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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 6

June 2, 2008

"With us nothing has time to gather meaning, and too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold." --W. B. Yeats

In this issue

What's new?
Acupuncture in Australia
Love those placebos
Demons, brute force, & psychiatric disorders
Psychics & the law
Scum of the minute awards
Crystal skullduggery
Same-sex marriage, California style
Exorcist sees devils everywhere
Stone cold karma
The Amazing Meeting

NASA does it again

What's New?

Since the last newsletter, I revised the exorcism entry to include material on the resurgence of interest in this diabolical practice in Germany where most exorcisms stopped after a 1973 fiasco. I also revised the healing touch entry after reading about a Stanford University program that promotes this form of so-called energy healing.

New comments from readers have been posted for the following entries: atheism, acupuncture, Christian ultra-fundamentalism, astrology, and the Myers-Briggs inventory.

Finally, I updated the climate skeptics entry to include a link to an article on vast cracks appearing in the arctic ice and a link to an article on methane gas originating in wetlands.

Is this progress?

The Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association announced that it will provide an accreditation logo to post in your shop that will let the world know that you do not use the parts of endangered species as you practice your ancient craft. As many of you know, traditional Chinese medicine uses potions made from various parts of the rhinoceros, the bear, the tiger, the turtle and other lovely creatures. Now you can proudly tell your customers that you "only use wildlife products that are legally acquired," said Environment Minister Peter Garrett.*

Another positive placebo study

Dr. David Pfister, chief of the head and neck medical oncology service at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City has authored a study showing the value of placebos. He presented his findings at the American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting, in Chicago. According to U.S. News & World Report:

In the study, 70 patients were randomized to receive weekly acupuncture sessions for four weeks or "usual care" (suggestions for physical therapy exercises and anti-inflammatory pain relievers). Almost 40 percent of participants receiving acupuncture experienced improvements in both pain and mobility, compared with just 7 percent in the standard-care group.

Of course, Pfister thinks he's shown that the data support a potential role for acupuncture in medicine. I've seen about a dozen news stories on his work and they all lead in with the claim that acupuncture helps ease back and neck pain. However, Pfister failed to control for the placebo effect. He needed a third group to receive sham acupuncture. Had he found that the sham acupuncture group showed significantly lower improvement than the true acupuncture group, he would have support for his hypothesis about a role for acupuncture. As it stands, the data support a role for placebo treatments.

I've gone over this before, so for those who think I am deranged please read the following before contacting me to let me know how stupid I am:

--the acupuncture and placebo effect entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary
--Evaluating Acupuncture Studies
--The trouble with acupuncture
--Sticking needles into acupuncture studies

For good measure, read Snake Oil Science or my review of Bausell's book.

Demons, brute force, and psychiatric disorders

Belief in demons may have cost 43-year-old Dimitra Mantas her life. Believing her son might be possessed by demons, she took him to receive prayers of exorcism at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in Oakland. A few days later her son bludgeoned her to death with an aluminum baseball bat.* Eighteen months later, Andrew Mantas, who was 16 at the time of the killing, is still deemed incompetent to stand trial by the presiding judge.

Don't religions that teach that demons exist and can take over anyone's body at any time deserve some of the blame when such tragedies occur? Why isn't education in mental illness required of all clergy? In fact, why isn't such education provided to our high school students as a condition for graduation?

In the next town over from mine, a mentally ill person was killed by the police for not following orders.* The 44-year-old man had left a half-way house for the mentally ill and the police knew this because the director of the house called them to let them know that the man might be a danger to himself or others (the only justification for hospitalizing someone against his will in my state). Four officers Tasered the man, who was armed with a pencil, and beat him with their batons. He died at the scene.

Don't police departments teach their officers that mentally ill people who are belligerent and uncooperative when faced with several men or women in uniforms with guns and clubs might believe they are being threatened by people who mean to harm them? Don't they train police officers to understand that mentally ill people in a highly agitated state might not ever hear your commands, much less be capable of following them? Those of us who are not mentally ill should worry about this ignorance and lack of police training. Someday we might become psychotic or have a stroke or a seizure or some other physical disorder that might lead an officer to think we are dangerous. Someday we may be the one who is beaten, Tasered, and killed by the police because we didn't follow orders we couldn't hear, understand, or follow.

