A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies


The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 2

February 16, 2007

"For most important things...success...requires avoiding many separate possible causes of failure."--Jared Diamond

In this issue

What's new?
Top down conspiracies: is we learning yet?
Science and journalists
Psychic predictions
Mahesh Prasad Varma dies
Blind sticking it to the blind
The Eucharist and the slider

The Amazing Meeting 6
79th Skeptic's Circle

What's New?

I've posted an article on my recent trip to Mexico where, surrounded by superstition, I managed to have a grand time.

There were five additions to the Skeptimedia files:

Using ghost stories to teach critical thinking (If ever there were a model of pseudoscience and self-deception, ghost hunting is it.)

Oprah and Oz spreading superstition at the speed of night (This time it's acupuncture.)

Why woo-woo wins (The sordid story of the Q-ray bracelet explains it all.)

Food allergy fanatic (Another mommy instinct trumps science story.)

Top ten false health scares of 2007 (To the reader who asked me to investigate further the stories on fluoridation of municipal water supplies and plastics in toys: I looked at the latest evidence against fluoridation and was not impressed; I haven't had time to do any further investigation of the plastics issue.)

There was an update to the Skeptimedia file on autism (The bottom line is that there never was and still isn't any scientific evidence showing a link between vaccines and autism.)

There were five additions to the What's the harm? file:

February 14 Saudi Arabia's religious police  force an illiterate woman to fingerprint a confession that she used witchcraft to make a man impotent

January 24 Lead found in folk remedies and Ayurvedic tonics

January 20 Priest in Mexico abuses children and his congregation in the name of religious tradition

January 17 Priest in Sweden rapes daughter to drive out Satan.

January 16 Gary Null's natural way to kill a cirrhosis patient.

I revised or updated the entries on the placebo effect, ESP, medium, acupuncture, multiple personality disorder, the Q-ray bracelet, animal quacker, UFOs & ETs, alternative health practices, and intelligent design.

Is we learning yet?

I stumbled upon a website that calls itself Educate-Yourself where someone who lists his name as Michael Boggs posted the following: "Skeptic Dictionary website was government created to hide truths regarding topics on their site....I am not endorsing their site in any way. But it is definitely worth checking out. It is a wealth of information. Just remember when they say .. "YES" it really means "NO" and "NO" means "YES"."

I suppose I should take it as a compliment that someone would think there must be a mastermind behind my site, misdirecting millions of people so I can keep them under my control.

This kind of thinking is familiar to those who have studied paranoid conspiracy theorists and those teleological minds who believe there are no coincidences. Michael Shermer discusses this top-down thinking in his new book, a paean to evolutionary psychology, capitalism, and libertarianism: The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics. We must admit that on the one hand many things, like governments and corporations, are run from the top down. And many things seem to be directed from the top down, like the order in nature, even though they have evolved from the bottom up. We might even say that it is natural to think of most complex systems as being designed from the top down. If one needs a counterexample, however, there is always the modern welfare state. It would be pretty hard to see the modern welfare state as the result of anyone's intelligent design. It looks more like a patchwork quilt that has been added to by strangers who have no idea who started it or what purpose it might have.

Conspiracy theories might be natural and understandable but that doesn't excuse their adherents from doing their homework. For example, if you're going to make claims about omissions from the 9/11 Commission report, you ought to first read the report. According to Mark Roberts, 9/11 deniers (those who claim the Bush administration was behind 9/11) have been known to make claims that indicate they haven't read the documents they're criticizing.

Science and journalists

While listening to an interview on a recent podcast with Richard Hayes, co-author of A Scientist's Guide for Talking with the Media, I thought of a few items that Mr. Hayes omitted. What he had to say was very good: learn to simplify without dumbing down or being simplistic; contact the media directly; take control of the interview; write letters to the editor; come up with brilliant quips like calling the 12-planet theory "no ice ball left behind."

What has annoyed me the most over the past few years in reading both scientific studies and media accounts of those studies are the tendencies to hype and exaggerate the implications of studies and to draw unjustifiable inferences from those studies. I have some advice for both scientists and journalists who are interested in playing fair with the public and with gaining public trust.

