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SWIFT June 29, 2007 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

A Mortal Blow, Desperate Measures, Resurrection of an Old Hoax, Maybe Heaven's Getting Dry, Sam Harris Responds, Lumps from South Africa, From Our General Manager, In Closing.

 

 I’m sorry, but there’s just no other way to describe this lethal review of biochemist Michael J. Behe’s latest floundering attempt to bolster the failed “Intelligent Design” nonsense. Behe is the author of “Darwin’s Black Box” and this one, “The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.” The review is from the keyboard of our hero Richard Dawkins, which should explain its potency. I refer readers to tinyurl.com/2c45vk.

Table of Contents
  1. A Mortal Blow

  2. Desperate Measures

  3. Resurrection of an Old Hoax

  4. Maybe Heaven’s Getting Dry

  5. Sam Harris Responds

  6. Lumps from South Africa

  7. From Our General Manager

  8. In Closing…




A MORTAL BLOW

I’m sorry, but there’s just no other way to describe this lethal review of biochemist Michael J. Behe’s latest floundering attempt to bolster the failed “Intelligent Design” nonsense. Behe is the author of “Darwin’s Black Box” and this one, “The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.” The review is from the keyboard of our hero Richard Dawkins, which should explain its potency. I refer readers to http://richarddawkins.net/article,1360,n,n.

We’re so fortunate to have Dawkins on our side and so enthusiastically active in herding and controlling the mavericks out there who so confound the public’s view of reality. It’s Richard’s hard-nosed opposition to flummery, his unyielding, uncompromising, in-your-face approach – such as we saw so well expressed in “The Root of All Evil” – that dragged me all the way into total battle mode. It inspired my August 5th, 2005, statement – at randi.org/jr/080505potential.html#14> – which removed any lingering doubts about my personal position and that of the JREF.





DESPERATE MEASURES

Reader Kjetil Hope, in Norway, relates the alibis produced by a local witch-doctor who was called in to influence the performance of a soccer team:

In Norway, prior to a soccer cup match between Brann Bergen and Oygard, one from the latter team contacted a Sami shaman, a former referee named Mikkel Nils Sara, to cast a “sami” spell (“perform a ganding”) at the former team. The following ensued. From Bergensavisen, the local Bergen newspaper:

“If the Brann team doesn’t score early, they will have problems scoring at all, and then it may be a surprise. I didn’t gand them, that takes to long a time, but I have done something to make them not score against Oygard,” Mikkel Nils Sara claims.

This didn’t happen. Brann Bergen eliminated Oygard from the tournament with a secure 5-0 victory. However, the week after, Brann Bergen played against Lyn Oslo, and even though Brann were considered the favorites, they suffered a major 0-6 defeat. Now Sara went to the newspapers, saying:

To make it clear, I did not gand Brann, but I used my abilities. The goal was to make it hard for them to score in the cup match against Oygard. It was only two or three days before the match when Oygard called me, and it takes time before such things take effect. Therefore it may have had an effect on Brann against Lyn.

Impressive! He managed to make a soccer team lose a match, just not the right match. Has he got a money back-guarantee? Why isn’t he making a lot of money on betting, or on your million-dollar challenge?

But I am not impressed about how my fellow Norwegians look at this event. A lot of them warn against the powers of sami shamans, and even in an internet poll by the largest newspaper in Norway, Verdens Gang, over 45 percent believed in the power of “sami” shamanism. So we need you here, Randi.

Just waiting for an invitation, Kjetil…!





RESURRECTION OF AN OLD HOAX

Reader Tom Wheeler tells us that a journal hilariously named “Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM)” – as if there’s any such subject – has just published an article that actually endorses that old 70s notion known as “Pyramid Power.” Tom notes the beginning of the Introduction:

Pyramid research to date reveals some evidence that the space within the great pyramid and its smaller replicas enhances, intensifies and/or generates energy of the electromagnetic spectrum and other forms or degrees of the so-called universal energy. The effect of this “pyramid energy” has been studied on solids, liquids, plants, animals and even human volunteers. Some of the findings of such studies include rapid growth of plants, faster healing of bruises and burns, longer preservation of milk, and increased vitalization and better relaxation in human subjects.

Incredible! This “power” has been so totally bombed out of consideration, I’m astonished that these Indian scientists can still consider it to have any validity at all. The site where this claptrap appears – ecam.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/4/1/35 – is so comical that we have to suspect it’s a schoolboy hoax.

But schoolboys could do better than this, I’m sure…





MAYBE HEAVEN’S GETTING DRY

Quite astonished that the Prime Minister of Australia – see randi.org/jr/2007-06/060107.html#i1 – would actually ask citizens to pray for rain and then flood the place, reader Michael Taylor writes:

I just wanted to make you aware that the Governor of Georgia is asking everybody to pray for rain.

