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January 6, 2006


 

 
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Netherlands News, Harebrained Father, Another Gas Gimmick, A Deeper Look at a Law, I Stand Corrected, Censure and Censoring, British National Health Service Waffles, Kepler Recruited Post Mortem, An Audiophile Sounds Off, We Repeat, Astrologer Redux, The Kemp Mystery, and In Conclusion…



Table of Contents:


January 26-29, 2006
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NETHERLANDS NEWS

Both Mike Johnson and Frank Engelen in Holland sent me the same interesting item, giving us this composite contribution which I’ll summarize from their notes:

A very strange thing happened recently on Dutch TV when they broadcast a series featuring a so-called medium, 25-year-old Robbert van den Broeke. At one point he began to reveal – supernaturally, of course! – all sorts of information about a former camera-man on the show who had committed suicide some months ago. His wife was in the studio. Unfortunately for Robbert, he was far too accurate and specific. He told the widow that she’d had another life before this one, as “Hillegien Rozeboom,” who died in 1823. He also gave her the exact date of birth of Hillegien. He said that her husband in that life was named Luwert, who had the profession of “genverbrander.” The “medium” said that he didn’t know what a genverbrander was. Well, nobody knows, because that word does not exist in Dutch. It looks like an existing word, but is not. Robbert must have thought that it was some kind of antique profession with which he was not familiar.

But then there was Google.

Rob Nanninga, editor-in-chief of the magazine Skepter, googled the data about Hillegien Rozeboom and Luwert, and it was all true! There actually was a Hillegien who died in 1823, and so on. And the profession of Luwert? Genverbrander! But this turned out to be a typographical error on the website, and that same mistake was also miraculously made by the ghosts who gave “psychic” Robbert the information! It should have been, “geneverbrander!" The second "e" was lost... Geneverbrander translates as genever-brander, “genever maker,” or of “jenever,” an old Dutch liquor – gin.

It appears that the medium had done some googling before his show, that suspicion reinforced by the following: His reading/prediction on the TV program was:

Hillegien Rozeboom was married to Luwert in Coevorden. March 7 and August 7 were important, as were the years 1793 en 1823. You died when you were thirty, Luwert was a "genverbrander" by profession, I don't know exactly what that is.

Significantly, Google says almost the exact same thing:

Hillegien Rozeboom, born March 17th 1793, died August 7th, 1823. Her husband was Lubbert, married in Coevorden. His profession was "genverbrander."

However, Robbert – or a spirit! – was wrong about her birthday. He said 7 instead of 17, and he said Luwert instead of Lubbert. Those things sound very much alike in Dutch and could be things he didn't quite hear clearly enough through an earpiece – if that’s how he was receiving the data. It’s more probable, however, that he was simply mis-remembering what he’d read before the show on Google.

Robbert van den Broeke is a wide-spectrum nut-case. He’s very enthusiastic about “orbs” and “crop circles,” too, and has been publishing “alien” pictures for a long time. Be warned, this might cause uncontrollable laughter: 100megsfree4.com/farshores/ufo04ne3.htm. Here’s one of the “aliens,” which he designates as a “Grey.” But we needn’t fear them, says Robbert. They come "with love, to teach us to take care of the Earth and to be better for each other." That’s a relief!

Leading Dutch skeptic Jan Willem Nienhuys comments about this turn of events:

The common opinion is that this is the end of Robbert's career. Several newspapers carried the story, several TV stations did a news item on it, and the website www.skepsis.nl/robbertvandenbroeke.html received about 45,000 hits. The story isn't over yet, because part four (broadcast on prime time on January 1) contains, on close inspection, various damning curiosities, and the role of Van den Broeke senior – a local bank manager who has written a book on his miracle-son – is scrutinized as well.   

Mr. Nienhuys, I must respectfully disagree with your conclusion. My experience would indicate that Robbert still has a long career as a wonder-worker ahead of him. Consider our Sylvia Browne: she has floundered around, been conclusively shown to fail dramatically – repeatedly, her methods have been published and exposed, but she’s certainly survived very well simply because there are a lot of vulnerable, not-so-smart people out there who need her to be the real thing, and she is supported by the media. Rationalizations will be developed, evil forces will be invoked, and I predict that Robbert van den Broeke will survive this scandal. I wish it were otherwise….

You’ll see the latest Browne escapade/crash, up ahead….

While we’re in The Netherlands, I must point out that this tiny country has a huge number of other woo-woo artists taking advantage of the citizens. “Psychic” Char Margolis, for example, has gleefully exploited this market. Now comes a notice from Nanda Beenen, in the city of Gouda, who assures us that Dutch citizens are also supporting the Maharishi Centre for Enlightenment, which offers a course there. Writes Nanda:

Strange advertisements have been appearing in the Dutch daily newspapers lately. It's a call for 500 men to come and start a course, which should ultimately lead to world peace. These men are destined to become the "new, strong leaders that will make the Netherlands invincible."

