May 30, 2003

Sylvia Wriggles Away, Real Medicine Works, Believers Objections, Those Evil Atheists, Denmark's Boesen Again, Q-Ray Quirkery, Skeptic Definition, Gimmee That Old-Time Astrology, Holy Water Crystals, Gays & God, Down Under Medicine...

Talk about willful ignorance! We reported to you that on Larry King Live recently, Sylvia Browne expressed her doubt about the existence and availability of the JREF million-dollar prize, and declared that she was avoiding the test because of that suspicion. We told you that in prompt response we'd sent her the documented, notarized, evidence to alleviate her fears. Now we're informed by the US Postal Service that our packet of documents, Certified Mail item #7003 0500 0002 3034 8133, which was accepted from us at the Fort Lauderdale post office at 11:23 a.m. on Monday, May 19th, 2003, was then delivered to Sylvia Browne from the post office in Campbell, California, at 12:08 p.m. on Thursday, May 22nd, and was refused by Sylvia that same day. It was returned to the JREF office on May 28th. An inquiry to the USPS informed us:

Your item was refused by the addressee at 12:12 pm on May 22, 2003 in CAMPBELL, CA 95008 and is being returned to the sender. Status is updated every evening. Please check again later.

So, to summarize: Ms. Browne, never having expressed her concerns directly to this Foundation, told an international CNN TV audience that she will not be tested for the million-dollar prize because she doubts our honesty. Wishing to correct her assumption so that we could move ahead with the testing procedure, we immediately attempted to supply her with the legal validation of our prize, and she refused to accept that validation! Why? Simply because Sylvia Browne knows full well that she must at all costs avoid fulfilling her widely-circulated and positive agreement to be tested by the JREF, an agreement reached 815 days ago. She's desperate, trapped by her own lies and obfuscations. She chooses to be ignorant of the facts. You decide: who is the dishonest party here?

A duplicate set of those documents was also sent to Larry King at CNN, on that same day. I wonder if Sylvia's willful ignorance will have any effect on his unconditional acceptance of her appearances on his show, and his positive opinion of her endless — unsubstantiated — claims of paranormal powers? We'll see.

This Sylvia maneuver is called, "Dodgeball Deluxe," by Bryan Farha, the caller who managed to get through the phone-in screening process of the Larry King Live show to ask the embarrassing question about why Sylvia Browne had failed to fulfill her agreement to be tested by the JREF. You see, I've heard from many readers who told me that they'd called in during previous Browne appearances on this show, had stated their intended question in response to the screeners' inquiries, and had then been left on "hold" until the program ended. That's a tactic used to block unwanted input to these shows. Writes Bryan:

The reason I got through is because I told the screener I wanted to ask Sylvia about my dead cousin — otherwise, I would never have made it through. I hated to do it that way, but it was the only way....

I note that in a recent TV interview, Ms. Browne was asked, "What do you think of Miss Cleo?" She responded:

I think it's just an aberration. It reminds me of a neurologist standing on a street corner with a dirty knife. It's just awful. . . . I tell people, if they're going to try to find a psychic, then do some research.

Don't ask me what that means... But if I ever see a neurologist standing on the corner holding a dirty knife, I'll ask her why... And if I see a naked Indonesian jockey playing chess underwater, I'll be equally curious...

By the way, we've done the suggested research you suggested, Sylvia. See above. You lose.

Reader Keith Waddell in the UK follows up on last week's happy story by Dave Nesbitt of real medicine solving a serious problem, with his own similar account:

I'd like to recount the experience of a family I knew once, who almost tried alternative therapy. Their 3-year old son was gravelly ill with an aggressive cancer. He was being treated in an NHS hospital, and receiving excellent hi-tech care. However, the chemotherapy had some distressing side effects, and was in any case having only limited effect on reducing the tumor. His prognosis was very poor, without further intervention — i.e. major surgery — which would be both life-threatening and disfiguring.

The family had the kind of "New Age," post-Christian, non-specific beliefs that are depressingly common in Britain today. (I think G.K. Chesterton put it well: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything.") They contacted a "spiritual" healer, who agreed to "treat" their son.