Yes, but please note that Governor Sonny Perdue's call for prayer had a careful qualification, Michael. Sagely observing that “"Rain is the only cure," thus eliminating heavy dew and perspiration, this expert gave his evidence for heavenly/divine intervention:

I believe in the God that can make it rain, and we need to pray for rain..

Well, that settles it, then. See tinyurl.com/ywpxc4 for the very involved precipitation details. Yawn.

But there are other problems. Now, Aussie reader Robert Matic informs us:

Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s appeal to prayer has backfired once again. After he called for the Australian public to pray for rain to break the nation’s worst drought in recorded history, New South Wales was hit with severe flooding and all of a sudden, only a few weeks later, Victoria is experiencing the worst floods in over a decade. God must have a soft spot for us Aussies.

I think, however, the Prime Minister should have considered the consequences of 20 million Australians praying for rain at the same time. Perhaps a more systematic approach was in order; maybe odd numbered households praying Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and even numbered households praying Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Sundays, of course, would be a day of rest.

The mystery’s just too much for me…





SAM HARRIS RESPONDS

Last week, at randi.org/jr/2007-06/062207.html#i8, I wrote about author Sam Harris’ declarations concerning certain woo-woo aspects of reality. He was kind enough to promptly comment thus:

Someone forwarded you recent blog about me. You really haven't understood my point of view. I have never said that I believe in PSI, reincarnation, etc. I have taken a position that there seems to be data on these subjects which should be evaluated. You may think that the claims of Radin, Stevenson, et al. have been thoroughly vetted and demolished. If so, please tell me where this demolition occurred. (I remember the back and forth in Nature with Brian Josephson, which did not seem to lay the matter to rest).

In any case, there has long been a clarification of my position on these and other controversial matters on my website: samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2/ The relevant excerpts are these:

My views on the paranormal—ESP, reincarnation, etc.:

My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson’s 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists. (Here, I am making a point about gradations of certainty: can I say for certain that the last hundred years of experimentation proves that telepathy doesn’t exist? No. It seems to me that reasonable people can disagree about the data. Can I say for certain that the Bible and the Koran show every sign of having been written by ignorant mortals? Yes. And this is the only certainty one needs to dismiss the God of Abraham as a creature of fiction.)

My views on Eastern mysticism, Buddhism, etc.:

My views on “mystical” or “spiritual” experience are extensively described in The End of Faith and do not entail the acceptance of anything on faith. There is simply no question that people have transformative experiences as a result of engaging contemplative disciplines like meditation, and there is no question that these experiences shed some light on the nature of the human mind (any experience does, for that matter). What is highly questionable are the metaphysical claims that people tend to make on the basis of such experiences. I do not make any such claims. Nor do I support the metaphysical claims of others.

There are several neuroscience labs now studying the effects of meditation on the brain. While I am not personally engaged in this research, I know many of the scientists who are. This is now a fertile area of sober inquiry, purposed toward understanding the possibilities of human well-being better than we do at present.

While I consider Buddhism almost unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom, I do not consider myself a Buddhist. My criticism of Buddhism as a faith has been published, to the consternation of many Buddhists.

I thank author Harris for this prompt, informative, and very welcome outline of his thoughts on these matters. I’ll say that concerning books on parapsychology, I, too, cannot “categorically dismiss their contents.” I have given many years of my life to carefully examining the material they have offered, and I have published my findings in my own books. Attempted rebuttals of my work have not re-established the parapsychologists’ claims, to any extent. I believe that Sam Harris should find some time to examine my research, and I think he would agree with me: their claims are no better than Papal Bulls or Catechisms. Now, I know that Mr. Harris is adequately supplied with tasks that command his attention. He has even less time than I, to spare for breathing and performing other vital functions. However, I have today shipped off to him a selection of my books which I hope he might have an opportunity to look through. I’ll not wait for the phone to ring announcing his expected epiphany, but I trust that he will eventually discover that the honeyed phrases of the paranormalists – even of the Nobel Laureates among them – turn sour when the evidence is in and is summoned up in opposition. Sam Harris is as interested in, and as dedicated to truth and logic, as I am, I’m quite sure.

Next week, I’ll publish only part of a long exchange with a reader who questioned my point of view on Mr. Harris. I’ve already sent it off to Sam Harris. I think my readers will find it interesting.





LUMPS FROM SOUTH AFRICA

Reader Marius Strydom takes me to task, though he has the wrong SWIFT in mind. It should be last week’s, at randi.org/jr/2007-06/062207.html#i4:

In your 15 June 2007 Newsletter you ask "when will South African finally decide to join the rest of the rational world…?" Which rational world is this? Is it the one that you take on every week for its irrationality?

