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SWIFT July 31, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

Lunar Astronaut Still Deluded and Spaced-Out, The State of Homequackery, Yet More on Homeopathy, What’s Sauce for the Goose..., Help Wanted, Another Superstitious Horror, “The One”: Episode 4, More Sniffex, The USPTO Again, and In Closing...

Mitchell

I first refer you to tinyurl.com/594kgk, where you’ll read Phil Plait’s overly-kind but honest reference to the latest nonsense to come from former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of the only twelve persons ever to actually walk on the Moon – that we know of, that is. Mitchell is now insisting that he’s privy to firm evidence that UFO-nauts exist, and that the truth has been – you guessed it! – suppressed by those People in Charge.

 

Table of Contents
  1. Lunar Astronaut Still Deluded and Spaced-Out

  2. The State of Homequackery

  3. Yet More on Homeopathy

  4. What’s Sauce for the Goose...

  5. Help Wanted

  6. Another Superstitious Horror

  7. “The One”: Episode 4

  8. More Sniffex

  9. The USPTO Again

  10. In Closing...



LUNAR ASTRONAUT STILL DELUDED AND SPACED-OUT

Mitchell

I first refer you to tinyurl.com/594kgk, where you’ll read Phil Plait’s overly-kind but honest reference to the latest nonsense to come from former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of the only twelve persons ever to actually walk on the Moon – that we know of, that is. Mitchell is now insisting that he’s privy to firm evidence that UFO-nauts exist, and that the truth has been – you guessed it! – suppressed by those People in Charge.

Agreed, Mitchell is an all-time American hero, but as I reminded Phil, he’s also been one of the major purveyors and supporters of top-level woo-woo. It was Mitchell who “discovered” spoon-bender Uri Geller when Geller was only a cabaret performer doing his run-of-the-mill “psychic” tricks for teeny-boppers in Israel, assisted by Hannah Shtrang – who later became his wife – and Shipi Shtrang, her brother, who still works as his assistant. Mitchell actually travelled to Israel and arranged for Geller to come to the USA and be studied at the Stanford Research Institute – later to be re-named SRI International. Two physicists there, apparently awed by meeting a genuine Lunar Astronaut, chose to believe that such a hero couldn’t be wrong, that Geller was therefore the real thing, and Geller’s career took off. It’s safe to say that without Edgar Mitchell’s naivety, we’d have been spared the advent of the Geller Delusion.

Mitchell, to this day, still believes in Geller despite the exposés that have led most former believers to reconsider their evaluation of these preposterous affectations, from Geller’s claimed origins on the Planet Hoova to his mental prodding of Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the Geneva peace talks in 1987. Of course, that Geller appearance was arranged by Senator Claiborne Pell, another equally-deluded celebrity.

See Ed Mitchell at tinyurl.com/5gdesu expounding on his latest fantasy. Of course, this attractive farce was featured on the media, all over the globe. Such matters are valuable and easy lacunae fillers; it’s easy to laugh at celebrities.




THE STATE OF HOMEOQUACKERY

As we all know, every scientific test of homeopathy has failed to support its very silly premise: that a substance diluted down to well below Avogadro’s Limit – which means, essentially, a zero concentration – leaves behind some sort of “vibrations” or “memory” of the fact that its molecules were once nearby. No, you read that right, folks, that’s exactly what it is. And the proponents of this notion – some of whom are actually trained scientists! – cling frantically to their delusion. But perhaps things are changing; can the public be turning around toward rationality? John H. Atkinson, our faithful correspondent on the Isle of Man, provides us here with a list of 21 articles that have appeared in the UK Daily Mail newspaper in the last seven-and-a-half years. Writes John:

After the latest report on the 40% fall in prescriptions for homeopathy, I searched the UK Daily Mail's website using the keyword “homeopathy” and I give the first of at least seven pages of results below [in reverse order, latest being first]:

July 25, 2008: “40 per cent fall in homeopathic prescriptions” tinyurl.com/63e8nk

June 17, 2008: “Professor offers £10,000 to first person to prove homeopathy works” tinyurl.com/5en6k8

January 30, 2008: “Homeopathy treatments flounder as NHS trusts cancel contracts” tinyurl.com/5vp5go