Now, the boy's mother was not completely stupid. She first asked the doctors at the hospital if she could take her son to this healer. They told her, so long as he doesn't try to give him anything or make any kind of physical intervention, then she could try anything that she wished. So, she took the boy to the spiritualist. This man "examined" the patient. He claimed he could channel the soul of a Victorian doctor to heal the little boy, though why the Victorians knew so much more about cancer than modern doctors, was not explained! The session was rather undramatic — just some silly voices & mumbling over the sick child. However, he told the mother to take the child out of hospital, as "they will do their best to kill him, but his spirit is strong."

Fortunately, the mother did not heed this advice. The tumor continued to grow, and finally the surgeons, with the skills and dedication most of us will never know, intervened and saved the boy's life.

What struck me, though, was the attitude of real doctors compared to that of the charlatan. The quack warned that only his approach could work, advice which if taken, would certainly have killed the child. The real doctors were tolerant and knew the importance of respecting, within reason, the family's beliefs.

Kudos to the family and the doctors. And thank you, Mr. Waddell.

We heard from Nancy, the wife of reader Dave Mackey. She's the one who recovered suddenly from a serious back problem, as reported here last week. She tells us that, as expected, various persons were eager to offer supernatural explanations for her recovery; a rational explanation free of woo-woo was just not acceptable to them. Writes Nancy:

I was delighted when Dave, a terrific humorist, sent you the story suggesting the improvement in my paralysis could be attributed to our "magic wand". . . . I just had to pass along some of the reactions we got from well-intentioned Believers who felt compelled to explain a mundane event in juicier terms:

1. Chiropractic Believer: "Oh, you'd been suffering from a subluxation."

2. Karma Believer: "It's because you deserve it."

3. All Religious Believers: "It's a miracle! God answers prayer!" (Note: I have never spoken with God about this matter.)

4. One especially pernicious Religious Believer: "You're a faithful person, you just don't know it."

You can guess how I feel about these remarks. I appreciate the good intentions, but could somebody please give ME a little credit? Miracle, my dead grandmothers! I'm sorry these people don't find the truth thrilling enough: I felt some of my paralysis might be due to acute injury, and thus might be improved with careful, persistent exercise. Although it took years of grueling work on my part, and strong encouragement on my husband's, our efforts paid off. That's it, not very exciting, unless you're the Mackeys, who can be seen lately walking hand in hand (plus cane) around their neighborhood.

And we couldn't be happier for you, Nancy. No, you didn't end up breathlessly telling your miracle story on major TV shows (Larry King, Montel Williams, Oprah), in women's magazines, or in sensationalist newspapers. But you kept your sanity and common sense.

I was scolded by a couple of readers who pointed to one comment from a reader last week, and I must agree that his statement was rather adamant and all-inclusive. Reader Richard Schultz pointed out the inhuman activities of Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin, and he summed up his observation:

It seems to me that to blame history's most heinous acts on theists or theism makes about as much sense (i.e. not much) as to blame them on atheists or atheism, and to do so is not only an example of the classic statistical error of confusing correlation with causation, but in my opinion may actually prevent people from making a serious effort to try to understand the causes of such evil and how it might prevented.

I think the point to make here is that any irrational, fanatical, belief can lead to unspeakable atrocities. German soldiers went into battle with "Gott Mit Uns" (God With Us) inscribed on their belt-buckles. The Crusades — eight of them, between 1095 and 1270 C.E. — were expeditions undertaken in fulfillment of a solemn religious vow to deliver the Holy Places from the rule of Islam, resulting in the slaughter of countless humans. The gruesome history of the Holy Inquisition speaks for itself. The segregation of races here in the United States, and slavery, were justified by Biblical references. Adolf Hitler himself was a Christian, and stated in his autobiography, Mein Kampf, "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord." Agreed, one has to wonder just how truthful he was in that statement, but he did marry Eva Braun just hours before they exited life, and that certainly was a religious act.

I am certainly not arguing that theists bear the major burden of blame for atrocities; I merely oppose the supposition, so widely held, that atheists are so much worse than theists. We are all capable of cruelty and indifference to others.

That unsinkable Danish astrologer Karen Boesen, infuriated that her "art" failed the tests it was put to on ōjvind KyrÝ's TV series, "Fornemmelse for snyd" ("A Sense of Deceit"), gratuitously threw in a comment about my minor involvement in the matter, saying:

I do not think there are many astrologers abroad, who bother about involving with Randi.

