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SWIFT February 22, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

Scientology Under the Microscope, Freiburg Fumble, To Read, Comments on Comments, Shut Down Due to Failure, Excuses and Creative Editing, New for TAM6, and In Closing…

time An Internet site that has examined some of the claims made by the Church of Scientology [CoS] concerning the history of their founder Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, is chock-full of obscenities and juvenile comments, a factor that goes directly into the CoS arsenal and provides them with all sorts of weapons with which to devalue that site – though not the facts stated therein. However, the site’s observations deserve to be disseminated, and I summarize them here:

Table of Contents
  1. Scientology Under the Microscope

  2. Freiburg Fumble

  3. To Read

  4. Comments on Comments

  5. Shut Down Due to Failure

  6. Excuses and Creative Editing

  7. New for TAM6

  8. In Closing…



SCIENTOLOGY UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

time

An Internet site that has examined some of the claims made by the Church of Scientology [CoS] concerning the history of their founder Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, is chock-full of obscenities and juvenile comments, a factor that goes directly into the CoS arsenal and provides them with all sorts of weapons with which to devalue that site – though not the facts stated therein. However, the site’s observations deserve to be disseminated, and I summarize them here:

1: According to “official” Church of Scientology biographies, L. Ron Hubbard was brought up in Montana, on a ranch that took up about one quarter of the entire state. He spent his childhood mastering the skills of hunting & tracking; along the way becoming the nation's youngest ever Eagle Scout – and at the age of four was honored with the status of “Blood Brother” by the Native American Blackfoot Tribe.

The facts: Yes, Hubbard was brought up in Montana, as a regular middle-class kid. However, the Blackfoot Tribe deny all knowledge of Hubbard's “Blood Brother” status, and have answered requests by Scientologists for information on this matter, by saying that they don't even know what a “Blood Brother” is, and no one there has ever heard of the tribesman - “Old Tom” - who allegedly mentored Hubbard during his childhood.

2: Upon obtaining his PHd in nuclear physics at Princeton, Hubbard joined the Navy where he served in all five theaters of World War 2, becoming a highly decorated war hero.

The facts: L. Ron Hubbard did in fact take a class in nuclear physics, but at George Washington University, not at Princeton, and he failed. He joined the Navy, but his most notable accomplishment was being involved in a prolonged “submarine attack” off the coast of Oregon which turned out to be a false alarm, though his ship took shots at the imaginary submarine for gunnery practice.

hubbard

3: Hubbard’s military career was cut short when he was wounded in action, being blinded and crippled, but through the system of Dianetics, curing himself completely, and while he was at it, eleven other veterans, as well.

The facts: Hubbard was admitted for treatment in a Navy hospital, but for the less impressive ailment of stomach ulcers.

4: While undergoing surgery, Hubbard died on the operating table and went to Heaven. On passing through the pearly gates, he came across a wall of monitors displaying all the knowledge in the Universe, past, present & future. He quickly absorbed this knowledge, returned to life and put it all in a book which was entitled “Excalibur.” He claimed that the knowledge contained in Excalibur was so shocking that anyone who read it would die. He told all this to his then-literary agent, describing how he had once shown the manuscript to a publisher in New York and it had resulted in the reader throwing himself to his death from the twentieth story of a building.

The facts: This might have been a routine hallucination caused by anesthesia, but the publisher throwing himself from the window should have resulted in a news story, which does not exist. And where is the manuscript of “Excalibur”?

5: Hubbard claimed he could “teleport” himself through space via super-powers that he’d gained through Dianetics, powers that could be yours through Scientology, and he regaled friends with stories about how the surface of Venus is heavily populated by human-like beings dressed in fifties attire. Said Hubbard, “They say the surface of Venus is made up of gas, but I know better, having almost been run over by a freight train there just this morning!”