December 7, 2007: “Homeopathy is putting people's lives at risk, warns top scientist” tinyurl.com/5bwa2e

November 26, 2007: “The case for and against homeopathy” tinyurl.com/6symtk

May 1, 2007: “Homeopathy is worse than witchcraft” tinyurl.com/5ff6dk

July 23, 2006: “TV's Nadia: Homeopathy helped me deal with my miscarriage” tinyurl.com/5d2ako

July 14, 2006: “Don't rely on homeopathy to beat malaria, doctors warn” tinyurl.com/5cdeff

May 23, 2006: “Homeopathy is pointless, says expert” tinyurl.com/67wnzk

May 4, 2006: “Asthmatic children treated with homeopathy” tinyurl.com/5oewn8

August 26, 2005: “Homeopathy 'nothing more than a placebo'” tinyurl.com/6gnsxy

June 20, 2005: “In focus: Queen kept healthy by homeopathy” tinyurl.com/55lvgs

April 12, 2005: “Homeopathy - Undiluted Tosh!” tinyurl.com/6dh2zz

September 5, 2003: “Your guide to homeopathy” tinyurl.com/6cqr8r

June 17, 2003: “Homeopathy 'no help' for asthmatic children” tinyurl.com/5bxrvw

June 13, 2003: “Homeopathy: not an alternative” tinyurl.com/5pnurs

June 13, 2003: “'Proof' that homeopathy works” tinyurl.com/5fw22z

June 13, 2003: “'Homeopathy works!'” tinyurl.com/4jgtsk

November 19, 2002: “'Proof' that homeopathy doesn't work” tinyurl.com/63l3ct

January 9, 2002: “Homeopathy: Con or Cure?” tinyurl.com/64j3es

December 11, 2000: “Homeopathy” tinyurl.com/6me4j9

We’d do well to examine these articles, to have points at hand to argue the matter. This series provides a general picture of the changing attitude toward this strange notion, at least in the UK – where homeopathy is very popular and is found everywhere. After all, the Royal Family uses it, and they even have their very own Royal Homeopath – Dr. Peter Fisher – who professionally prescribes little bits of nothing for them. But then, consider the present condition of the House of Windsor...

This is the 21st century; it's time to abandon wishful thinking and embrace rationality, despite the pain that some folks feel when forced to think. It's encouraging to me to see that scientific and medical authorities, as well as the media, are actively moving to have the claims of the homeopaths properly – extensively and scientifically – evaluated, though those practitioners dread such investigations, and prefer to mumble that they’d like to remain adamant in their self-delusion. The notion that literally nothing – just some sort of mystical "memory vibration" – can have any effect on a patient, needs to be relegated away, along with phlogiston and blood-letting. The sole real effect of the interference of a homeopath appears to be that an ugly lump in the patient's wallet is significantly reduced.

I may soon become heavily involved in a large-scale test of homeopathy, one which has been in negotiation for a few years now. No, don’t get too excited; these plans have a habit of evaporating – or reaching zero dilution...

John also has an excellent addition to this contribution. We can still enjoy some relief while bemoaning the state of our administration. In the illustration below, you’ll see a sign – a fictitious sign! – that gave me a huge lift along with roars of laughter. Enjoy!

Bear County


YET MORE ON HOMEOPATHY...

Singh

At tinyurl.com/6rft5o you’ll find an interesting article by Simon Singh about the 20th anniversary of the appearance of a startling paper by French scientist Jacques Benveniste that appeared in Nature Magazine. I suggest that readers go there and read the Singh article, then return to this page...

I’ll give you a few personal comments from one who was there, all the way through. First, the Benveniste research involved observing the degranulation of basophils, white blood cells that would literally burst when an IgE – immunoglobulin – antibody was present. The test procedure involved counting – via a reticule in a microscope – the number of exploded basophils. This would seem to be a straightforward procedure: select an area, count the burst cells, and record that number, but that wasn’t quite sufficient. Ideally – and such an experiment can’t properly be done with less than optimum care being applied – each microscope slide should have been randomly coded, so that double-blind conditions were in place. That was not done; on one occasion, we saw a lab worker perform the count, record it, and then erase the number when it was realized that the slide that had been scanned was a “control,” not a randomly-selected sample. The lab worker replaced the slide in the holder, moved it about, and settled on an area that gave a count more in line with what had been expected. That is not the way science is done.