You speak sooth, oh wise one! Astrologers all over the world cringe when the James Randi Educational Foundation is mentioned! Since they know full well that our tests are well-designed and definitive, they flee for the woods when my name is invoked. After all, they're not totally reckless. And, Karen, you're the perfect example of one who fears me; you yourself have turned tail and run away when challenged by the JREF!

Another Danish astrologer, Annet Kofod, hastily withdrew from participation in KyrÝ's TV show when she heard our name mentioned in connection with the tests, then she made an attempt to recover from her fright and her embarrassment when she was interviewed about her flight. Said she:

When they first approached me, I had no information what this TV program was about, but when they mentioned James Randi, I could smell a rat. I do not want to be involved with that man, and in particular, his money. He is bad energy. I could not accept a million dollars with bad energy, and I do not at all want to be associated with that person.

She was asked, "Couldn't you just give the money away?" She answered:

I cannot give anything away which has bad energy. If I did give the money to the poor kids in Africa, they would simply receive bad energies, and I do not want to expose them to that.

Oh come on, Annet! Wouldn't it be just super to step up to the line, do the test, win it, and see me go down in flames as the JREF's million dollars goes bye-bye? I note that you've no doubt you could easily win the prize, but you just don't want the bad vibes, right? Sure, I believe that!

Our friend Mogen Winthers, to whom we're indebted for updates on the Boesen saga, comments: "Oh, I see — these poor starving kids would better have to die, than being exposed to James Randi's bad energy money?"

Regarding the item about the magical North Korean stones last week that are said to emit healing infra-red rays, reader Robert Woodhead observed:

North Korea does indeed produce infrared-emitting stones. Pure plutonium is quite warm, all those nice alpha particles.

Thanks, Robert. You just made my day...

Please read this paragraph and think about what it says:

The whole human body is a magnetic community. Each individual cell is a magnet and has polarities of North and South just like a regular magnet. That is why cells attract each other and form finally into a more complicated community, an animal body.

If anyone can come up with a less factual, more pseudoscientific, more wrong, misunderstanding of biology, physics, and reality, I'd like to see it. This is extracted from a document published by the United States Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO) as part of the accepted theory behind an "invention" of one Alexander Y. C. Chiu, of Foster City, California. He now holds US Patent # 5,989,178 for a "magnetic ring" which we've all seen promoted on television, endlessly, as the "Q-Ray." Go to and do a search for that patent number. Take along a sense of humor and a handkerchief...

Under "Summary of the Invention," inventor Chiu makes this baseless statement, his "scientific" description of how his miracle device works. I challenge you to read this and not laugh out loud:

The present invention speeds up the blood circulation of the entire body by [speeding] up the magnetic flux that is cycled in the body and therefore affects the blood circulation system. Slow metabolism means that energy and food that are delivered by blood do not reach cells fast enough. Cells are dying faster than they are reproduced as a result of the lacking of energy and food source that is caused by slow blood circulation. With the present invention metabolism is speeded up and allowed to distribute adequate energy and food into entire body cells, keeping the body young and healthy. The [ring] also helps speed up the healing process. Wounds and agonies can heal faster than usual. Old scars can now also reheal and disappear eventually. Why? Because, as mentioned, each single cell in the body is a magnet. If the magnetic flux of the body becomes stronger, cells attract more strongly to each other and therefore create a denser reunion. If cells become denser, the body parts become tighter and also stronger.

What the hell did that mean?

Chui claims, in his patent, that the ring will:

. . . supplement strength and speed of existing magnetic flux current cycled around a human body to increase health of the human body by virtue of blood circulation being directly proportional to magnetic flux and the magnetic flux being a natural turbine to circulate blood and which consists of no moving parts but yet still propels the blood.

