Selected articles from
VOL. 11  NO. 3  WINTER 1998-99



WARNING: ET probe to allegedly land on Dec. 7!

In a Nov. 6 e-mail to the members of Citizens Against UFO Secrecy (CAUS), director/attorney Peter Gersten warned that an alien craft is scheduled to land on earth just days after publication of this newsletter. It seems that Richard Hoagland, the chief promoter of such claims as the "Face on Mars," has stated on the Art Bell radio program that a so-called "EQ Pegasi signal" is emanating from an interstellar probe which will land near Phoenix, AZ, on Dec. 7.

Says Gersten, "CAUS believes we must assume Hoagland's information, based upon his experience, expertise and intuition and corroborated by his calculations and Pentagon sources, is reliable and accurate. CAUS believes we must prepare for some unusual event to take place north of Phoenix on December 7th."


"Psychic/Prophet" fails the TBS "$1,000 Challenge"

by Gary P. Posner

[This article may be found here.]


UFOs, Scientists and Stanford University (Part 2)

by Terry A. Smiljanich

In our last issue, we examined the recent Stanford/Sturrock report on the need for further serious study of the "UFO problem." The study, heavily reported in the media as objective scientific confirmation of the reality of UFOs, was sponsored by the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) and published in its "peer-reviewed" journal, the Journal of Scientific Exploration (JSE). We learned that JSE has published many articles on such fringe-science topics as cold fusion, astrology, dowsing, faith healing, and the Loch Ness monster.

Far from being an objective scientific report published in a serious scientific journal, it thus turns out that the sponsoring organization and its publications are committed to the study of pseudoscientific topics, including UFOs. Unfortunately, in none of the media reports on this study was this important fact mentioned.

If there was any doubt about where the Society for Scientific Exploration stands on anti-rational thinking, one need only read some articles by Bernhard Haisch, the editor-in-chief of JSE. In "Be Skeptical of the 'Skeptics,'" Dr. Haisch (Astronomy, University of Wisconsin) tut-tuts over the ridicule and innuendo coming from the "skeptical community." He argues that it would only take a small part of the federal civilian research budget to "make progress" in the UFO question. He further suggests that there is plenty of "substantial evidence" to support UFO claims. (Substantial? The results set forth in this study?) He concludes: "After all, how can one rationally object to a call for scientific examination of evidence?"

Good question, but somewhat beside the point. To my knowledge, no one is prohibiting good research scientists from examining any aspect of what SSE continually refers to as the "UFO problem." There are, of course, some interesting aspects of some UFO reports that point to unusual atmospheric/solar phenomena such as sundogs, sun pillars, superrefractive effects, and electrical "sprites" above thunderclouds. Ball lightning is still little understood. But do Dr. Haisch and the SSE believe that scientists should spend spare dollars and time running down reports of green lights chasing police cruisers, crashed aliens at Roswell, floating lights over Gulf Breeze, and the myriad other silly claims that together constitute the "UFO problem"? Give the scientific community some good non-prosaic "evidence" of UFOs, and there will be little problem in generating interest in a "scientific examination."

After reading through the Sturrock UFO report and the material available on the website for the SSE and its journal, one is left with the impression that what really irks this group is its lack of credibility. It yearns for bigger research dollars and respect. Well, only one thing will achieve this -- results. If SSE can ever report conclusively on a repeatable dowsing demonstration, fortune-telling result, reincarnation proof, alien visitation, or cold-fusion power, it can be assured that the scientific community and research dollars will clamor for position. But as long as SSE stays out on the edges of pseudoscience, the burden of proof and persuasion will always be upon it.

Ultimately, though, what's the harm in presenting this report to the public? It's a free country, and no one can question the right of this panel to present whatever results and conclusions it sees fit. It is, nonetheless, sad. The wide public has now heard reports that a group of "objective" scientists has concluded that "there's something to these UFO reports" and has urged fellow scientists to get serious about UFO investigations. The report itself is not nearly so credulous as the media would have it, but surely SSE and the Sturrock panel knew that this is how the report would be treated.

In a recent Skeptical Inquirer  article, Glenn Sparks reported on studies of the influence media depictions of the paranormal have on the public ("Paranormal Depictions in the Media," Vol. 22, No. 4). In studying media reports of UFOs, he found that the greatest level of belief in UFOs was found in groups that were exposed to stories in which the reports were affirmed by a scientific authority. Amazingly, the next largest block of UFO believers was found in groups that read stories discredited by scientific authority. He concludes: "While the reason for this finding is not entirely clear, it may be that simply mentioning a scientific authority in a story about space aliens tends to lend some credibility to the topic -- regardless of what the scientist actually says" (p. 38).