As of yesterday the ads have changed. They now ask for 500 “young people” to start the course. I guess women can apply, too, though there’s now no mention of becoming “new, strong leaders of an invincible country” anymore... Could this be because they had fewer than 500 applicants after the first few ads? This would not surprise me, because unlike the first ad, this one mentions the cost of the one-year course: a mere €17,000 [US$20,130]! (peanuts!)

The men organizing the course are Dr. John Hagelin (whom you already know), Dr. Willem Meijles (a “raja” no less!), Dr. Volker Schanbacher (president of the Maharishi University for World Peace), and Dr. Paul Gelderloos (prime minister of the Dutch Peace government). Apparently their aim is to influence the whole world though the “TM-Sidhiprogramma,” some form of extra superduper transcendental meditation. This should influence not only the stock market, but also the number of violent incidents that occur worldwide. In short, they want to bring about world peace. Hey, a question just popped into my mind: why should the Netherlands be made invincible, when the ultimate goal is world peace? Doesn't make sense to me!

The last sentence of the ad is frankly hilarious. It's a quote from Dr. Willem Meijles (the raja, remember!):

Come with determination and trust [!] and you will fulfill all your parents' high expectations for your career.

Yeah right, my parents would be delighted if I dropped my current job to spend €17,000 and a year of my life on such drivel! I wonder how many applicants will be starting this course on January 1st, 2006?

Thanks for your splendid work and the weekly laughs as a result of your commentary on the JREF website.




HAREBRAINED FATHER

Reader Mike Wavada of Enfield, Connecticut, has been following the shenanigans of “Father” Andrew Wingate, whose claims can be seen at his pretentious and rather hilarious website www.trumpetersmission.com/main.htm. Observer Waveda notes:

More than eight months have now elapsed since Wingate predicted that Pope John Paul II would only pretend to die and would come back after eight months.  The media and that usurper, Pope Benedict XVI, seemed to have missed this second coming.  Last spring Wingate promised on Coast to Coast AM that he would renounce his religious beliefs if he were wrong.  I just checked Wingate’s “Trumpeter” website.  There is no indication that he has changed his tune.  Incidentally, he still has a lot of other predictions there.  The only one that I noticed which might possibly have come true is that the big island of Hawaii would develop a fissure of smoke and steam.  I would rate that prediction as roughly as risky as predicting snow in winter in Fargo. 

Incidentally, my dad has moved to Connecticut, in case anyone was worried about him getting caught up in the imminent “Battle of Omaha” promised by Wingate. 

Uri Geller is only 59?  That seems incredible.  One of the “aha!” moments of my life was when a friend of mine in the 70’s told me that he did not believe that anyone had psychic powers.  He then amended his statement to say, “At least no one with psychic powers has ever been on Johnny Carson.”  It shocked me to think that so many people could have lied about their own abilities.  I didn’t agree with him, but I had enough respect for my friend’s opinion to do a little research on my own.  After I read your book about Uri Geller, I finally understood what was going on. 

Thank you, Mike. Readers who go to this silly website of Wingate’s will be highly amused by sampling “Click Here to see Visions and Predictions.” I think that this “Father” smokes funny little cigarettes…




ANOTHER GAS GIMMICK

Reader Patricio Cruzat, in Brazil:

Recently, on 12/15/05, a small notice in a newspaper, in the city of Porto Alegre – state capital of Rio Grande do Sul, southernmost state of Brazil – informed us that some G7 Business Consulting, distributors of an innovative device called Supertech, had been awarded a prize from SEMA, the State Environmental Agency, due to relevant services to preserve nature and environment, by selling this superb device. The device itself is composed of samarium cobalt magnets (magnets, of course!), ceramic cylinders, other noble elements, and a diode! It emits “electromagnetic waves in the far infrared range” and is installed inside the gas tank “with no electrical, hydraulic or mechanical connections.”

“The electromagnetic waves temporarily alter the molecular structure of the fuel by acting on the Van der Waals forces” (did you notice how technical these guys are?) “enhancing the combination with oxygen thus promoting the burning of gasoline that otherwise would be lost in the form of smoke, thus saving fuel.”

Well, I can’t tell if it works or not, though I have a suspicion that I already know the answer, but somebody has to tell these guys that magnets do not emit electromagnetic waves of any kind. And what is the “diode” for?  It’s hilarious! Reminds me of a guy selling small TV antennas at a central square here, shouting that his antenna is better than others because “it has a diode, a capacitor and a RADAR!” But this guy has the excuse of being a very humble and ignorant fellow just trying to survive…

You will find that the inventors are from Palermo, Sicily, and the device is manufactured in Canada; it seems that there’s not sufficient technology in Italy to manufacture this landmark of science.

