|Volume 5 Number 9||www.ntskeptics.org||December 1991|
Shortly after last month's deadline, the movie The Butcher's Wife was released. Star Demi Moore (who plays a psychic in the film) told Entertainment Tonight all about her own psychic experiences, as well as the amazing advice given to her by her personal psychic. In fact, Ms. Moore insisted that her psychic be hired as a paid advisor on the film. Her co-star, Jeff Daniels, an admitted skeptic, described the woman's function thusly: "There was this woman on the set with bright red hair and tarot cards, and we were all supposed to talk to her ... But I said, 'Eh, no thanks.'" Entertainment Tonight also talked to several prominent Hollywood psychics, all of whom naturally praised the use of a psychic to guide the film's production. Oh, if only ALL films had the advantage of an on-set psychic! Bombs would be a thing of the past!
Except for one little problem: The Butcher's Wife opened to mostly negative reviews.
Entertainment Weekly magazine gave it an "F," saying that it "might have been concocted by a convention of flaked-out astrologers" and that it was like a bad '60s sitcom "sprinkled with New Age fairy dust." Audience response was no better: after two weeks on more than 800 screens, the picture had grossed less than five million dollars. One week later, it dropped from the list of the top ten films nationwide.
Could it be possible that Demi Moore is at last asking herself, "If my psychic really IS psychic, how come she didn't foresee this impending disaster?" How much input did this psychic have in picking her last box office disappointment, Mortal Thoughts? Is Demi's husband, Bruce Willis, also being advised by the Oracle? Was she the one who told him to do Bonfire of the Vanities? How about Hudson Hawk? Seems to me you could get better (and cheaper) career guidance from a Magic Eight Ball.
It is probably too much for movie fans to hope that Demi Moore and her fellow Hollywood mush brains will learn the obvious lesson from this string of disasters: that if you want to make a good movie, you don't need somebody who reads palms or tea leaves ... you need somebody who can read scripts.
Radio, television and movies may be beyond hope, but several general interest magazines have done excellent investigative work on oddball beliefs in the past few months. Among the best:
It's also been a great month for fans of crackpot political conspiracy theories. Both Newsweek and The New Republic conducted independent investigations of the so-called "October Surprise" (Gary Sick's claim that the Reagan campaign made a deal with Iran to hold the hostages until after the 1980 election). Both came to the conclusion that there is no evidence it ever happened except for unsupportable anecdotes told by completely unreliable sources. That did not stop Columbia Pictures from spending $300,000 for the screen rights to Sick's book. Guess their psychic told them it would be a hit.
But that's not the only crackpot conspiracy theory headed for the big screen. If you didn't get a chance to go downtown for the big JFK Assassination Conspiracy Buffs Convention, don't worry ... according to the November Esquire magazine, you'll soon be able to see all the most outrageous theories lumped together in Oliver Stone's upcoming movie, JFK. Author Robert Sam Anson reports that Oliver Stone hired as consultants only those people who insisted they had all the answers, no matter how ridiculous the questions. He listened to every discredited nut in the land ... but turned away one well-respected investigator, because he only had "half the story." Guys like Jim Garrison had a whole story, even if they had to make up the second half all by themselves.
In the final days of shooting, even Stone began to suspect that he was surrounded by loons, and he was NOT shooting a nature documentary. His staff is hoping that Stone will tone down the most outlandish dialogue through post-production sound looping. If so, JFK may require more dubbing than Godzilla.
Have you noticed that Dallas has a new star to call its own? He's everywhere these days. On talk shows, on entertainment programs, even on commercials. No, it's not Vanilla Ice. It's our very own "Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Car Keys," Dallas psychic John Catchings.
You've probably seen Catchings' commercials for his very own 800-line psychic reference service (you wouldn't want to get hooked up with a disreputable psychic, now would you?). During the spot, we see Catchings' abilities being lauded by Geraldo Rivera ... now there's an endorsement! Catchings assures us that the call is free. Of course, making an appointment with the orthodontist is free ... but somewhere along the line, you'll get a bill. And chances are, it'll be a whopper.