The facts: Don’t think that Hubbard could not have believed such a story to be true. I met him only twice, the first time at a meeting of “The Trapdoor Spiders,” and the second only briefly at a press conference in New York City. He frequently came up with such fantasies, and since he was quite inebriated – presumably via alcohol – on both occasions on which I encountered him, I can accept that he came up with such a caprice. He certainly had to know the surface temperature of the planet Venus – 460°C [860°F] – as well as the fact that its atmosphere consists of clouds of droplets of H2SO4 – look it up – and its atmospheric pressure is 94 times that of Earth’s. Those are hardly strolling-about conditions, even for Hubbard, let alone for a freight train…

Of course, we’re asked to believe that high-level members of the Church of Scientology will understand what we ordinary mortals see as absurdities…

Scientologists are told that the “fifties” garb worn on Venus came from the fact that seventy-five million years ago, a Galactic Confederacy led by the ruthless overlord Xenu had adopted the customs and costumes of life that would exist on Earth circa 1950. Duh. This Galactic Confederacy developed an overpopulation problem, so they had to round up billions of citizens under the pretense of "income tax inspections" and send them off for extermination on the prison planet of Teegeeack, which is what they – in their ignorance – called our Earth. These unfortunates were all unloaded around the bases of volcanoes which were then blown up with H-bombs, their souls were subsequently captured and forced to watch a 3-D movie for thirty-six days, a movie which implanted in them the histories of all modern human religions. Those souls, we’re told, are still hanging around the Earth today, randomly attaching themselves to humans and making them miserable. Ah, but they're neutralized by the magic of Scientology.

The above nonsense is only available at the highest level of the Church of Scientology, costing the gullible $300,000 to $500,000 to hear about it. The proof that Hubbard had a working system of snaring the naïve, is amply proven by the fact that the CoS is still going today, and richer than ever before.

As the referred-to site suggests, visit www.xenu.net for extensive data on the “church.”




FREIBURG FUMBLE

uni

German reader Mathias Schwörer is justifiably alarmed:

The reason I'm writing you is that I stumbled upon a brochure of a specific department of my place of work: the University-Clinic in Freiburg. I knew that homoeopathy is big in Germany, but I didn't realize it was that bad. I kindly direct you to the following URL, which is the .html version of the brochure I'm looking at in English: tinyurl.com/2mhdw5.

I'm particularly angry about some statements in the brochure:

Experienced specialists from our team will determine optimal treatments for you and will then develop a customized program. The most up-to-date standards based on conventional medicine as well as naturopathy will be considered when selecting your personal treatment plan.

Well if they would be up-to-date, they wouldn't use homeopathy at all... The statement that worried me the most was this:

We specialize in the treatment of cancer patients, diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, the cardiovascular system, the nervous system, psychology, immune dysfunction and pain of the musculoskeletal system.

Holy cow! Cancer treatments? Well I can understand the “psychology” part, but cancer and problems with the heart shouldn't be taken that lightly!

Randi comments: I was quite unaware that Germany was using such a colorful expression as, “Holy cow!” – which assiduous research via Wikipedia has defined as “an exclamation of surprise used in American English.” It’s said that a former Minnesota sportscaster named Halsey Hall was the first to use the phrase, which may have stemmed from the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Travelers, we’re told, commonly shout the expression so as to avoid hitting one of these "reincarnated creatures" while driving. Or, it’s also said, the origin may be in the Exodus tale of the golden calf, or the "Holy Cow."

This sort of valuable in-depth information is made available to SWIFT readers, as part of our ongoing educational efforts… Now we return to Mathias:

The following part [of the English translation of the homeopathy brochure] is very different from the German version of the text:

Homoeopathy involves the treatment of diseases using sparing amounts of medications such that little side effects occur if applied correctly. It is used especially for children and chronically ill patients.