When the Nature team – [now Sir] John Maddox of Nature magazine, Walter Stewart of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and myself – moved in, we designed a test run in which all samples were randomised then secretly re-coded, resulting in a truly double-blind protocol, and the results the lab obtained were – for the first time – negative. Any prejudices, prior beliefs, or intentional slanting of the results was made – literally – impossible, by our protocol.

I sincerely believe that – at first – Jacques Benveniste was genuinely unaware that such poor techniques were being used in his lab. However, I suspect that once he came up against our team, and we began noting lapses, he became more easily tolerant of lapses in protocol; his reputation, and that of the lab, was in danger at that point. And you should know that when we first sat down with this scientist in his office to hear his general approach to the work being carried out there, we were dismayed to hear that he (a) would not countenance any criticism of his lab workers, and (b) he made it a rule to personally stay out of the experimental area when procedures were under way. Had we exchanged glances – Maddox, Stewart, and myself – when these rules were announced by him, I think we’d have lost access to the area... We found such a situation and attitude, incredible. Our official statement – quoted by Simon Singh – summed it all up:

We believe that experimental data have been uncritically assessed and their imperfections inadequately reported.

But that was only a more polite way of saying:

We suspect that some experimental data have been improperly arrived at, and their imperfections not reported.




WHAT’S SAUCE FOR THE GOOSE...

UK reader Russell Jones writes:

In recent months, the UK government introduced laws affecting clairvoyants, palm-readers, fortune-tellers, astrologists, etc. The law states that, as they can prove none of their claims, they must always advertise as "entertainers," rather than claiming supernatural powers.

It occurs to me that there is no more evidence for religious powers than for clairvoyant ones. The Church of England, for example, advertises that it saves souls. I would welcome a legal challenge which made them demonstrate evidence of saving souls, leading to legislation to make religious groups ALSO define themselves as entertainers. That, I could live with. I can genuinely see no material difference between astrology and religion, and it appears to me that, presented with the evidence (or lack thereof), no rational, unprejudiced jury would, either.

Perhaps the Randi Foundation would have the resources to prosecute such a law suit. Otherwise, I'll keep buying lottery tickets until I can do it myself.

Russell, we handled this two months ago, back at randi.org/joom/content/view/197/1/#i5, but it could stand another mention. All the miracles claimed, promised, cited, and offered by religions of all varieties, should be similarly challenged...




HELP WANTED

We’ve received this inquiry:

My name is Johnathan Woodward. I am a university student/amateur documentary maker from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I am starting my 3rd documentary about Alternative Medicines and Healing. I have interviews with several homeopaths and holistic healers, but am having trouble finding professional critics in the area. In order to make my documentary well rounded and informational I feel it is necessary to interview professionals on both sides of the subject. Perhaps you know of somebody you could put me in contact with or somewhere else I can look to find who I am looking for.

Readers can contact Mr. Woodward at jlwoodward@hotmail.com




ANOTHER SUPERSTITIOUS HORROR

Reader Francisco Garcia writes:

I found this article – tinyurl.com/6j7tbs – and thought that you, and the readers of SWIFT, might be interested to hear about it. Apparently albino Tanzanians are being hunted and butchered for body parts to be used in magic preparations.

My first reaction (literally, my first reaction. You'd expect some level of shock to be someone's first reaction, but it's sad to say I'm used to hearing about this sort of thing enough that it's not particularly surprising anymore) was to think that this sort of thing makes our own problems of medical quackery, like say homeopathy, seem positively harmless by comparison, but on reflection I realized that, no, it only makes such things seem worse, because both are built on the exact same sort of thinking. The butchering of albinos in Tanzania only serves to reveal the true depravity of superstition, and I've come to sincerely believe that many homeopaths in America would just as soon become witch doctors but not for the accident of having been born here, rather than there.

Agreed, Francisco. Stupidity, superstition, and ignorance lead to different degrees of misbehavior, but it’s still a comedy of errors – a comedy that can become tragedy, as in this extreme example...