But why should it not be expensive? Catching is worth it! Just ask the television networks. In one week, Catchings appeared on NBC's Unsolved Mysteries (a show so repugnant I've given up railing against it ... now I just stare at it in awe, the way some people do at a bad traffic accident), and followed that up with an appearance on CBS's new series, Secrets Of The Unknown. Naturally, both shows presented him as an amazing, unexplainable psychic phenomenon, who sees distant visions of missing persons in perfect, always correct detail, and turns skeptics into believers the way T.N.T. turns trees into toothpicks. I think I'll consult the guy myself ... not to ask about a missing person, but to find out who his agent is!
Naturally, neither show presented a skeptical viewpoint, nor did they reveal the fee charged for these questionable services. I guess the networks consider some subjects too vulgar to broach.
You Call This Intelligence? Dept.: The Associated Press reports that U.N. inspection teams who are searching for Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons are carrying sketches of the weapons' location drawn by psychics through "remote viewing." The sketches were supposedly provided free by PSI Tech, a Maryland company specializing in providing psychic guidance to seriously mismanaged corporations.
The use of this patent nonsense was defended by a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Norman Dicks (D., Washington). Dicks said psychics had been "surprisingly helpful" in locating things before, although it's not clear whether they actually helped locate anything, or were just cheerful about offering to try. At any rate, the only example of their help that the story could cite was the hunt for Gen. James Dozier, who was being held hostage by terrorists. Numerous psychics worked on that case to no avail, until an informant's tip led to Dozier's rescue. I guess this proves that you don't have to be a Dicks to believe in psychics, but it sure helps.
Finally, we have worked our way down to the lowest level of media irresponsibility: the new CBS series, Secrets of the Unknown. It's a shameless rip-off of Unsolved Mysteries, but it skips the reasonably straight true-crime stories and concentrates solely on fostering belief in the most outrageous occult claptrap. As noted above, the first segment of the premier episode was a paean to the incredible powers of John Catchings. That was bad enough ... but it got worse. In the second segment, a woman who was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer refused surgery. Instead, she went to a holistic hypnotherapist for past-life regression therapy. She discovered that her ulcer was the result of being burned at the stake in a previous life. And this knowledge was all it took to cure her bleeding ulcer!
The final segment focused on faith healer Willard Fuller, who, as the show flatly informed us, really could make blind people see (one wonders why the healer himself wears glasses). He also turns silver fillings into gold, although it seems that a real healer could turn them into enamel. All three segments were presented as absolute, irrefutable truth. The coverage couldn't have been more positive if it had been paid-commercial time, because that at least would be regulated by the FTC, and the FDA.
With this reprehensible program, CBS has sunk to the level of the slimiest supermarket tabloid. The former jewel of the airwaves now advocates consulting psychics, throwing away vital medication, ignoring your doctor, and putting your health into the hands of the most cynical quacks and charlatans. I can only hope the executives responsible for this garbage develop bleeding ulcers themselves, and seek help from holistic hypnotists and faith healers. They will not be missed.
But since it's a series, you don't have to take my word for it. Watch it yourself (Fridays, 7 p.m., Channel 4). And if you feel the need to complain, as I did, here are a couple of handy addresses:
With your help, perhaps it won't be a series for long. In the meantime, I'm so mad I may be developing an ulcer myself. I had better lie down and pour a little gravel on my chest.
When this activity was announced in the student newspaper, The Daily Lasso, it drew protests from faculty members in the various science departments, on the ground that the university was promoting pseudoscience, and from various religious groups, on the ground that is was a promotion of pseudoreligion. The initial response from the Office of Student Life was that it was being presented as "entertainment."
The announced program was to consist of three 30-minute lectures. Students could sign up for 15-minute "readings" with the lecturers of their choice before or after the lectures at $6 per reading. The lectures were definitely not entertainment. Each speaker was self-identified as a professional and the lectures were sales pitches for services.
The first lecture had been advertised as "History of Palmistry," but consisted instead of a presentation by a self-styled psychic. Part of her pitch was for the sale of her counseling services. She claimed no training, accreditation or licensing as a professional counselor. She made it clear that she believed her psychic ability to be sufficient qualification. She claimed to have the psychic ability to make electrical equipment malfunction, but it apparently did not extend to the two tape recorders operating in the audience without her permission.
The second lecture was "Metaphysics for the 90s." The speaker identified herself as a hypnotist. This was the only piece of information in her talk. She did not give her definition of metaphysics, nor was it evident from her talk.
