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SWIFT October 10, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

ABC Shames Itself Again, Belief and Pizza, North Atlantic Cruise Canceled, “UFO” Spotted At New Zealand Skeptic Event, You Can Do It Too!, Promising News From Africa, Tying Up Skepticism With a Pretty Ribbon, An Overlooked Skeptic Resource, What Can Be Next, Religulous Review, and A Final Closing

NCASThe ABC-TV network – USA – ranks high among major TV networks. Viewers should expect that this company knows how to present news and documentaries in a factual, balanced, manner. Perhaps they do know how to do this, but their writers and editors generously use their powers to slant and destroy the integrity of the information they process, thus satisfying the ravenous public taste for highly glamorous, pleasant, and deceptive presentations that misinform and deceive them.

 

Table of Contents
  1. ABC Shames Itself Again

  2. Belief and Pizza

  3. North Atlantic Cruise Canceled

  4. “UFO” Spotted At New Zealand Skeptic Event

  5. You Can Do It Too!

  6. Promising News From Africa

  7. Tying Up Skepticism With a Pretty Ribbon

  8. An Overlooked Skeptic Resource

  9. What Can Be Next

  10. Religulous Review

  11. A Final Closing



ABC SHAMES ITSELF AGAIN by James Randi

The ABC-TV network – USA – ranks high among major TV networks. Viewers should expect that this company knows how to present news and documentaries in a factual, balanced, manner. Perhaps they do know how to do this, but their writers and editors generously use their powers to slant and destroy the integrity of the information they process, thus satisfying the ravenous public taste for highly glamorous, pleasant, and deceptive presentations that misinform and deceive them.

NCAS

The current “Shadow of a Doubt” monthly calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics [NCAS] contains an editorial that I want our readers to share with us, and I reproduce it here as received.

Recycling Waste Into...Waste On September 16, the ABC News program, Primetime, aired "UFOs: Seeing is Believing," hosted by David Muir. If the title seems vaguely familiar, you're right... the same basic program aired on the network in February 2005, when it was hosted by Peter Jennings. About 20 minutes of new material were added (focusing on the January 2008 Stephenville, Texas, UFO sightings, along with a new segment about NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander) and the program was shortened from 2 hours to 90 minutes.

Unchanged was its main conclusion: that mainstream scientists have ignored UFOs, and that a true scientific study is long overdue.

Both versions of the program failed to inform their many viewers (numbering over 11 million in 2005, and about half that this time around, still good enough to finish 40th among all prime time broadcast programs for that week) that scientific studies of UFOs have been conducted. The largest study was done by the University of Colorado under contract from the US Air Force from 1966-1968. The study's final report, entitled "The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects," (also known as "The Condon Report," after noted physicist Edward U. Condon, its scientific director) is hosted exclusively by NCAS at www.ncas.org/condon by permission of the Regents of the University of Colorado.

This is not an obscure study that Primetime somehow missed. In fact, the final report was instrumental in the Air Force decision to terminate Project Blue Book, its longtime study of UFO reports. The 1969 termination news release is shown in close-up during the program, its reference to "The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects" visible to any sharp-eyed viewers using a digital video recorder.

Moreover, the Condon Report was reviewed at the time by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, which concurred with its findings, which includes:

Careful consideration of the record as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.

Did the Primetime producers omit any mention of the Condon Report because it contradicts the main point of their program? Whether by intentional omission or through poor research, ABC News has done its viewers a disservice, misleading them into believing that scientists have kept their heads in the sand when it comes to UFOs. Unfortunately, the damage is ongoing: the National Geographic Channel continues to show the original Jennings program periodically.

Yes, and National Geographic probably shares the notion that this presentation of half-truths and outright farce represents the truth about this matter. Wrong. It’s a pandering, deceptive creation of ABC News, designed to deceive and entertain the woo-woos. They should know better; even the ABC-TV writers and editors had the evidence available to them. And they chose to ignore it.

I must admit that I was rather tolerant of this program when it aired in its first incarnation – see randi.org/jr/030405a.html#1 – but seeing that ABC has chosen to re-air the same material and not make the corrections they now know about, I cannot excuse their actions. I’m certainly not surprised, however. Many of you will remember an encounter I had with Primetime – see randi.org/jr/021805a.html – so I’m very familiar with their perfidy.

