message on.

... "Our Lord! We have indeed believed, so forgive us our sins and save us from the punishment of the Fire." [3:16]

I’ve no notion what “Ajr” is, and I’m sure some reader will tell me, but I’m really amused by the “millions of cities” reference. What cities? Are we covering the Milky Way here? Is every bedroom or broom-closet considered to be a city…? I can guess what the “punishment of the Fire” is, and I’ll try to avoid it, but now I discover that maybe Allah isn’t quite as munificent as I’d been led to believe, when he’s referred to above as, “the Oft-Forgiving Lord of the Worlds.” How often is “oft” and what are the criteria for deciding…?

Such heavy theological matters have me quite bewildered…




PSYCHIC WELL BUSTED

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Reader Jeremy Belch alerts us to this welcome and encouraging news item.

I've been reading and enjoying your SWIFT newsletter for a few years, and would like to thank you for the work that you do. As a medical student who is also interested in the field of public health, I am especially grateful for your efforts to raise awareness of healthcare quackery, as this sort of woo-woo has greater potential to harm people in more than just their wallet than other nonsense.

I came across this Australian broadcast – youtube.com/watch?v=VG-DV4ottmE – and was unsure if you'd seen it. I thought that any exposé that revealed woo-woo fraud would be a good thing, but I find it both amusing and disturbing that they call in another, "legitimate" psychic as a witness.

Yes, the “legitimate” psychic is that old scam artist Simon Turnbull, who I’ve run into previously, several times. I must admit that Turnbull is certainly as legitimate and accurate as any other psychic I’ve ever met…




CRISIS FOR QUACKERY

The UK Independent newspaper ended a recent article on homeopathy with a statement with which I’ll begin this item:

The Prince of Wales and the Queen are known to be supporters of homeopathy.

That should set the stage. It appears that homeopathy has begun to be recognized in the UK for the useless frippery it has always been, judging from the fact that the National Health Services [NHS] are now dropping homeopathic treatments, following serious debate about whether they actually work. Nearly two years ago, a list of eminent doctors put their names to a letter urging the NHS to stop funding the treatment. See randi.org/jr/2007-08/082407newton.html#i5 for the earlier indications in SWIFT of this awakening.

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Presently, only 49 of the 132 primary care trusts still include homeopathic services in their lists of services, and more than a quarter of them have stopped or reduced funding on these in the past two years. Now, the official journal of the UK’s General Practitioners, Pulse, says that homeopathic clinics in the UK "are in crisis." The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital [RLHH], for example, is fighting for survival after eight trusts cancelled contracts over the past year and six more reduced referrals, which are said to be down about 20% in the past year. Dr. Peter Fisher, the clinical director of the RLHH, says he is confident that his hospital will survive. He said that there's a lot of public and political support for homeopathy, which he says comprises only 40% of the services that the hospital offers, including nutritional medicine and relaxation techniques.

Richard Hoey, deputy editor of Pulse, said:

Homeopathy is a highly controversial treatment with all sorts of doubts over its evidence base, but it is popular with patients and has traditionally always had a place in general practice. If the NHS is now going to stop providing homeopathy, that needs to be a decision taken in the full glare of public debate, and not made in the committee rooms of cash-strapped trusts.

It’s about time. Blood-letting, based on medieval notions of how the human body works – or doesn’t work – has long since been abandoned as a valid method of treating patients, though for centuries it was a standard procedure with physicians. Homeopathy is based upon similarly erroneous and unproven notions that have not gone away with the other witchcraft, and it’s time that medical science tossed it out, too.

A “Natural HealthCare Council,” set up to examine the matter of homeopathy, will begin work in April.

Dr. Michael Baum, a professor emeritus of surgery, welcomed the news that funding was being cut. He commented:

The NHS should be putting its money into evidence-based medicine, so this is a good start… But while people are starting to realize they are being conned by the whole complementary medicine establishment, it will be a long time before we see the back of it.




IT’S CERTAINLY REMOTE

banachek

From UK friend Ian Rowland – author of the definitive book, “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” 4th edition – we’ve received a good example of the Desperate Move maneuver so favored by media flunkies who cannot find a sensational item to fluff up an otherwise drab day. Says Ian, the Daily Mail

…once again serves up the psychic woo-woo, as it has done consistently for decades: tinyurl.com/339l69.

