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SWIFT September 14, 2007 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

Book Review, Forever Uninformed, To the Dark Continent Once More, More on Romania, Slow Learner, Our Recent Adventure, and In Closing…

We’ve just received an advance copy of a new book whose cover rather speaks for itself. It’s by Jim Gerard, a stand-up comic and satirist who effectively eviscerates fundamentalist Christianity in "Beam Me Up, Jesus," subtitled, "A Heathen’s Guide to The Rapture." The publisher tells us that this is a response to the immensely popular – among Rapture fans – "Left Behind" fiction series (see randi.org/jr/2006-09/09806guess.html and I suspect that this volume is just as funny as those are. A few quotes:

Table of Contents

  1. Book Review

  2. Forever Uninformed

  3. To the Dark Continent Once More

  4. More on Romania

  5. Slow Learner

  6. Our Recent Adventure

  7. In Closing

 


BOOK REVIEW

We’ve just received an advance copy of a new book whose cover rather speaks for itself. It’s by Jim Gerard, a stand-up comic and satirist who effectively eviscerates fundamentalist Christianity in "Beam Me Up, Jesus," subtitled, "A Heathen’s Guide to The Rapture." The publisher tells us that this is a response to the immensely popular – among Rapture fans – "Left Behind" fiction series (see randi.org/jr/2006-09/09806guess.html and I suspect that this volume is just as funny as those are. A few quotes:

LESSER-KNOWN “LEFT BEHIND” SEQUELS

Left Behind: The Car Keys

Left Behind: The Cat

Left Even More Behind

Left Behind: Not Again?

Left Behind: Incriminating Shots of Me with a Congressional Page

Left Behind: Hillary Clinton

Left Behind: The Fifty Bucks I Owe You

LEFT BEHIND: THE MOVIE

Left Behind: The Movie, was made by Cloud Ten Pictures which claims to be the first full-fledged Christian film studio. Cloud Ten has made films such as Revelation starring Gary Busey, the former drug addict (with twelve restraining orders for – in his words – "being too real") turned born-again Christian whose role as an evil gun-running Jew in a Turkish film got him accused of medieval anti-Semitic blood libel.

Before its theatrical release, the producers hawked the Left Behind film to the Christian community, who ate it up to the tune of 2.8 million videos sold. Some highlights:

The actual Rapture scene, in which Chloe, who has come upon a scene of highway-crash carnage, opens the door to a semi truck cab and finds only a pair of overalls on the seat. Gone to trucker Heaven – a country song waiting to happen.

Chloe returns home and finds Buck – who she has never met before and who has taken temporary refuge with Steele – sleeping on the sofa. "Buck Williams, what are you doing on my couch?" Yes, it’s not everyday you that find that a famous anchorperson has crashed in your home. ("Wolf Blitzer, what are you doing in my bed?")

A private plane pilot and Buck discuss explanations for the missing people. The pilot says, "The real question is if people have gone for good, or if they’ll be sent back."

And there are 255 pages more… Great ammunition for battling with the creationists…





FOREVER UNINFORMED

From reader Michael Peacock comes notice of this item:

The Creation Museum, a $27,000,000, 40,000 square-foot museum which presents the Bible’s creation story as fact supported by science, was opened in late May by the Answers in Genesis Christian ministry. See randi.org/jr/2007-05/051107.html#i8. As we might expect, Park Rangers in Kentucky at places like Cumberland Falls or Natural Bridge are being challenged by visitors who’d also visited the Creation Museum and found that the information handed out there showed considerable difference between what they were told one day at the museum and the next day at a state park, a difference of thousands, even millions, of years, since the Museum claims that the world is only 6,000 years old. Duh.

Therefore, in an effort to better prepare Park Rangers to respond to such challenges, the State of Kentucky sent 18 park naturalists to the Museum at taxpayer’s cost – only about $300, and a damn good investment, I’d say. But it appears that losing the Dover trial – see tinyurl.com/2jaemr – hasn’t caused the creationist woo-woos any problems at all! Is there no finding or decision that will bring creationists to examine reason or reality?

Apparently not…





TO THE DARK CONTINENT ONCE MORE

South African reader Mark Bayne in Cape Town refers to recent comments we’ve made re the situation in his country:

I have recently begun to watch your site, and love the challenges to disinformation and other nonsense that is put forward to the gullible.