1. Scientists: Don't draw grand conclusions from studies on 17 rats. Journalists: Don't publish stories about studies on 17 rats or, if you do write about them, put them in the proper context. They might indicate something interesting that should be studied further, but to go deeper with your claims is irresponsible. Latest example: a study out of Purdue University published in the Behavioral Neuroscience Journal (a publication of the American Psychological Association) involved 9 rats "given saccharin-sweetened yogurt and eight rats fed yogurt with glucose. After their yogurt, the 17 rats had their regular food. After five weeks the nine gained 80 grams on the average, while the eight added only 72 grams." Scientific American was typical in treating this story. Their headline read: Just Desserts: Artificial Sweeteners Linked to Weight Gain. Both television and print media framed this story as evidence that drinking sodas or eating foods with artificial sweeteners leads to weight gain or even obesity. Such a small study on rats isn't strong evidence for any such claim. Larger samples are needed and they need to be replicated. To use this small study to bolster the findings of other studies on humans or to offer reasons for weight gain by users of diet sodas (it tricks the body or stimulates hunger or ??) is irresponsible. To hype this study as having grand implications is rubbish. I'm not saying the study is rubbish. But it should be put forth as preliminary and indicative, warranting further research. That's all.

2. Scientists: Don't draw grand conclusions from a single study. Journalists: Remind your readers that the study needs to be replicated before we draw any major conclusions. Example: David Spiegel's study of the effects of group therapy on breast cancer patients. published in 1989 in The Lancet. The study was large enough (86 women) and conducted over a long enough time period, and found that women in group therapy lived longer than the controls (36.6 months versus 18.9 months). A lot of hoopla followed but the study needed to be replicated and when it was the results were quite different. In 2001, a larger study found no evidence that group therapy extended the lives of breast cancer patients. Instead of rationalizing the results, I think Spiegel should have conducted a third, even larger, study. Instead, he claimed that improvements in treatment and social acceptance of cancer could explain the difference between his research and the later studies.* He also says that improvements in conventional cancer treatment since the 1980s might be masking the independent impact that group therapy really does have on the course of the disease. He also claims that since most patients have probably heard that group therapy increases longevity, even those assigned to the control group would look outside the group for social support and group therapy. In fact, Anne Harrington (see below) writes that Spiegel did do another study but that the data didn't support his hypothesis so he's asked for more funding to extend the study for an additional five years. This is not the kind of science that instills confidence in the general public.

3. Scientists: Don't draw grand, unwarranted conclusions from replicated studies. Journalists: Learn to recognize that scientists don't always draw the right conclusions from their data. Example: it may be true that many studies have shown that as we age we don't produce as much testosterone, estrogen, or DHEA, but it does not follow from that fact that people should take supplements of any of those hormones to slow down or prevent aging. Likewise, just because numerous studies find that high cholesterol correlates with decreased longevity or a higher rate of heart disease, it does not follow that taking a pill that lowers one's cholesterol will increase longevity or decrease the chance of heart disease.*

4. Scientists: Don't cheat. Journalists: Keep exposing the cheaters. Examples: the Sicher-Targ study exposed by Po Bronson; Korean stem cell research; Korean prayer and fertility study. See also "Rats in the Rank."

Okay. I'll get off my soapbox, but frankly I'm tired of wasting my time pursuing claims made on the basis of scientific studies only to find out that the study was done on a few rats, a very small sample, not replicated, or etc. etc.

Psychic predictions

SK writes:

I’m interested that you haven’t made any comments on the Jamison twins (psychic twins) prediction of the attacks on WTC. They do have radio material proving that they said in 1999 November that terrorist would attack the World Trade Center. That is pretty mystifying, I can’t find any reasonable debunking of their "miraculous" prediction.

I'd never heard of the Jamisons until now. Their website claims that Terry and Linda Jamison are the "worlds [sic] only psychic twins." I'll say this: they have the world's worst background music for their site. The National Geographic channel did a "Naked Science" program on telepathy and it featured several sets of twins who think they're psychic.