They offer on their site some “certifications” from transportation companies, including some from our own city, they put a link to the government of Chile – don’t know why! – and they are awaiting something from the Ukraine…. In summary, it has all the bad smell of plain quackery.

Patricio, I continue to be puzzled at why these folks don’t just demonstrate their invention for the JREF and walk away with our million-dollar prize! Or maybe I’m not so puzzled…




A DEEPER LOOK AT A LAW

Reader Aleksander Zidansek has done some research:

I read with interest the information about Slovenia returning to the Middle Ages [www.randi.org/jr/200512/123005museum.html#i2] by proposing legislation that would simplify the use of homeopathic medicine for humans and animals. I was curious and briefly researched the EU legislation on this issue. I found, at (europa.eu.int/eur-lex/en/consleg/pdf/2001/en_2001L0083_do_001.pdf):

DIRECTIVE 2001/83/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 6 November 2001 on the Community code relating to medicinal products for human use (OJ L 311, 28.11.2001, p. 67)

It states, among other items:

Having regard to the particular characteristics of these homeopathic medicinal products, such as the very low level of active principles they contain and the difficulty of applying to them the conventional statistical methods relating to clinical trials, it is desirable to provide a special, simplified registration procedure for those homeopathic medicinal products which are placed on the market without therapeutic indications in a pharmaceutical form and dosage which do not present a risk for the patient.

If I understand this text correctly, it appears that the whole European Union is heading back to the Middle Ages, and Slovenian legislators are simply following the crowd! I hope I am mistaken and that there is a reasonable explanation of these provisions.

First of all, Aleksander, that reference to the “difficulty of applying to [homeopathic materials] the conventional statistical methods relating to clinical trials,” is total nonsense. Why would there be any difference? It either works, or it doesn’t work! This statement is derived from the homeopathic literature, not from any scientific material. As with most pseudosciences, homeopathy claims special consideration and special rules – effectively demanding that science be re-written and that the normal criteria for proper testing be suspended just for this particular quackery. I cannot imagine that any real scientists were involved in writing this directive of the European Parliament; I suspect it was politicians who assembled this nonsense.


I STAND CORRECTED

Reader Sérgio G. Taboada, in Brazil, rightly chides me for an error:

In [last] week's commentary about John of God [see www.randi.org/jr/200512/123005museum.html#i7] you answer to the defense of reader Chris Webster about the study made by a university:

As for the University de Juiz de Fora (UFJF), that school offers courses in mathematics and computer science, hardly qualifications for a medical – or a conjuring – investigation.

I agree with you that University professors are not qualified for conjuring investigation, but they are certainly able to conduct medical studies. The UFJF offers several courses in the area of health sciences, including Medicine. See at http://www.ufjf.br/ver.php?id=239

My lame excuse is that the site I visited had no mention of this area of studies at the UFJF. My error. Sérgio continues:

I found one paper from 3 Brazilian researchers and at least one of them belongs to the pathology department of the UFJF.  It is in Portuguese, but you can see the abstract in English at the end.

[That abstract appears ahead.]

The paper does not conclude that the surgeries work. They point out that the patients observed felt no pain, even when the healer scratched their corneas, a very sensitive part of the eye. Here the presence of a conjurer would have been useful. The cornea is really very sensitive, with several nerves in it, but its continuity – the sclera – is insensitive. If the healer scratches the sclera, while pretending to do it at the cornea, the observers and the patient can be duped.

I referred to this fact at www.randi.org/jr/021805a.html#6. Yes, an experienced conjuror on the scene would resolve this situation, immediately – but ABC-TV made no effort to use that expertise; it could have ruined a really sensational story. At www.randi.org/jr/021805a.html#7 I discussed the fact that the victims appear to experience no immediate pain, and why.

I thank Sérgio for his correction to an error made in innocence. The “research” so highly touted by Mr. Webster appears to be much less of an endorsement than he perceives it to be; those physicians at the University who observed the phenomena and were puzzled by it, should have had a conjuror present. As it stands, this is a report by sincere persons who were only partly qualified to do such an investigation. Note, too, that the abstract of their report – which follows – says that the procedures were carried out “without identified anesthetics or antiseptics” being used and they mention materials that were “supposedly extracted” from the victims (both my italics) as well as noting that the dreadful “tumors” and other removed material, with one single exception, consisted actually of “healthy tissue.” That one exception was a lipoma, a benign growth of fat that is very common, and harmless. Thus, in all the cases they investigated, the “surgeon” had needlessly removed material that was no threat to the victim, but he was performing incisions that could well be dangerous or even deadly.

