March 30, 2007
Be sure to tune in April 1st for the Pigasus Awards!
As I warned you last week, it appears that news – good and bad – from the United Kingdom rather dominates this issue of SWIFT. First, our friend John Atkinson, resident of the Isle of Man and frequent contributor, informs us of a petition issued to his government. He writes:
The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 has rarely been used in the prosecution of mediums and psychics, who claim to contact the dead relatives of people. Yet there are increasingly more TV shows and live acts where people claiming to be mediums and psychics prey on vulnerable people who have lost loved ones, giving them spurious information and taking their money. We call upon the Government to revise the Fraudulent Mediums Act and make it easier to prosecute these people.
This is not too unlike our situation in the US. Laws are already in place to cover the actions of the scam-artists, but it takes interested federal, state, or local officials to initiate any action whereby these people can be stopped and/or prosecuted. It will be interesting to see what – if anything – results from this UK petition. Any response will have to be either non-committal, weak, or satisfying. We’ll see! John will keep us informed.
Still in the UK, we turn next to a tired old complaint. It used to be that certain persons were unable to wear wrist-watches because his/her personal magnetic or electrical field caused them to malfunction, then this claim turned into a simple allergy to electricity or radio-frequency fields. Now we have 39-year-old Debbie Bird of Greater Manchester who believes she is allergic to “modern technology,” in general. When using a cell phone, cooking dinner with the microwave oven, using a computer, or driving in a car, she says she is so sensitive to the electromagnetic field (EMF) or “smog” thus created, that she develops a painful skin rash and her eyelids swell to three times their size. As a result, Ms. Bird, who works as a health spa manager, has tried to turn her home into an EMF-free zone – an obvious impossibility. She’s covered her walls in a special “carbon paint,” the windows have a protective film on them, and she and her husband even sleep under a silver-plated mosquito net to deflect the radio waves.
Debbie says she now has a plasma TV screen because the old style one “gave out gamma rays.” She says:
I can't even get in my friend's BMW. If I do I immediately start getting a headache and my head starts tingling. Even shopping is a problem. I can't go in places like Starbucks where there is Wi-Fi broadband and I always have to be aware of my environment.
Her neighbors are all using wireless internet connections and have cordless phones, says Ms. Bird, and she reports that she reacts severely to these influences. Doctors, however, say that there is little scientific evidence to back up a link between EMF and such complaints: they believe Ms. Bird’s symptoms are psychosomatic. But an organization known as Electro-Sensitivity UK, says through their director, Rod Read:
I have seen hundreds of people who exhibit symptoms they directly attribute to the electrical items around them. But it is a “politically incorrect” illness, the Government or electronic companies don't want people thinking their mobile phones or microwaves are dangerous. In the past, doctors have dismissed symptoms as something like flu, but the pathology is now established. It has a huge detrimental physical effect and stops people living normal lives.
I can sense the average reader squirming about, wanting to ask the very obvious question that presents itself here: Won't a very simple test determine – easily and quickly – whether Ms. Bird is, or is not, sensitive to EMF radiation? The answer is a resounding, "Yes!" and the JREF is quite willing to do such a test. Is Ms. Bird willing…? I think not.
On a still different UK matter, reader Martin Rule, of Coventry, UK, writes:
I bring your attention to tinyurl.com/2lhw5n [Degrees in Homeopathy Stated as Unscientific] about British universities offering degrees in homeopathy and other pseudosciences. What particularly caught my eye was this quote, concerning homeopaths discussing why double-blind trials are inappropriate for homeopathy because a “trust” has to be built up between patient and practitioner:
Homeopaths say that if there is a chance that the patient might receive a placebo at the end of it, the necessary trust can break down.
The irony was not lost on me.
Next, UK reader Niall Morrissey:
I don't know whether you are aware of it, but the University of Westminster in London is apparently offering BSc's in Homeopathy. The course is three years. Just 3 years to equip somebody to operate in the health sector? A good friend of mine is a real biologist and he is looking into it for me. I'll let you know what I find out.
It's alarming that an institution such as this would legitimize quackery in this way. I'm not sure whether the students are con artists or victims. Probably both.
Reader John Ruch, of Boston, Massachusetts, points out:
The BBC News Web site yesterday featured a story about the bevy of "complementary medicine" degrees offered by universities: See http://tinyurl.com/36vn5x. This is one of the most popular stories in the Health section. Rather than explaining the scientific method, the article presents the topic as a clash of opinions and personalities – typical for journalism. Then, in a sidebar summary, it makes an astounding claim: that complementary medicine "works" and science can't explain it! Here's the letter I just fired off to the BBC:
Your 22 March, 2007 article “Alternative therapy degree attack” contains a serious, material error in describing the scientific method, as well as logic and causality. The sidebar summary says: “For a medicine to be used in conventional medicine, it must go through scientific trials where its effectiveness has to be proven. But these techniques often fail to show how complementary medicine works.”