Randi comments: The expression “sparing amounts” is quite incorrect. Let’s spend a minute on that fact. Is there gold in my swimming pool? Yes. Much? No. Perhaps a few atoms, but there’s probably much more arsenic, gallium, and cyanide in there. What? In my swimming pool? Yes. And in greater accidental concentrations than those initiated purposefully by homeopathy in their nostrums. The homeopathic dilutions are typically in the range of – for a “30X” preparation – one part of ingredient in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts of water – if it’s a liquid, or lactose/milk sugar, if it’s a pill – and “side effects” from such a “remedy” are of course fictional. Mathias again:

However, in German the text begins with:

Homeopathy is a healing-system which is successful with most diseases...

Wow, that's news to me! Well, the whole thing goes on like that on the different methods they use to treat your overweight wallet... I was really shocked that an academic institution like this one would use such superstitious humbug! The worst thing is, I can't do anything about this without getting into some serious trouble. Clinical studies go on all the time to test new treatments and remedies, but it seems they didn't bother to test if these "nature-treatments" have any value.

I hope Germany will soon come to its senses.

Believe me, Mathias, Germany is only one of the major nations ardently embracing woo-woo notions. The USA is in love with “faith-based” thinking, which may or may not be de-emphasized when a new administration occupies the White House…




TO READ

Colleague Carrie Renwick of the First Coast Freethought Society, points us to a new book by Susan Jacoby, the author of "Freethinkers," a history of American secularism. Her new book is titled "The Age of American Unreason" and is reviewed in an article at tinyurl.com/ywxg82. Carrie adds that the author says:

book

Our country is barely smarter than a 5th grader – no wonder it's drowning in religious fundamentalism and political ideologues on both sides… Unable to grasp even the basic principles of statistics or the scientific method, Americans gullibly buy into a cornucopia of bogus notions, from recovered memory syndrome to intelligent design to the anti-vaccination movement...

Ms. Jacoby was interviewed by Bill Moyers recently on PBS about this book, so be on the lookout for reruns! Failing that, the transcript can be seen at pbs.org/moyers/journal/02152008/watch2.html.




COMMENTS ON COMMENTS

Our rather new practice of accepting comments from SWIFT readers at the close of each week’s page, is proving very popular. I’ll take a minute or two to make my own observations on a few of these from last week. Commenter “ChuckHash” wrote:

I must point out a mistake regarding the flat earth analogy made in response to the silly statement by “Dr.” Oz. It is itself a myth that most people in history believed the earth to be flat (ref: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth)

Very true. The Wikipedia reference says:

In 1945 [this myth] was listed by the Historical Association (of Britain) as the second of 20 in a pamphlet on common errors in history. Several scholars have argued that "with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat" and that the prevailing view was of a spherical earth.

But please note that it says, “…no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat.” [my italics] That leaves out the vast majority of persons who were not educated, and to whom such questions were hardly important, survival being the rather more difficult matter at hand. Though the Greeks had observed the round shadow of the Earth on the Moon during an eclipse, they understood quite well what that phenomenon was, and they’d inferred the spherical shape very easily… Still, most persons looked upon such angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin discussions as being beyond their interests.

On another subject, reader/commenter “gunker” wrote:

Regarding the UFO. In the previous examples given of lens flare, the vertical axis passes through the optical centre of the picture and a bright light source. In this case it doesn't. Rather the horizontal axis is in line with a light source but doesn't pass near the optical center, unless the picture is very cropped. Could this not be a simple case of photoshopping the original picture?

a No, I think not. The “image folding” effect that occurs within a typical compound-lens system gives rise to many different types of image, with varied axes – that’s the plural of “axis,” if you’re puzzled! – and there are all sorts of examples of this available. I present here the results of a simple experiment that took about 30 minutes to do in the JREF library. I first snapped an off-center photo of a ceiling light, and this shows – “A” – a very basic, fuzzy, lens flare. Then I completely darkened the room to approximate a night sky. I set up a digital camera on a tripod and pointed it at a simple flashlight with the lens masked to provide a strong-but-small source of light, and made 15 exposures, varying the aperture, distance from the target, and time. You see here the basic set-up, and how the flashlight was prepared.