Careful isolation and retention of any instruments, swabs, and/or other materials was not practiced by those investigating, and it’s thus evident that basic topical, colorless, aqueous anesthetics such as bupivacaine, lidocaine, procaine, or benzocaine could very easily have been secretly introduced by the “surgeon” – João Teixeira de Farias – particularly in the stunt which involved contact with the eyeball. I would say that the last two listed anesthetics would be the preferred substances for such a procedure; both of these are easily obtained, and their numbing effect is much shorter, thus they would not be evident at any post-examination that might take place.

Here is the entire English-language abstract of the report cited by Mr. Taboada, observations made by the three Brazilian investigators, all physicians:

Psychic surgery: an investigation.

BACKGROUND: A very popular modality with the media is psychic surgery, which has received little scientific evaluation, though. Such phenomena always raise the issues of fakery and deceit. Research has been scarce.

METHODS: We report an investigation on one of the most famous psychic surgeons in Brazil, João Teixeira de Farias. Thirty surgical interventions with cutting were studied, six patients undergoing history-taking, physical examination and analysis of the materials supposedly extracted from them.
 
RESULTS: We were struck by the fact that the surgeon really incises skin or ocular epithelium, in addition to scraping the cornea without identified anesthetics or antiseptics being used. Just one woman complained of pain as she had her breast incised. Longer follow-up of patients failed to notice any infection in the surgical sites. Histopathology found the specimens to be compatible with their site of origin and, apart from a 210g. lipoma, were healthy tissues without discernible pathology.

CONCLUSIONS: The surgical procedures are real but we couldn't evaluate the efficacy. It didn't appear to have any specific effect. Our findings are undoubtedly more of an exploratory kind than conclusive ones. Further studies are clearly necessary to cast light on this unorthodox treatment.




CENSURE AND CENSORING

On the JREF Forum [forums.randi.org] – which I admit I seldom visit due to lack of time – this posting appeared from a teacher who will remain unidentified:

My Critical Thinking Lesson and the Aftermath

On Thursday I decided to digress from the current topic of study with my Year 10 Set 2 class and did a lesson on critical thinking.

The lesson involved several demonstrations – I gave out identical horoscopes and revealed them to be the same after getting ratings of 8 or 9 out of 10, did a "psychic" trick, and showed them the ideomotor effect using a pendulum. The other demonstrations were about homeopathy. I bought some homeopathic sleeping pills and took one every two minutes for the hour of the lesson, after explaining what homeopathy involves and why this should not be done by pupils. I also showed them how to make a homeopathic remedy using food coloring in a 6C [1 part in one million or .0001%] solution.

The response to the lesson was generally very enthusiastic, we discussed the placebo effect and the class enjoyed the demonstrations. One girl became very angry, since her mother is "studying homeopathy," and claimed that I "don't know what [I'm] talking about."

The following day, I was informed that the girl's mother had phoned to complain on several grounds. Pleasantly enough, she accepted that as a science teacher I would be against homeopathy and had no problem with me demonstrating this. However, she claimed that pupils in the class may think that I had shown it was acceptable to take huge amounts of any pills with no effect. Additionally she was "concerned that time was being spent on irrelevant topics" rather than on Electricity in the Home. She had also been told by her daughter that I had said I would bring a ouija board to class, which is patently nonsense.

Yesterday the class asked if we could do something similar today, so I told them that we were going back to the Electricity topic because of complaints about the lesson. Several of them were very disappointed, saying that they liked the lesson because it was about things they could use rather than things most of them would never need to know.

I thought the lesson was quite successful, but due to complaints I've been told not to do it again.

Well, a course on “Electricity in the Home” would not appear to encompass quackery, so that is a valid objection; if the school were to come up with a “Critical Thinking” course, that would be a different matter. Gee, I appeared before a Washington, DC, auditorium full of Congresspersons back in 1997, swallowed 64 homeopathic sleeping pills, and lived through it. However, I don’t seem to have conveyed the message I intended....




BRITISH NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE WAFFLES

Reader Tim Pilkington in Leeds, UK, directs us to these pages from the British National Health Service dealing with homeopathy, at www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/en.aspx?articleId=197&sectionId=588 which he says “make worrying and very unscientific reading, more like tabloid journalism.” It contains five sections:

  1. Introduction
  2. When should it be done?
  3. How is it performed?
  4. Results
  5. Selected links

Tim writes:

I followed a Google link and went into Results first, and it quite rightly gives full details of the fact that studies have been inconclusive, it's hard to test, placebos, anecdotal evidence, etc. All the usual "both sides of the argument" stuff. I was impressed, considering that we have five NHS-funded homeopathy hospitals in the UK.

But... After starting at the beginning, the "When should it be done?" and "How is it performed?" pages state it all as quite matter of fact, leaving the important facts (i.e. that it's not actually scientifically proven) until section four. Here are a few choice extracts:

Ideally, [homeopathy] should be used as the only treatment method, but with the guidance of a qualified homeopath, it can be used in conjunction with conventional medicine.