Total nonsense, of course. My blood is rushed around my body by magnetism? But that entire 56-word phrase is repeated — in the patent application — eight times! This is complete pseudoscientific claptrap. The patent, issued by the once-responsible and useful USPTO, is chock full of incomprehensible gobbledygook like this, describing the invention. Just read the following very small excerpt straight through, and despair of any understanding. This is what Chiu has patented:

A magnetic ring adapted to be worn on the little finger of the hand. The magnetic ring includes a ring and a pair of permanent magnets that extend from the ring. When the magnetic ring is worn on the little finger of the right hand, the pair of permanent magnets are oriented on the top and bottom, respectively, of the little finger, with the South pole of the magnet that is oriented on the top of the little finger generally contacting the top of the little finger, with the North pole of the magnet that is oriented on the top of the little finger in opposition thereto, with the North pole of the magnet that is oriented on the bottom of the little finger generally contacting the bottom of the little finger, and with the South pole of the magnet that is oriented on the bottom of the little finger in opposition thereto. When the magnetic ring is worn on the little finger of the left hand, the position of the polarities of the pair of permanent magnets are reversed from that of the right hand. The magnetic ring can also be made to fit around all the fingers of the hand and all the toes of the foot.

The examiner for the USPTO is listed as John P. Lacyk. May I ask, did — or does — Mr. Lacyk understand this? If so, we obviously wasted much time and intellect translating ancient Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics, when he could have read to us fluently from Homer and The Book of the Dead. Surely, if he made his professional decision to grant a patent to this quack device, he must have accepted the silly "scientific" statements in the application, some of them shown above, as being true. What are his qualifications? Where did he learn this exotic view of biology? Does Mr. Lacyk have any scientific education at all? Does he believe the "science" offered here to be true? Does he have any common sense? What qualifies him for this responsible job? He obviously is profoundly ignorant of science and technology, since a reasonably intelligent grade-school student would spot the profound errors that are found all through this application.

And, just for the hell of it, I condensed the paragraph up above, taken from the patent application, losing not one bit of meaning or accuracy from it, only omitting redundancies and repetitions. It's clearer — though that's obviously not the purpose of such documents — and it's 62% shorter. However, since lawyers in these cases are paid by the word, they prefer to retain the unnecessary words. Here's my amateur version describing the invention:

A ring to be worn on the little finger, with a pair of extending permanent magnets. When worn on the right hand, the magnets are oriented on the top and bottom, the South pole on the top generally contacting the top of the finger, the North pole generally contacting the bottom. Worn on the left hand, the position of the magnets is reversed. It can also be worn on any of the digits of the hand and of the foot.

Yeah, I know. It still doesn't make any sense, but it's a little less painful.

But, to continue: To obtain a US patent, an applicant must establish that the device or system has not existed previously. In this patent paper, under "Description of the Prior Art" we find real inventions, such as a gimmick for reducing the diameter of a finger ring which is held in place by a magnetic shim, and a magnetic clasp for jewelry. Though the uninformed might consider them designed for the same purpose, they are not at all the same. One big difference I see, as well, is that the other inventions not only work, but can be shown to work.

And we pay examiner John P. Lacyk and others at the United States Patent and Trademarks Office to read this sort of material critically, consider it carefully, check it out, and issue a patent based upon the merits they reveal with their professional expertise? Folks, this is work that would fail any student in our educational system. We're the laughing-stock of the rest of the world, the greatest nation on Earth, yet we have incompetents at the helm of the USPTO. I'm appalled, and I think that you should be, too. But we can't do a damn thing about it, because no one in Washington cares!

I suggest that we should be demanding competency and knowledge from patent examiners. I believe that we have a right to expect that our tax dollars should not be paid to fumblers who know nothing about science, yet are assigned to make important scientific decisions on our behalf that both encourage scam artists and cripple the opportunities of genuine inventors. It's a scandal and a crime. The "Q-Ray" is a sham, it's a fake. It's sold by fast-talking TV promoters who flout the error of the USPTO as evidence that their product is genuine and does what they claim. THE US PUBLIC DESERVES TO BE PROTECTED AND SERVED BY THE USPTO, not betrayed.

We've had lots of mail, here at the office and via the JREF Forum, about Hal Bidlack's claim that he can be a dedicated and honest skeptic, while still believing in the existence of a deity. This is a healthy subject for discussion and dissection, and I find it fascinating. Here's an excerpt from a letter sent in by reader Erin Butler:

I oppose religions, or structures that insist on telling us what our spiritual side is. Having someone tell me how to pray "correctly" is as idiotic as someone telling me what kind of music is "right." Do I think we have a spiritual side? Certainly. But I'm also rather insulted when people insist it comes from an outside source of some kind. My view is a bit more pragmatic than that: we have more than enough inside our minds to provide a sense of wonder at the universe.