I was pleased to note your inclusion of the AIDS (mis)information that has been put forward by our government, and thank you for taking such good aim at it. Being a South African, it is particularly sad for me to see our beautiful country strive towards creating a new and fully democratic society, and yet periodically take a giant step backwards like that, and with initiatives like this. See below.

A "Sangoma" is a witch doctor. On one occasion, one of our employees, who had no money to make the pilgrimage to the Eastern Cape where his family reside, said that if he didn’t go for the killing of the bull, then "the ancestors would kill him."

Mark attaches a story from his local newspaper:

Sangoma on call at UKZN campus. September 10 2007 at 07:08AM

By Professor Ndawonde.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal has moved a step closer to its goal of becoming "a truly African university" by introducing traditional healers and sangomas at its campuses to attend to the needs of African students. The "indigenous counseling" initiative would complement Western forms of counseling provided by the Student Counseling Centre.

The project has been given the thumbs-up by African students at UKZN, and already hundreds of students have visited an in-house sangoma in the past three weeks. According to a proposal by UKZN Deputy Dean of Students Bheki Ngcobo, plans are under way to build traditional huts for the healers. The need for indigenous healers to diagnose illnesses, prescribe and prepare herbal medicine, provide counseling and offer spiritual support cannot be overemphasized.

Dean Ngcobo said that the project should be seen in the context of "reclaiming our heritage." He said, "Indigenous counseling attempts to restore the African way of life, primarily to African students. As an institution that upholds African values, we are endeavoring to bring the suppressed culture to students."

The proposal says that many students, primarily African students, experienced problems that required the special skills of traditional healers. Some of the problems experienced by students included being possessed, being chosen by ancestors to stop formal education to be trained as a traditional healer, being unable to concentrate on studies owing to bad spirits or spirits that required purification and cleansing, and madness caused by bad spirits that needed to be exorcised.

Ravi Naidoo, of the Student Counseling Centre at Howard College, said it appeared that the failure of cultural integration was perhaps most critical in respect of African students, where most made use of traditional healers. "Indigenous healing plays a pivotal role in the lives of African students, and to continue to ignore and marginalize these practices is to deny a significant aspect of these students’ identity," he said.

He hoped that some space within the residences would be made available for the indigenous healers so that resident students would have access to the healers after hours. Ngcobo’s proposal says that an initial sum of R20,000 [US$2,800] would be set aside for the project from the Student Development Fund. It is envisaged that each consultation would cost R20 [US$3] a student.

The sangoma practicing at Howard College said that more than 250 students had come to her for help since her arrival a few weeks ago. "Most students I’m counseling have serious problems that need traditional healing, and I always advise them to consult with their parents after I have revealed their problems. Even staff and top officials from the university use this centre," she said.

I’m torn here between respect for ancient African traditions and modern discoveries. After all, we appear to owe the early use of tools and numbers, as well as the medical uses of plants, to Africans, and their descendants have contributed substantially to science and technology. Look up astronomer/mathematician Benjamin Banneker and the legendary George Washington Carver, for only a couple of examples who we can boast of in the USA. Now, in South Africa, we find such a retreat from reason that as reader Mark Bayne says, it’s a “giant step backwards.” What a pity.

But, a free South Africa is a new nation finding its way, and the opportunists are having a free shot at anything that can be taken advantage of. They’ll come around…





MORE ON ROMANIA

At randi.org/jr/2007-08/083107murray.html#i2 I discussed the current bad situation in Romanian medicine. Reader Jay B. Spry informs us further:

I am a first year nursing student. I’ve been at it for a mere two weeks but I’ve already read a ton of class material.

Upon reading the text of the Romanian law on alternative treatment modalities I felt like I was back in the classroom – the language was eerily similar. Although nursing is a valuable and respectable practice, the educational material and professional positions are sometimes verging on the Age of Aquarius. Did you know that "Energy Field Disturbance" is listed as a legitimate Nursing Diagnosis by North American Nursing Diagnosis Association (NANDA), the authority on standardization of nursing diagnoses? This is reflective of the theory of "Therapeutic Touch" which is quite popular in the nursing game. Among other things the NANDA material notes that

…“defining characteristics" of energy field disturbance include temperature changes, visual changes, disruption of the field and movement – wave, spike, tingling, dense, flowing.

The author’s note in my text (Lynda Juall Carpenito-Moyet) chastizes doubters with such remarks as:

Some may consider this diagnosis unconventional. Perhaps nurses need to be reminded that there are many theories, philosophies, and frameworks of nursing practice... Nursing diagnosis should not represent only mainstream nursing (acute care, long-term care, home health). Rather than criticize a diagnosis as having little applicability, perhaps nurses should celebrate diversity.