This summary presumes, with patent bias, that “complementary” practices work, and that the scientific method fails to explain them. That literally makes no sense and is untrue. Nothing can be demonstrated to “work” without the scientific method, which separates out coincidence, effects from other causes, and/or misperception. There can only be a claim or hypothesis that they “work.” There is not some special system of biology, physics or logic that applies only to “complementary” practices – nor, I would hope, to journalism.
Furthermore, the scientific method has indeed demonstrated that the “effect” of many “complementary” treatments is simply the placebo effect. The claim that this subject is utterly mysterious to science is hogwash and a grave material error.
Incidentally, isn't "complementary" an Orwellian term for "parasitical"? They may as well call TV complementary medicine because it's fun to watch while you're being treated in a hospital.
From the UK Daily Mail, we learn that thousands of UK children are being treated to "healing" Reiki massages and acupuncture under a £5,000,000 Home Office plan intended to reduce crime and drug abuse. The youngsters in the most deprived parts of the country are also being given "detoxification" foot spas, “Indian head massages” and taught various sports. Sports, okay, but quack medicine…? “Natural relaxation techniques” are also offered, of course. Reiki, electro-stimulation – a form of “electrical acupuncture,” are big with the kids, not to my surprise. These are youngsters who are at last being offered attention after being ignored or badly treated by the system, and they need and relish this special treatment. The director of the system says that it has been a huge success, adding:
Their parents love it because they are going home and crashing at 10 o'clock because their bodies are detoxed.
No, sir, these are useless therapies, but the kids are getting TLC, not magical mumbo-jumbo. The taxpayers of the UK would far rather be paying for something real, thank you. You can go to www.randi.org/jr/100303.html for a discussion of those ridiculous "detoxification" foot spas, and do a search for “Staggs.” Pure quackery…
Professor David Colquhoun, of the University College, London department of pharmacology, warns of another peril. He says that UK universities are teaching "gobbledygook," following the current explosion in science degrees given in “complementary medicine.” He points out that for a substance or system to be used in conventional medicine, it must go through scientific trials where its effectiveness has to be proven, but these techniques often fail to show how complementary medicine “works.” Though advocates say that new research is beginning to prove the case, the British Medical Association believe there should be proper regulation of the practice. The science journal Nature reported that there are now 61 complementary medicine courses available, of which 45 are actually science degrees.
Colquhoun urges authorities to act, because, he says, complementary medicine is not based on properly-derived scientific evidence, a statement that was labeled, by supporters of the quackery, as a "sweeping generalization." He specifically cited the example of homeopathy, saying that it had barely changed since the start of the 19th Century and was "more like religion than science." He also pointed out that some supporters of “nutritional therapy” have claimed that simple changes in diet can cure AIDS. This reflects the claims of certain African leaders; see www.randi.org/jr/2007-03/031607bowl.html#i1.
Colquhoun declared that the teaching of complementary medicine as a “science” was worse than "Mickey Mouse" degrees in golf management and baking that have sprung up in recent years, as they only say to
…do what it says on the label. That is quite different from awarding BSc degrees in subjects that are not science at all, but are positively anti-science. Yet this sort of gobbledygook is being taught in some UK universities as though it were science.
He suggested, as I myself have in the past, that it would be satisfactory if courses in such subjects as aromatherapy, acupuncture, herbal medicine, reflexology, naturopathy and traditional Chinese medicine, were taught as part of a cultural history or a sociology course. Keeping it thus identified would have to be carefully monitored, I suggest…
(You’ll find an excellent – and comprehensive! – UK site that deals with quackery, at www.dcquack.org.uk.)
The “Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health,” a group set up by Prince Charles to promote complementary therapy, says that there is increasing evidence that alternative therapies worked, and that in cases where there was no proof of that, it did not necessarily mean that there would never be. Agreed, Charles, but until the evidence is produced, you are choosing to believe in a chimera! Charles’ Foundation’s chief executive says:
The enormous demand from the public for complementary treatments means that we need more research into why and how patients are benefiting. Scientists should want to explore this rather than make sweeping, absolutist generalizations arising from deeply held prejudice as David Colquhoun does in this article.
This is the popular “proof from popularity” ploy, so often heard from quacks, and the claim expressed here that “patients are benefiting” is purely anecdotal. Also, there is nothing “absolutist” about Professor Colquhoun, at all. He is simply pointing out the very uncomfortable facts of this devotion to the irrational that he has observed – that we’ve all observed – except through the rose-tinted windows of Windsor Castle…
Reader Corey Watts, in Australia, brings us a hopeful indication:
Here’s a link to the Australian Government Institute of Criminology: www.aic.gov.au/publications/crimprev/children/part2.html, where you can see how much they appreciate “psychics” becoming involved in missing persons’ cases. Scroll down to the heading Practical Considerations:
Desperation can force people to consider options they would never entertain in more stable times, but however desperate you become do not resort to the psychics and mystics who invariably approach parents in this situation. Such people will charge you large amounts of money but do not help you.
