VOL. 10 NO. 4 SPRING 1998
Press promotes paranormal while slamming sweepstakesby Gary P. Posner
The local news media have recently been in an uproar over the American Family Publishers Sweepstakes for its misleading mailings. All the while, the public continues to be served side orders of the paranormal along with the "news" and, at least in the case of the St. Petersburg Times, TBS's constructive criticisms and efforts to set the record straight appear to have made little inroad.
One Times article, "Keeping the Faith, followed up on the now-world-famous "Virgin Mary" apparition (see TBS Report, Spring 1997). Although the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg does urge caution in the article, an unnamed "glass expert" remarks, with regard to the shape of the image, "It could be an accident, or maybe it's divine intervention" (as if these possibilities are equally likely). The following "Letter to the Editor" from me (on TBS letterhead) went unpublished:
Your December 17 article about the Virgin Mary-shaped stain on Clearwater's Ugly Duckling Car Sales building indicated that the cause of the stain's shape is unknown. The building's other similar stains correspond to the height/shape of the vegetation in contact with the windows. On December 20 of last year , your own newspaper carried a 1994 photo revealing that a palm tree, matching "Mary's" height, once abutted her image, which (although partially obscured) was present even back then. A somewhat squatter palm along the western facade now obscures the "Buddha," whose visitation will no-doubt draw millions to the area when that tree is removed.
The Dec. 30 Times carried two major feature articles on acupuncture. From one: "Skeptics called it 'quackupuncture.' They scoffed at the ancient idea of an invisible energy circulating through the body . . . and warned against something so alien to Western medicine. What a difference 26 years makes." Reporter Jeanne Malmgren then discusses at length the National Institutes of Health's recent positive proclamation on acupuncture. In a side article, she reports upon her own pleasant acupuncture experience. My/TBS's again-unpublished letter:
Your writer said that "in the name of science" she was willing to undergo an acupuncture session, but then went on to describe nothing even vaguely resembling a scientific treatment. The Tampa Bay Skeptics will pay $1,000 (and arrange a similar test for James Randi's $1,000,000 prize) to any acupuncturist whose "trained fingers" can feel "nine pulses" in the wrist and thereby determine "whether an organ [such as the gallbladder] is working too hard or not enough" [as Malmgren reported].
Malmgren refers to the NIH as "one of the most venerable medical organizations in the United States." Such was once the case, and still is, except for the Office of Alternative Medicine. In Skeptic magazine (Vol. 5, No. 3, 1997, p. 51), Time magazine's Leon Jaroff describes the OAM as "a festering source of embarrassment. . . . [NIH] held its collective nose when it was forced by Congress to establish the office five years ago. . . . Today the OAM stands out as a refuge for, and a comfort to, quacks and the medically illiterate." Jaroff recalls the pressured resignation of OAM's first (and rigorously scientific) director, describes some of the "scientific" investigations being carried out there, and challenges OAM to agree to testing of one of its pet therapies, such as homeopathy, by the James Randi Educational Foundation for its $1,000,000 prize. As for whether OAM will ever agree to such a genuine double-blind, scientific test, Jaroff concludes his piece: "I think you know the answer."
The Tampa Tribune did a better job with its major feature on "Psychics" on January 26. Reporter Paulo Lima, whose regular beat is law enforcement, scouted out the monthly psychic fair at the Universal Church of Today on W. Waters Ave. His primary article offered a description of the general goings-on at the fair, with a neutral-to-positive spin. But his secondary article (which hopefully was read by all who read the other) emphasized how the "psychic" he selected, rather than employing genuine paranormal powers, instead appeared to "learn more from the frequent questions she peppered me with between prognostications. . . . Like when she asked me how long my girlfriend and I had been together. . . . Again, she prodded me with [more] questions. . . . I resisted the urge to spout, 'You're the psychic, so you tell me!'"
CHAIRMAN'S CORNERby Terry A. Smiljanich
The Ambiguous Virtues of Doubt
There is a difference between admitting that one may be wrong, which is to acknowledge one's fallibility, and treating that possibility of error as a genuine reason to doubt.
In February, the largest Holocaust Museum in the Southeast is opening in downtown St. Petersburg. Having moved from small quarters located on the beach, the new museum will feature artifacts, scale models, and photographs depicting the darkest years of the twentieth century, if not the millennium. Perhaps the "numbers" are greater when talking about Stalin's purges, but the sheer cold-blooded efficiency with which the Germans and their henchmen went about the task of eliminating an entire race cannot be surpassed in horror.
