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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 10 No. 10

October 2011

"With the budget control act, Congress appears to have said in effect, that federally sponsored science has no role to play in advancing the economy...." --Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ)

What's New?

New entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary: the Schneider brothers, Leonora Piper (1857-1950), and Amy Tanner (1877-1964).

New entry in Skeptic's Dictionary for Kids: human magnets.

Revisions: Short History of Psi Research, organic food, and the pragmatic fallacy.

New reader comments: blood type diet.

New What's the harm? Girl drowned in exorcism by Japanese monk and rhinos hunted to extinction for bogus cancer cure.

Restored: The Skeptic's Dictionary, along with 10,000 other California-based websites, has been asked to rejoin Amazon as an associate. This means that anything you purchase from Amazon either linked to directly by this website or bought from Amazon after linking there from this website will make me rich. I wish. The profit does help pay for the cost of maintaining the site. Thanks to those of you who do think of The Skeptic's Dictionary when buying from Amazon. I humbly suggest that you consider purchasing one of the following books I recommend: The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True by Richard Dawkins, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, or Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there by Richard Wiseman. I looked at the Dawkin's book in a bookstore last week and ordered it (for about half the priice) from Amazon. The book is intended as a child's introduction to the wonders of science, but I think many adults will find it fascinating. I'm well into the Hitchens collection and enjoying every minute of it, even if he makes me feel that I shouldn't have wasted all those years reading Hume, Mill, and Nietzsche when I could have been reading Nabakov and a zillion other literary masters that the Hitch seems to know like the back of his hand. As for the Wiseman book: more on that in the next section.

Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at skepdic.com/updates.html. One update was inspired by Richard Wiseman's excellent book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There. My Short History of Paranormal Research now includes a section on the work of S. J. Davey (1863-1890) who, with Richard Hodgson, published the first scientific study of misperception and the unreliability of memory and eyewitness testimony. Davey was a conjuror who staged séances, recording where everything was placed and who did what, which he compared to the notes he had the participants write up after each session.

Davey's work exposed the trick of slate writing, but he failed to persuade some highly intelligent and experienced scientists that conjurors like Henry Slade were not really getting ghosts to write in chalk on kid's school slates. Among those unconvinced of Slade's trickery was Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection.

Anyone familiar with the history of psychical research, as parapsychology was called in the 19th century, should know that every step seeming to show progress in contacting the dead was mired in the muddy terrain of trickery, deceit, and fraud. Ignoring that trio of embarrassment, Dean Radin's Conscious Universe paints a rosy picture of steady advancement by scientists trying to prove that there is a world of reality where things behave wildly and unpredictably outside the constraints of time or space. This lawless universe of so-called psychic phenomena has lured many a hopeful and hapless scientist to its murky edges in hopes of making contact with the dead. In my Short History I try to fill the gaps in Radin's paean to psi. One has to be blind not to see that trickery and deceit, especially self-deceit, are an essential part of the paranormal story. It is hard, too, to ignore the irony of making statistical improbability the gold standard of psience, the study of the improbable and unpredictable in a world where none of the laws of nature apply.

Anyway, the excursion into the work of Davey and Hodgson led me to my bookshelf where I re-opened Amy Tanner's Studies in Spiritism (1910) and Debra Blum's Ghost Hunters - William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (2006). I then updated my review of Blum's book to add another reason for not recommending it: she glosses over the work of Tanner and G. Stanley Hall, making the case for the powers of Leonora Piper (the trance medium who was made famous by William James) seem substantial. I then added the entries to The Skeptic's Dictionary on Tanner and Piper, hoping to cast doubt on the reputation of Piper among the spirit mongers and to give a modest boost to the reputation of the underappreciated Tanner.

Wiseman does a much better job than Blum of portraying the extensive silliness of psientists in the 19th century who paved the way for the silliness of psientists in the 21st century (like Dean Radin and Gary Schwartz). Wiseman and Tanner both do a better job than Blum in placing Spiritism (aka Spiritualism) in the context of science giving rise to skepticism about traditional Biblical stories and the rising demand of the average churchgoer for tangible proof of an afterlife. Wiseman's sense of humor is at its sharpest in his portrayal of a Protestant minister railing against people whose furniture has been invaded by Satan at table-tipping séances. Blum, on the other hand, is so serious in her quest for ghostly evidence that she seems to overlook the irony in the fact that for all his energy spent on Mrs. Piper's channeling of spirits, in the end James put all his money on faith. The will to believe triumphed over the evidence of the deceived.