I gather, as a student just learning what it is to be a Nurse, that modern medicine is just one illusion among many, and to criticize other treatment modalities is tantamount to racism.

Consider that the next time you find a new nurse caring for you...

I’m shocked – but not too surprised – to know that such quackery is to be found in the NANDA agenda. The nursing profession has lauded and encouraged the farce known as “therapeutic touch” – which is not therapeutic, and does not involve touching! – for decades now, even though it’s been shown to be pure flummery. Why not "Energy Field Disturbance" as well?





SLOW LEARNER

Reader Simon Nicholson relates:

According to their press release:

I’ve just been reading the latest Swift, and Jordan’s account of the medium’s reading [see randi.org/jr/2007-09/090707cruise.html#i9] prompted me to share a recent experience. A couple of weeks back, I was taking a holiday in Devon, and visited a fair at the Dartmouth regatta. I was with a very old and dear friend, a woman I have known since my schooldays, and who is a very intelligent and educated woman, a senior industrial chemist with Rolls-Royce. We walked past a Romany wagon advertising the services of a clairvoyant. Rather gaudy notices invited you to let him “take you into the future,” and billboards showed photographs of the man himself with numerous “celebrity clients” – predominantly minor cast members of UK TV soaps.

I was most surprised when my friend enthusiastically said she simply had to go and have a reading. She confessed she had always been fascinated by fortune tellers, and had visited many in the past and had always been impressed by the results.

I was very dismayed to hear this coming from my friend, whom I had always considered to be so rational. But whereas once I would have had a prolonged argument with her, trying to talk her out of it, years of reading your books and your commentary prompted me to take another approach.

We went for a coffee and I talked to her about cold-reading and other techniques. Basically, I primed her to look out for tricks of the trade. In particular I told her to watch out for statements that were really probing questions, rapid guesses and to make note of the number of “misses” that were hurriedly passed over. I also told her about “Barnum” statements.

Armed with this, she went in for her reading, and emerged very bemused. She said she had recognized several of the techniques I had described, and now that I had pointed it out, many of the “predictions” that would once have impressed her were recognizably Barnum statements – sounding very specific, but really very general and suitable for retro-fitting to a wide variety of situations. She also said that simply by curbing her own tongue and refusing to be drawn into conversation that would have revealed a lot about herself seemed to really throw the guy, and at times he was struggling to make headway, resorting to exactly the sort of wild guesswork I had told her to look out for.

But sadly – and this is the point of my anecdote – although she was convinced that this guy was a charlatan, she still, after all that, told me she believed there “must be something to it” and she still held that there were genuine clairvoyants out there.

In terms of pure logic, of course, debunking one claimant does not prove that all people claiming such powers are fake, but I would have thought the experience would at least pre-dispose one to skepticism. As I have said, my friend is far from stupid, and is more than familiar with methods of scientific thinking, yet her default position seems to be one of credulity, she does not seem able to transfer the analytical methods from her lab to the wider world!

However, I have at least passed on to her some useful books, including Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World,” your own “Flim-Flam” and “Psychic Investigator,” and some short pieces by Michael Shermer. She has promised to read these, so perhaps some good will come of it!

Simon, I’ll repeat the phrase I’ve often used: "The true believer is never swayed by evidence, and will continue to believe despite any amount or strength of evidence." And remember, the believer not only wants the delusion to be true, but in most cases desperately needs it to be true. Reading all of Sagan, Shermer, and Randi may shake her up, but when it all settles down again she’ll probably opt for woo-woo over rationality.

It was ever thus.





OUR RECENT ADVENTURE

The Amaz!ng Adventure North to Alaska was a great success, with 93 JREF fans running about in delight aboard the Celebrity Infinity watching glaciers calving into the ocean, whales leaping out of the water, and seals doing their thing… Richard Saunders – all the way from Australia – not only addressed us delightfully, but then jumped from table to table creating incredible origami figures. A rabbit-from-hat that I received is shown here; the bunny actually rises from the chapeau!

Richard has also created an original Pigasus origami figure – for which the instructions will be available next week!

Both Skepchick-in-Chief Rebecca Watson and Phil Plait delivered excellent lectures to us aboard, as well. We’ll have a DVD of all this available very soon, but those who witnessed these wonders of raw nature and human talent are still abuzz with delight. I got a lot of time to chat and gossip with JREFers, while Jeff and Rich wrestled with the problem of getting SWIFT sent out on time. That was done successfully, as you may have noticed.