I would be seriously concerned by anyone who claims to be a homeopath and then proceeds to give me advice about "conventional medicines".  Anyone who knows enough about conventional medicines to give me advice should know that homeopathy should be left well alone.

Randomised controlled trials of homeopathy have shown a positive outcome for the treatment of influenza (‘flu), diarrhoea in children, allergic conditions and postoperative ileus (temporary loss of normal intestinal action following surgery).

They missed out the asterisk which says "Please read section 4: Results, as we briefly mention that there isn't actually scientific proof."

The more dilute a remedy, the stronger it is. Some of the strongest ones are so dilute that theoretically not one molecule of the original substance should remain.

Err... WHAT??

Traditional scientists argue that homeopathy cannot work because of the use of remedies that are so highly diluted.

For all those who don't speak their language, "Traditional scientists" are what we call "Scientists."

And this, the most important line in the whole thing, is left to the last paragraph:

Despite the inability to reproduce the anecdotal evidence in clinical trials, homeopathy remains one of the most popular complementary therapies in the UK. (italics ours)

I hope you can print this and show the Brits that their country is just as screwed up as the US, which, to be fair, we do look down our nose at!

Tim, this is a good example of bureaucrats playing the game of waffling with words – not wishing to offend anyone, trying to be as factual as possible while doing that, and carefully dropping in the diluted truth so that they can point out to critics that the facts were actually there, somewhere. That’s called, politics….




KEPLER RECRUITED POST MORTEM

Reader Joshua Korosi:

I was at the local computer store this evening, browsing the software shelves. While taking a look at some planetarium and astronomy programs, I noticed a box labeled "Kepler 7.0".  Johannes Kepler, of course, is famous for his laws of planetary motion, the accuracy of whose predictions helped firmly establish the heliocentric model of the solar system.

I picked the box up to examine it more closely. Imagine my horror to see the program described as "Professional Astrology Software"!  To think, the name of this important pioneer in fundamental astronomy is being exploited by followers of a quasi-religion which believes in a geocentric model of the solar system – a model which Kepler actually helped to disprove!  How shameful.  What could these people have been thinking?

The software's website is http://www.keplersoftware.co.uk/. Kepler's image is used in a few different places.  At one point, Kepler 7.0's website declares, "Kepler can be used by people with any level of Astrology experience..."  It seems that poor old Kepler can indeed be "used," by people lacking not only in critical thinking skills, but common sense.

Joshua, as I’m sure you know, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) wrote a strong attack on astrology, “De Fundamentis Astrologiae Certioribus” – “The More Reliable Bases of Astrology” – in which he pointed out that any presumed effect of celestial bodies such as stars and planets on a person’s future or fortune, was mere superstition. However, he was also a bit of a mystic, and he believed so much in the harmony of the universe, that he saw the heavens to be connected with every aspect of life on Earth – in which view he was quite correct, though he overestimated the strength of that relationship, in some respects. To use him as some sort of patron saint of nonsense, is – as you point out – ridiculous.   

Kepler is also credited with having solved how the eye perceives and processes light, and he developed a specific model of telescope that improved on the one that Galileo used so dramatically.




AN AUDIOPHILE SOUNDS OFF

Reader Bruno Putzeys has had his eyes – and his ears! – open! He writes:

I'm a hard-boiled audiophile and at the same time I'm a skeptic. This confession might strike you as somewhat oxymoronic but to complete the liar's paradox, let me add that I honestly mean it. From this perspective I have a couple of very interesting listening experiences to share with you.

The first (not sure about the chronology though) happened when I was comparing a collection of alternative circuit designs with a group of people. The listening test was done in the usual, highly informal method of listening and taking and (afterwards) comparing notes. We couldn’t agree on the exact nature of the differences we were hearing, but we did agree that the differences, although just noticeable, were small enough such as not to worry further. Only when I started packing up the test system, I discovered that the monitor was hard wired to the source signal; we had never even heard what the signal sounded like after passing through the objects under test!

This taught me an invaluable lesson: perception generates noisy data and trying to distinguish between very (or entirely) similar stimuli will greatly amplify that noise. When you try hard enough, you’ll always find a difference, even if there isn’t any outside your head.

It was a source of consolation, though, that we all considered the differences “insignificant,” so at least we weren’t deaf or willingly fooling ourselves. If I were to formulate another lesson, it should be: learn to appreciate where the “psychology barrier” lies, and be very suspicious of any “difference” that comes remotely close to it.

Note that the obvious way to reduce the experimental “noise” is to repeat the test, blind of course. But we’re too good listeners to get bogged down by that, aren’t we?

The second one happened when an acquaintance returned from the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Predictably (knowing the chap, that is) he came home packed with all sorts of mysterious trinkets intended to improve sound reproduction without interfering with anything as mundane as electronics or acoustics.