I have no idea whether they predicted on radio in 1999 that there would be terrorist attacks on the WTC and Washington, D.C. Given the state of the world and our status in that world, I would be very surprised if there weren't thousands of people, some not claiming to be psychic, who predicted that terrorists would attack the WTC and Washington, D.C. Since the WTC had already been attacked in 1993, predicting that it would be attacked again was a safe bet. Predicting Washington, D.C. will be attacked is always a safe bet. Predicting the Pentagon would be attacked by Saudi suicide murderers via a hijacked commercial jet after the twin towers had been similarly attacked that morning could probably get you some good odds in Vegas. I don't think the Jamisons claim to have been that precise in their "psychic predictions."

Anyway, I don't find their claim mystifying and I don't see any need to debunk their prediction any further than I already have. I will say, though, that the Jamisons are an object lesson for those skeptics who think it is great fun to run through a list of psychic misses. Nobody will remember the misses, even if they run into the thousands or millions. What people will remember is the one out of a million that seems accurate. You are wasting your time and perhaps even encouraging belief in psychics by calling attention to their misses. Let's say that it is true that the Jamisons predicted the attacks on Washington and the WTC. By calling attention to all their misses, you open the door to people wanting the hit to be explained. It doesn't need to be explained. It just seems to need an explanation because people ignore the misses, don't have any clue as to the odds of somebody being fairly close about a prediction when thousands of people are making predictions, and when there are no clear criteria as to what actually counts as a psychic hit.

In any case, don't look to me to be commenting on psychic predictions as a matter of course. I'll jump in when a Sylvia Browne or a Carla Baron makes some prediction that could cause harm (e.g., claiming people are dead when they're not or that they can find your missing child or parent). But I'm not going to go over this or that psychic's list of predictions and check their batting average.

If a loved one is missing, don't answer the calls from the psychic vultures who will land on your doorstep, claiming they are there to help. Maybe many of them really believe it, but they are carriers of heartbreak and grief. Contact Project Jason first. Kelly and Jim Jolkowski, who founded the site, have a heart-wrenching tale to tell about the disappearance of their son, Jason, and the misery brought forth by psychics who preyed on their grief.

Mahesh Prasad Varma dies

Mahesh Varma (1917?-2008), who called himself Maharishi ("great sage") Mahesh Yogi and trademarked ancient Indian meditation techniques as Transcendental Meditation, died on February 5th at his home in the Netherlands. I never had any contact with Varma but a TM lawyer engaged me in a long and detailed attempt to have me remove anything critical of TM or Varma from my website.

I've been threatened and cajoled by lawyers for Uri Geller, Myers-Briggs, Rolfing, est, and a few others. (Despite its reputation, I've never been threatened by anyone from Scientology, probably because I am beneath their radar and am not considered a threat.) The est attorney is a personal friend of Werner Erhard and has made several attempts to meet with me personally to straighten out some things. It is evident he really loves Erhard and thinks he's gotten a raw deal in the press, which is probably true, but I learned long ago that if I want to be critical and fair in my judgments, it is best not to meet face to face. It is too hard for me to be bluntly honest about people I like. From the tone of his letters, I am pretty sure I would like Erhard's lawyer and this affection might taint anything I'd then write about him or his work.

But nobody in my experience matches the persistence of the lawyer for TM. The discussion started with an absurd demand that I rename my html file and its title because it might confuse people. They might come to www.skepdic.com/tm.html with its title "Transcendental Meditation (TM)" and mistake my site for the official TM site. This was, of course, most likely not the real concern of the lawyer. His real concern was that when you googled "transcendental meditation" my site came up first or second (it now comes up fourth). I wonder if the lawyer contacted Toyota (whose market symbol is TM) and requested them to change their symbol because people might be confused and think transcendental meditation deals in used cars.