Agreed. I'm a decided atheist, but sunsets, puppy dogs, and newborn babies get me all fuzzy and silly. Knowing that when I look up at the Andromeda nebula, and see it as it was two million years ago, gives me a shiver. And then there's Sophia...

Reader Sam Ogden, who says he writes "from an undisclosed location on the Pale Blue Dot," then admits he's in Houston:

I hope I'm not wasting your valuable time with this email, but I just wanted to comment on the Hal Bidlack thread worming among the other brilliant topics on your website the past couple of weeks. In this week's Swift, JREF member Paul Schultz from St. Louis wondered, "Why theistic belief should get a free pass not afforded other paranormal claims . . ." He cites the "need to believe" as possibly the only reason. I submit that, though the "need to believe" may contribute to the eased criticism of theistic belief, it is more a function of non-theist over-courtesy to the traditional sacred cows that has let the "righteous" slide for so long. In other words, we have simply been too nice to religion.

Now, I won't try to fool anyone into thinking James Randi is nice to anyone spreading foolishness, least of all religion. As we all know, he's a bulldog in pursuit of reason and truth, and sometimes he justifiably isn't nice about it. That's why I admire him. But often the rest of us are much more tolerant than he. I attended the Amaz!ng Meeting in January, and was astonished to learn that many regional skeptic groups shy away from the topic of religion, and the dissection thereof, because they don't want to offend people and risk losing face in the community, or even with their own members. Maybe I'm just a purist, but it seems to me that once you adopt a tenet like this — foregoing criticism of the all-time champion of outrageous claims — you cease to be a skeptic. There simply is no Bidlackian "other sort of thing" in the mind of a skeptic. One cannot be a little bit pregnant. One cannot be a little bit dead. And one cannot be a little bit skeptical.

In the front pages of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer gives a sort of profile about what a skeptic is. He hints that the critical thinker is skeptical of everything, even to the point of questioning his or her own skepticism. (Don't think about that too long. It will make your head hurt.) But that's how firmly planted we should be in this movement, no matter the subject we are examining.

Paraphrasing part of a speech by the late Douglas Adams might help illustrate this point: Most readers of the JREF website would probably agree that the invention of the scientific method is the most powerful intellectual idea ever conceived. It is the purest mechanism for thinking about, investigating, understanding, and challenging the world around us that there is. I know that's a difficult statement for the non-skeptic to swallow, but once one begins to understand the breadth of the scientific method, it goes down a lot easier, because it rests on the premise that any idea — any idea whatsoever — is there to be not only scrutinized, but even attacked. And of course we know that if the idea withstands the attack, it lives to fight another day. If it buckles under scrutiny, then down it goes for good. Religion, however, seems immune to that process.

Religion, even the non-denominational theism of the Hal Bidlacks of the world, has certain ideas at the heart of it, which are "sacred" or "holy" or whatever. And because of the ingrained notion that exposing flaws in (or slandering, by some theist's reckoning) someone's religious claims, is somehow taboo, means that we often approach the subject wearing the proverbial kid gloves. The attitude is basically, "Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about. Why? You're just not. Why not? Because you're not!"

Now this protocol could thrive in no other realm in the world than religion. The purveyor of such nonsense in politics, philosophy, etc., would be laughed at and shamed into exile. Fortunately, for the good of the discussion, nothing is off-limits in those arenas. I mean, if someone votes for a party that we don't agree with, for example, we're free to argue about it as much as we like, as openly as we like. In cases like that, opposing sides present their views, and we have an argument, maybe even a heated argument, but ultimately nobody really feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down, we are free to discuss that notion as passionately as we wish, and we often do, especially lately in the US. But on the other hand, if we grill some nice, juicy steaks for a dinner party and a guest says, "Oh, I mustn't eat meat on Friday," the old-time manners kick in and we say, "Okay, I respect that."

Personally, I wouldn't care if the guest ate the pasta salad to adhere to the religious doctrine and left an extra steak for me, but I would not fail to point out how ridiculous the belief is. And we all should, in situations such as that; not just to be mean, but to show that even very old claptrap is not immune to close scrutiny.