So there we have it. “Psychics” are dismissed as nothing more than opportunists by Australia's official criminological institute.
True, Corey, and duly noted, but so long as heedless media outlets – and irresponsible “scientists” – continue to promote, encourage, and endorse “psychics,” they will continue to grab public attention… Corey also mentions:
I submit this amusing commentary, found at www.allisondubois.com/commentary.html for your perusal. As you would be aware, Ms.
Dubious, sorry, Dubois, no longer wants to be associated with the “scientist” Gary Schwartz. Well considering that Dr. Schwartz was her “trump card” for several years, we have to ask why he has fallen out of favor? I have a theory: Allison used Dr. Schwartz so long as he appeared to validate her scientifically. Now that his “research” has been scrutinized and found to be totally lacking in the scientific method, she has had to turn tail and run! She really is a pathetic piece of work.
Will we ever know, Corey? Given Gary Schwartz’s reluctance to share “scientific” findings with the world, I think not.
Reader Jerry Brightbill, of Tonasket, Washington, relates an expensive encounter…
I have been a fan of yours since you first appeared on the Johnny Carson Show. I finally became a member of the JREF. I would like to thank you for all that you are doing for the cause of critical thinking. I recently got an iPod and I have been listening to you and others on the Skepticality and Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts. I feel that it helps me keep grounded since members of my family believe in alternative medicine, dowsing, and whatever it is that bees can do besides pollinate flowers and make honey. I sometimes feel that I am alone in a world of superstition, and it helps to hear of others who think as I do even though I don't know them personally.
I would like to share my experience with dowsing. Some years ago, my wife and I were looking for some property on which to build. We found a spot that looked promising: 10 acres of wooded land 9 miles from town. We agreed to buy the property on the condition that it had water. We hired a well driller who came highly recommended and had a college degree in geology. He looked over the site and determined the correct spot to drill based on some nearby rock formations on the surface. Then he pulled out his knife and cut a dowsing rod to verify his choice. I thought, "Oh, boy, here we go. I wonder if the twig will bend when he walks over the spot he has already chosen." Sure enough (surprise, surprise) it did. Since he first selected the site based on geology, we went ahead and had him drill. After two days, 500 feet of well, and $10,000, he still hadn't found water. We put a stop to the drilling and turned down the property.
The story had a happy ending, however. A couple of years later a fire swept through the area and destroyed part of the forest on the property. I'm glad we weren't living there. A few years after that we found a much better piece of property that already had a well and are now happily living on it.
Keep up the good work. I look forward to Fridays and the new commentary.
It was ever thus, Jerry. A college degree doesn’t necessarily make a guy smart. Superstitions and notions can override common sense, anytime…
Last week's initial item on the subject of Global Warming (www.randi.org/jr/2007-03/032307tx.html#i1) brought me a great deal of criticism from readers all over the world. I plead guilty – guilty with an explanation, which follows. Perhaps fired up from my recent attendance at the TED conference, during which I was submerged in an atmosphere of trust and acceptance, I may have chosen to easily allow myself to be beguiled by Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth." I’ve paid close attention to those readers who directed me to other sources of information, and I will list and discuss some of these here for you, though not in the depth required to thoroughly explore such an important matter:
“The Great Global Warming Swindle,” a UK video production, runs one hour and 13 minutes – perhaps more information than you require, but worth the investment of time. It can be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=XttV2C6B8pU. I’ve not had the time to examine and evaluate every detail of this document, and it needs much more attention. However, in a remarkable book just brought to my attention, “The Cult of the Amateur,” by Andrew Keen, I offer you this excerpt, which is, I believe, very pertinent to the situation I am attempting to clarify here:
Truth… is being "flattened," as we create an on-demand, personalized version of the truth, reflecting our own individual myopia. One person's truth becomes as "true" as anyone else's. Today's media is shattering the world into a billion personalized truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile. To quote Richard Edelman, the founder, president and CEO of Edelman PR, the world's largest privately owned public relations company:
In this era of exploding media technologies there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself.
This undermining of truth is threatening the quality of civil public discourse, encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft and stifling creativity. When advertising and public relations are disguised as news, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Instead of more community, knowledge, or culture, all that Web 2.0 really delivers is more dubious content, from anonymous sources, hijacking our time and playing to our gullibility.
Need proof? Let's look at that army of perjurious penguins – "Al Gore's Army of Penguins" to be exact. Featured on YouTube, the film, a crude "self-made" satire of Gore's pro-environment movie An Inconvenient Truth, belittles the seriousness of [his] message by featuring a penguin version of Al Gore preaching to other penguins about global warning.