I compromised and added to the title the following: "The Skeptic's Dictionary - A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions." From there things escalated until I was receiving lengthy e-mails with detailed changes that were wanted, followed up by copies of the desired alterations sent by certified mail. I did make some changes in the entry on TM, including removing the claim that TM is a cult. Of course TM is a cult on some definitions of that term, but the main function of 'cult' these days is emotive. (It still has some cognitive uses, however. Scientology, for example, can be called a cult without simply meaning it's a religion and I don't like it.) The term 'cult' has lost a lot of its cognitive content, however, sort of like the word 'liberal.'  Both words are now mostly used to indicate negative feelings rather than anything substantial. So, I removed the appellation and now refer to TM as "a meditation technique." I also removed some comments from former disciples because I failed in my efforts to contact them for verification of the claims attributed to them that I had culled from other websites.

I don't think the lawyer was completely satisfied with the changes I made, and I think I was able to maintain the expression of my main concerns about TM. The meditation techniques that it claims as proprietary are not new; the mantras that it sells as unique to followers are just names of Hindu gods and assigned by age of the student; the scientific studies used to support the notion that TM is superior for promoting good health to other relaxation techniques are woefully inadequate; and yogic flying is a bunch of rubbish.

Some of my criticisms of TM are supported in a new book by Harvard professor Anne Harrington: The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine (W. W. Norton and Company, 2008). (I plan to post a review of this excellent book soon.) Here I would just like to correct a couple of misleading claims about Varma put forth by science writer Sharon Begley of Newsweek. (Begley, by the way, will be attending The Amazing Meeting 6, according to the JREF website.) Begley writes:

In 1971 he [the Maharishi] founded Maharishi International University, in Iowa (now called Maharishi University of Management), which has become the center for studies of Transcendental Meditation (TM). Almost immediately—research papers on the benefits of TM appeared as early as 1974—scientists there began researching how TM affects everything from job satisfaction to blood pressure to anxiety....

...the Maharishi and his American acolytes deserve credit for introducing the study of meditation to biology....give the Maharishi credit for helping to launch what has become a legitimate new field of neuroscience.

According to Anne Harrington, it was in 1969 that a graduate student at UCLA did the first study on the physiological effects of TM. Robert Keith Wallace did the study for his dissertation. About the same time, Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical school, who would later conduct one of the largest studies on the effects of intercessory prayer for healing (there are none), began studying TM students "in the evening" and on the condition that "the students came to the laboratory through a back door so that none of his colleagues would see them." Benson was already convinced that he had discovered "the relaxation response" as the key to overcoming "stress" and "anxiety." Meditation might be a way to relax but it is doubtful that in the beginning he thought it was a way to a "higher consciousness," a key claim made by Varma.

Wallace eventually moved to Harvard and, with Benson and Archie F. Wilson, continued the TM research. If anything helped launch the field of neuroscience it was the idea that "stress" is a major killer and cause of ill health. That idea was introduced by Walter B. Cannon who died in 1945. Interest in anything that might reduce "stress" existed long before Varma arrived on the scene and the evidence regarding his desire to bring meditation to the U.S. and the rest of the world does not point to a man trying to help people eliminate stress. He was a spiritual man whose goal was to help others "experience a special state of awareness called 'pure consciousness' that would, over time, make them happier, more peaceful, and more intelligent" (Harrington: p. 211).

The history of the TM movement also shows that in the beginning many people got involved in TM for the same reason the Beatles did: they were looking for a way to take it to the next level beyond LSD or whatever drugs they had been taking. Like L. Ron Hubbard before him, Varma thought that the quickest way to get popular was to associate with celebrities. The move seems to have worked for Scientology, who can claim as members Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Will Smith, Kirstie Alley, and Isaac Hayes, among other celebrities. It didn't work for Varma, however. When the Beatles dropped out, the movement turned to something else: universities and professors interested in Eastern mysticism. That worked a lot better, especially when a few physicists started claiming that quantum mechanics and ancient Hindu Vedic notions were nearly indistinguishable. Of course, you can't control what those university professors might publish. Why not start your own university? That way, you can control everything.

