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SWIFT September 5, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

Absurd, Shermer’s Event, Some Heavy Comments, Alarming Acceptance of Quackery, A Huge Step Backward, Stupid Answers, Some Hope, In Closing…

VF

A certain Vince Fenech, Evangelist pastor and director of the fully-licensed, state-approved “Accelerated Christian Academy Creationist institution” in Malta, has achieved a new level of fantasy that rivals most of what we encounter these days, even on the US political scene. Says this student of mythological science, dinosaurs helped build the pyramids of Egypt. This is a little-known aspect of archaeology, even as taught in Egypt or to Scientologists.

Table of Contents
  1. Absurd

  2. Shermer’s Event

  3. Some Heavy Comments

  4. Alarming Acceptance of Quackery

  5. A Huge Step Backward

  6. Stupid Answers

  7. Some Hope

  8. In Closing…



ABSURD

VF

A certain Vince Fenech, Evangelist pastor and director of the fully-licensed, state-approved “Accelerated Christian Academy Creationist institution” in Malta, has achieved a new level of fantasy that rivals most of what we encounter these days, even on the US political scene. Says this student of mythological science, dinosaurs helped build the pyramids of Egypt. This is a little-known aspect of archaeology, even as taught in Egypt or to Scientologists.

While some of us have the quaint notion that dinosaurs – we’re talking BIG ones here – became extinct some 65 million years ago, Fenech reveals to us that they actually co-existed with early humans, and even helped in the construction of the pyramids. He tells us that the beasts are mentioned in the Book of Job, but cautions that his observation about their being used for pyramid construction is only “his personal belief.” The curriculum of the Academy is not exactly Dinofree of such fanciful reinventions of history. They insist the basic Evangelist tenet that the entire universe was created in 4004 BPE, is true, and Fenech supplies “proof” of the notion:

When man landed on the moon [1969], they expected the landing module to sink in a deep layer of dust. But the layer was only a few inches deep. This proves that the universe is still young!

Hey, how can we deny this evidence?

As an article in the Malta Times revealed when they commented on this nonsense from the Accelerated Christian Academy Creationist Institution, Malta’s Education Director Dr. Cecilia M. Borg was notified about the blatantly unscientific nonsense evidently taught there. She was queried by the Times about resolution #1580, passed by the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly on 4 October 2007, entitled “The Dangers of Creationism in Education.” This resolution observes that

…the war on the theory of evolution and on its proponents most often originates in forms of religious extremism which are closely allied to extreme right-wing political movements.

And EU members are asked to

…firmly oppose the teaching of creationism as a scientific discipline on an equal footing with the theory of evolution and in general resist presentation of creationist ideas in any discipline other than religion.

From Dr. Borg came this response:

From previous correspondence I am sure you could clearly deduce that the position of the Education Division is perfectly aligned to the Council of Europe Resolution 1580 since it was made amply clear that while every school is obliged by law to follow the National Minimum Curriculum in all curricular matters, religious, moral and ethical instruction is imparted in respect to the freedom of belief as guaranteed by the Constitution and in the light of “the right of every parent of a minor to give his decision with regard to any matter concerning the education which the minor is to receive,” as entrenched in article 6 of the Education Act.

Dr. Borg, I believe, has failed to differentiate between subjects of strictly educational, factual, value – such as science – and those of generally philosophical import. The Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly clearly placed such notions as those of Vince Fenech in the religion category. In my personal opinion, matters of mythology, religion, and fantasy can and should fall well outside of “hard” subjects such as mathematics, science, geography, etc. Religion is a part of history, and belongs in that category as a specific study of how we used to think of reality.

These are my personal opinions.




SHERMER’S EVENT

Shermer

We take pleasure in announcing the 2008 Skeptics Society Conference to be held this October 3rd and 4th – Friday and Saturday – at the Beckman Auditorium, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and featuring hosts Dr. Michael Shermer and Dr. Philip Clayton. They’ll be discussing “The Big Questions” – which Michael describes thus:

Today, 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 apologists 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?”