Please get serious. I have a great deal of respect for you and the work that you are doing, but making a blanket statement with regards to my country's "rationality" when you have no statistical evidence to back it up is just stupid. South Africa is about as rational as any other country on this earth in my opinion. In other words, not rational enough, but certainly (again in my opinion) much more rational than the USA. We teach evolution in our schools, you can be an atheist and an elected politician, etc.

Anyway, sorry to rant, but your comment above is like saying "when will the USA finally wake up, stop killing and torturing people with impunity and join the civilised world…?"

Well, on the evolution question, we in the USA do teach it as science, though we get all sorts of bleating from the sheep who cannot accept it. I’ll admit, you certainly have a point re the atheism-and-politics question. I believe that irritating a populace has its own value, and my perhaps too strong question calls for an apology, which I offer here and now. However, before reader Marius begins glowing, I suggest that he might look at randi.org/jr/072905beenthere.html#8 and randi.org/jr/070805the.html#3 for some bits of sobering news…

Seriously, though I’ve only visited South Africa once, I was very impressed with the harmony I witnessed between races. You see, in previous years, I’d had several offers to accept theatre engagements in that country, and I’d always turned them down because of the apartheid situation I knew I’d find. I cannot in any way accept, condone, or tolerate racial segregation or favouritism, so I carefully stayed out of S.A. to avoid getting into fist-fights. Then I witnessed on TV the stirring release of Nelson Mandela from confinement, and I opened myself to a visit.The Grahamstown Science Festival (SciFest 1997) there at which I spoke was thrilling indeed, with kids of every shade competing, mixing, interacting, and generally at peace with one another and the new order that had been brought into existence. It was a great event for me…

For that reason, I regard as especially damaging any and all woo-woo that might visit that beautiful wounded-but-recovering country. Some prominent authorities there vigorously denounce genuine medical treatments because they are mainstream – proven medicine – rather than traditional – primitive – methods. President Mbeki has denied the HIV/AIDS connection, and his Minister of Health Dr. (?) Tshabalala-Msimang prescribes garlic and lemon as substances to protect the citizens of South Africa from the disease! This is official, authorized, preaching of quackery, superstition, and pseudoscience!

Reader Rethea Deetlefs also criticized me:

You ask "when will South Africa finally decide to join the rest of the rational world?" Just because some nut in Benoni (hardly a town on the cutting edge of ... well, anything) sees floating women, doesn't mean we all do! And yes, I know our Minister of Health believes lots of garlic and beetroot will either cure you of AIDS or at least prevent it, but at least no SA province (we don't have states) has tried to get evolution out of the school curriculum and creative design into it.

“Creative Design,” I could accept, Rethea, but not what the fundamentalists are trying to push down the throats of the naïve and willing. So, until the South African nation gets rid of superstitious nonsense that is killing citizens, I’ll continue to urge that they join the rational world…





FROM OUR GENERAL MANAGER

Jeff Wagg, who accompanied me to Japan recently, had a comment about last week’s item – at randi.org/jr/2007-06/062207.html#i2 – on Salem witches:

I grew up in Salem and have met Laurie Cabot many times. She even ran for mayor once. Her shop, Crow Haven Corner, was right in the tourist district, across from the Witch House, which was really the residence of Judge Hathorne who presided over the trials. The witches actually lived in Salem Village, 7 miles away in what is now known as Danvers. When I last visited the shop, it was full of knick knacks and potions, and smelled awful.

I find it very interesting that as a kid, the "witch" aspect was downplayed by the tourist bureau in favor to Salem's rightful claim as being one of the world's most important seaports in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the end, money won out, and now the town is rife with "psychics," both fake and merely deluded.

It's actually quite sad. The witch hysteria was a tiny precursor to other horrific events like the holocaust, where the least empowered members of society were made scapegoats for the community's misfortunes. There was no actual "witchcraft," just superstition, greed, and opportunism. Rather than focus on New Age tourist fleecing, Salem could serve as a lesson that history not learned, is destined to be repeated.





IN CLOSING…

It’s been a heavy week for me. I spoke in Las Vegas along with some other magicians – Apollo, Johnny Thompson, Teller, and Mac King – on the subject of “consciousness” – from the point of view from which we conjurors see it. Several other engagements, and I think I’ll finally be back in fighting form.

Sales of the Galapagos cruise – see randi.org/amazingmeeting/ – are brisk, to our great delight. The Alaska tour scheduled for September sold out quickly, and this one seems to be following that trend. I’ve never been to the Galapagos, though I know Ecuador rather well, having pursued the shady hobby of “huacero” – on a strictly amateur basis – many years ago. I’m looking forward to walking among tortoises and other quite calm and confident wildlife…!

We’re very sad to report the sudden demise of Dr. Barry Beyerstein, a leading skeptic and a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, in Canada. Barry was active in the Skeptics Society and frequently spoke at conferences around the world. We will miss him.


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