Logo

For those of our readers who are in the D.C. area, on October 11th, at 1:30 pm, NCAS is featuring speaker Karen North, who will hold forth on “Defining Sex: Sex and Gender Misconception,” at the Bethesda Library. The accompanying provocative logo speaks for itself… Further details are to be seen at ncas.org.




BELIEF AND PIZZA by Alison Smith

Pizza

Often, when I am giving a presentation at an event or speaking with individuals I would classify as "paranormal believers," I'm asked if I've ever had an experience that I would classify as paranormal, or if there has ever been an event that made me question my beliefs.

It's an odd phrasing for me, and not even because the prefix 'para-' has so many definitions (http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=7885), including both "beyond" and "abnormal," (which I suppose would make a paranormal experience an abnormal normal experience and cause my brain to explode).

I always get definitional when I'm writing up these articles, and I swear it's not because I'm looking to beat someone with Noah Webster's headstone. It's just that even if I did have a paranormal experience, what belief would it undo? Skepticism is not a belief. As many people before me have said, it's a method. However, at this point whoever I'm speaking with gives me the You're Dodging the Question look, at which point I bring up pizza, which also sounds as though I'm dodging the question, but really it's a perfectly relevant story that I'll share with you as well.

One day, I was having a discussion with a good friend of mine about religion. I should point out at this moment that I am not an atheist, and that my philosophy is rather difficult to break down in a few hundred words, so I'll just leave that alone for a moment and have you guessing that I worship Andhrímnir (a Norse mythological figure who daily slaughters a cosmic boar).

I was the believer in this debate, and before you get all het up about that one, consider that you do not know if I believe in Andhrímnir, Jesus, or that toast is the one true God. (I lean toward Toast.)

Finally, the argument had petered out, and we were just saying silly things. My friend proclaimed that he would believe in some form of God if a pizza arrived on his doorstep. Pizza, you see, did not deliver to the butt of nowhere, which is where this friend lived. So, I figured that this was the perfect opportunity to convert someone to Toast, and called up another friend who lived nearby (who we will now call "Shirley".)

Shirley agreed to take pizza to my friend without knowing the reason she was doing so (indicating, I suppose, what a true friend she really is. If I ever have need to bury a body, watch out, Shirley! I'm calling you!)

On the way, she also stopped and purchased a greeting card – again, without my guidance or any knowledge of the content of the conversation that had led her to cross state lines with pizza.

The cover of the card featured a picture of The Creation of Adam (see right), only instead of just reaching for one another, God was holding a pizza and Adam was holding out cash. When you open the card, it says, "And God said, 'Let there be pizza' and all was good."

Now, surely that is the oddest set of coincidences ever. That I had a friend who lived somewhat nearby, that the friend would be willing to take pizza (for no apparent reason) to my other friend, that she would stop and pick up a card, and that the card would feature an image of God. It is certainly an abnormal normal experience.

When I tell this story, I always leave out a key part, and it's because this element would ruin the whole thing.

My friend very specifically said, "if a pizza arrives on my doorstep."

Shirley only brought pieces of a pizza.

I suppose my friend can now believe in pieces of God. Or pieces of Toast, which actually makes sense.

Why do I alter the story? Because it's more interesting that way. And I think, as a skeptic, that many people who have experiences such as this one also alter elements to make it sound better. When someone claims to have seen a ghost, for example, and you offer objections and explanations, they always have a reason that makes your point moot. Is it because it's more interesting that way, or because that's how it really happened? I have no idea, but the compulsion to tell intriguing stories is strong.

This doesn't mean I disbelieve the individuals who share their experiences with me – I wasn't there, and I don't know. What I do know is this – a story about a ghost where I never tried to find an explanation beyond "dead person" is not compelling, and one where I did and none explained it is.




NORTH ATLANTIC CRUISE CANCELED by Phil Plait

We are sorry to announce that the cruise from the UK to the United States set for September 2009 has been canceled. We had a speaker cancel, then the cruise line had to make a drastic itinerary change. They canceled landfall at a Canadian port, resulting in the ship being at sea for five solid days. While we had a good lineup of skeptical events planned for the cruise, this length of time on board would mean asking an additional speaker to attend. The lack of lead time made this impossible, so we decided it was best to cancel the JREF involvement with the cruise.