“THE ONE”: EPISODE 4

At tinyurl.com/5lsfqr we have a YouTube contribution by William Brougham, one of the audience members whose “psychometry” item was chosen by “psychic” Shé [pronounced, “shay] D’Montford to be “read” on “The One” program on Channel 7, in Australia.

William found significance in the fact that Shé had looked directly at him, that – in his words – she

…was recognizing me from the audience… I did find that amazing.

Apparently he didn’t realize that he’d been moving about attempting to see what object she had held in her hand out of sight; those most interested in that information, will of course be those who contributed an object. Also, if he began smiling as soon as he saw the identity of the object that Shé was working on – though she was actually working more on the audience members! – that would decidedly have tended to give him away. William’s analysis dealing with the grooming habits of someone who would carry a comb, was rather weak, I would say.

He handled well her guess that he was a “gifted healer,” something he hadn’t claimed or even imagined, but this was a guess that might have served to demonstrate that the “psychic” knew something that even he didn’t know, though if it had turned out that he’d had any such notion previously, that would have been a great “hit” for her.

Our tireless and fearless Robert Matic of Melbourne, Australia, reports again, this time on episode 4:

The penultimate episode of Australian series “The One” had been advertised all week as the episode with the results that “even amazed Australia’s biggest skeptic,” saturating the viewer with a montage of images of Richard Saunders with furrowed brow and pen in mouth. The episode that aired on 29 July, 2008, contained nothing of the sort. In fact, Richard perhaps gave his most solid criticisms to date. Host Andrew Daddo opened the show reminding the audience how challenging the tests have been for the psychics, with some hits and some misses. I’m sure the true challenging nature of the tests would be far more revealing if the viewer had access to the footage on the cutting room floor. The reels of tape must be chest-high by now. Thanks to the trusty stop-watch of my fellow reviewer at tinyurl.com/5o6wup it can be revealed that an average of 72% of the “cold reading” segment from last week’s episode was cut from the final edit – all misses, no doubt!

Test 1 – Medical Diagnoses

The judges were asked whether psychics might possibly be able to diagnose medical conditions with their sixth sense – “using their powers for good instead of rottenness,” as Maxwell Smart would say. Witch Stacey Demarco advocated the merging of conventional and unconventional medical treatments – pointing out that many unconventional treatments have now become accepted by society. Skeptic Richard Saunders thought it would be wonderful if psychics could immediately diagnose a person’s ailments, but when pressed by host Daddo to give his opinion on whether it were possible, Richard replied with an immediate “no.” I, personally, would have warned of the tragedies that could result from members of the public having complete faith in a psychic’s abilities when it came to health issues – if there were ever a time to be skeptical, surely, this is the time!

Random people from the streets were stopped and given a medical reading.

For the most part, the conditions predicted by the psychics were general and vague, with “pains on the left side,” something “viral” and “misalignment in the lower back.” Some psychics were courageous enough to make more specific – but highly likely – guesses. For example “loss of hearing” for a man in his sixties: “Statistics show that half of the population over the age of 60 can expect to have trouble with their hearing,” according to tinyurl.com/6bgk8t.

The test continued in the studio with five audience members with five different medical conditions being read by the psychics, in turn. The generalizations continued, but the biggest hit of the segment was the correct diagnosis that one of the five audience members had had a stroke – it was the man who was noticeably leaning to one side, had a crooked mouth, blinked with one eye only and slurred his speech! I don’t mean any disrespect, but how was this man allowed to take part in the test?

Meanwhile, none of the four remaining psychics noticed that one of the audience members was an amputee with a prosthetic leg!

The favorable editing of “The One” is becoming more evident with each passing week. Each of the four psychics was to read each of the five audience members – that should be a total of twenty readings, right? Wrong, Seven readings were completely cut from the show! With all the hits shown during the segment and a handful of misses, Richard Saunders’ comment that “with lots of guesses, you’re bound to get some of them right” looked very odd indeed, but received a favorable reaction from some audience members. When Richard added that the stroke victim may have “given it away,” Stacey Demarco became visibly frustrated, yelling out “Oh, that’s number four in the skeptics’ handbook.”