Blinded by Science

blinded by scienceCleaning out my emailbox I came across this letter from Matthew Silverstone, a self-described "serial entrepreneur":

I am sure that you will find my latest research on acupuncture incredibly interesting. I have spent the past two years researching amongst other things the property of water and have made discoveries that prove very simply how acupuncture works. I think it will not come as too much of a surprise to you to discover that it is nothing whatsoever to do with chemistry but it is all to do with the unique properties of water and vibrations.

Western science ignores things that it does not understand, and energy flow is one of those subjects. If you ask most scientists with a western trained background they will look at you blankly when talking about energy flow. Not any more. I have managed to provide overwhelming evidence that acupuncture works on simple scientific principles; namely vibrations and the unique properties of water. It is through water that the energy is transferred throughout the body.

Anyone who has spent two years researching the properties of water to help him understand how acupuncture works deserves some sort of recognition. And Silverstone is right on the mark when he says that it would not surprise me to find out that chemistry has nothing to do with it. But I'm afraid Silverstone completely lost my attention when he mentioned "Western" science and vibrations. There is science and there is non-science, but there is not "Western" science and "Eastern" science. The vibrations stuff is not new. (See the SD entry on vibrational medicine.)

Silverstone put his ideas into a book called Blinded by Science. His website is www.blindedbyscience.co.uk/. How did he prepare for his two-year stint studying water and its connection to acupuncture? He got an undergraduate degree in economics and a masters in international business. Plus he was the youngest filmmaker on his block (or so he says). In his email to me, Mr. Silverstone told me about the tremendous reception his book has had:

So far the responses to my ideas have been incredible:

“AN EPOCH MAKING BOOK” Professor B.M. Hedge Professor of Cardiology, London University

“I’M IN LOVE WITH THIS BOOK BECAUSE IT’S SO BRILLIANT!” Dr Carolyn Dean

“YOU’VE AWAKENED ME” Professor Gerald Pollack Dept Biology, McGill University

Mr. Silverstone's self-promotion reminded me of a story a psychiatrist once told me about a patient who had produced a CD that recorded his banging trash-can lids together. The blurb on the CD cover said: Epoch making! Brilliant! Will wake you up!

If Mr. Silverstone were in Slovenia, he could join forces with Zdenko Domančić, developer of Bioenergy Therapy, which, no doubt, works the same way acupuncture does, by vibrations in hot air. Stephen Barrett is not a fan of Zdenko.

Silverstone is way off the mark if Geoffrey Burnstock is correct in his proposition that acupuncture works by a neurophysiological mechanism involving a hitherto unknown extracellular signaling system between cells. In any case, both Silverstone and Burnstock need to explain why fake acupuncture works as well as true acupuncture. Why would fake acupuncture vibrate water or trigger signaling between cells?

Energy Armor

energy armorEnergy Armor is another Power Balance, the rubber wristband that gives you power and balance and has a major basketball arena named after it. The Energy Armor folks claims their rubber band is special because it is full of negative ions that are released as needed. They don't bother trying to prove that this is true or that it would matter even if it were true. And people buy this? Yes, they do. David Williamson demonstrates: http://tinyurl.com/3f4gz5a

Want another demonstration? Here it is: http://tinyurl.com/44a94fp

The company ad is hilarious:

Energy Armor. Tie it to your underwear and feel the magic! What have you got to lose except your money and your common sense? Recommended by Rashid Buttar.

Maybe I fudged a bit with the ad.

Still not convinced? Check out this scientific demonstration featuring Rashid Buttar: http://tinyurl.com/3uop4a7

Odd Product of the Minute

meditator pillow caseThe Meditator Pillowcase is the offspring of Serge Benhayon, the creator of Universal Medicine® and harbinger of peace, love, bliss, and other swell stuff:

Rest your head on the Meditator symbol.