But [this film] is not just another homemade example of YouTube inanity. Though many of the 120,000 people who viewed this video undoubtedly assumed it was the work of some SUV-driving amateur with an aversion to recycling, in reality, the Wall Street Journal traced the real authorship of this neo-con satire to DCI Group, a conservative Washington, D.C. public relationships and lobbying firm whose clients include ExxonMobil. The video is nothing more than political spin, enabled and perpetuated by the anonymity of Web 2.0, masquerading as independent art. In short, it is a big lie.
Randi comments: The 120,000 viewers cited above by author Keen in the “bound galley” version of his book that I received at the TED Conference earlier this month, has reached 517,746 in the 3 weeks since…!
The “political spin” Keen refers to here, will be discussed up ahead. Back to Keen’s book:
Blogs too, can be vehicles for veiled corporate propaganda and deception. In March 2006, the New York Times reported about a blogger whose laudatory postings about Wal-Mart were "identical" to press releases written by a senior account supervisor at the Arkansas retailer's PR company. Perhaps this is the same team behind the mysterious elimination of unflattering remarks about Wal-Mart's treatment of its employees on the retailer's Wikipedia entry.
Similarly, the data found at www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/126 originated with "Sense About Science," a UK group which describes itself as
…an independent charitable trust promoting good science and evidence in public debates. We do this by promoting respect for evidence and by urging scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult.
I've seen many previous contributions from these folks, on other matters, and they've always impressed me. One important factor that is emphasized in this documentary, is the simply monumental task of anyone, any committee, or any study, coming to a conclusion through examining the evidence – millions of data-points, opinions, measurements, trends, and observations – and arriving at a statement about whether any observed change in global temperatures is discernibly due to human activities. The natural cyclic changes, geographic and solar, seem – to me – to be so variable and large, that the effect of Man on the entire picture, cannot be sorted out as easily as measuring CO2 concentrations, as Al Gore tries to do.
And, as an admitted amateur, I’m well aware of the fact that the massive amount of energy stored up as petroleum, natural gas, and coal since the Carboniferous Age, has only recently – only in the last 200 years – been tapped, in exponentially-increasing amounts, and converted back into heat energy. Yes, that must add to the rush of calories we now experience…!
Furthermore, statistical “models” based on past- and probable-behavior should not be mistaken for systems that can predict the future. Al Gore seems to often assume this error. Such models are useful and interesting, yes, but not necessarily predictive. I do not see, from my now somewhat better-informed perspective, and even judging from the smog I have personally experienced over many major cities across the world, the science behind a claim that humans – alone – are causing global climate change. I lived in London during the period that the individual chimney-pots were suddenly, legally, forbidden, and the resulting cessation of wood- and soft coal-burning fires – often a chimney-pot per room! – brought about a startling change in the smog situation, a change that was evident within a matter of weeks. However, that was a local phenomenon, which though dramatic, cannot be applied globally.
Even if humans don't impact the global environment to the degree claimed, there's no reason not to adopt some of the more Earth-friendly policies that many are suggesting. But let’s face it: we messed up. Unknowingly, innocently, from our own ignorance of the total picture, we messed up when we launched the Petroleum Age. The question is, what can we now do about it? I sure don’t have the answers, but buying Hummers isn’t part of it…
At ff.org/centers/csspp/pdf/20070226_monckton.pdf, is a criticism that makes many possibly good points, all worth knowing about, but it is, in my perception, poorly organized.
Reader Clive van der Spuy, of Johannesburg, South Africa, observes that in his opinion – and I concur –
…the science involved [is] very slippery – apparently multi-disciplinary, largely probability-driven with multi-factorial functions of who knows what resulting in prognostications with wild variations in significance and import. I have concluded that this is a scientific area fraught with inherent epistemological difficulties. I have also concluded that it is situated right in the middle of an arena of social policy where various factions pull in very many different directions and where they exploit the foggy aspects of the science to maximum effect.
However, reader Roy Fisher, of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, suggested that I should check out www.realclimate.org, a climate science web site run by “genuine climate scientists.” I did, and found it fascinating and informative, especially in its added commentary from previous readers. As Mr. Fisher wrote:
While solidly on the side of Global Warming Exists (and that it's Man-Made, and that We Need To Do Something About It), they call out sloppy science on both sides of the debate. For example, they decry the tendency for people to suddenly believe in Global Warming because of an unusually hot summer – and while mostly approving of "An Inconvenient Truth," they don't hesitate to note the (few) parts it got wrong. Other articles run the gamut from mathematical climate models (explaining to laymen like me exactly why we know they work), melting glaciers, and Michael Crichton's "State of Fear."