The shape and other variations of “UFOs” will of course vary according to the camera used. This was done with a Minolta Dimage 7i.

b Photo “B” shows one frame, with a string of lens flares very evident. And you’ll see here a set of four side-by-side arrays from other frames, with a variety of different “UFOs” to excite you. One is magnified much as the one from last week was, and may even get published in the next woo-woo UFO book – for count on it, there will be more…! Also here, 2 photos of the set-up showing the flashlight pointing at the camera, and how the flashlight was prepared…

b b b

SWIFT reader “Ocelot” was concerned with the safety of the JREF prize, and rightly so. He quotes me as writing:

Well, this renowned medical expert is eligible for our million-dollar prize if he can differentiate between the homeopathic spray and regular water. I don't quite have the renown of the aforementioned medical expert but can I have a million dollars for telling the difference between grape alcohol and water? For that matter since the dilutions in back are 5x (i.e. one part in 100,000) which is well below the molar limit for dilution, I might even be able to detect some trace of the supposedly active ingredients.

Ocelot was interested enough to go to http://www.mypharmacy.co.uk/alternative_medicines/medicines/b/bach/bach_rescue_remedy_spray.htm – which I didn’t do! – and found that the spray I referred to is a

5X dilution of flower extracts of Rock Rose. Impatiens. Clematis, Star of Bethlehem, Cherry Plum in a grape alcohol solution.

One part in 100,000 parts of flower extracts isn’t going to be very detectable, but the “grape alcohol solution” gets our attention. Mind you, this implies that ethyl alcohol made from grapes is somehow different from other ethyl alcohol, which it is not, but we don’t know whether there’s enough alcohol in the mixture to be noticed; most often the main diluent is water, though alcohol can be used to prepare the “active” ingredient. I’d have to look into that. Don’t expect any grape taste, either, though that might be added…

I thank these readers for their interest!




SHUT DOWN DUE TO FAILURE

You’ll perhaps remember the Steorn company in Dublin who made the loud perpetual motion machine claims? They’d assembled a jury of scientists to evaluate their 2006 claim of generating free energy – we last referred to this miracle at http://www.randi.org/joom/content/view/80/27/, pointing out that it was simply the old reciprocating-magnet-wheel idea, and most likely just a way of luring investors. Well, Bob Park just informed us that they’re now out of business. Surprise! But what happened to the money that investors sent them…? Inquiring minds want to know. At http://bobpark.physics.umd.edu/WN08/wn021508.html you’ll find the story. There are other companies – with the same theme – offering the same miracle. Says Bob:

The first one this year is the Perepiteia invented by Thane Heins of Almonte, Ontario, who fits the mold perfectly. The 46-year old Heins is not a scientist; he dropped out of an electronics program, but earned a chef’s diploma. The secret? "Rotating magnets." His wife took the children and left over his obsession with Perepiteia. "I have mild dyslexia and don’t do well in math," Heins told the Toronto Star, "so I don’t do well in school." But wait, two weeks ago an MIT Electrical Engineering Professor, Marcus Zahn, agreed to view a demonstration. Heins held a permanent magnet a few centimeters from an induction motor – and it speeded up. Wow! The Toronto Star contacted Zahn, who said it surprised him. “What’s New” is trying to reach Zahn.

Bob, I think that Professor Zahn is going to be hard to reach… Remember, rotating magnets is the notion that most perpetual-motion nut-jobs embrace – though they all go down in flames…




EXCUSES AND CREATIVE EDITING

radin

Our correspondent Hiawatha sends us his observations on a site by Dean Radin – to be seen at tinyurl.com/2yumy3. Radin is the author of “The Conscious Universe,” which lauds woo-woo material by invoking such methods as “meta-analysis.” This consists of assigning relative values to very large sets of data, then summing it all up to see if there’s any “bump” they can point to with pride as showing significance. Of course, the weakness of that process lies in the value-assignment; different examiners will tend to assign different values to the same data-sets, and over-valuing any set can produce positive results where there are none… But here’s what Hiawatha says:

[Radin] claims that psi experiments are conducted to test, under rigorously controlled conditions, whether the experiences labeled telepathy, clairvoyance, etc., are what they appear to be (i.e. genuine), or whether they are better understood as coincidence, delusion, or one or more cognitive biases.