This is a resounding way to engage the rhythms of sleep. This occurs with the vibrational assistance of the meditator symbol; this symbol is a great assistance in easing you into sleep or a deep state of meditation. It can provide a solid energy base upon which one can safely glide into the inner rhythms of stillness. The meditator pillowcase is for sale for $ 15 plus $ 5 for postage/handling.

I've never slept on a symbol before, so I can't say Serge is wrong. In fact, the idea of a symbol under my head providing "solid energy" to help me "glide into the inner rhythms of stillness" does make me kind of sleepy.

Belief Armor

In my essay on belief armor, I wrote:

People who believe they are psychic are also impenetrable, as witnessed by my latest exchange with Natalie. All I asked of her and Ray (another claiming to have precognitive visions) was to participate in a little test. All they had to do was provide me with specific predictions, which I would post. We'd let the chips fall where they may. No dice. As soon as I asked them to put their abilities to the test, they cut off communication.

My latest exchange was with "Mike." Here is how Mike introduced himself to me:

My name is Mike and I just came across the Skeptic's Dictionary online. I actually have a question that I'm interested in your answering. It's basically asking if you believe in precognition - the type some people claim to experience. I've had hundreds of premonitions the past 4 years; some visual and very specific, others are not visual. I think I'm wondering what you believe because - and I could be missing something, it's why I'm asking - but of all the time you've spent researching or studying or simply attempting to debunk specifically precognition, I find it interesting - and again you can explain if I'm missing something, as I may very well be - that you not only don't believe it, but you don't understand it at it's most basic and real level. I've spent no time studying it and know it's real, and you - maybe you claim to be an expert - have spent years in this area, and you're no closer than a child who doesn't understand how a car runs or how radio waves travel than understanding precognition. I don't mean to be nasty or put you down; I simply find it astonishing someone has spent years and years in depth in a certain study and you've come up empty.

Again, I don't know what your beliefs are, as I haven't studied your site, but I'm wondering if you truly believe there is no such thing as precognition. I think I'm writing because I can't get over the fact that you're not sure if precognition is real and me, a nobody with no college education and no study in this field, understands it at a level you probably never will. Surely you're missing something, and you may not accept that; but it's also the case that all your investment in logic obviously has you no closer to understanding something that's true - and coming from someone who knows it is, I find it sad not necessarily for you, but for society in general. We must study all things of course, and to me your study has been futile - but that, in the end, is simply a reflection of you; not of truth.

For someone who has just come across The Skeptic's Dictionary, Mike seems to know a lot about me and my position on precognition. Consistency may not be Mike's chief virtue, though. When I offered to test him he said he didn't see how this was possible because his visions are so personal. Yet, in his first missive he claims that some of his visions are "very specific," which should then allow us to test his powers. Anyway, I took the bait and wrote back:

Nobody will accuse you of lacking self-confidence, that's for sure. It's a good feeling to know you know something. Like you, though, I don't want to be nasty, so I'll try to be kind and note a couple of things and make a recommendation or two.

The self is not a very fair, objective, or trustworthy evaluator of the self. You may or may not benefit from reading a bit more on self-deception. You may think I'm no more advanced than a child in understanding certain things, but I recommend you read my essay on evaluating personal experience:

http://skepdic.com/essays/evaluatingexperience.html

Best of luck to you.

Of course, my suggestion went unheeded, but I did receive this reply:

I do appreciate your response; as it tells me you don't believe in precognition. I don't know what percentage believes what you do, but you're in the same place of understanding precognition at its simplest level as those who don't actually study it.

I could address your statement about self-deception, and explain the hundreds of premonitions I've had the past 4 years - many visual in nature; that I see days before things that are very specific that have no relation to myself or any direct result of anything I do, but I don't think that would do anything for you.

I know you're very smart, and you could probably come up with 100 different reasons someone may be deceiving him or herself. Maybe some are on drugs, schizophrenic; there are coincidences, the need to believe, misreading things, and so on. But let me tell you what true self-deceiving is: believing that you're smarter and more keenly aware than millions of others who've had precognitions and always thinking there's surely a reason why they're wrong. You're deceiving your own self. In the end you're not as smart as you think.

No offense. And best wishes.