I’ll close this item with a March 20/07 letter to The New York Times from the president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], a response to what he perceived to be misinformation in a Times article that questioned Al Gore’s conclusions:
The National Academy of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorology Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all issued statements stating that climate change is: a) occurring, b) largely caused by humans and c) likely to continue with large negative consequences for natural and human socioeconomic systems unless we rapidly decarbonize our global energy systems.
People who have evidence that contradicts these statements can publish their findings in scientific journals, after which the public might expect to see this work discussed in Science Times. In the meantime, if you feel obligated to publish what are simply opinions, please use the opinion pages rather than the science section.
– James J. McCarthy, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I know this is a lot of material to go through, and that's something that I should've done before innocently – and rather naïvely – embraced the Gore contribution so quickly, but I think this matter is something about which we should all be at least somewhat informed.
My present opinion – as always, subject to correction and/or adjustment – is that the CO2 effect on our environment is a reality, but has been over-emphasized as a dangerous factor. Al Gore, in his documentary, is perhaps guilty of some data-searching and data-selecting – both common errors of amateur scientists, and sometimes purposeful tools used to prove a point or mislead consumers. And, I also cannot ignore the fact that the present US administration is loathe to admit of any criticisms that might threaten Big Business or the enthusiastic pursuit of the Dollar; politics plays a very heavy role in this discussion.
I sincerely thank the many readers who feverishly hammered out their comments to me following last week’s item. I believe I was overly-enthusiastic in my premature reaction to "An Inconvenient Truth," and for that I apologize. Frankly, I’m not at all convinced either way. Yes, Al Gore has excellent points to make, but I’ll ask philosopher Immanuel Kant [1724-1804] to take me off the hook. He said:
Enthusiasm is always connected with the senses, whatever be the object that excites it.
I’ve decided that there’s just no hope that Edmund Scientifics – despite the assurances of their spokesman, David Miles, their Customer Service representative – will ever decide to tell the truth about the quackery they’re selling. It appears now that Miles has been quickly silenced by the company. Any disclaimers he initiated have been withdrawn, the customers have been lied to, and the sham products are continuing to be sold as if they’re legitimate.
Many of our readers discovered that the scam continues, and so informed me. The naïve continue to be swindled, and Edmund Scientifics leads the parade.
Go to www.musicdirect.com/products/detail.asp?sku=ADENMAGIC to see just how insane, mis-informed, incorrect, and naïve the manufacturers – and customers – of the audio trade can be. I quote an excerpt:
The reason behind this is that small magnets in the signal path are, with time, orientated in one direction. This produces a detrimental effect on the signal. The DeMagic signal actually relocates the magnets, and thereby breaks the magnetic field and it's [sic] negative effect on the sound.
This is a signal from a CD, folks! It’s said to “relocate” the magnets! Gee, it sure sounds scientific, doesn't it? Please disregard the fact that it doesn't make any sense.
Reader Flavio Rizzardi comments on our item at www.randi.org/jr/2007-03/032307tx.html#i2:
I'm enjoying today's issue of Swift, but I have some objections to Dr. Bunge's baloney detector kit:
1) Electromagnetic impulses have detectable influences on relevant properties of liquids; examples: MRI and microwave ovens.
2) A crystal of calcite has a specific influence on electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum, by splitting it into two differently polarized beams.
4) Tachyons have clearly defined physical properties; even if they haven't been detected (and probably never will) I'd be leery of saying that they don't exist; after all, nobody has ever found a trace of Higg's boson either.
3) Ok, this is harder, but... water below 0 degrees Celsius (at 1 atmosphere) does have a definite structure, and a well-thrown snowball can transmit information – in this specific case, it says, "Gotcha!"
This list is partially tongue-in-cheek; now please excuse me while I bid on eBay for a tachyon-powered crystal fuel enhancer...
Understood, Flavio, you rascal, you! But reader Ian S. Parry also comments:
This week, I note your comments on and by Prof. Dr. Rainer Bunge. However, one should perhaps be cautious about being too certain. You see, I have access to a machine containing large electromagnets, which really does "vitalize" water. Honestly! Moreover, with it I can "vitalize" the water molecules in your body, and when I switch off the electromagnets, the water "relaxes" back to its normal state. With it I can see the internal organs of your body and detect some diseases!
It's called an MRI Scanner.
Reader Nicholas Setzer of UMD also leaps aboard the Gotcha! Bandwagon:
I must object to item number #2 of the "useful list" since crystals do have a specific influence on radiation: Sodium iodide crystal is used in photomultiplier tubes since it takes high energy photons and converts them into light (see www.physics.isu.edu/radinf/naidetector.htm) and Lead Tungstate crystal is being used in the Electron Calorimeter of the Compact Muon Solenoid at the Large Hadron Collider to measure the energies of electrons and photons.
There are, of course, other crystals, but I think you get the idea.