Soon you've got Deepak Chopra, a former leader of TM, starting his own movement and proclaiming the virtues of "quantum healing." By the time the Maharishi International University was founded in 1971, the study of mind-body connections by scientists was well established. Varma and his school have contributed nearly nothing of importance to the science. Their main concern is using science, no matter how questionable or controversial, to support the view that TM is good for your health. For some people, that's probably true. But even if true, it doesn't seem to be earth shattering.

For the record, I have never maintained that meditation isn't good for you. My position is that TM is not unique.

The Blind Sticking it to the Blind

Would you go to a blind acupuncturist? That's a question some folks in Texas may have to ask themselves if lawyer David Cohen of Austin is successful in defending Juliana Cumbo. Last year, the Texas State Board of Acupuncture Examiners denied Cumbo a license to practice because of her blindness. Cohen argues that the Board is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. She's applying again.

There is no state law in Texas forbidding the licensing of a blind person to perform acupuncture. For all I know, there is no law forbidding licensure of a blind person to perform brain surgery either, but one would think that anyone smart enough to be a brain surgeon would be smart enough to realize that finding a job or any customers would be nearly impossible for a blind person. Acupuncture is different, however. There are probably many people who wouldn't hesitate to go to a blind acupuncturist. I'm sure that Ms. Cumbo will have many satisfied customers willing to provide exquisite testimonials as to how cancer was cured or migraines eliminated by her wonderful technique. After all, Cumbo earned a master's degree in acupuncture and Oriental medicine from the Academy of Oriental Medicine at Austin and she passed the national board exams. The president of the Academy says she's "an exemplary practitioner ... and she is extremely talented....She is better at finding acupuncture points than many students who can see." I have no doubt this is true.

The head of the licensure committee is afraid that a blind acupuncturist might not notice bleeding from a patient, which could lead to "a situation where the acupuncturist or patient could become contaminated." Worse, the blind acupuncturist might not see the aura of yin or yang, which might leak and cause an imbalance in the energy of the patient or the universe. Who knows what havoc that might cause?  One acupuncturist who opposes a blind competitor said: "There are a lot of blood vessels, and there can be injuries." Who knew? Nobody's mentioned these possibilities in the thousands of articles I've read about how acupuncture is perfect for pregnant women, those needing a facelift, or those needing a wellness boost.

One acupuncturist who opposes licensing the blind demonstrated her own blindness regarding her profession. She said: "I'm really concerned the patient would be expected to be their own diagnostician."* Aren't we always?

One of her teachers defends Cumbo and says that she's worked on hundreds of patients without any formal complaints.* Maybe she's got soft hands and provides a better placebo punch than her sighted colleagues.

"I thought it was a perfect profession for a blind person," Cumbo told the Austin American-Statesman, which cited a report in Acupuncture Today that more than 30 percent of the acupuncture practitioners in Japan are blind. "We are in Texas. We have Texas law," said Hoang Ho, a member of the four-person acupuncture board that voted against Cumbo. "They don't have lawsuits in Japan."* I didn't know that.

I have a friend whose daughter didn't deliver her baby when she thought it should arrive, so she went to an acupuncturist. The baby arrived a few days later. Will the acupuncturist get credit? Probably not this time, because there were complications. Will the acupuncturist be blamed? I doubt it. Frankly, I don't worry about blind acupuncturists so much as I do about people who will  blindly try something like acupuncture on the off chance it might do some good. Of course, there will always be some comfort provided by the media and scientific journals that publish papers that show that acupuncture may help with in vitro fertilization or mental constipation.

Cumbo says she has a job offer once she is licensed and wants to someday work with children. The licensure Board took the prudent way out. It has a duty to protect the public from physical harm but not from quackery, so it recommended that an independent physician and an acupuncturist evaluate Cumbo's work on one male and one female patient and then report to the committee.* That's how science is done in the alternative world.

The Eucharist and the Slider

A couple of strange claims came my way recently. One involves something called the  "Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano." This came to me by e-mail. I don't usually respond to these kinds of inquiries because it discourages people from doing their own research and thinking for themselves.