I'm not saying we should stop thinking that Hal Bidlack is a swell guy. He is. A wonderfully swell guy. But when he tries to categorize his "sense that there is a cosmic clockmaker that uses the laws of science, that never interferes . . ." as a "different sort of thing," we should take him to the mat on it, proving that no variation of nonsense, even supposed sacred nonsense, is above reproach.

Randi: my contribution to this discussion: To make everything clear to all, I do not believe in any deities, ghosts, angels, demons, devils, goblins, banshees, Hell or Heaven, Purgatory, saints, imps, sprites, fairies, gnomes, bunyips, or bogey men. In that short list I've missed a lot of other things of which I doubt the existence, as I'm sure you can see. Add on Life-After-Death, Sylvia Browne, and perpetual motion. (Yes, I believe Sylvia exists, but not as she represents herself.) Note that I state I do not have a belief in these things, and the reason is that the supporting evidence offered for them — if any — is very, very, bad. To have a statement from Hal Bidlack that he has a belief in a deity or some such similar entity, is quite different from hearing him say that he has any evidence for that belief. I have always recognized two kinds of faith, especially when asked (as I frequently am) "Mr. Randi, don't you have any faith?" I say that there are two kinds of faith: blind faith and evidenced faith. Blind faith is the basis for religion; that idea does not require anything but blind belief. Evidenced faith requires supporting evidence — and that's what I prefer to accept. I have several friends who, like Hal, have a belief in a deity. They don't try to argue the matter with me, they simply state that preferred belief, and live with it.

Be aware that if anyone chooses to argue religion with me and says that he/she can prove their case, I enter that fray with arms flailing and loud battle cries. But I respect anyone's preferred beliefs, because that's one right I deeply cherish here in this country. It's a right, and it's often a burden.

I became a citizen of the USA back in 1987, for a specific reason. I was unhappy with several experiences I'd had back home in Canada, in relation to freedom of expression and freedom from unwarranted searches. I fiercely defend anyone's right to embrace a belief. Mind you, I will enter into an argument if invited, in fact I've done just that many times; I never avoid that opportunity. Hal has a preferred belief. I do not share that belief. That's okay. The doctor with a bad haircut and a baggy polyester suit is probably just as good a doctor as the one with the $35 haircut and the Armani suit; however, I would not ask the former for fashion advice. The skeptic who thinks he was designed by some entity, is probably as good a skeptic as the one who thinks he exists as the result of a long process of trial-and-error; I would not ask the former for an opinion on cosmology — though I might expect him to have a viable opinion on income taxes and on baseball.

Hal Bidlack is a prince. Not just a swell guy, a prince. He could make royalty respectable. Yes, we differ in some beliefs and in a basic aspect of philosophy, but he's no less a friend and a trusted advisor for that.

There. I've had my say.

I've always had an interest in looking up how reference books have handled certain questionable subjects, both now and in past years. Recently, while speaking at a conference of DAMOP (Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics of the American Physical Society), I came upon a 1923 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana, where I found this comment under the "Astrology" listing, following their definition of the subject as a "pseudoscience":

Astrological predictions of all kinds have a tendency to pass away without being fulfilled, and when finally it was discovered that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but only a planet rotating about another body, and itself much exceeded in size by several of its compeers, every scientific mind in Europe felt itself unable any longer to believe in astrology, which has been in an increasingly languishing state since the middle of the 17th century. It still flourishes, however, in Asia and Africa, and is a means of livelihood to many charlatans who prey upon the ignorant classes in all countries.

What interests me here is not the expected denial of the validity of this crackpot idea, which I find in every major reference source, but the naÔve declaration — seen in other comparable reference works — that we no longer need to be concerned with such obvious flummery. It's time has passed, they say, and that's all part of a grand aberration from which we're now free. Astrology is seen as a long-gone defect of the thinking process, but we all now know that this celebration of the victory of reason was quite premature.

It was not only the specific, simplistic, error of a geocentric universe that brought about the notion of astrology, but the conviction that our species was so special that the universe was created and designed solely for its benefit. In other words, astrology was the result of those religious aberrations from which many of our fellow passengers on Earth, still suffer. Why would the stars — both fixed and wandering — exist at all, if not for the use and appreciation of our species? After all, all other life-forms were created for our use, either as food or slaves or to clothe us, and our only obligation is to continuously cajole and fawn over this petulant Creator God, who might remind us of a selfish, capricious, child, but who is capable of visiting pain, disease, and despair upon us at a whim — and frequently does so if we try to really apply thought to the situation. Thus, the possibility that this juvenile despot might have laid out some secrets in the patterns of the night sky, could not be ignored, because in admiring and surrendering to its glory, brownie points might be available...