Test 2 – Matching a piece of luggage with a passenger

A group of twenty people disembarked an aircraft. The psychics were to match each of four pieces of luggage with a passenger. All four psychics failed this test miserably! Although the result was four misses, it’s important to note that this test was still fundamentally flawed in that it wasn’t double-blind; the twenty passengers were aware of the piece of luggage being “read” by the psychic. In fact, I expected at least one hit when each psychic began pacing back and forth, looking each passenger in the face – waiting for a smirk or a deep swallow or any form of subtle clue. With one episode to go, we still haven’t seen a truly double-blind test – and the psychics are still failing!

One of the psychics said that she had become overly confident, and her failure was merely her spirit guides humbling her – even spirit guides don’t like a big shot. Stacey Demarco defended the psychics’ poor performances, telling us that psychic powers work, but “we don’t understand them, yet – like acupuncture.” Stacey’s got one thing right, psychic powers and acupuncture are similar – neither of them work!

Surprisingly, host Andrew Daddo went in to bat for the skeptics, challenging Stacey to come up with a way to measure psychic abilities if these sorts of tests are unsuitable. Stacey’s reply: “Can you measure love?” In other words, you can’t measure psychic abilities – they just exist. We can now add Judge Stacey Demarco to the long list of this week’s failures.

Test 3 – Read a celebrity from behind a screen

In an attempt to give the psychics a helping hand in the final test of the week, the producers unwittingly provided a glaring example of how cold readings actually work. The psychics were to give a reading to a secret celebrity, hidden behind a screen. To signal the hits, the celebrities were to push a button which would light a giant screen behind the psychic and set off a loud victory siren. No longer would the psychic need to watch for those subtle clues that give direction to a reading, but would react to something the whole audience could see. The test was a double-edged sword – the feedback was stopping the psychics from going off on tangents, but the subtle clues that are usually noticed by the cold reader and missed by most viewers were suddenly replaced by a giant green light and siren.

When the screen was white, the psychics back-tracked and changed course and when the screen turned green the psychics developed their guesses. Only the “true believer” would believe that psychic abilities were being displayed during this third test. Cold reading at its rudimentary level!

A paraphrased example from the show:

You have two kids (Big green light, loud siren)

You’re on TV (No light, no siren)

No, hang on, I’m wrong. You’re a sports hero (Big green light, loud siren)

You play cricket (Trying to develop previous hit, but no light, no siren)

Or tennis (Still trying, but no light, no siren)

You have a daughter (Going back to develop the previous hit on “kids,” big green light, loud siren)

She likes dancing (Developing hit on “daughter”, big green light, loud siren)

Replace “Big green light, loud siren” with “subtle visual or audible clue” and you have psychic readings completely worked out! Use it wisely, kids.

Elimination: The Reiki practitioner – even though he was “2008 Australian Psychic of the Year” – was voted out, and the voting lines are open for the winner of “The One” to be revealed next week. Also, next week, the psychics will attempt to recover the lost body of Peter Falconio – British back-packer murdered in the Australian outback. It appears “The One” will close the same way most psychic readings close, asking for money with outstretched palms and taking advantage of those who have died for its own personal glory.

And, the upcoming finding-a-body test will provide – I’m sure – an endless series of unprovable hints, possibilities, guesses, and names, as well as generalized descriptions of outback scenarios... We await the announcement next week of Australia’s Least Failed Psychic – the Winner – with great interest!




MORE SNIFFEX

Mark B. Lindberg, one of the Sniffex team (see our lead item from last week at tinyurl.com/5apwrn) has now pleaded guilty in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to criminal conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He faces a possible five years in prison. But, as I always ask, what compensation, if any, will be awarded those – like the JREF – who were damaged as a result of this fraudulent operation? It was fraudulent from several different angles: the device itself didn’t work, it had no working parts, nor power supply, and they were manipulating their stock issue. Lindberg had already settled civil accusations with the SEC over the same incidents involving the Texas company and several other penny stock companies – he’d helped "pump and dump" shares of Sniffex, a company that under CEO Paul Johnson had touted a bomb-detecting device that we at JREF – and federal agencies – had proven didn't work. We made the mistake of calling their bluff, and were sued by Johnson, for libel. Lindberg also allegedly worked with others to control the trading in three other companies, thereby earning millions of dishonest dollars.