Discussions of the Holocaust illuminate the ambiguous virtues of doubt. Healthy doubt and critical inquiry are enemies of dogmatism. As Jacob Bronowski proclaimed in his epochal public television series The Ascent of Man, the Nazi drive to eliminate the Jewish peoples from the face of the Earth stands as a monument to how mankind acts when it arrogantly believes it possesses absolute truth. The entire Nazi apparatus -- from its scientists to its industrialists to its lawyers to its doctors -- was devoted to the single-minded pursuit of the goals of the nation state.
There was no room in this system for questioning, for critical analysis, for doubt. Absurd silliness abounded. The Jewish race was a "pollutant." Personalities and intelligence were thought to be "shaped" biologically by the literal shape of the head or nose. The top leaders of government ascribed to numerous forms of occultism, astrology, and medical quackery. (There are exceptions, of course, but generalities must suffice for the length of only a few paragraphs).
In 1996, I took a trip to Eastern Europe. Two days stand out. On one, I stood at the very end of the rail line leading into the Auschwitz/Birkenau death camp in Poland, just a few short steps away from the ruins of the crematoria (blown up by the Nazis in a desperate attempt to destroy the evidence of their shameful past). Here, millions of Jews, mostly women, children and the old, were marched into gas chambers with soothing words about "delousing," etc. The dark soil around my feet was littered with tiny white bone fragments. The guide stated that no matter how much the ground is swept by wind and erosion, more bones appear.
On a second day, I was standing in a guilded room in a mansion alongside Lake Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin where, in January 1942, Reinhard Heydrich chaired a conference of top government officials to discuss implementation of a "final solution to the Jewish question." Although separated by hundreds of miles, that ornate room with its huge mahogany table was intimately connected to the end of that rail line.
Now, fifty-some years later, small revisionist groups demonstrate the ugly side of "doubt." In pursuit of their own agendas, they claim that we should be "skeptical" about the very existence of the Holocaust. Thus does skepticism get yet another bad name. It is a fallacy to take "doubt" and "open-mindedness" and turn them into arguments that ignore evidence and favor improbabilities.
There is a difference between the serious doubt with which critical inquiry approaches claims of the extraordinary, and the absurd doubt with which Holocaust revisionists attempt to deny the evidences of history. As Jonathan Adler so eloquently expressed in the last issue of Skeptical Inquirer (see the beginning of this piece), the hypothetical possibility that the Holocaust did not occur (probably no less improbable a notion than is the existence of an advanced civilization inhabiting the "hollow" center of the earth) provides no genuine reason to doubt that it did.
The Nazis were abysmally and tragically wrong in their belief that they possessed absolute truth. Doubt is a virtue. But the bones of Auschwitz do not lie.
Alan Hale and Ann Druyan speak at local conventionby Valerie Grey
Astronomer Alan Hale, co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp, and Ann Druyan, widow of Carl Sagan and co-author of several of his books, were the featured speakers at the Freedom From Religion Foundation's annual national convention, held in Tampa on December 5-7.
Dr. Hale showed many magnificent slides of the comet (the second brightest this millennium) and of other awe-inspiring astronomical phenomena. He deplored the present lack of science literacy in this country and said that the Heaven's Gate tragedy was "another victory for ignorance and superstition." He cited, as typical of the mainstream preference for astronomical fantasy over reality, the fact that only 4,000 people attended the Mars Pathfinder festival in Pasadena, California, while 40,000 went to Roswell, site of the alleged flying-saucer crash.
Hale touched briefly on the long history of comet scares. In olden times, he joked, a comet would appear, and then something bad would happen -- post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore, because of this). He showed a slide of an indictment filed 50 years or more ago against the purveyors of a fake "comet pill," which was sold when the Earth was going to pass through a comet's tail. The pill was supposed to neutralize the effects of the poisonous gasses contained in the tail, all of which would compress to a mere cubic centimeter.
The nonsense about Comet Hale-Bopp began almost immediately upon its discovery, Hale said, despite the fact that the bright object above the comet in the famous photo bandied about in the tabloids was readily identified as a star as soon as older survey plates of the region were examined. He said he received a lot of hate mail for being "a traitor to the Earth for withholding information about the spaceship," and that he and Bopp were accused of being government agents, who then vanished mysteriously into the desert. (He added that he and Bopp are still waiting for their government paychecks, which have also apparently vanished mysteriously . . . ) He concluded his presentation by noting that Comet Hale-Bopp would be returning in 2,380 years. Will humanity be in another Dark Ages, he asked, or will it be out there in space, exploring?