There is little doubt that the Stanford/Sturrock UFO study will have such an effect on the public. In an age of scientific illiteracy, SSE and the Sturrock panel have done their part to assure us that more green lights will chase more cars, and more alien abductions will be reported. As James McGaha asked at CSICOP's "World Skeptics Congress" in Heidelberg, Germany, this past July, "Why fund mystery-mongering over UFOs, when NEOs (Near Earth Objects) are real threats in our skies that go almost totally unheeded?"

The late Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner and teacher at Cal Tech, once noted the lack of consistency regarding UFO reports as indicative of their unimportance: "It's not worth paying much attention to, unless it begins to sharpen up" (The Meaning of It All,  1998, p. 76). About true believers, he said, "They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it's possible or not but whether it's going on or not."

Feynman struck at the heart of the self-created "UFO problem." If true believers and UFO aficionados, whether they be credentialed scientists or not, want the scientific community to pay attention to UFOs, they will need to "sharpen up" their own act and provide clear demonstration that flying saucers are not only possible, but that it's "going on." Until then, the "UFO problem" will remain mired in, as the panel noted, "ignorance and confusion." The Stanford/Sturrock panel should have done us all a favor by addressing itself to the UFO community, not the Associated Press.


Skepticial scientist defends against lawsuit
brought by controversial clinic

by Robert H. Buesing

On October 9, a message was left on the Tampa Bay Skeptics' answering machine by Dr. Philip Filner, a biochemist with the Macular Degeneration Foundation. Filner stated that he was the subject of a libel action relating to his comments about RheoTherapy Centers of Tampa Bay, a Largo clinic offering a controversial therapy for a condition known as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). He added that he was calling TBS because his efforts to find an attorney qualified to take the case had thus far been in vain.

By the following afternoon, Gary Posner (whose answering machine doubles as TBS's) had issued an e-mail appeal to a couple of TBS members who also happen to be trial attorneys. I immediately gave Dr. Filner a call.

It turns out that Dr. Filner donates his time and expertise to the non-profit Macular Degeneration Foundation (MDF), which operates a popular website and provides, at no charge, information and support to sufferers of age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and their families. AMD is a progressive eye disease and the leading cause of blindness among people over the age of 65. The disease damages the macula, the central portion of the retina responsible for central vision and color detection. While the cause of AMD is not completely understood, patients initially experience distorted central vision with blank patches, and eventually lose their central vision such that they cannot see directly in front of them.

According to MDF, while various treatment approaches have been attempted, upon rigorous review, about 90% of AMD cases fail to respond to any of them. As a result, there are a large number of AMD sufferers looking for a miracle, breakthrough cure. And RheoTherapy Centers offers just such a hope, with its newspaper advertisements containing such testimonials as, "It's like someone cleaned my eyeball" and "I know only God can make a miracle, but this is as close to a miracle as man can get."

The lawsuit alleges that Filner libeled RheoTherapy Centers in some of his e-mail replies to persons requesting information about the use of apheresis (dubbed "RheoTherapy" by the center). The center alleges that by inserting IV lines into the patient and circulating blood through a filter, high-molecular-weight proteins are removed, which in turn is supposed to relieve AMD symptoms. Using apheresis is a legitimate technique for certain conditions, but MDF believes that there is no peer-reviewed scientific support for the role of high-molecular-weight proteins in AMD or the effectiveness of apheresis in its treatment.

Dr. Richard C. Davis, Jr., founder of RheoTherapy Centers, discovered that some small studies testing the effectiveness of apheresis for AMD had been conducted at the University of Cologne (Germany). Davis subsequently opened his private, profit-making clinic and charges about $2,000 per treatment. He recommends 7 to 10 treatments the first year, and 1 or 2 "booster" treatments each year thereafter. MDF's independent review of the Cologne studies found that they provided no proof of significant short-term improvement, or of any long-term improvement, in AMD patients treated with apheresis. As inquiries about RheoTherapy Centers began to reach the MDF's Dr. Filner, he began replying with factual descriptions of MDF's conclusions about this technique.

In January 1998, the State of Florida shut down the clinic for providing an unproven technique, but the clinic was subsequently allowed to reopen under stricter supervision, with a requirement that sales materials inform potential customers that the procedure is "experimental" (see this "Snippet" in the Spring 1998 TBS Report ). Further state hearings are pending. In the meantime, the clinic sued MDF and Filner, alleging that his e-mail replies were defamatory and entitled the clinic to an injunction and punitive damages. The clinic has demanded that MDF "approve" the procedure, which MDF has had the courage to say is not supported by the scientific evidence. The battle is now between the right of a non-profit foundation and its scientists to review and comment publicly on medical procedures of this type, and the clinic's transparent attempt to silence those who raise questions.