“You really have to hear this one,” he said, so I politely sat down. He played a CD, popped it out of the tray and ran some kind of brush over it. The brush, he explained later, was invented by a Japanese genius who had long studied the material properties of compact-discs and found a method to neutralize the deleterious effects he found. Anyhow, my interlocutor replaced the CD and set it to play again. I was ready to proclaim “I hear no difference” and move on, but nevertheless allowed some time before doing so lest I betray some sort of bias.

After hearing the first few seconds of music, I was devastated. More fluid, more “analogue,” more detailed. All the adjectives invariably attributed by the gullible (and the wicked alike) to magic CD treatments. Only this time it was me hearing it. Second, and most important lesson: Never, never, nay, never underestimate the effect of suggestion! Even when you’re a skeptic.

Especially when you’re a skeptic, really, because it’ll catch you off-guard.

Now, I’m a bit too well-integrated in the audio community to believe that each and every “inventor” of such items is simply bent on taking advantage of human psychology for financial gain. Many of these people really believe what they say and they “hear” the improvement just as well. A pertinent question to ask oneself is: how come that, when they do such experiments, they always hear an “improvement”? I’ve never heard someone, say, rant about the sonic degradation produced by pyramid power. If it sounds like wishful thinking, it probably is.

Okay, Bruno, thank you for some very good observations, but I suggest that all these problems can be eliminated simply by conducting – from the start – a proper double-blind experiment, the kind that these “inventors” despise and devalue. You needed a third party involved, someone who would be assigned the task of randomizing the status of “on” or “off” – or “in circuit” or “not in circuit” – for each trial. That way, no person doing the assessment of the advertised effects would know what the answer should be.

Using that sort of protocol, the expectations of the assessors could not enter into the evaluation. Just think of the saved investment of time and money that could result.




WE REPEAT….

You’ve read here before about the incredible situation involving the Journal of Reproductive Medicine  (JRM) and the thoroughly faulted “magical” paper they published, a situation that has been pursued by Dr. Bruce Flamm. See www.randi.org/jr/200510/101405same.html#13. To start off the new year with an excellent example of improper behavior by the academic world, here’s the latest letter that Flamm has sent, this one to Donald Lindberg, director of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), a source to which physicians – up till now – believed they could turn to find dependable data on developments in their field. This is an ongoing scandal in the scientific world which is an embarrassment to every thinking person.

Flamm compares the unprofessional, obdurate – and bizarre! – behavior of the JRM with the proper actions taken by a reputable scientific journal – “Science,” the official organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – with the way that the JRM has ignored their responsibility:

Dear Dr. Lindberg and colleagues at the NLM:

As you may be aware a highly flawed and almost certainly fraudulent publication is still listed in PubMed. I have written you several times to alert you to this deplorable situation.  The publication involves a controversial study authored by Kwang Cha, Daniel Wirth, and Rogerio Lobo, that supposedly showed that distant prayers from people in various nations had miraculous effects on patients in Seoul, South Korea. The study had many obvious flaws and the results defied the laws of physics but the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM) mysteriously decided to publish it anyway.

One year later, Daniel Wirth, the author who designed the study and supposedly organized the prayer groups, was arrested and proven to be a con-man with a 20-year history of criminal fraud. Wirth is now incarcerated in federal prison. However, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine (JRM) still refuses to retract the flawed and probably fraudulent paper. Officials at Columbia University, who originally touted Columbia professor Rogerio Lobo as the study's lead author, now claim that the university had nothing to do with the bizarre research.

Please compare the way this scandal has been handled to the way the flawed stem cell publication in Science is now being handled. Faced with the stem cell controversy, editors at Science quickly took action to assure that flawed research would be weeded out.  In contrast, the now-disgraced Journal of Reproductive Medicine has steadfastly refused to deal with the prayer study controversy. Editors at Science would not remove the American author's name from the tainted paper and thus did not allow him to quietly walk away from the scandal.  In contrast, JRM Editor Lawrence Devoe quickly removed Columbia University professor Dr. Lobo's name from the controversial prayer paper.

Editors at Science stated that if the authors of the stem cell paper did not quickly take action, the paper would be unilaterally retracted by the journal.  In sharp contrast, JRM editor Devoe, after removing Dr. Lobo's name, stated that the JRM will not retract the publication unless the two remaining authors both agree to do so.  He is apparently waiting for convicted con-man Daniel Wirth to write, from his prison cell, and admit that the study was flawed or fabricated.  Needless to say, Dr. Devoe and the entire world may be waiting for a very long time. 

Dr. Lindberg, physicians and scientists all over the world depend on the National Library of Medicine.  Please do not betray the trust of these physicians and scientists.   I again urge you to take appropriate action.  By continuing to list a publication written by a con-man, a publication which makes claims that defy the laws of physics, the National Library of Medicine is doing a grave disservice to science and evidence-based medicine.