Why aren't police officers better trained in handling people with psychiatric disorders? Why, why, why?

Psychics and the law

In a recent Skeptimedia post I noted that the Fraudulent Mediums Act in the UK will be repealed and replaced by the European Union's Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. No longer will fraudulent intention have to be proved to convict psychic peddlers. The psychic will have to prove she did not mislead or coerce credulous consumers. Furthermore, now psychics will have to tell their customers that their methods have no scientific validity. In short, psychics will have to reveal that they are entertainers. Unfortunately, they won't have to reveal that they are nutters, frauds, or self-deluded.

Of course, these lovely people are upset about the new requirements. One medium is now going to advertise himself as a "spiritual clairvoyant entertainer" to cover himself against the new legislation. He said: "Sadly it means what we do by saying it is for entertainment purposes only is to cover ourselves for legal issues. We can't prove what we do, but I know it is real because people come back to me and I have a good reputation."* With such a high standard of evidence, I'm sure he'll continue to do quite well in his chosen career.

There's nothing like a good reputation to assist in scamming people. On the other hand, one of the best ways to get rid of the competition is to ruin his reputation, which is what famed Senegalese astrologer and psychic Professor Bambo claims is happening to him. He's been arrested on charges of extortion and rape. He blames his competitors for spreading lies about him.*

Scum of the minute

This minute's award goes to Dennis Hodges ND DI DRM DHA, who works for an international outfit called Naturopathic Services that specializes in allergy diagnosis and treatment. Australian Dr. Rupert Hotzapfel came across Hodges in a local shopping mall where he was claiming to be analyzing the electromagnetic field of hair to determine food allergies. Dr. Hotzapfel writes:

He had an impressive machine with some kind of indicator (lacking units) and lots of little test tubes in a tray. When I asked his associate what the electromagnetic field of one’s hair actually is and how it was connected to food allergies, his associate “explained” to me that electromagnetism was very complicated but similar to DNA.

Hodges was charging $180 for this service, according to Dr. Hotzapfel. As anyone familiar with electromagnetism and DNA knows, they are similar only in that they are both complicated.

In an article posted on the Naturopathic Services website, Hodges explains how everybody else is wrong about allergies and how he discovered the truth. First, he "used muscle testing [applied kinesiology or AK] to determine allergies." He gave that up not because he finally realized that AK is bogus but because AK "limited the number of items that could be tested at one time." "The solution," he found, "was to use homeopathic preparations to test with." Then he reached the apex of his investigative career when he hooked up with another naturopath "who was building an electronic testing device to use in conjunction with homeopathic test vials."

So, now we know what the test tubes in the tray were: water. But Hodges gives no clue as to how his electronic testing device allegedly works. On the other hand, hair analysis has a long history among quacks. As Dr. Stephen Barrett says: "Hair analysis is worthless for assessing the body's nutritional status or serving as a basis for dietary or supplement recommendations." Why hair analysis would be of use in determining allergies, especially food allergies, is a mystery. Most hair analysis tests for the presence of heavy metals but the connection between these metals and allergies has not been established. Eventually, Hodges may realize that real scientists don't use electronic devices. They use a pendulum and dowse over a person's hair. "An allergy is diagnosed if an altered swing is noted."*

By the way, I emailed Hodges and asked him what the letters DI, DRM, and DHA stand for, but he didn't respond. Anyone know? ND, I know, stands for Notre Dame or doctor of naturopathy in Hodges case.

Second place this minute goes to the creators of the K2 EMF meter for serious ghost hunters. According to SlipperyBrick:

The device has 5 LEDs for different levels of EMF. It even knows the difference between EMF emitted by you and your gadgets and by paranormal spookery. EMF from gadgets will light up the LEDs and remain steady. Paranormal activity makes the meter spike since spooks emit a pulsating EMF energy.