Ann Druyan was honored as this year's "Freethought Heroine." She is actively involved in producing several television and motion-picture projects which she hopes will help to counteract the stereotypical image of scientists as "monsters who have sold their souls." Among her more interesting comments was her expression of hope that people would come to employ "baloney detection kits" to help counteract our evolutionary tendency (just like other primates) to seek out leaders and uncritically worship alpha males. She said that Carl Sagan's childlike wonder and awe at the mysteries and vastness of the universe, combined with an adult skepticism, was one of his greatest virtues, and that the willingness of scientific thinkers to abandon religion's narcissistic teachings about the universe suggests a growth toward the maturity of mankind.
From our "If We Build It, They Will Come" Dept.: The international Realian Church has raised $7-million for construction of an embassy designed to entice extraterrestrials to visit Miami's trendy South Beach. The targeted aliens "are from a planet in our galaxy, but not in our solar system," according to Marie-Helene Parent, a Miami Raelian. She also notes that it was these aliens who created humans in their image -- Genesis has been "mistranslated" in this respect. Question: Given the nature of South Beach's earthly invaders, if the ETs were to arrive there, how would they be recognized?
(Charlotte [Harbor] Sun Herald, Dec. 29)
And from that paper's major front-page story of the same date: The Rev. Jacoby Sumrall of the Punta Gorda Church of Light has made some "psychic" predictions for 1998. "I'm seeing a huge corporation moving into Charlotte County. . . . 1,000 to 2,000 jobs created." Well, perhaps. "Some of the oldies [celebrities] are going to be going to heaven, more than last year." Good bet. "Liz Taylor is going to be more visible in '98." Will she make more media appearances, or merely gain weight?
(Charlotte [Harbor] Sun Herald, Dec. 29)
The "Virgin Mary," whose image adorns a window on Clearwater's Ugly Duckling Car Sales building, has gotten herself into an even stickier situation in Olivet Memorial Park cemetery near San Jose, California. This time, a palm tree was not involved in the stain's creation, but a "Mary" pattern of tree sap has appeared on the trunk of a 100-foot-tall pine, about 10-12 feet above the ground, near where a branch was sawed off about two years ago. And, as in Clearwater, a "shrine" of sorts has been erected, with visitors streaming by and leaving behind offerings of flowers, medallions, rosary beads, candles, etc.
(Baltimore Sun, Dec. 21)
Dr. Richard C. Davis' Largo clinic, shut down briefly by the state, is once again employing "RheoTherapy" to treat macular degeneration, though under stricter supervision. At $22,000 per patient, Davis cleans up by cleaning out "gunk" from his patients' blood that would otherwise deposit in the eye and contribute to blindness. Though it has a limited following in Germany, the remedy has been declared by state regulators to be unproven and potentially dangerous. As St. Pete. ophthalmologist Dr. Mark Sibley comments, "In America, we usually conduct medical research and prove that something works before we start charging $20,000 for a treatment." Picky, picky.
(St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 15, Jan. 30, Feb. 10)
TBS in the Media
Gary Posner was quoted in a December 15 story on "Faith and Healing" in the Health & Living section of ABC News' web site. He was also interviewed on the same theme for a two-part series (Jan. 30 and Feb. 6) in Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union.
A producer for America's Health Network (satellite/cable) called upon TBS to recruit a skeptical guest for their Dec. 7 two-hour program on "Near Death Experiences." Although we did so (Prof. Barry Beyerstein), the producer ultimately decided that the other guests represented a sufficient spectrum of opinion such that our "skeptic" would not be needed after all. She had earlier candidly informed us that the show is hosted by a devoutly Christian physician who believes NDEs to be genuine, and possibly manifestations of the Devil.
We also received a call from a producer for "The News with Brian Williams" (which airs on MSNBC and CNBC) requesting Noreen Renier's telephone number. They had plans for a live discussion on Jan. 14 between Joe Nickell (editor of Psychic Sleuths, which contains my chapter on Renier) and a psychic (Renier, Dorothy Allison and/or Greta Alexander, all of whom were profiled in the book). But the discussion was first postponed to a later date and ultimately cancelled -- perhaps no "psychic" was willing to appear -- and the show instead reran a Jan. 11 "Dateline NBC" story (featuring Nickell) that was highly skeptical of Allison.