Yet he defends the fact that there is no proposed mechanism for these alleged experiences based on established physics or biology, and says

Randi comments: While formal science demands that a “mechanism” be offered for any claim, I differ in that I ask for no explanation or hypothesis until or unless a phenomenon is firmly established to exist. Hiawatha continues, quoting Radin:

If we can only accept things in terms of what we already understand, then science is no longer an open system. It collapses into the worst sort of mindless dogma, and no genuinely new discoveries are possible.

There are several problems with this:

1) Psi experiments have been conducted for, at this point, well over 150 years. Until relatively recently, the vast majority of them were not "rigorously controlled." And even today there are a multitude of pseudo-scientific "researchers" in the area with only the fuzziest notion of what constitutes a "control," a "blind," or a "statistically significant result."

2) Science in not about "accepting" things, but about testing claims. The first test is to see if the claim is about an actual extant phenomenon, or whether it's so much hokum. If the claimed phenomenon doesn't have any real existence, then there is nothing further to study. A century and a half of experimentation – including a good 30 years or so of experiments which were reasonably well controlled – has thus far failed to verify that the alleged phenomena of "telepathy, clairvoyance, etc." even exist.

3) Science is absolutely about testing claims in terms of what we already understand. How else would one go about it? How could you "test" something in terms that are not understood? If there is a real, extant phenomenon to study, the next level of testing is to propose a hypothetical mechanism to explain the phenomenon – given things already understood – and to try that hypothesis according to the scientific method. If the evidence gathered fails to support the hypothesis, then it is discarded and a new model/mechanism proposed. If the evidence does support the hypothesis, and the process can be reliably replicated, then a genuinely new discovery has been made.

4) Hypotheses are the "open end" of science, the place in which the imagination comes into full play. But imagination without viable testing is the basis of fiction, not science.

5) Unique, unrepeatable phenomena are extraordinarily difficult to study by any means, science included. Any "explanation" is about illuminating a pattern of events. If the event is isolated, no pattern can be perceived. There is a reason, therefore, to search for anomalies, to build up a body of data in which a pattern may be perceived, if one exists. But a search of anomalies alone is not science; it is at best, protoscience.

Charles Fort was the past master of this sort of pursuit. His fascinating collections [of claims, reports, anecdotes] suffer from two major defects, however. First, he for the most part accepted all anecdotal reports as having relatively equal weight, making little attempt to discern their level of veracity. Consequently he lumped local legend, tall tales, hoaxes, and probably a fair amount of delusional raving together with what may have been actual accounts of actual events. In other words, his data is corrupt. Second, he stepped beyond the bounds of archivist of odd phenomena into that of interpreter of the phenomena. Since his interpretations were based not on "rigorously controlled" experiment, but on wild, personal speculation, his usefulness to science at this point drops pretty much to zero. Anyone can wildly speculate, and there is no reason that any two speculations should match, or that either should match reality.

I think Mr. Radin needs to take a long, hard look at the many significant advances made in molecular biology and solid state physics over the past thirty years. These advances were accomplished by meticulous application of the scientific method, based on existing understanding, and have given us new knowledge resulting in everything from the eradication of diseases like smallpox, to gene splicing, to highly efficient LED lamps, to the solid-state electronics that allow him to reach the entire world via computer with his essays. None of these discoveries sprang full-blown from left field into the consciousness of some anti-science sage contemplating his navel.