I thought that spirits were inter-dimensional and emitted garbled noises like "an M sound" or "Ha, Hen, Hon." That's what I get for listening to John Edward instead of these scientific paranormal investigators. By the way, you can pick up your own K2 EMF device on eBay for about $45.

Third place goes to GEMM Therapy, based on the "breakthrough discovery of Dr Seckiner Gorgun on molecular communication. The GEMM Device can broadcast radio waves at the same universal electromagnetic resonance language that molecules communicate with each other at the cellular level." Sounds technical, but it's just ungrammatical gobbledygook. Supposedly, this device has been proven to be effective at "helping"  patients "overcome several malignant diseases and medical conditions." How it helps, or what it might mean for a disease to be "overcome," are not explained by the folks at GEMM. For those who want to delve into the science behind GEMM Therapy, you can read Dr. Gorgun's article "Studies on the Interaction Between Electromagnetic Fields and Living Matter Neoplastic Cell Culture," which appeared in the Journal of Frontier Perspectives. For those who have never heard of this journal, I refer you to Martin Gardner's 1998 article "What's Going on at Temple University?" Temple's Center for Frontier Science publishes this journal. Some of the topics it considers as frontier science are homeopathy, dowsing, quantum healing, Tarot, ESP, and other similar rubbish.

Crystal skullduggery

The best thing about the new Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull film is that my crystal skull entry had 25,000 visitors the week the movie opened in U.S. theaters, which is about 25 times the average. The worst thing about the film is the film itself. Not even the great actors Cate Blanchett, Jim Broadbent, and Ray Winstone could save this film from being a boring waste of time and money. In addition to an inane story about a powerful crystal skull and long, uninspired chase scenes, there were references to the Mitchell-Hedges "skull of doom," a long scene in area 51, a trip to the Nazca lines, references to Roswell and alien bodies stored by the government, a Russian psychic researcher ("the mad scientist"), and a functioning flying saucer. The movie does have a great opening scene and some spectacular aerial photography of waterfalls (or is it computer generated?). There were a couple of humorous scenes that made me laugh out loud (like Harrison Ford hiding in a refrigerator (labeled "lead-lined to improve insulation") in a dummy town to survive a nuclear blast while Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob played on a television for a cardboard family), but I didn't hear much response from most of the other audience members.

The movie did get a huge response from Russia's Communist party, however. It is outraged about the portrayal of Russians as a group of insane robots led by a mad psychic researcher chasing around the world looking for a ridiculous crystal skull. The communists called the film "ideological sabotage" and are worried that it will give young people a warped view of history.

Communist party chief Sergei Malinkovich said: "Our movie-goers are teenagers who are completely unaware of what happened in 1957. They will go to the cinema and will be sure that in 1957 we made trouble for the United States and almost started a nuclear war. It's rubbish. In 1957 the Communist party did not run with crystal skulls throughout the U.S. Why should we agree to that sort of lie and let the West trick our youth?"* He wants to ban the film. Good luck to him.

If you want to see a fine film, see The Visitor.

Ban on same-sex marriage overturned by California Supreme Court

On May 15 in a 4-to-3 ruling, the California Supreme Court struck down a ban that prohibited same-sex marriage. Massachusetts is the only other state that allows same-sex marriages. New York's governor has let it be known that New York will recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages.*The Center for Inquiry released a statement saying it supports the decision. On the CFI website, they've posted a position paper on the issue:

The Center for Inquiry firmly believes that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals are entitled to the same civil rights and liberties as heterosexuals. They are also entitled to the same economic benefits. CFI has examined the issue of same-sex marriage and has concluded that as long as the state recognizes and regulates intimate relationships through the institution of marriage, then marriage should be available for LGBT individuals just as it is for heterosexuals.

I agree. Think about it. If we can tolerate two men or two women in a boxing ring exchanging blows as they try to knock each other into unconsciousness, we ought to be able to tolerate two men or two women exchanging vows as they profess their love for each other. How can the act of two consenting adults to love each other, an act that harms no one, arouse such hatred among people who consider it their duty to love their neighbors as themselves? Scientific ignorance might have something to do with it, ignorance of biology and sociology. Religious indoctrination also plays a role, as we all know. Or maybe the haters are just jealous.