Apparently, when a priest who had doubts said Mass in the year 700, the Host changed to real flesh and blood. When tested in the 1970's, the Host was real flesh and blood from the heart, and the circular cut that was made was done in such a way as to come to an exact point inside the heart. Evidently the WHO [World Health Organization?] even stated science could not explain this mystery.

Knowing that probably the first medical dissections were not done until the Middle Ages, how do you think this can be explained? As something we do not yet have the answer to? As something that was forged in the Middle Ages and claimed to be from 700?

Joe Nickell covered it briefly in his book Relics of the Christ; however. his best argument for debunking it is that the medical expert sounded all too convenient. I know the skeptics can come up with something stronger than that!

Being open-minded, I accept that it is possible that a piece of bread miraculously transformed to the flesh and blood of a human heart in the shape of a circle or even a triangle. It is possible in the sense that it can be conceived without contradiction. It's imaginable.

However, I have no reason to believe that the story is true. Just because something is possible does not mean it has any degree of probability of actually occurring. And just because a story has been told for 1200 years doesn't mean it's true, especially one involving miraculous claims. I was raised Catholic and heard my fair share of miracle stories growing up, but this one escaped me. We were taught the doctrine of transubstantiation. We were taught that a miracle occurred during the consecration of the Eucharistic service and that there was no scientific proof for our belief, which was to be based on pure faith. We were, in fact, eating god every time we swallowed the consecrated host. This was not symbolic for us. It may have looked like bread but it was the substance of the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ to us.

It's possible that the many priests and nuns who were forever trying to convince me of miracles had heard of Lanciano but didn't pass it on because it has about zero plausibility. At least with the transubstantiation thing we didn't have to believe that we would taste flesh and blood. The magic was that the accidents or attributes of bread would remain the same while the underlying substance or essence would change. I'm sure I had no idea what that meant when I made my first communion. Anyway, the Lanciano story sounds like the kind of story someone would make up, but I have to admit that it is a pretty stupid story because it seems to have no point or, if has a point, it seems to be a bad one. Why would God work a miracle for a nameless, doubting priest? Is this another doubting Thomas story? The priest has doubts. Would the miracle remove his doubts? Is the lesson that doubt will be rewarded with a slam-dunk miracle to convince you to believe? What kind of lesson is that? You don't need faith because if you doubt hard enough God will reward you with proof beyond the capacity of any logical argument? It doesn't sound right. I know, none of this sounds right, but what can you do? As a kid you get this stuff served to you right and left, until it seems natural and normal. As an adult, you're afraid to challenge the stories even if you recognize that they have zero plausibility. Your family and friends will disown you. Your boss may fire you. And so it goes. Or maybe you are the timid type and are afraid that these stories, as absurd as they seem, might be true and if you reject them you might go to hell. Think about it. Do you really want to spend eternity with these people who say they're going to heaven? Does an endless existence worshipping anyone sound exciting to you? About the only thing you can say for going to heaven is that it would be better than going to hell. I think I prefer not going anywhere.

This story seems to suffer from the so-called Chinese whispering problem. Otherwise, I am completely baffled at the involvement of the WHO. Anyway, of course no science can explain how bread could become a piece of a heart because such a transformation is not possible according to the currently understood laws of nature. The only mystery is why anyone would take such a story seriously.

My mind would never have inquired into the issue of medical dissection, vivisection, or any other kind of section while thinking about his story if the writer had not brought it up. Nor would the issue of when the forgery occurred have given me much trouble. There is no way to find that out. But I would ask how the unnamed investigator who examined a lump of heart in the 1970s could verify that the lump before him was 1200 years old and that it used to be a piece of bread? And what could it possibly mean to say that  "the circular cut that was made was done in such a way as to come to an exact point inside the heart"?