Regarding the "Colour Energy," it was amusing to look at www.colourenergy.com/html/what-is.html, where there is a picture of the Sun emitting Cosmic Rays. Had our intrepid Kindergarten teacher even bothered to type this into Google, she would have discovered that cosmic rays are aptly named: they most certainly are not from the Sun. In fact, they are mostly high energy protons and have very little to do with the electromagnetic spectrum!
Okay, guys. I’m sure you recognized that Rainer Bunge was generally referring to the commonly-made claims of quack science, in his contribution to SWIFT last week, not the subtle scientific applications. However, both Bunge and I must admit that your observations are quite correct!
(The designation “UMD” following Nicholas’ name could have been more specific. It could designate the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of Massachusetts, United Medical & Dental Schools, or the Universal Media Disc produced by Sony. It’s the one first listed, but I had to look it up. I’m reminded of those magicians who proudly associate themselves with “IBM” and assume that those not in the profession automatically know it’s International Business Machines. Wrong.)
Reader Kevin O'Brien is mystified:
I'm a long-time fan of yours and greatly respect you and your work. I also lived in Korea for 7 years, which is why I was mystified by your response to the letter you received about the Korean belief in "fan death." I realize you've traveled to Korea several times, and you have your own impressions from that experience. But if you speak to anyone that has lived and worked in South Korea for any period of time, they will undoubtedly tell you two things which directly contradict your response:
(1) An overwhelming majority of Koreans do, in fact believe in fan death. I would personally put my own estimate at, at least 98% of the population. I was a teacher in Korea and came in contact with thousands and thousands of students of different ages over my 7 years there, and the number of people I met who did not believe in fan death, I could count on one hand.
The Korean media is the reason for the widespread belief, as they have consistently reported the supposed phenomenon repeatedly over the last 20 years (according to my Korean wife), with summer reports of fan death reaching 3-4 times weekly. I've personally seen numerous stories on Korean television and in print, always accompanied by "scientific" explanations for why the fan was the cause of death, and actual doctors doing the explaining. There are also public service announcements warning people about fan death on television and in the print media throughout the summer. It wasn't until last year that I saw the very first article even questioning the validity of fan death, and it was written by an American doctor in an English-language daily, which is mainly read by the foreign community, and reaches very few Koreans.
I'm sure you will receive other emails from Westerners living in Korea, and my psychic abilities tell me they will all tell you the same thing... Koreans firmly believe in fan death.
(2) Koreans on the whole are unfortunately, quite far from being "rational and sensible" folks, and this is the main reason that fan death and many other ridiculous beliefs still permeate the society. I say this as someone who lived there and learned a lot about the country and its culture through firsthand experience. As a traditionally Confucian society, questioning your parents, elders, or any type of authority is frowned upon and negatively reinforced. This leads to unquestioning, unskeptical belief in what you're told by anyone in authority. In addition, superstition plays a HUGE role in Korean culture. There are literally tens of thousands of fortune-tellers of every variety all over the country, and they are a commonly accepted device by which to make life decisions (who to marry, college major, where to live, what job to take). I personally know many, many Koreans who literally refused to marry a longtime boyfriend or girlfriend because a fortune-teller told them they were not a good match. It is VERY common in Korea. There are thousands of what are called "fortune-teller cafes" in every city and small town in Korea, and they do huge business, as do roadside tellers as well as high-end tellers to the rich and famous.
In fact, politicians make public visits to fortune tellers as campaign photo ops, and presidents are very well known for visiting certain gravesites to receive the "blessings" of their ancestors in order to do well in elections. Once again, the media plays a very large role in perpetuating the ability of psychics and other scam artists. Skepticism is rare, and in Korean culture, anyone that does not go along with a common belief (i.e. skeptic) is considered an outcast and is accused of ruining the "mood." Korean culture highly values conformity of belief, and questioning well-known superstitions is akin to treason. It simply is not done without fear of ostracism.
I could go on with countless other examples, but I've written enough already. Please keep up your very valuable work, but do not let your limited experience in a few trips to Korea fool you into thinking it is a society based on rational and sensible thinking. It is far, far more enslaved to psychics and superstition than the United States, and is in far more need of your insight than you realize.
Kevin, I thank you for your thorough discussion of this matter, but I must say that my own experience – though hardly as extensive as yours – showed me a rather different picture of South Korean culture. My exposure to the thoughts, opinions, and conclusions of these people was rather limited to what I could obtain through translation, of course. Certainly, all of those who worked with me in the Seoul Broadcasting System [SBS] were rational, dedicated to scientific thinking, and determined to present to their viewing audience a correct picture of how the supernatural beliefs and claims of those who were trying for the million-dollar prize, were only pleasant notions or outright deceptions.
Mr. Sang-Moon Nam, our producer, impressed me hugely for many reasons, but particularly because he listened carefully to my input. He respected the fact that I had vast experience in designing appropriate tests for supposedly paranormal events and powers, and he took my advice – which I cannot say other producers have always done.