Catholic exorcist says the Devil likes yoga

Here's one book I'll never read: Exorcism: Understanding Exorcism in Scripture and Practice by 73-year-old Father Jeremy Davies, a former medical doctor who has been exorcist for the Archdiocese of Westminster in England since 1986. The book was published by a swell-sounding publishing house: the Catholic Truth Society. In addition to the usual demonic practices such as magic, fortune-telling, and holding séances, Davies consider yoga  a "direct invitation to the Devil, which he readily accepts." Apparently, if you get too relaxed, the devil will slip in unnoticed.

According to the Daily Mail, Davies has carried out thousands of exorcisms and in 1993 set up the International Association of Exorcists with Father Gabriel Amorth, the Pope’s top exorcist. Apparently, the good doctor priest sees Satan and Satanists everywhere. Yoga is not the only thing that attracts Satan, according to Davies. The Evil One likes people who engage in reiki, read horoscopes, or get massages. He has his reasons:

Beware of any claim to mediate beneficial energies (e.g. reiki), any courses that promise the peace that Christ promises (e.g. enneagrams), any alternative therapy with its roots in eastern religion (e.g. acupuncture).

According to the Mail, Davies compares militant atheists to rational Satanists, and blames them for a rise in demonic activity. It's not clear what he means by demonic activity, but it could be a reference to what Jessica Lange brought up as she addressed the latest graduating class of Sarah Lawrence University: waging offensive wars, questionable prison camps, torture, corporate armies to do the really dirty work, elimination of habeas corpus, and extraordinary rendition, among other diabolical things.

On the other hand, it's more likely that Davies considers what has happened over the past seven and a half years to be signs of divine intervention. Satan is too busy encouraging homosexuality, pornography, and sex outside of marriage (all described as 'perversions' by Davies) to have time to turn a democracy into a demonocracy.

Davies seems to prove two old adages: doctors aren't always right and wisdom doesn't necessarily come with age.

(The National Secular Society has posted an editorial on Fr. Davies, which is worth a read.)

We don't need no stinking Falwell

Sharon Stone, the actress, seems to have anointed herself as heir apparent to Jerry Falwell's position as grand explainer of natural disasters. For Falwell, every massively destructive flood, hurricane, tornado, volcano, or earthquake was directly caused by the Judeo-Christian God ("who will not be mocked," as the good preacher's mantra affirmed). Usually, Falwell's God punished the innocent for the shenanigans of same-sex couples, liberals, or libertines. This is the God who, according to Judeo-Christian mythology, destroyed most of his creation in anger and retribution when he finally figured out that his human beings weren't worshipping him enough because they were too busy committing sins. (This is not a theology lesson, so you Biblical scholars out there who have a different take on the story, please keep it to yourself.)

Stone said recently that the devastating earthquakes that left 68,000 human beings dead, millions homeless, and inestimable physical damage, were retribution for the way China has treated Tibet. Instead of God doing the killing, Stone blames karma.* Despite an apology from Stone and Dior's China branch, Ng See-Yuen, founder of one of China's largest cinema chains, and chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, pledged his company would not show Stone's films. Stone's image has been removed from a number of Dior outlets at department stores in Beijing. Karma?

The Amazing Meeting

I hope many of you are going to the 6th annual Randifest in Las Vegas over the long weekend of June 19-22. James Randi and crew throw a fine party for skeptics, rationalists, atheists, agnostics, and a few true believers. See the Randi site for details. Unfortunately, I won't be there. I have another commitment of a personal nature that I wouldn't miss even for the million dollar prize.

Congratulations NASA!

Some people never learn. After a very successful landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander, the latest machine to probe the planet Mars, NASA released a photo with the commentary: "This view from the Surface Stereo Imager on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander shows the first impression -- dubbed Yeti and shaped like a wide footprint." The last time someone mentioned that a photo of Mars looked like a face or a pyramid, remember what happened? It's only a matter of time before Richard C. Hoagland comes forth and explains how Yeti got to Mars and how NASA tried to cover it up.


* AmeriCares *

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