I told Mike that I took no offense and would love to be corrected about precognition. I offered to test his precognitive powers. The fact that he said again that some of his premonitions are visual, very specific, and don't all pertain to himself told me that it would not be too difficult to put Mike's powers to the test. You don't need to be psychic to know that his response was to evade the issue (and not just with his playing the you-think-you're-so-smart card).

I don't doubt at all you want to know the truth behind many things. In fact to me you're very smart, as I did read a little of what you've written. Secondly, if I do seem a little aggressive and even off-putting it's because I know there is something that we can't explain.

For example recently I drove 3 people into the city. We parked, we got out and went to Subway to eat. Sitting in Subway, I got a bad feeling that we wouldn't be driving home at that point, though I told no one. I've never had that feeling in my life, and I've never experienced not being able to drive back from anywhere. We get to the parking lot after eating, we get about 40 yards from the car and we see a semi truck backing up into it, breaking the front right axle of our car. We call Triple A, and I ride back in the truck with my sister, as the other two took the bus back, 15 miles home. I knew a year before that I'd fall in love with a woman with M.S. - I'd never met her before, and no I'm not a doctor - I met her by chance. 2 days before I pissed urine [blood?] - something that's never happened to me - I knew something was about to happen to me medically. I'd had no pain, nothing that would have tipped me off. When it happened, it freaked the hell out of me, so much so that I started hyperventilating - something that'd never happened to me before. I went to the doctor, told him about it, he said I was ok, and that there was no way I could have known before that I was about to have a simple bladder infection. I've had hundreds, Mr. Carroll. In fact, as I've explained to a scientist I've been in contact with, I can actually scan minutes, hours or the next day to see things - but only to see anything negative. (The process of scanning couldn't be simpler.) For example, I walk late at night sometimes listening to my iPod, and I want to be safe. I scan to see if I'm going to be attacked or confronted in some way, just to be safe. The only time, Mr. Carroll - honest to god's truth in 6 or so months I've seen anything negative before walking was when I encountered - the only time it's happened on my walk - raccoons that were standing on some steps feet away from me suddenly, as I was walking, and it freaked the crap out of me. I said ahh, that's the negativity I saw that I scanned before my walk. Severe emotional shocks or experiences are what you see and what show up. I have to make the point, also, every single time I have a premonition, it's more than a feeling. It's a knowing combined with a feeling. They always, without fail, come true. They're unlike anything else I experience.

I want to say that I understand people having bizarre coincidences. I'm 100% with you on that. That is only inevitable. Hundreds of experiences in 4 years is something completely different. I say all this maybe so you can get a different idea of what someone has gone through. No, I don't want to write a book, I'm not in this for anything other than to attempt to get the word out that this is something we don't yet understand. I'm not going to listen to people say it's not true. I'm not 99.9% sure it's real. I'm 100% sure.

I do honestly hope you're able to contribute to a real understanding of what this is, instead of trying to simply debunk it. Sir, for the person who can actually get to the bottom of it and describe it to the world in a way we can understand…that would be true greatness. I think if you were on my side, you'd be smart enough to do it. I think you're capable of it. I don't think I am.


The psychic who says he is 100% sure of his powers thinks he isn't capable of doing the test. What can I say? My reply:

Dear Mike:


I understand you to be saying that you don't agree to my request to test your precognitive powers. If you had agreed I would have required, as would any reasonable person doing such testing, that your predictions be  specific. "A bad feeling we wouldn't be driving" might sound specific to you, but it is vague enough to apply to many different situations. "I will fall in love with a woman with M. S. " means woman with masters degree in science...maybe you meant MS (multiple sclerosis)...if you meant the latter, then that would be very specific but with either M.S. or MS your feeling could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I knew something was about to happen to me medically" may seem specific to you but it is vague enough to cover thousands of different scenarios. " I can actually scan minutes, hours or the next day to see things - but only to see anything negative" might seem specific to you but "negative" is about as vague as one can get and covers billions of possible events. I for one would not count seeing raccoons at night as a "negative" experience. Even predicting that you would see a raccoon on your walk wouldn't be much of a precognitive experience. You've been on the walk before, there are raccoons in many places, etc. We would need you to be able to do more than have vague feelings that you then retroactively classify as fulfilling your precognitions. We would need specific predictions that could be tested independently of your interpretation of them as fitting your feelings. What you describe are not even cases of odd coincidences.