No Psychics Used Hereby Glenn Thompson
It was heartening to recently learn that the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Dept. puts no credence in psychic sleuths. A highly placed homicide detective who does not wish to speak for the department, but who says his opinion is widely held there, has told me that they do not seek out psychics. When they have had to work with psychics because of political considerations, my source says that not only were their leads unfruitful, but they were actually detrimental to the investigation, in that resources were diverted from more potentially useful areas.
Letters to the Editor / Readers' Forum
We just received your winter edition of the TBS Report. I am, as usual, impressed by the quality of your newsletter. However, I have two points I'd like to discuss.
First, in reference to Terry Smiljanich's article, who says we skeptics don't believe weird things? Our groups are filled with nuts who believe weird things. We have communists, socialists, libertarians, anarchists, atheists, agnostics, humanists, deists, fetishists, conservatives, liberals, racists, nationalists, bigamists, relativists, acupuncturists, punctualists, pantheists, medievalist, futurists, objectivists, and one guy in Arkansas who plays with dowsing rods. The guy I work for, James Randi, he's a nut. He yells at his computer all the time. From my point of view we're all pretty nuts. Of course from where I'm looking, I'm the least nutty of us all.
Second, the article about Ben Bova's speech is an excellent example of something one skeptic considers weird and another perfectly acceptable. The primary difference between the "predictions" made by Ben Bova (skeptic and a sci-fi nut) and previous empty promises by wishful thinkers is that nanotechnology actually has some merit to it. If you accept that (1) machines are getting tremendously more powerful, compact, precise and (2) that on a molecular level the human body is just a complicated machine, then barring any limiting physical laws, nanotechnology seems like a logical possibility.
In his book, ENGINES OF CREATION, K. Eric Drexler (nano nut) first popularized the notion of nanotechnology, an idea originally put forward by the late Richard Feynman (physicist, skeptic, Nobel winning bongo nut). The book received much criticism (despite the introduction by Marvin Minsky, skeptic and artificial nut). Unfortunately the criticisms were more about the idea of nanotechnology and not about the practicality of it. What fundamental criticisms there were (other than the lack of an actual working man-made nano assembler),were answered by Drexler in later writings, as well as actual experiments by various laboratories. As skeptics, we naturally become cynical towards extraordinary claims, as we should be. However, when a claim, or a forecast is made about something that can be directly examined, it's our responsibility to look at the evidence before dismissing the claim or throwing it on to the heap of paranormal ideas.
Right now, there are no man-made "nano-machines", there may be some law of nature that prevents us from constructing them. There are however naturally occurring "nano-machines" that manipulate matter on a molecular level -- DNA for example. Every month science journals are filled with articles and papers that relate directly to research into manipulating matter on a molecular level. This knowledge base is increasing dramatically. In a decade or so microchip manufacturers are going to reach the upper limit of the top-down approach to building things. The only direction then to fulfill the edict of Moore's Law will be to examine how to construct things on the molecular level. Considering that the average microchip factory costs $1 billion to build, it's not unrealistic to believe that very soon a lot of money is going to be thrown at developing nanotechnology.
The chief difference between nanotechnology and paranormal claims is that the principals of nanotech are based upon the very laws that make the supernatural an impossibility. In one hundred years of parapsychological research that field has yielded a big, fat zero in useful applications or knowledge. In the same amount of time, physics and chemistry have revolutionized the way we communicate and handle information. The average child has more information resources at their fingertips than any king or emperor could have dreamed of. If physics, chemistry, biology, and the computer sciences can have the same effect on materials technology, Bova's predictions seem pretty tame.
But don't take my word for it, I'm an admitted nut. But, a nut in good company.
P.S.: Two highly recommended books on this subject are ENGINES OF CREATION by K. Eric Drexler, and NANO by Ed Regis. Also, check out the homepage of the Foresight Institute, an organization dedicated towards nanotechnology-related research.
Andrew Mayne Harter
Editor's reply: In this context, Terry intended "weird" to refer to the types of claims that concern TBS, not every controversial or quirky idea under the sun. Valerie does not reject nanotechnology as "paranormal," but does consider Bova's near- and intermediate-term projections to be terribly unrealistic.
Editor: I wish to applaud you for your fine work on the e-mail "Updates" and on the ongoing growth of the web site. There was a time when I thought I was the only skeptic in the world. This organization (plus CSICOP and others) has given me much hope that there may be a chance for truth to win out.
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