The third lecture was "Synastry: The Astrology of Romance." According to the speaker, "synastry" is a process of determining the degree of compatibility of two people by merging their astrological charts. He told the group that astrology is the "oldest science." This piece of information was countered by his statement, early in his talk, that he had been unable to make any sense out of astrology until he stopped thinking about it logically!
All three talks were poorly attended, and many of the students in attendance had been coached to be skeptical by various professors in the Departments of Psychology, Biology and Chemistry, and Physics, or had religious objections to the presentations, The believers, however, paid their money for readings before and after the talks.
Lyman Caswell is a professor of chemistry at Texas Woman's University -- Ed.
Texas Assistant Attorney General Robert Reyna told NTS technical advisor Tim Gorski, M.D., that Aurum's manufacturer, Au Pharmaceuticals, was the subject of a lawsuit filed on November 7. The suit alleged that the ads for the product were deceptive and made unsubstantiated medical claims. The company chose to settle the suit by paying the fine and agreed to stop the deceptive ads for the product.
In the ads cited by the Attorney General, the company claimed that the lotion provided "almost miraculous" relief from arthritis and other common soft-tissue ailments. The ads seemed to imply a connection between the admittedly inactive gold content in Aurum to medically proven gold injections administered by a physician in some severe cases.
Dr. Gorski, who is also chairman of the Greater Dallas/Ft. Worth Area Council Against Health Fraud, pointed out that the only apparent effect of the gold content in Aurum is to reduce swelling in the wallets of consumers. Aurum costs over 300% more than other equally-effective topical analgesic rubs that contain the same or even more of the active ingredients found in Aurum.
In the settlement, the Grand Saline, Texas-based company agreed to stop making deceptive and unproven claims for Aurum, and stop referring to the gold content in the lotion. Aurum's package label has also been revised to show that the gold is an inactive ingredient. Gold had been listed first.
Editor's note: Our thanks to Dr. Gorski for his help in following the Aurum case.
In some of the newest ads, the Church urges readers to send in a $1 "membership fee" or call a toll-free number to get a booklet on becoming an IRS "whistleblower." Other ads proposed the idea of abolishing the income tax in favor of a flat 16% national sales tax. These ads ran over the name of "Citizens for an Alternative Tax System (CATS)," but were paid for by the Church.
The Church ads focus on IRS abuses of its unique power granted by Congress to investigate and collect taxes. The Church is not breaking any new ground with its campaign. The 1990 book A Law Unto Itself by David Burnham (New York: Random House) told of the sometimes harsh tactics used by the IRS in the agency's wide-ranging activities.
The Church ads purport an altruistic motive. In a epilogue to some ads, the Church ads say that it has been "a potent and vital force in the field of social reform, dedicated to the preservation of human rights and civil liberties." The ads go on to claim that because of its role as a "vanguard of IRS reform" that it has been targeted with "countless acts of retaliation and vengeance by an agency completely out of control."
The ads say that the Church is conducting this "public education campaign" to show that the IRS is "completely out of control." The ads also assure us that no matter what happens, "the Church of Scientology will fight for your rights all the way."
Why the sudden zeal by the cult in telling us about the IRS? Maybe it's to help win public opinion for a $120-million federal lawsuit brought by the Church in August against the IRS claiming that the IRS has waged a 33-year-long war against the cult.
In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the Church alleges that the IRS illegally conspired to deprive the cult of their First Amendment rights to practice religion. The suit names as defendants 17 IRS officials whom the Church claims used deceptive practices to build the government's case against the Church, including four who were featured in one of the USA Today ads. That ad described other cases handled by the four men, but did not mention that they are named as defendants in the Church's lawsuit.
The IRS has maintained that Scientology is a sham religion set up to financially benefit certain Church officials and that it has often operated as a business and not a religion, a charge that has been echoed by many former Church insiders. The IRS has revoked the tax exemption status of some Church operations and claims that the cult is hiding behind constitutional protections.
If there is any group that would know first-hand about IRS investigations, it is the Church of Scientology International. Several Church officials were found guilty of felonies in the past in connection with tax evasion and other crimes. In the late 1970's alone, 11 Scientologists were sent to prison after being convicted of bugging and burglarizing IRS offices in a attempt to ruin IRS evidence against the cult in criminal investigations.