With a co-sponsorship of the Templeton Foundation—who worked with Skeptics Society Executive Director Dr. Michael Shermer for their Big Question essay series—we have assembled some of the world’s greatest minds to discuss some of the world’s greatest questions.

Drs. Leonard Susskind, Paul Davies, Sean Carroll, Donald Prothero, Christof Koch, Stuart Kauffman, Kenneth Miller, Hugh Ross, Victor Stenger, and Nancey Murphy will all be part of this fascinating discussion, followed by a remarkable new attraction on the skeptical forum, the “Mr. Deity” team. About this entertainment, Shermer says:

Deity

Mr. Deity offers a humorous (and slightly irreverent) look at the day-to-day operations of the universe and the Big Man in charge. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at how Mr. Deity and his long-suffering assistant, Larry, grapple with the complications of their new Creation. “What kind of Evil will be allowed in this new universe?” “How do you go about finding a ‘Savior’?” “Why won’t these darned lights work?” And “How do you relate to your girlfriend when she’s the devil (literally)?” are just some of the thought-provoking questions raised by the show. Mr. Deity (Brian Keith Dalton), Larry (Jimbo Marshall), Jesus/Jesse (Sean Douglas), and Lucy/Lucifer (Amy Rohren) will entertain us with clips and behind-the-scenes stories, along with the more serious theological and philosophical issues raised in individual episodes.

For many reasons, I regret that I’ll not be there, particularly to hear my friend Dr. Vic Stenger speak. It’s been too long since we last met. He’s emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, the author of a number of popular science books also well received by professional scientists, including Has Science Found God?, The Comprehensible Cosmos, Timeless Reality, The Unconscious Quantum, Not by Design, and the New York Times bestseller, God: The Failed Hypothesis. Vic has debated many of the top theologians of our time, and should provide both entertainment and heavy sooth to attendees at the conference.

You can make conference reservations for the Westin Pasadena, a 4-Star Hotel, by calling 866/837-4181. You’ll get a Special Conference Rate of $165. Registration is $175 for Skeptics Society members, and $195 for nonmembers. If you choose to register as a member, you’ll get a one-year Skeptics Society membership/Skeptic subscription, too. Registration includes all meals: Friday night dinner, Saturday breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We urge you to support Michael’s conference, and assure you that it will be up to his usual high standards.

Wish I could be there…




SOME HEAVY COMMENTS

Reader Derek Hudson writes from the UK:

After 30-40 years I finally got round to contacting you! First to say thank you for the good and necessary work you continue to do to fight the corner for rationalism, and against intellectual crap. Secondly to get a couple of things off my chest...

I've just heard some idiot on the radio promoting his latest book on how the world is falling apart, morally, and how AWFUL everything is. The interviewer merely accepted the assertion that "evil is increasing exponentially everywhere, that the world is a worse place than ever, etc etc..". This has been the common message of the religious for CENTURIES, and is palpable nonsense.

When the Christian crusaders butchered every man, woman and child in Jerusalem, no doubt inspired by the actions of King David on many occasions, now that's what I call EVIL! When innocent women all over Europe were tortured and killed as witches, in the name of god, now that's real evil! When thousands of people were burnt at the stake for not believing some obscure item of an ancient myth, that's 100% proof evil! When we hanged 7-year-old kids in this country for stealing, that was bad.

The great majority of people in the UK (and elsewhere, I am sure) do NOT rape, murder, torture or commit other heinous crimes, but show concern for animals, children, and the climate, and they give, annually, millions of pounds to charitable causes. What the hell is this “increasing evil” rubbish? End of rant 1.