In any case, intelligence has nothing to do with testing you. What you have described here isn't that hard to understand, but it doesn't pertain to a paranormal phenomenon; it pertains to the way you interpret and  evaluate your feelings and the way you prejudge others who have studied these kinds of things from many different angles over many years. You wear impenetrable belief armor. I doubt that anyone could test you properly given your inability to see the importance of being specific and not relying on your own interpretations for validation.


Wishing you the best in your future endeavors.

I offered to give Mike my mobile phone number so he could call me whenever he had a premonition. I would time, date stamp, and post the premonition. Then, we'd see how many came true. He didn't think this would work because his presentiments are too personal.

I have no idea how to test what I see, unless you have someone following me around. My premonitions have to do with things that happen in my own life, other than premonitions about 3 famous people which turned out to be true, which were pretty bizarre, but that's over a span of 4 years. I'm not a Nostradamus type where I've spent time attempting to see things in the future that affect great numbers of people. Is it possible to do that? I'm my opinion of course it is; but I've not tried it. If I can learn how to spot things in the future - and maybe I can even attempt the process of doing that - then I can let you know. If I see something specific having to do with a popular type event, I'll let you know. So, that may be where we stand right now.

Before I could respond, Mike wrote again and said that he'd read something I'd written about precognition. Let's just say that our budding relationship would not flourish and there would be no testing of Mike's paranormal powers. Here's his, I hope, final reply to me:

You've made some pretty puzzling statements. One is this: "No doubt much of our anticipation of the future is unconscious and second nature, but it is based on quite natural and mundane abilities, not on mysterious or supernatural powers." [emphasis added]

Is this statement as obviously faulty as it appears on the surface? Or, did you simply misstate your point? The question is, where is your proof beyond a shadow of a doubt that these "abilities" never coincide with what you term "mysterious or supernatural powers"? Unless I'm missing something [which, of course, he is, since I make no such claim], you're in no position to claim any such thing. If this is in fact true, however, I think you're in the wrong business, and need to immediately contact scientific journals with your discovery.

Secondly, you say this, "If a person could provide accurate and detailed descriptions of future events on a regular basis, that person would be celebrated as truly psychic. That no such person has ever existed in recorded history is a sign that stories of people with second sight are mythical exaggerations." Interesting. You claim it only takes one; say, for example a Nostradamus type, but a Nostradamus type who everyone would agree had real ability. Since many people keep their secrets to themselves, and hundreds of millions throughout the centuries have either been poor, and or had no access to the press or any scientific follow-through, you claim it's a "sign" these type claims are "mythical exaggerations." There is no absolutely no scientific legitimacy to your statement; and in fact it is not only a completely hollow statement, it is in fact partly what you truly disdain: determinations of importance through blind emotion without regard to cold logic through the means of complete analytical study. Your statements here are frauds.

Lastly, here's a statement you made to me in one of your emails concerning an "experiment" to verify my abilities: "This seems simple, fair, and would be a great benefit to me. Whether you believe me or not, I really want to know the truth." What truth? Whether or not I actually have real ability? You've already stated this: "it is based on quite natural and mundane abilities, not on mysterious or supernatural powers." You need to change your website name to something else. Say, for example, imanidiot.com

In case you're not precognitive, I'll tell you that I didn't reply. Mike reminds me of a former president of the U.S. who once said "I know what I know and I know what I know is right." I'm not as trusting of my memory or as confident of my ability to understand my experiences as Mike is of his memory and perceptions. I travel to the beat of a skeptical drummer.

"The true critical thinker accepts what few people ever accept -- that one cannot routinely trust perceptions and memories." --Jim Alcock, "The Belief Engine"

Jim Alcock is just one of many featured speakers who will be at CSI-CON later this month in New Orleans.

A Skeptic's Halloween

pumpkinCheck out The Skeptic's Dictionary Halloween Page. There are links to many Halloween related topics and to places where you can pick up a fine costume.

 

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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This page was designed by Cristian Popa.