This was never more evident than when Nam took a TV crew off to Malaysia to investigate a faker there who was using a high-frequency, high-voltage, generator to produce spectacular – but ineffective – electrical effects on his patients. Because this man had announced that he would not perform if I were present – for some unknown reason! – Nam had to use his ingenuity to trap him, and he did, definitively and convincingly. In fact, all the SBS personnel offered their valuable input to the production, and the academics who became involved, were very aware and generous with their contributions. Several projects in the series were initiated and carried out by SBS without my participation, and I could not fault them in any respect.
I have several good Korean friends here in the United States and in Canada, and they certainly are not superstitious or prone to believe in pseudoscience. Again, I admit that this is a selected population, and may not represent the South Korean people in general. This of course does not directly address the “fan death” aspect in Korea, but I’ve never seen any of these friends expressing Fear of Fans…
Your observations are gratefully received, and we will take them into consideration, Kevin.
Well, it appears that Mr. Uri Geller is feeling the heavy pressure of all those "unfortunate" video clips that have been going the rounds on the various Internet services! He’s issued complaints, demands, and generally dissatisfied noises, and in response, an entity known as “Explorologist Limited” has suddenly materialized and demanded that YouTube take down the Israeli-TV video that shows Geller "caught in the act" with the moving-the-compass trick, and the “Nova” excerpt in which he floundered about when he wasn’t allowed to fool with the props before the show. Of course, there are many similar clips available, and they’ve been copied and recopied all over the world, since the moment they first went up on the Internet. The YouTube people apparently were told by “Explorologist Limited” – who advertise that they’re a “Private Company” registered in the UK, dealing with “Radio and Television Activities/Provision of Services to Television, Radio, and Broadcasting” – that these video clips are copyrighted by Mr. Geller, a statement which is quite untrue.
For example, the "Nova" [PBS] show titled, "Secrets of the Psychics," uses the well-known video excerpt of Geller’s 1973 appearance on the Johnny Carson show in which he was unable to do any of his usual tricks, simply because I had been consulted by Johnny in advance and had provided him with the appropriate precautions to take so that Geller would not be able to do any trickery. I personally requested Johnny Carson to provide WGBH/Boston with a copy of that episode, since NBC had wanted a very large amount of money to provide for that usage.
That large fee demanded by NBC was quite understandable, actually. To simply locate and make a copy of that particular program was expensive and time-consuming. At risk of giving you much more detail on this matter than you might want to know, I will tell you that it involved actually taking the original two-inch videotape recording, removing it from its reel, then using a specially-constructed lathe to shave off a millimeter or so from both edge-surfaces of the tightly-wound mylar tape. You see, as we now know, the emulsion adhesive eventually seeps out over the years to form a layer of hardened goo which causes these old tapes to stick as they peel off the supply reel. NBC had to then run the tape on a specially-sized slightly-less-than-two-inch playback machine, one kept especially for that purpose. So, this was a rather expensive procedure, but was generously arranged by Johnny so that WGBH/Boston would be spared that expense.
That appearance was a total disaster for Geller, and it's quite understandable why he would not want it to be freely available to be seen! However, any claim by Geller that he has a copyright on that appearance – or on any of the others, for that matter – is a fantasy. What I'm getting at here is that Geller has no copyright on any of that material, and YouTube should not have so easily responded to the demand by “Explorologist Limited” to withdraw those video clips.
Ah, but I hear you saying, “Just who is Explorologist Limited?” Funny you should ask! This, it turns out, is a dummy corporation set up in the UK by the only two shareholders: Shimshon [Shipi] Shtrang – Geller’s brother-in-law, also listed as “Manager” of the corporation, and Uri Geller Freud – also listed as “Director” of the corporation, as well as, “Artist/Writer.” Quel surprise! These two individuals hold the £100 of the total Explorologist Limited funds – 75 shares for Mr. Geller Freud, and 25 for Shipi!
And YouTube saw this as a challenge…?
In any case, these video clips are going right back up again…
Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8BxmXHRaBI. It will give you an excellent example of how an investigation should be done by a TV team, though I'm amazed to find that this was a FOX-TV unit who prepared this particular example; FOX-TV is not known for knocking any woo-woo notions, I assure you. The man who is actually being taken in here, is Louis J. Matacia, who apparently is paying all the costs of these "field trips" to demonstrate what he calls, "energy fields," and he urges those who attempt to dowse, to listen to the "little voice inside of you." Well, if Louis had been reading SWIFT, particularly under the 334 items that we show under the word, "dowsing," alone, he’d have been spared the experience of looking so goofy.
This may be hard to believe, but I'm sure that by now he has already made excuses for why Mr. David Gowman so blatantly cheated him. As I've often said before, there is no amount or quality of proof that will dissuade the true believer from continuing to be deluded.