Second rant concerns, with apologies, the role of religion in US society. Do we really have a potential US President (just a heartbeat away...) who believes, and is willing to state, that the world was created as it currently is about 6,000 years ago, that dinosaurs and humans co-existed, and that evolution should be given equal time in schools with “intelligent design”? These people always present themselves as down-to-earth, no-nonsense, common-sense individuals, with a sneering hate of rationalism and science. I don't wish anything bad on this lady, it's against my religion, but if she gets a serious illness, I am sure she will rely on prayer and faith in preference to medical SCIENCE! This is my counter to the “you don't find atheists in foxholes” gambit; no, when things get desperate it might be comforting to appeal to big daddy in the sky to get you through, but that didn't stop millions being slaughtered in world wars, even though they had prayed fervently! Would an avowed atheist ever be elected to any office in the US? End of rant 2.

As a teacher, I used clips from the TV show you did here many years ago [GRANADA TV], to show the scientific method at work. I like to think that I encouraged many kids to think for themselves, and to question all that they are told. NOT to reject, but to question, and to come to a view based on evidence, likelihood, etc. You gave me a great deal of inspiration, for which I thank you.

Thank you, Derek. Though I share much of this concern, I feel that US voters will base their decisions on their needs, and will send to the White House a candidate who agrees to solve those problems. We are, when our external appearances are stripped away, practical folks.

But, we’ll see, in November…




ALARMING ACCEPTANCE OF QUACKERY

While I don’t necessarily expect intellectual brilliance from the armed forces of the United States of America, I might look forward to their becoming better informed in regard to reality. We’ve just been told that the U.S. military, increasingly concerned about the high number of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, is spending $4 million of our tax dollars on grants to conduct “clinical studies” on everything from yoga, to reiki, to transcendental meditation. The Department of Defense says it

…supports the use of alternative therapies if they are proved efficacious.

Now, that should mean that the DOD will conduct meticulous tests of these quack notions, then report their discoveries to the world. Why this should cost four million, is far beyond my understanding, but it would be money well spent if it were used to conduct proper examinations of these “alternative” ideas. I doubt that will happen. They’ll call in “experts” who espouse these subjects, they’ll see masses of anecdotal offerings, and they’ll err in the direction of “political correctness” in order not to offend anyone’s religious or ethnic sensibilities.

Why do I have such a negative expectation? Because that’s what has always happened! Government agencies have fearful employees who tip-toe around the bare facts of these matters. They ignore obvious evidence, they barely scratch the surface, and they issue reports that encourage the quacks and – in effect – validate their claims…

It was ever thus, as we see from one of the first applications. Lola Scarborough, proprietor of Yoga Lola Studio in League City, Texas, has applied for a $300,000 research grant to "document the benefits of Kundalini yoga on veterans." “Document”? That means asking veterans if they – from their positions of expertise – ascribe healing effects to yoga! The evidence will be selected and vetted by Lola, so we’re sure it will be definitive and authentic, of course…? Just read what she offers on the subject:

Kundalini yoga awakens an untapped reserve within each of us, envisioned as a sleeping serpent in the base of the spine, whose power can help veterans deal with anger, flashbacks, depression and anxiety, symptoms often associated with PTSD… There is a big problem with people coming back from war. They are able to survive physical wounds through body armor, but they are blowing up their brains.

Yeah, sure, I’ll spend $300,000 on that…

Matthew Friedman, executive director of the VA's National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, says that the government's desire to find scientific proof that yoga and holistic therapies benefit PTSD sufferers, is a positive move. Yes, I’d certainly agree. Where my difficulty lies, is in the methods that will be used to test the claims. Only double-blind, objective, solid, independent researchers should be involved in such an important project. Whether practitioners claim that their practices are efficacious, should have nothing to do with the test procedure. Only hard evidence should be accepted.