Victims of AMD are entitled to full and honest information about unproven therapies. Court hearings are pending which will test these issues. Hopefully the winners will be not only MDF and Dr. Filner, but also all of those who raise questions. Such skeptical inquiry is, after all, the very essence of what science is all about.


Snippets


Tales of southwest Florida's "Skunk Ape" (see this Winter 1997-98 "Snippet"), also known as the Bigfoot of the Everglades, have caught the attention of CBS-TV's Unsolved Mysteries.  The program sent a crew of 10 to the Ochopee area for a four-day filming session centered around David Shealy, a self-styled expert on the purported 7-foot-tall, hairy beast with the noxious odor. Lest you smirk, Shealy has previously appeared on such authoritative TV shows as the E! Channel's Talk Soup  and Comedy Central's The Daily Show.  The Unsolved Mysteries  story's supervising producer, Carol Dunn-Trussell, says that "If it's a hoax, that's what we'll expose it as." Here's your humble editor's "psychic" premonition: It is  a hoax, and the Unsolved Mysteries  program will not  expose it as such.

(St. Pete. Times,  Sept. 18;
Fort Myers News-Press,  Oct. 10)


There may be more to the vampire legend than meets the tooth. According to a paper published in the prestigious medical journal Neurology,  such tales may have their origins in a major European rabies epidemic of the 1700s. Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso, a Spanish neurologist, says that he had always assumed vampires to be fictitious creatures. But one day as he watched a classic Dracula film "more as a doctor than as a spectator, I became so impressed by some obvious similarities between vampires and what happens in rabies, such as aggressiveness and hypersexuality." Indeed, the aversion of vampires to garlic and to mirrors may fit right in with this thesis. "Men with rabies . . . react to stimuli such as . . . odors or mirrors with spasms of the facial and vocal muscles that can cause hoarse sounds, bared teeth and frothing. . . . [In the past] a man was not considered rabid if he was able to stand the sight of his own image in a mirror."

(St. Pete. Times,  Sept. 22)


And to complete our legendary-creature trifecta: A South Carolinian plans to spend $1-million building a four-man submarine and scouring Scotland's Loch Ness, for the second time, in search of its elusive Monster. Using a home-made, one-man sub, Scott Taylor failed to locate the beast during a 1969 expedition sponsored by World Book Encyclopedia.  He hopes to have better luck at the Loch next year in his newer and larger sub, named Nessa, which will be equipped with a harpoon-like projection with which to obtain a DNA sample from Nessie.

(AP via St. Pete. Times,  Sept. 27)


TBS in the Media

Posner and "psychic" on Kathy Fountain's show:

Gary Posner and "psychic" Donna Jean Guerra (center) were Kathy Fountain's guests on the Nov. 9 edition of Your Turn,  which airs from 12:25 to 1:00 during Ch. 13's noon newscasts. The topic of discussion was how not to get ripped off by phony psychics.

While Donna Jean offered pointers to help viewers distinguish between the "good" and the "bad" in the business, Posner noted that no one has yet been able to conclusively demonstrate psychic ability under proper observing conditions.

Posner brought with him a box, and announced that if anyone in the studio (i.e., Donna Jean), or in the viewing audience, was able to "psychically" determine its contents, he would award a prize of $1,000. No callers made the attempt, nor did Donna Jean.

Both during and after the program, Fountain expressed her desire to assist in setting up a TBS "1,000 Challenge" with Donna Jean, to be conducted behind the scenes one morning at the studio, with the results to be divulged live that afternoon on her show. Posner immediately accepted, but Donna Jean remains somewhat non-committal. We'll see . . .
[Addendum: Don't hold your breath. Read more about Donna Jean beginning in paragraph 6 of this article from 1994.]

TBS gets credit on Stossel show:

As noted in our last issue, TBS responded to a call from an assistant to ABC-TV News' John Stossel regarding Florida "psychic detective" John Monti. As a result, Stossel's powerfully skeptical Oct. 6 special, The Power of Belief,  covered Monti's involvement in an ongoing missing-person case in Denton, Texas. As the closing credits rolled, TBS (along with several other skeptical sources) received a "Special Thanks."


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©1998 by Tampa Bay Skeptics.