Michael Weber [a prominent magician/skeptic] calls this “rebunking.” No matter how many times the claims get debunked, no matter how often the claims get dissected, one newspaper article (read by millions) comes along and takes us right back to the 1970s. “Rebunking” indeed. This one short article manages to revive several corpses all at once by stating that:

- remote viewing works!

- they’ve proved it beyond all doubt – no fluke, no fraud!

- Brian Josephson believes it, and he’s a proper scientist!

- the military have funded research/used it!

- Nella Jones is a successful psychic detective!

- Joe McMoneagle has demonstrated RV under test conditions!

And so on. One can blame the journalists or the editors, but they would say “We only write it/publish it because readers read it.”

It was in the paper. It must be true.

We share your dismay, Ian. I ask our readers to refer to previous SWIFT mentions of “remote viewing,” “Brian Josephson,” and “Joe McMoneagle” to see the validity of their claims, and Nella Jones was definitively tested on my Granada TV series, and definitively failed. The media – at least as exemplified here by the Daily Mail – fails all tests of integrity.




MORE TIRESOME DETAILS

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As yet another hint on why we’re discontinuing the JREF million-dollar challenge, I offer here a statement from a teacher, Stephen E. Braude, who is a touring instructor in woo-woo. Quoting Braude:

The Randi challenge is a sham. He sets it up in advance so that he can't lose, and sometimes he uses lame excuses for not accepting challenges that would be too tough. See www.skepticalinvestigations.org for general discussions of dishonest or incompetent attacks by so-called skeptics, and for material on Randi in particular, www.skepticalinvestigations.org/whoswho, www.skepticalinvestigations.org/exam/Prescott_Randi.htm, www.skepticalinvestigations.org/controversies/Auerbach_Randi.htm, and www.skepticalinvestigations.org/whoswho/Randi_dogs.htm. That should get you started.

Only two of the urls above refer to the million dollar prize, expressing concern about the availability of the prize, since it’s in the form of “bonds,” and the site offers a ridiculous explanation of what bonds are all about. I informed them that the Goldman/Sachs Prize Account is always maintained at the level of at least one million dollars in Treasury Bond investment, and the current statement – as of this moment – puts it at $1,091,570.70. I referred them to the latest printed statement at randi.org/joom/content/view/151/27/#i5, and told them:

These bonds are not junk, or capricious in any way. We keep the prize money in earning bonds so that it makes sufficient interest for us. Otherwise, we would not have the 60 to 80 thousand dollars annually that it generates. The bonds can be converted into cash within hours of initiating that transaction. I trust that you will publish this fact on your site…?

It remains to be seen whether their readers will be enlightened in this matter. And, I here challenge Braude to provide evidence that – as he claims – (a) we set up the protocol in advance so that we can't lose, and (2) that we use lame excuses for not accepting challenges that we think would be too tough for us. These two statements of his imply that there have been more than one example of each, but we’ll be generous and accept just one of each. Please provide this information, Mr. Braude.

Hello, Braude? You there…?




WE’RE BLOCKED

Reader Jorge Mota provides an example of the rocky road we skeptics have to travel:

I tried to access your site today from my hospital, as I do every Friday. Here is what my PC answered to me:

Access Forbidden. Access to URL: http://www.randi.org/ Has been blocked.

Reason: Site is listed in the forbidden category: Entertainment/Recreation/Hobbies.

Computer Associates
eTrust SCM for HTTP

 

This is nice, huh? I need to wait 'til I get home to read today's article. Also, I was visiting sites about electroconvulsive therapy (my field of work) and the access to many sites was blocked because they were "political sites." So much for "Information Highway" and "Information Technology." And they protest that people are dumber every day!

This reminds me that our site has been automatically blocked by several different “editing” systems, since words like “psychic” and “occult” show up so often. If you use any school or library Internet access, and find this to be the case, please notify us, will you? Thanks.