Reader and periodic contributor Jan-Eric Nystrom, in Finland, has become aware of our colleagues Penn & Teller:
With the ongoing digitalization of Finnish TV – all analog transmissions will end on Aug. 31, forcing everyone to buy a "digibox" converter – several new channels have appeared in our little country. One of the more interesting ones features the "Bullshit!" show. By now, I've watched about ten episodes.
In general, I approve of the show, even if the style sometimes goes "slightly" over the top, and sometimes P&T are just dead wrong – as in the "passive smoking" episode. But, by and large, good debunking.
One only wonders - how can they stay clear of libel suits?
Answer: Excellent lawyers…!
A simple trick that a few “psychics” do, is causing a watch to stop, or changing the time on the watch, and we refer here to a regular mechanical watch, not a digital one. The first one of these feats is simple indeed, though it apparently has fooled a few scientists along the way – those who chose to assume that a non-scientist – such as a “psychic” – could not possibly be smart enough to deceive a PhD. The “stopping” trick is done simply by bringing a magnet up against the back of the watch. The magnet can be concealed under the clothing, so that the performer merely places the watch against it and makes appropriately mysterious gestures and incantations, and the instrument stops – only to resume again after it’s been taken away from the vicinity of the magnet. That’s all there is to it.
Mind you, a really cheap watch can be permanently stopped by this technique, since it may become permanently magnetized. The steel spring driving the balance-wheel – or another critical moving part – can be thus put out of commission, though a properly-administered jolt of an alternating magnetic field, with the injured watch being slowly removed from the field, will cure this drastic malfunction. Most expensive watches use non-magnetizable stainless-steel alloys, and are not affected in this way.
As for “psychically” changing the setting on a watch, you can see that being done at www.randi.org/jr/061104the.html#8, where a “psychic” is seen going through the entire routine, along with the usual physical and vocal misdirection, chutzpah, and waving-about of his hands. Just click on the “magic button”… I’ve never seen a clearer or more evident example of this trick being given away.
At www.ted.com/about/introduction/flash_page.cfm you’ll see the group who sponsored the event that Jeff Wagg and I attended earlier this month. It's hard to describe to you what it feels like to be on a "down" escalator, pass Bill Clinton going by on the "up" escalator, and turn to see Goldie Hahn speaking with Tracy Chapman. Tracy is a modest, quiet, striking woman who seemed to grow when she hit the stage, and occupied the whole hall as soon as she began singing, during her stint onstage. Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker and Tracy suffered through a few card tricks that I forced on them – to my great delight. Sir Richard Branson – of Virgin Airways – was charming, humorous, and everything you’d expect in a caring billionaire.
Is this name-dropping? Yep, it sure is. I'm trying to warm up for next week's SWIFT, when I'll give you a more complete report on this wonderful event.
An amusing quotation from British physicist Sir W. C. D. Whetham:
…characteristic British attitude of mind, which is to regard man as a machine in the physiological laboratory, as a being possessing free will and responsibility when met in the ordinary affairs of life, and as an immortal soul when in church.
Readers, try to imagine the very strangest alien extra-planetary ET you can, something that would make the late Hugo Gernsback – he’d label it a “BEM” [Bug-Eyed Monster] – actually salivate. How about this: a “thing” with lots of sucker-covered arms growing out of its head, three hearts pumping its blue-green blood, and a doughnut-shaped brain? Wait, there’s more: It can change its color and shape to blend in with plants and rocks, and it can switch on electrifying light shows that dazzle its prey. It’s quite intelligent, with a highly complex brain, too. Well, you can see this beast, on NOVA, Tuesday, April 3, 8:00 p.m. on most PBS stations.
Yes, join PBS/NOVA on a voyage beneath the waves, where you'll discover… the cuttlefish! And it didn’t come from Mars, it’s all over the place, under the oceans right here on Earth! NOVA's "Kings of Camouflage" captures this master of disguise as it evades predators, hypnotizes prey, and intimidates mating rivals. Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/schedule-local.html for exact schedules in your area…
See? Real wonders are available to be seen! We don’t need psychics, dead-talkers, quacks, and magical claims, to make life interesting and captivating…!
You may wish to visit Dr. Martin Rundkvist’s blog site at www.scienceblogs.com/aardvarchaeology/2007/03/skeptics_circle_57_the_zebra_s .php. Martin is a Swedish scientist who is a prominent European skeptical presence …
We had a very successful last-Wednesday-of-the-month Open House here at the JREF, with a University of Phoenix group from South Florida, teacher Richard Bernstein in charge. Good questions, good reactions!
The JREF Challenge revisions will be up on our page, right away. Questions will be responded to, of course. The FAQ section will take a little longer to prepare, and must await the questions, to be responsive…!
This was a long SWIFT this week, and a lot of work…
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