Bruce L. Flamm, MD

This is a major scandal in the history of science, intolerable and damaging. If physicians around the world were to write to the JRM and complain, while canceling their subscriptions, perhaps Dr. Lindberg might react as the purse-strings began to tighten. Must science be enforced by this sort of threat, rather than by reason…? How long can this unprofessional conduct be tolerated?




ASTROLOGER REDUX

UK correspondent Ian MacMillan shares this with us:

The Daily Mail's love of its astrologer Jonathan Cainer is remarkable, as this story from December 30 2005 shows. Gabrielle and Darren Nash of Stevenage, Hertfordshire, won £15 million (approx US$25.8 million) in the Christmas Eve UK Lotto Superdraw. The Daily Mail informs us that Mr. Nash has the star sign Libra, and that Jonathan Cainer had written for Libra: "You may like to know that Venus, your ruler turns around this week – as will your fortunes."

Randi butts in: Hold on. The Librans’ fortunes will “turn around this week”? In which direction? Will wealthy Librans lose money this week, Jonathan? You didn’t say, I notice, so either way, you’re right, unless a Libran simply holds on to that mattress full of cash… Ah, but Ian continues:

Let's have a reality check here. Jonathan Cainer did not predict that a Libran would win the UK Lotto on December 24, 2005. This was a classic attempt to make the prediction fit the fact after the result was known. At best, Jonathan Cainer had a one-in-twelve chance of predicting the star sign of the UK Lotto winner(s) on that date. This would drop to one in six if Mrs. Nash has a different star sign. The probability of winning the UK's “6 from 49” lotto jackpot is one in 14 million (one in 13,983,816, for the purists), and notwithstanding his substantial Daily Mail salary of £1 million/US$1.7 million a year, Mr. Cainer has not predicted anything which would bring in that kind of money. Perhaps he doesn't need it anyway.

One prediction for 2006 that is likely to come true is that the two men who were company directors of Exeter City Football Club while Uri Geller was involved with the club, will face a fraud trial. This seems like a long time ago, although it was the 2002-3 League season. Michael Lewis and John Russell are facing a charge of conspiracy to defraud the club, a charge which they deny strongly, so it will be interesting to see how this pans out. As you may remember, Uri Geller declined to sign any documents that would have given him any financial or legal liability involving the club, and this may turn out to have been one of his wisest career moves. He was billed as "Honorary Co-Chairman" of Exeter City Football Club, which was not much more than a celebrity supporter. Despite visits from Michael Jackson, David Blaine and David Prowse (Darth Vader), the club was still relegated from the Football League.

The Geller Curse seems to be effective… Ian has an added comment:

Finally, Channel Four of UK television aired When Tricks Go Wrong last night (Dec 30, 2005). You [Randi] were in this, as were many other magicians, and it was fun to see the occasion when the Pendragons' substitution routine went wrong, although it would have been more fun if Ms. Pendragon had stepped out of the trunk…

No, Ian, I’m happy that Charlotte was spared that indignity. You refer to the occasion during a live TV show in Los Angeles – I was there – when Jonathan threw open the lid of the trunk expecting his wife to leap up and out, her costume changed and full of her usual animation. Since Charlotte had lost her entire lower costume due to a snag inside the trunk, she merely peeked out over the top of the device, smiling – with great difficulty. Jonathan urged her to exit the trunk, until he peeked in to see what the problem was. That changed his mind instantly.

The Pendragons are unique, a highly skilled and entertaining magic act that is not forgotten, once seen….

I recall being interviewed for this show, but I don’t know which of my own fumbled tricks the program might have used, though it might have been the one that occurred during that same Los Angeles show, when I suffered a compression fracture of my back while rehearsing the Houdini Milk Can escape just before we went on air, live. Paramedics were called, I was put into traction, and I reclined backstage while Dean Gunnarson, the reigning escape artist of today, performed the feat after only about 20 minutes of instruction from me…. That takes guts. Then there’s the time I taught Henry Winkler – The Fonz – to do the Milk Can, but that’s another story….




THE KEMP MYSTERY

Some dozen or so readers have written me concerning the questionable "Gary Kemp" reference in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's letter that I published here last week. I just know the answer is out there, somewhere! First, I’m informed that the first-name “Gary” was not in use in those days – 1920-ish, and would have been a rather unlikely name for that era. It only really came into use when a screen actor named Frank Cooper, looking for a more suitable first name, altered his to that of his agent's Indiana hometown. His first credited role under that name was in 1926; an adult named "Gary" in 1922 would either be nonexistent or very, very rare. When the actor hit the “big time,” Gary became a very popular boy's name.