The cruise itself will still sail, just without the JREF events, so you can still attend if you wish. If you have made a reservation, please contact the Absolutely Cruising travel agency at 800-794-7447.

There are three options:

1. You can cancel your cruise reservation and get a refund to the credit card you used for deposit. Credits will be issued within 7 days.

2. Cancel the North Atlantic cruise reservation and move the deposit to the Amazing Adventure 4 to the Mexican Riviera (see below).

3. Be reinvoiced for the cruise because you still wish to travel. Reinvoicing will result in a lower cruise cost since JREF activities and pre-paid tips will NOT be included in the total.

Remember, the Amazing Adventure 4 Mexico cruise is still on for March 8-15, 2009! [randi.org/joom/cruise-4-chasing-el-chupacabra.html] Join us for this warm water adventure, but remember the low price is only guaranteed through October 15, so reserve your cabin now!




“UFOS” SPOTTED AT NEW ZEALAND SKEPTIC EVENT by Jeff Wagg

UFO

Reader Nathan Granger alerted us to a rather startling phenomenon at a skeptics conference in Hamilton, New Zealand. It seems that during the conference held there at the end of September, strange lights were spotted, and even photographed!

What could they have been? What they COULD have been (and actually were) was a demonstration of how easy it is to create strange lights in the sky. Using balloons and LED lights, these custom “UFOs” took to the skies over the farming community of Hamilton. Observers were told the truth about the lights, and invited to think critically about other events they might witness.

The event was covered by the Waikato Times (stuff.co.nz/4707186a6579.html). A reporter asked Skeptic Vicki Hyde:

Why (should we) believe anything the Skeptics tell us this weekend?”

Vicki’s answer was clear:

You shouldn’t. You should think critically, in the same way that you should think about the claims of second hand car salesmen or people claiming to be able to speak to dearly departed.

Truer words were never spoken.




YOU CAN DO IT TOO! by Jeff Wagg

Spoon

Randi first wrote about this in 2006 at randi.org/jr/2006-12/120106dumb.html#5. Yes, spoon bending again. But this time we have video.

According to businesswoman Nicole Whitney:

If you could truly bend metal with your mind, what else could you do?

What couldn't you do?

Discover the answer to that question now. You are now moments away from the answer that could truly change your life.

Discover the answer to the question of what couldn’t I do? I know a lot of answers to that. Natalie claims that her program, now available at the likely domain of spoondbendingkit.com, has a level II available that will let you bend spoons... I guess better?

But what are we talking about here? Does she bend the spoon as it sits on a table? Does the spoon bend in her unmoving hand? Well, no. What we’re talking about is a woman who bends a spoon with her hands in full view of everyone, and claims it’s the power of her mind.

Don’t believe me? Watch this: youtube.com/watch?v=et5NuqTCXgU. Yes folks, you... and anyone else with working forearms and wrists can do that too.

Oh, lest I forget... many of you HAVE done this already, but with a much more impressive demonstration. I give you… the largest known spoon bending in human history, presented by Prof. Richard Wiseman at The Amaz!ng Meeting 6: youtube.com/watch?v=qTE9e2mZyqs.

Rumor has it that Natalie’s next video will be on determining the suit of a volunteer’s face-up playing card.




PROMISING NEWS FROM AFRICA by Jeff Wagg

Hogan

As last reported in Swift in August, 2007,(randi.org/swift-august-17-2007.html#i12), South Africa has a sad history of ignoring commonsense medical treatment. Now, we have some hope. The BBC reports (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7650983.stm) that South Africa has replaced Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang with Ms. Barbara Hogan, who said:

I would thoroughly endorse the roll-out of anti-retrovirals and any way we can accelerate that

Given that Dr. Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang’s response to the AIDS epidemic was beetroot and garlic, we can now have some hope that modern medical science can come to bear on this serious and tragic problem.




TYING UP SKEPTICISM WITH A PRETTY RIBBON by Brian Dunning

I would like to have a drink with the master purveyor of harmful pseudoscience, author and direct marketer Kevin Trudeau.

It's all well and good for us to sit back and snicker at Kevin Trudeau for being a scumbag and selling snake oil, but it's also true that he's beating us in the marketplace of public attention. He makes millions of dollars selling useless products, and the skeptical community makes virtually nothing offering only scientific fact. As a consequence, Kevin Trudeau has more marketing dollars and spreads his message much wider than we could ever hope to, and reaches far more people.