Re last week's nutty item about thoughts and emotions changing the crystalline structure of water, Steve Bauer of Portland, Oregon, asked:

I wonder what patterns appear when you play Christian hard rock in the presence of water. Does it soak up the lyrics and become pretty? Or does it soak up the music and become ugly? The answer to this question will most certainly and irreversibly change our knowledge of the emotional molecular structural alteration of water as it exists in the present moment.

Or maybe not.

Steve's thoughts were echoed by Alex Howansky:

I can't help but wonder what would happen if this water were exposed to music from a Christian heavy metal band screaming the praises of God to deafening power chords and thumping bass lines. I'll bet it would tend to shift back and forth between ordered and chaotic states. Sounds like a nice source of energy! Just pour this water into your gas tank and then swear/pray/swear/pray...

There is one thing I neglected to mention about this weird claim of altering water by thought. UK homeopath Liz Miller, who was sure she'd discovered the reason the recent BBC tests of magic water had failed, assures me that she still believes my vibrations interfered with the experiments. Why are we not surprised that evidence has failed to shake her self-delusion?

Reader Larry Parker of Princeton, Texas, comments:

Just as a note, seeing the country singer Charlie Daniels espousing hate against homosexuals in the name of God on his web site inspired these thoughts. I totally agree that a belief in God is really a need to believe in something besides perceived oblivion. It's the classic "fear of the unknown," with death being the ultimate unknown.

When it comes to religion, though, I think there is a different attraction. Like many who are suited to army life, many people are suited to religion because it allows them not to have to think for themselves. All the rules and regulations for many of the really hard decisions in life are made for them. They don't even need to decide which morals are theirs, because that has already been decided for them. In actuality, this part has much less to do with belief in God, than it does belief in the tenets laid down by the followers of a certain religion. They seem to vary wildly, even when worshipping the same, so-called "God."

If you're taught from childhood that these decisions are already made for you, then it's quite difficult to take that big step to form your own opinions, instead of continuing to believe the ones you have been taught all your life. Any change, and especially such a drastic change, is normally not made by choice. Some event or new knowledge literally needs to knock you off that perch of righteousness you have falsely adopted as the way you "run your life." Of course the most unbelievable religions normally have the most drastic tenants of faith. I believe Eric Hoffer points this out in "True Believer," THE book on mass movements.

Of course the real upside is, the drastic changes you are often forced to deal with, are often the best things that ever happened in your life. AND it wasn't Charlie Daniel's belief in God that made him hate homosexuals; it was the tenets of some idiotic fundamentalist religion.

Living in the heart of the Bible Belt gives you insight, sometimes even if you don't desire it.

Reader Dan Eccles brings back the Pan Pharmaceuticals scandal in Australia that we reported:

As was mentioned in the last commentary (May 23, 2003), John Kiprov made a few corrections to what I wrote. I fear they need some explaining, or response. Said John:

Just look at the top of the Travacalm packet, and see the words "Pharmacy medicine." If that ain't a prescription medicine then I don't know what is.

Then unfortunately John doesn't know what a prescription medicine is. Travacalm is freely available over the counter in any chemist/pharmacy in Australia. Any seven-year-old can walk out with a packet without prescription. "Pharmacy medicine" means just that — medicine in a pharmacy, no written prescription required.

John was, however, correct in saying that Pan makes prescription drugs. Not near 50% of the market, but still prescription drugs nonetheless. Indeed, there HAS been a recall on one prescription drug, 178 packets that have been declared suspect. Since they were dispersed in April, some of them may have already been used by patients. There may be more in the future. The investigations are not over yet.

And the fear continues. The number of recalled products has climbed to over 1,500. Politicians are talking of action, as they always do. The larger cost, however, is that a great specter of doubt has been cast over almost every drug manufacturer in the country. Since this whole horrifying scandal was uncovered by investigating a single drug, leading to more and more revelations, now there are very few guarantees that you are taking what the label says you are taking.

Good stuff coming up next week...!