Who this “Kemp” referred to by Conan Doyle was, is still a mystery, though there is one clue: In a lengthy set of “Biographical Sketches” in a book titled "Who's Who in Occultism, New Thought Psychism and Spiritualism" published in 1927 by The Occult Press, there is this one line:

KEMP, Mr. Bruce. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sittings)

Other known mediums are also listed there, with “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, sittings” as their only qualifiers, so Kemp would appear to have been one of the many mediums with which ACD had encounters. Many persons referred me to this in 1927 book. It's one of the few books I don't have in our extensive library on spiritualism. Looking through the other 60+ books we have on the subject, I was unable to come up with a single "Kemp."

The consensus is that the Conan Doyle handwriting reads, "young Kemp," not "Gary Kemp." I think this analysis is correct, since carefully re-examining the original document indicates to me that the word is almost certainly, "young." You see here a close-up of the written words “of young Kemp,” contrast enhanced. Most of those who contacted me also suggested the word "young" as a possibility. Thank you very much for your research!

Readers also tell me that they find the Houdini/Conan Doyle matter of great interest, so I’ll be dropping in more material along this line….




IN CONCLUSION….

Only three weeks from the time I’m writing this, I’ll be in Las Vegas with a record crowd of folks attending The Amaz!ng Meeting 4, and adding to my education. If you’re intending to be there, now’s the time to register. Just go to http://www.tam4.com/ and join us!

Here’s a notice from our UK friend Tony Youens. He tells us that the UK skeptic group, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) has taken over the sponsorship of Rick Wood's regular skeptical podcast “Audiomartini.” This show goes out weekly from www.aske-skeptics.org.uk/audiomartini.htm. Recent interviews have included Bud "You've been abducted" Hopkins and CSICOP's number one investigator, Joe Nickell. ASKE would also like to hear any suggestions for future interviewees.

If you haven’t clicked in, do so. It’s always an interesting place to visit – though I wouldn’t want to live there, as they say. The ominous-looking chap is Rick himself….

I should leave you with some details about the recent appearance of Sylvia Browne on Larry King.  You can prepare for this by clicking on the new Sylvia button we have on our opening page. Go down to the “Sylvia’s Clock” item and view the 50-second video excerpt. This was placed there following Ms. Browne’s feverish attempts on her website to give the impression that she’d never really agreed to be tested by the JREF on the King show. Listen to what she said there, on September 3rd, 2001 – more than 40 months ago – and decide whether Browne’s “yes” means yes, or no….

Just last Tuesday night, Browne appeared on the infamous "Coast to Coast" radio show; she’s one of host George Noory’s favorite guests, and brings him record ratings, regardless of how badly she fumbles. When Noory announced on the show the news flash that twelve of the thirteen West Virginia miners had been found still alive deep below the surface where an explosion had trapped them, Browne confidently stated that she’d always known that they would be found alive. She said this immediately after Noory read the erroneous media announcement; as we now know, it was the other way around, and sadly, only one of the thirteen had survived. Later, when the somewhat shaken Noory announced that CNN, Fox News and other media outlets had now reported that the previous news flash had been an error, Browne tried her usual ploy of re-stating herself, saying, "Yes, I just don't see anyone alive there – well maybe one." For anyone not familiar with the methods of these charlatans, this would appear to be a calamitous failure, a blow-out, a total screw-up – but not to anyone familiar with the callous likes of Sylvia Browne. 

Note that Browne dug herself in even deeper than that: as soon as Noory made the early announcement, she averred that she just “hated” psychics who said they knew what was going to happen “after the fact,” but that she had been forthcoming in this instance because Noory had asked her the question. Self-hatred is not in Browne’s spectrum, I guess.

Sylvia Browne and George Noory will ride out this total, abysmal, failure, because the believers need to cling to the notion that such fatuous claims of psychic power, are true.…

And I must note here that when the first news came out on the NBC-TV Today Show about the disaster, the governor of West Virginia began his comments with “Here in West Virginia, we believe in miracles, and we’re praying for the miners.” When the first report was made that all 13 had survived, people were quick to attribute it to God. One miner's young wife, 27, clutching her baby girl, said, "It just shows you enough prayers went out. It's a miracle." And, President Bush said, “We send our prayers…” On that same program, there was an item about a woman who’d won a huge lottery prize. The first words out of her mouth were, “God has answered my prayers!” Forgive me for not grasping the situation here: are we to believe that God ignored all the prayers for the trapped miners because He was busy arranging for that woman’s lottery number to be chosen? And to the young mother: do you suppose there weren’t quite enough prayers, or your husband would still be alive, and is that the miracle you cite? God allowed the miners to die because the pleas for mercy directed at Him weren’t properly phrased, while the lottery winner’s prayers were better formulated? Just what are this deity’s priorities?

Maybe He doesn’t care, at all.

Maybe He isn’t there…

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