Maybe I’ll be surprised, but I don’t expect that the four million will be properly invested, knowing how much has been squandered in the past on such projects…




A HUGE STEP BACKWARD

From reader Mark G. Meredith we hear that a positive step has been reversed, and St. Johnsbury, Vermont, has surrendered to the woo-woo faction; they’ve lifted a ban on fortunetelling. The fortune tellers, clairvoyants, tarot card readers and ghost-talkers in this corner of northern New England are once again free to swindle the citizens. A law was imposed against this flummery back in 1966, banning practitioners from telling fortunes or attempting

…to reveal future events in the life of another or by means of occult or psychic powers, faculties or forces, clairvoyance, psychometry, spirit-mediumship, prophecy, astrology, palmistry, necromancy, cards, talismans, charms, potions, magnetism or magnetized articles or substances, oriental mysteries or magic of any kind or nature; to undertake or pretend to find or restore lost or stolen money or property, gold or silver or other ore or metal or natural product; or to undertake or pretend to unite, or reunite or to find lovers, husbands, wives, lost relatives or friends.

Other communities, too, had similar laws. In Philadelphia, city inspectors shut down more than a dozen psychics, astrologers and tarot-card readers after discovering a very old state law, one that still bans fortunetelling for profit. Louisiana's Livingston Parish made soothsaying, fortunetelling, palm reading and crystal-ball gazing illegal. Similar laws held in Nebraska, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina and Oklahoma. As long ago as 1998, such a ban in Lincoln, Nebraska, was struck down by a federal appeals court as being unconstitutional.

The problem was that St. Johnsbury had never enforced its ban. Why, we can only wonder…




STUPID ANSWERS

Reader Lawrence W. Lee Jr. writes:

The local newspaper in my hometown runs a weekly advice column, of a religious nature. Perhaps you would like to comment in an upcoming "SWIFT" about some of what passes for their "advice." The following two questions and answers appeared in today's paper:

Q: Does prayer really work?

A: In due course, prayer always "works." No prayer is wasted. After all, you're working with God.

Q: Is loneliness a weakness?

A: No, it's not. It simply points up that the human heart is made for God and it shall not rest until it rests in him.

Incredible pap…




SOME HOPE

Reader Nils Geylen, in Antwerp, Belgium, writes:

A quick note from a fellow skeptic that might interest the Foundation. A Dutch public TV consumer show called “TROS Radar” has exposed the “paranormal advisers” of a commercial TV Network as frauds – obviously – leading to the cancellation of those programs. In the shows, these paranormal consultants would “help” people calling in with problems on live daytime TV. It's pretty neat that they now have to cancel these – heavily sponsored and advertised – bogus shows.

A win for skeptics!

From a news report on “Broadband TV News” about this item, we take this:

RTL Nederland said that it is cancelling all of the so-called “Astro programming” from its schedule with immediate effect. The broadcaster said it is investigating the way the production company selects and hires its “consultants.” RTL introduced the astrological programming to replace the controversial “Call TV” programs late last year. The new programming has already sparked criticism from politicians and consumer organizations.

The cancellation of the live broadcasts, in which people can call for advice from astrologers, follows a broadcast by the TROS TV consumer magazine Radar in which a reporter had no problem being hired as a “consultant.” An interesting note to this story: when the US government started to regulate commercial radio stations in the 1920s, one of the first acts was to ban all broadcasts by astrologers, card readers, wonder doctors and other fortune tellers, from the American airwaves. After the measure, these broadcasts moved to cross-the-border broadcasters in Mexico, who used high-powered AM transmitters to reach a nighttime audience across the States.

News: The American TV evangelists still use radio and TV transmitters located just across the Mexican border to reach their audiences. These stations are powered far in excess of US transmitters, and can reach all the way to the Canadian border. I recall that when I did my WOR radio show from midnight to five in the morning, our AM – “amplitude modulation” – signal was 100,000 watts, sent from a huge antenna in Carteret, New Jersey, and on some nights we reached listeners in Alaska and California. That involved the Kennelly-Heaviside layer phenomenon, which is far too complicated to enter into, here…




IN CLOSING…

While still reeling from the Galapagos Islands Tour, I attended Dragon*Con, an assembly of 37,000+ revelers who invaded Atlanta. I spoke there, was well received, and was thoroughly surprised and pleased at the quality and character of the strange folks who attended. You can hear my observations on this event at www.itricks.com/randishow.


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