If parapsychology could boast even a fraction of such a list of Earth-changing discoveries, then there might be reason to regard it as more than another quaint pseudoscience in the history of science, along with alchemy, astrology, phrenology and the like.

hyman

My friend and fellow-skeptic Dr. Ray Hyman recently attended – by invitation – a conference at which Dean Radin extolled the virtues of “meta-analysis,” and managed to essentially ignore what Hyman had to say. As Hyman pointed out, any claim needs to be both replicable and consistent, two qualities that parapsychology lacks. Even Dean Jahn of the former Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab, agreed with him on this. But the Radin sycophants – as they’ve done before – invoked a special rule for their “science” – in which they ask for exemption from these basics of science. That puts parapsychology outside of the company of legitimate sciences.

Radin’s latest distraction – parapsychologists are fond of abandoning lines of investigation when they prove fruitless – is “presentiment,” which offers him the same qualities as “meta-analysis,” with its dependence on assigned and interpreted values. Radin defines presentiment as “a vague, noncognitive sense that something bad or good will occur.” He uses a skin-conductance measure and a photoplethysmograph for fingertip blood volume – an indicator of autonomic arousal – as subjects are shown a series of randomized pictures on a computer screen. The photoplethysmograph is a device that can be used to determine heart rate via a volume measurement of blood in the arteries and capillaries, by using low levels of infrared light to detect small changes in blood content in the tissues with each heartbeat. A light-emitting diode is used to transmit light into the skin. Some of us will have a simple version of this device as a heart-rate indicator, though I find mine to be somewhat erratic and subject to interpretation…

The result of Ray Hyman’s involvement with the conference was that his contributions were apparently not the sort of data that the Radin bunch were looking for; Ray’s input was omitted from the published documents reporting the conference.

Dr. Hyman, welcome to the Invited Token Skeptic Club!




NEW FOR TAM6!

Yep, we’ve landed yet another sterling attraction for TAM6! It’s Private Investigator Alec Jason, the man who infiltrated the auditorium where Peter Popoff was performing his talking-to-God act, and came up with the radio intercept that was then presented to the Johnny Carson show as a definitive exposé of this charlatan! Alec describes his talk thus:

Forensic Skepticism: Critical Thinking in Crime Scene Investigation

An inside look at crime scene investigation (CSI) and analysis focusing on the application of rational, skeptic-based thought. Actual crime scenes and cases will be presented and discussed with a focus upon the critical thinking errors and misconceptions which are often the product of the many CSI-related Hollywood productions and the surplus of pseudo “Criminal Profilers” on the news channels. Real crimes, real crimes scenes, and real evidence will be shown, and participants will see how CSI is really done and have a chance to test their critical thinking skills.

Alexander Jason is board certified as a Senior Crime Scene Analyst specializing in the reconstruction and analysis of crime scenes. A Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, he often uses advanced technology in both crime scene analysis and in the production of 3D computer animation and graphics. An independent consultant, Jason is retained across the country by many law enforcement agencies, local and Federal prosecutors, and private attorneys for major homicides and officer-involved shooting cases and has appeared many times on Fox News, MSNBC, and he has been a consultant to TV shows such as “Law & Order,” “CSI,” “Crossing Jordan,” and “CBS News.” Jason is currently a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate new forensic science technologies.

This guy loaded himself down with a neck full of I.D.s, all sorts of electronic equipment, and a huge dollop of sheer brass, then talked himself past all sorts of security measures to secretly record the radio communications between Peter Popoff and his wife Elizabeth, who had obtained all sorts of personal data about the victims of the religious scam. You won’t want to miss this Saturday afternoon session with Alec Jason…! Go to www.alexanderjason.com and learn more, and don’t expect to see his photograph… He’s a P.I., remember…?




IN CLOSING…

Thank you, all, for your contributions and continuing questions; these provide much of the material that make up SWIFT each week. I’m off to Atlanta, New York City, Baltimore, Boulder Colorado, and Chicago shortly… Busy, busy , busy…!


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