PLEASE DEFINE “CRACKPOT”

Reader Rich Gray in Dayton, Ohio, reports:

The SciFi Channel's Ghost Hunters have been invited to inspect buildings at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base here in Dayton, Ohio. Apparently some lady working in the PR office (of all places!) has been hearing years of reports of apparitions and strange sounds and decided to do something about it. She contacted the Ghost Hunters and invited them to the base. They are going to be here for a week starting tomorrow, "investigating" the reported hauntings and of course, taping new episode(s). Amazingly, someone at the Pentagon signed off on this!

This is so very sad. Dayton is the home of aviation. The Wright brothers perfected flight on land that is now WPAFB. A lot of leading edge technology is developed at WPAFB. The Air Force Institute of Technology is there. Why is the US Air Force aiding and abetting this idiocy? Maybe next month they'll be inviting snake oil salesmen on base to discuss jet fuel additives?

pic Then the Dayton Daily News ran another front page article on the Ghost Hunters. The focus of this article was that it's hard for fans to meet the Ghost Hunters, but it also included what seem to me to demonstrate a lack of military intelligence:

Base Commander Col. Colleen Ryan told members of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce last week that reports of paranormal experiences on the base come from people she would not “regard as crackpots.”

I am profoundly disturbed that an Air Force base commander thinks that strange sightings on her base should be investigated by plumbers-turned-TV stars. Again, there was a complete lack of skepticism in the article. After the first article, I did call the 88th Air Base Wing Office of Public Affairs – wpafb.af.mil/units/pa/index.asp – and talked to Laura – the woman in the PR office who’d invited the GB there – complaining about the waste of taxpayers money guarding guests, and asking generally why the AF is stroking the gullible by bringing superstition/fraud to a place of high tech.

I suggested they get Joe Nickell if they really wanted these sightings investigated properly. Laura politely took my comments and said she'd pass them on to the event organizers. Yyyyeah, that will do a whole lot of good... I asked her to pass my comments up the chain of command. And we now see that's probably useless too... Nevertheless, I might take a shot at a phone call to the base commanders office.

One thing might be interesting. Being on a military base, the GH's will probably – better! – be under escort at all times. That will make funny business difficult.

The Dayton Daily News story can be found at tinyurl.com/3cet7a.




STARBUCK WISDOM

Reader Matthew Besson, in Alberta, Canada, tells us:

I picked up my usual cup of coffee at Starbucks on my way to work and I read the little quote on the side of the cup and thought of you. Here is what it said:

We will end poverty and stop HIV/AIDS within our generation when guided by African principles such as ubuntu that underscore our interconnectedness. With greater compassion for others, we would no longer accept hunger and disease as facts of life.

Cedza Dlamini (Youth Emissary)

Gee Whiz, I was kind of betting on science to help us out in these departments. Further, with all due respect to those with an acute sense of ubuntu, the suggestion that the researchers, scientists and aid organizations fighting these problems around the world lack compassion, or simply acquiesce in the face of hunger and disease, is silly if not insulting.

However, take heart. When I got to work I noticed a new product on our store shelves. It resembled a little voodoo doll or charm. The company had an insert inside that was careful to state that the dolls were:

...expressions of imagination, creativity and appreciation of anything cute. They are NOT for real and possess no curse effect whatsoever.

Not all is lost, I suppose.

Not all, Matthew…




IN CONCLUSION…

bell

TAM 5.5 was a resounding success, and we thank all our speakers for their sterling efforts. The Open House at the JREF that followed was fully attended, and we made a number of new friends there. And now TAM6 – June 19 to 22 – is looming on the skeptical horizon. Old friends such as Michael Shermer, Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman, and Christopher Hitchens, will be back in full force. Our keynote speaker will be the famous Neil deGrasse Tyson, who will make us sit up and pay attention, I guarantee. My old friend Arthur Benjamin – the mathemagician – will bust your brains. Workshops by both Banachek and Ben Radford will be featured, and of course Penn & Teller will tread the boards before us all.

Stay tuned for the other luminaries!

On Wednesday I’m off to Munich, Germany, to tape a comprehensive Geller exposé for “Welt der Wunder” – a program which promises to be rather strong. It’ll be circulated in the Netherlands, Cyprus, Hungary, and Australia, as well.

Busy, busy, busy…


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