Please don’t misinterpret this as a defense of Kevin Trudeau or his ilk. As harmful as his products and his messages are, it’s useful to also understand how and why he is able to get such traction with them. Whatever else he might be, he is a brilliant marketer.

I look around The Amazing Meeting and I see a lot of ingenious scientists and critical thinkers, but I also think how valuable it would be to have a few people with Kevin Trudeau’s marketing savvy. Skepticism is certainly not about making money, it’s about helping people. But, like a hospital or a magazine, it has to make money to survive. You can’t spread your message if you have no budget with which to do it.

On the one hand, the message that critical thinking offers is the one “product” that’s actually truly valuable. Our message protects people from fraud. It encourages them toward evidence-based medicine. It protects them from a host of irrational paranoias and xenophobias. We help people to make good life decisions based on reality.

But on the other hand, our message is also the opposite of what’s easy to sell. We don’t promise fast, easy answers. We don’t promise that you are in total control of what happens inside your body. We don’t promise overnight wealth. We don’t promise to double your mileage. Instead, we promise only that those goals are difficult to achieve and require hard work.

Does this conundrum doom the critical thinking community to obscurity and irrelevance? Or, can the core message of skepticism be wrapped in a package that our target audience, the general public, will want?

I believe that it can. Anyone can be taught to become a skeptic. Moreover, they can reap real rewards by doing so, unlike Kevin Trudeau’s customers. Do we have a message that Oprah would want to promote? We might, if we can package it right. As skeptics, we often like to pat ourselves on the back for being the enlightened few in a world of darkness. That’s fine, but it’s not as helpful as shining that light outward. We just need more megawatts, and I believe the power is available. Let’s turn more of our attention toward generating that power, and finding a way to make skepticism commercially viable.




AN OVERLOOKED SKEPTIC RESOURCE by Jeff Wagg

I was thinking about all the skeptical organizations out there... the JREF, the Skeptic Society (http://www.skeptic.com), CSI (http://www.cscicop.org), and I realized that a magazine I’d been reading for over 30 years is never mentioned as a skeptic resource.

And that is Consumer Reports (http://www.consumerreports.org), published by Consumers Union. For those unfamiliar with the organization, they’re a non-profit which strives to provide consumers with the facts about products and services based on their own tests. They rate just about everything from cars to deck stains, and report on deceptive marketing, misleading packaging, and recalls as well.

I don’t agree with all their conclusions; I think they miss the mark on computer equipment often, but overall their methodology is a good one to adopt for any consumer.

My parents got me a subscription as a kid, and I still read it today. I’ve never shopped without applying what I’ve learned there. I’ve yet to see them review psychics, but consider this advice from the April 2008 issue:

Check whether over-the-counter products are labeled homeopathic. If they are, we think you should put them back on the shelf.

Sound familiar?




WHAT CAN BE NEXT? by James Randi

Reader Vincenzo reports:

I found an article in a Swiss tabloid which reports that Uri Geller has a new show on German TV where he tries to establish contact with Aliens during the show.... One of his guest-moderators during the show is Erich von Däniken...

Von Däniken is the author of “Chariots of the Gods,” a sappy treatment of some natural wonders and legitimate observations that the author wove to prove his notion that all sorts of interplanetary aliens had visited Earth and left traces behind. He described wonderful adventures and revelations he’d had in Peru uncovering theses wonders, but eventually admitted on PBS that he’d never been there.

Vincenzo was kind enough to send us translations of viewer comments, omitting those that were essentially repeats:

The tragic part about this whole thing is that there are indeed enough silly people that believe these charlatans. Sad.

Everyone wonders why our youth is going down the drain...and there is the answer. Collective stupidity – sad!

There are certainly supernatural powers and extraterrestrials. But Geller is only one of many who try to make money from it. Go to youtoube.com there are many videos there that prove he is cheating.

Absolute nonsense. It's tragic that people can be fooled so easily. The worst (is he an alien?) is without a doubt Uri himself, but also von Däniken (the mystery-park dreamer). A joke!

Four charlatans in one single show? Hopefully the extraterrestrials won't see this or they might think we are all as loony as they are...