See tinyurl.com/639puy for a rather good summary of this farce. Note that even after a direct inquiry from the Dallas Morning News, officials at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology still have their feet dug in, and refuse to admit that their tests of the device were negative. We have to wonder how many investors would have been saved their losses, if that Institute had troubled to answer my direct inquiries… They still won’t comment on Sniffex, hoping that – with time – their failure will be forgotten. Their Ivory Tower is intact.




THE USPTO AGAIN

At tinyurl.com/6bch5n you’ll find an article about the US Patent & Trademark Office, who have come in for many mentions here in SWIFT, as regular readers will know. This article deals with specific matters that are outside of our immediate interest and field, but it opens with this sentence:

The US Patent and Trademark Office is a convenient whipping boy for problems with the patent system.

May I ask, who else? The USPTO is the only whipping boy eligible! They go on to say:

Perhaps shaken by the negative publicity generated from that case [on software patents] and others, the USPTO seems to have gotten religion on patent quality.

Well, I haven’t noticed any general improvement. The Office still appears to have poorly-informed examiners laboring there, treating seriously all sorts of pseudoscientific notions that dunderheads submit for their blessing, hoping that their perpetual-motion and free-energy systems – not to mention the sprinkling of dowsing-rod delusions such as the Quadro Locator, DKL LifeGuard, and Sniffex (last week’s lead item) – will get numbers assigned to them.




IN CLOSING….

Shermer

Please note that The Skeptic Society – under Dr. Michael Shermer – will handle the topic “Origins” at their big conference at Caltech, October 3rd to 4th. You’ll get to meet “Mr. Deity,” whose hilarious – yet serious – presentations are to be previewed at crackle.com/search/Mr.%20Deity. He’ll be joined by a stellar assembly of academics. Says Shermer:’

There is arguably no hotter topic in culture than science and religion, and so much of the debate turns on the "Big Questions" that involve "origins": the origin of the universe, the origin of the "fine-tuned" laws of nature, the origin of time and time's arrow, the origin of life and complex life, and the origin of brains, minds, and consciousness. From theologians and philosophers to creationists and intelligent design theorists, the central core of almost all of their arguments centers on filling these "origin" gaps with God. But now science is making significant headway into providing natural explanations for these ultimate questions, which leaves us with the biggest question of all: "Does science make belief in God obsolete?"

We have assembled some of the world's greatest minds to discuss some of the world's greatest questions.

Go to www.skeptic.com to get further information, or to register online. Not to be missed…!

The “huge joke” I referred to last week was happily spotted by several readers, as we see from the comments that came in. It was just this: most of the monstrous acupuncture needles shown on the adamkuby.com/acupuncture.htmlsite, are the results of PhotoShop work that should have been much better done… Take another look, folks… A few shadows were put in place, but not well, and I would think such an artist should use a few different original images; most of them looked identical… Our intern Sean McCabe twigged to this immediately.

(To “twig” to a fact or to an event means – in carny and confidence-man jargon – to become aware of it, or to “spot” it. In several observations of Uri Geller – via video and in person – I’ve noticed him “twigging” to the fact that he’s been detected in a maneuver, and immediately aborting the whole operation.)

As for my much-challenged use of the [sic] label last week on the word “elites” – in the sentence beginning “The elites enjoy the position of unaccountability…,” please note that Webster’s Dictionary tells us that the singular noun “elite” often uses a plural verb, which is the way I’ve always used it. Consider: if the writer had chosen to use “The rich” – a collective noun for rich persons – rather than “The elites” in his sentence, should he perhaps have written:

The riches enjoy the position of unaccountability…?

No, I think “the rich” would be proper, just as “the elite” – rather than “the elites” – would be correct…

Finally, as if it hasn’t been a silly enough week, reader SWIFT Steve Steppe gives us this: from the UK Times Online we learn that a Japanese fish-canning company is using acupuncture – you read that right – on tuna and bream to "calm them" in their death throes, to "make the blood purer," and "give the flesh a better flavor." Next, they plan to begin testing this magic charm on salmon...

Go to tinyurl.com/65gpf7 for the whole story...


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