Then came a most welcome surprise. Astronomer/author Phil Plait, one of our cruisees, presented me with a unique copy of his book “Bad Astronomy” with the personal signatures of a rather prestigious group of persons on the flyleaf. Phil intended this to be an E-Bay auction item to benefit the JREF, and I rather think that it will do just that. Here’s a run-down on the ten very special folks who signed it:

Rusty Schweickart, Apollo IX astronaut, Lunar Module Pilot
Buzz Aldrin, Apollo XI astronaut
Alan Bean, Apollo XII astronaut
Edgar Mitchell, Apollo XIV astronaut, Lunar Module Pilot
Gene Cernan, Apollo XVII astronaut

Bruce McCandless, Shuttle Transport Systems 31 & 41-B
Charlie Walker, Shuttle Transport Systems 41-D, 51-D, & 61-B

Dan Durda, astronomer
Carolyn Porco, astronomer

And author Phil Plait…

It comes with a set of seven 5”X7” color photos of Phil and some of the signers actually writing their names in the book, surely proof of authenticity.

We’ll be putting this up on E-Bay for auction in November, and it’s being announced here for the very first time so that JREFers can get a first chance to bid. The highest offer we receive will serve as the opening bid on E-Bay. You can send in your bids to rich@randi.org and the highest one will be posted in SWIFT each Friday until the public auction.





IN CLOSING

We toss in this photo just to get your attention. It’s “The Talons,” blundering away – as usual – on Montel Williams’ ego-trip, and a subject that Robert Lancaster will regale us with on January 26th in Fort Lauderdale at TAM 5.5, which still has space available. At that event, science fiction author Michael Stackpole will try to stop me dropping names when I skim over the constellation of science fiction stars I have known… Click in and think about joining us! I’m considering bringing back my much-requested nude-dance-on-fire-with-torch-juggling – though the clamor for that number has died down recently, for some unknown reason…

And – our friend James McGaha has just been credited with the discovery of yet another new comet – his 45th such find! James received a Master of Science degree in astronomy from the University of Arizona in 1992. He’s a retired pilot from the USAF and currently the Director of the Grasslands Observatory. For the last 30 years, he has been interested in the growing belief in pseudoscience, and in 1983, he founded the Tucson Skeptics, Inc. (TUSK), a nonprofit corporation devoted to promoting science and debunking pseudoscience. He also serves as a scientific consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

I often think of the story of astronomer Charles Messier (June 26, 1730 – April 12, 1817) who discovered 13 comets but who is now best known for his carefully-prepared Catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters, which proved so useful to early astronomers. Jim McGaha, with instruments that far outclass anything Messier could have hoped for, spends many long nights under the clear Arizona sky, and in his retirement adds to our knowledge of the universe.

Jim also notified me that asteroid Randi – that’s the former #3163 – is presently at its closest approach to the Earth in 30 years. It’s normally at a magnitude of only 19, but has now reached 14. In way of explanation, magnitude 14 is about 150 times brighter than 19, since the measurement of magnitude – brightness – goes the other way. For example, the Sun has an apparent - to us - magnitude of minus 26.7, and the full Moon gets to -13. No, asteroid Randi won’t be glittering out there in the night sky to dazzle you, but might be visible by means of a good telescope. Jim says that Main Belt asteroids don’t normally get this close, so we’re considering whether or not we should drop it into Uri Geller’s back yard or onto the Church of Novus Spiritus in Campbell, California – at 37° 26’ 42.51” N, 122° 02’ 29.12” W. Decisions, decisions…

The IAU (International Astronomical Union) certificate announcing the honor afforded me reads:

Named in honor of the American magician James Randi (b.1928; born name Randall James Hamilton Zwinge) for his continuing efforts in debunking the claims of the paranormal community and exposing the tricks that charlatans use. His use of scientific techniques in many disciplines has contributed to the refutation of suspicious and fraudulent claims of paranormal results. Name proposed by A. Dill and J. Meeus.

This week, Skepchick (www.skepchick.org) founder Rebecca Watson is in the final round of voting for a possible spot on an NPR show. She recorded some of her latest entry on the Amaz!ng Adventure with us in Alaska. Please have a listen at www.publicradioquest.com and be sure to vote.

Rebecca is also one of the speakers who will be joining us here in Ft Lauderdale for our TAM 5.5 Conference.


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