Does Pro7 now have contracts outside of our galaxy? That's also a way to fool people or intimidate a large part of them, or even cause panic. Something like this shouldn't be shown on TV! The ladies and gents and Pro7 have gone really low. Boo!

Do the extraterrestrials understand German or Hebrew better? Maybe he will try it with Klingon.

Erich von Daniken makes a fool of himself if he does a show on TV with these people.

The quality of TV is disturbing. Even more disturbing is that these false prophets will have many spectators. World, where will this lead to?

Looks like someone needs money...

Von Daniken; UFOs unfortunately did not help him in Interlaken. [Reader is referring to the Mystery-Park setup by Daniken that went bankrupt] Supernatural forces? Mankind, open your eyes?

Idiots those who believe into such crap, check out Youtube where all tricks in the show The Next Uri Geller are revealed.

Send my regards to E.T.

Geller is the biggest charlatan on earth. Kick him on to Mars! And his silly show with it.

Boring. Will continue watching DVDs.

And, the inevitable loonies:

Luckily there are people that believe in something, which imagination doesn't stop at the horizon. Without them it would be terrible and boring and we would still be living in caves. Along those lines, I wish the show lots of success. It's much better then the crap usually shown.

I'm looking forward to the show! Däniken was my favorite author since my childhood and I hope that his theories will be proven right while he is still alive. Who knows maybe even live on TV.

Great!!!! I love Uri Geller!!

The thirst for nonsense continues…




RELIGULOUS REVIEW by Scott Hurst

Religulous

On Saturday afternoon, my wife and I went into town to see Religulous. I was hopeful, but certainly had some reservations about what I might be seeing. If you are here at randi.org, you are likely already aware that Bill Maher is known for having some shortcomings in the critical thinking arena (alt-med and PETA being two examples). So, for the first bit of good news, none of those shortcomings were in evidence and this promising film came off without a hitch.

I saw this film in Dallas, Texas. The first surprise was that the theater was almost completely full. The next surprise was that the entire theater was roaring with laughter through the entire length of the film. The people seated on each side of us were literally doubled over with laughter much of the time. Religulous is a really funny film.

Religulous is labeled as a documentary, but it is clear from watching that a comedy is much more what they had in mind. The bulk of the film is holding bit after bit of ridiculous religious dogma up for a searing in Maher's ever sharp wit. The general format is a few minutes segment of interview with a representative of the religious viewpoint followed by a minute or two of Bill and crew chatting on the way to the next interview location. Approximately the first half of the film is dedicated to Christian dogma and beliefs. The second half is then split between Scientology, Mormonism, Islam, and Judaism. This mix isn't surprising when you consider the target audience, the people of the United States.

In this film, Bill travels to the Vatican, Salt Lake City's Mormon Temple, the Temple Mount, Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky (where he actually interviews Ken Ham), and Holy Land in Orlando, Florida among many other locations. The amount of crazy to be found at the Creation Museum and Holy Land should surprise no one. Watching the Holy Land guests view a live performance of a passion play was pretty disturbing to this reviewer. Existing video footage is used to make easy targets of the likes of Robert Tilton, Ted Haggard, Jim Baker, and Jerry Falwell.

This movie certainly isn't for everyone. True believers will be deeply offended. Nonbelievers will get a laugh a minute. Fence sitters will hopefully get a little more to think about. That brings me to why this movie might just be an important movie. Besides that it probably will sway many (especially youthful) fence sitters, the movie points out that at 16% of the population nonbelievers are one of the largest minorities in America. Nonbelievers are far more numerous than other minorities that have found a clear voice in America. Maher becomes another voice that implores us to stand up and be heard. The last few minutes of the film then turn serious with a stark reminder of the dangers of allowing the country and the world to be run by people who believe in a literal reading of a holy text and expect the end times to come any day.




IN A FINAL CLOSING… by Jeff Wagg

This is the last Swift in this format. From now on, you’ll see articles posted on randi.org individually, hopefully on a daily basis. This means no more waiting for Friday to find out the latest news in the skeptical world! You’ll always have something new to read each day. We have some great guest writers who’ll be joining us, some you’ve heard of… some you’ll be glad to meet. Stay tuned to see what’s next. This is the first of many changes we expect to make.