In any case, I called upon Google, the all-knowing One, to help me with my investigation. My prayers were answered. There is a website devoted to just such miracles. The story told on this website differs a bit from the one above. There is a church in Italy, the Church of St. Legontian, that has preserved some human flesh and blood for twelve centuries. The story is that "a Basilian monk" had doubts about Jesus' real presence in the Eucharist and that during a Mass the host was turned into human flesh and the wine into human blood "as a divine response." So, as stupid as this story seems to me, it appears to make perfect sense to others. Apparently, there are religious people who believe that God responds to doubts by working miracles as proofs. If so, I should have witnessed millions of miracles by now, but never mind.

A description of the five globules of blood and the flesh are given on the aforementioned website. Some sort of investigation took place in 1574 but no mention is made of why they waited so long to investigate or what they discovered or even who "they" were. A pair of Italian professors examined the relics in 1981 and declared that they were human flesh from a heart and human blood of type AB. So, if we trust the professors (and I don't have any reason not to), we can say that science has established that the church has a chunk of a human heart and some human blood. Whether it dates from 700, 1574, 1981 or some other date wasn't established. But, even if the relics are 1200 years old, there is still no way to establish that they were once a piece of bread and a glass of wine.

People who believe such stories of miracles believe them because they want to believe them, not because there is any evidence for the miracle. By the way, there are very few churches in Italy, as I understand it, that don't have some type of miraculous relic lying about. If you are looking for a way to frame these kinds of stories, I think the most plausible way is to see them in the context of superstitious beliefs that have been found in every culture in every epoch. They are very common, these stories of miracles, but it takes absolute faith to believe the stories are historically accurate.

One doesn't have to travel back a millennium, however, to find people making up strange stories. In England, there is a lady who has gotten some attention in the tabloid press recently by claiming that she has amazing telekinetic powers that cause street lamps to turn off, digital clocks to go haywire, and her freezer to defrost when she passes by.

Her name is Debbie Wolf and she's 38 years old. She says  that she has no control over her power. "It happens when I'm stressed or if I'm chewing something over in my mind, but not if I'm annoyed...It has never been full on whammy all day, but it happens frequently, such as when I'm excited." Some wag has even given her alleged talent a name: Street Light Interference syndrome - or SLI. Debbie is a "slider." Right. Look that up in the DSM-IV.

Either Debbie is deluded and self-deceived (but not necessarily demented, though we shouldn't rule that out) or she really has telekinetic powers. I suspect she is one of those people whose appliances are always blinking the number 12 and she blames herself. Fortunately, however, we can test her claims.

In the name of science, that great and wondrous instrument for truth, the Daily Mail, put her to the test. By any rational standard, Debbie failed.

Sitting in the hospital canteen, she was given a torch [flashlight], a mobile phone and a radio on which to use her electrical influence - but none responded to her interference.

The lights in the canteen, the battery-powered clock on the wall and the electric tills also continued to operate normally.

But Miss Wolf explained that she has to be in the right mood for her powers to work.

"I have to be completely lost in my thoughts - usually thinking deeply about something that is troubling me."

You can call her response rationalization, special pleading, ad hoc hypothesizing, rubbish, or a cheap way to deal with cognitive dissonance. But whatever you call it, don't call it SLI syndrome.

There are many people who are out of touch with reality and who truly believe that if a street light goes out when they pass, that it went out because of them. If you are selective enough in your perception and memory, you too can convince yourself that you are a causal agent for all kinds of happenings around you and you, too, might get your fifteen minutes of fame.

In any case, my trusty and knowledgeable editor, John Renish, directed me to a Cecil Adams column on the issue of "human light switch syndrome." There are lots of people who have had similar experiences to those of Ms. Wolf. According to The Straight Dope, a top high pressure sodium engineer at General Electric told Adams: It is a combination of coincidence and wishful thinking. That should brighten your day.

The Amazing Meeting 6

The headliner for TAM 6 is Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Other new faces include: science blogger PZ Myers, Matthew Chapman, Sharon Begley, and Greydon Square.

TAM 6 will be held at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas from June 19-22, 2008.

Skeptic's Circle

The 79th edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up at Bug Girl's Blog.

 



 

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