It is interesting to note that the Church is suing the IRS for allegedly using tactics against the Church that ex-Scientologists say the Church uses regularly against its own foes. The use of mail covers, infiltration, informants and sham front organizations are well-documented Church practices, detailed in numerous books and articles about the cult, including Behar's Time story and Jon Atack's excellent book, A Piece of Blue Sky (reviewed in The Skeptic, May-June 1991).
The lawsuit may backfire on the Church if it is found that the IRS acted within its broad authority as the nation's bill collector. If so, court proceedings may bring to light more of the inner workings of the science-fiction-based cult that has ruined so many lives. Prozac Scare Leaves FDA Panel Unimpressed
In other Scientology news, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel in September rejected by a 6-to-2 vote an attempt to require suicide warnings on prescriptions for the anti-depressant drug Prozac. Scientology and its anti-psychiatry front group, the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights, spearheaded a huge publicity campaign against the drug and its maker, Eli Lilly & Co (The Skeptic, July 1991).
Claiming that Prozac causes depressed patients to take their own life, the Church wanted Prozac banned outright despite the positive results it has delivered for over 5 million patients worldwide. Other activists not backed by the Church had asked FDA to require suicide warnings on Prozac packaging.
The FDA panel heard testimony in September from several relatives of depressed individuals who killed themselves while being treated with Prozac, as well as substantial scientific and professional testimony showing no established link between use of the drug and increased suicides.
"It's an unfortunate fact that suicidal thoughts are often part and parcel of ... depressive illness whether an individual is taking medication or not," said John Smith of the National Mental Heath Association, in support of Prozac.
Although the final decision on the matter is up to FDA regulators, the panel's recommendations generally hold great sway with the FDA's top officials.
Reader's Digest Next In Line For Cult's Wrath?
Finally, we might look for the Church to mount another expensive "public education campaign," perhaps this time telling us about all the terrible things the folks at Reader's Digest have done over the years. Why? The October issue of the Digest carried a fairly complete reprint of Behar's Time cover story on the cult. One can only wonder what outlet the Church would have for their "education" messages if USA Today ever ran a negative story about the cult.
To the editor :
Mike Sullivan's article raking the Church of Scientology for its campaign against the IRS was an unfortunate instance of friendly fire (The Skeptic, November 1991, p.1).
By all means, let's ridicule the kooky Scientology cult. Unreason, in whatever form it takes, should be attacked. But as they say here in Texas, "even a blind hog can find an acorn once in a while." There are a great many reasons to think that a national sales tax would be better than the current income tax. What does it matter that Scientology didn't think of them?
Let's continue to go after questionable claims and not worry about the claimants. The whole point to the rational method is that motives are largely irrelevant. If Jean Dixon said that creationism is pseudoscience, for example, she would be right, notwithstanding the fact that psychic powers have no rational basis either.
Besides, if the income tax were ever replaced with a national sales tax, the Scientologists would wind up paying more tax than they do now and they'll have done the rest of us a favor. How do we get the rest of the kooks and frauds out there to shift their energies into such constructive channels?
--- Deborah Boak,
Mike Sullivan replies:
I did not intend to present an opinion of the ideas put forward by the Church's ads in my story, and only tried to convey some of the major points without comment except to note that they were paid for by the Church. Incidentally, I regretfully report that I have become a supporter of the Church in a small way. I have received nothing in return for the $1 "membership fee" I sent in to the "Citizens for an Alternative Tax System," one of the Church front groups promoted in the ads. Maybe it has to do with my omission of my home telephone number on the reply coupon.
Reader's Reeder Responses
To the editor :
Pat Reeder is ignoring an important fact when he compares Anita Hill's allegations with UFO claims (The Skeptic, November 1991, p. 5). This is that [while] no one else has ever seen any evidence for UFOs, there is plenty of evidence for sexual harassment.
This case has more to do with perception than with truth. I think [Judge Clarence] Thomas was hitting on Anita Hill. He didn't even think of it as harassment. Did anyone go to his old lovers and ask them how he came on to them the first time? You may have noticed, none of the women testifying for him were very attractive.
Anita Hill may have thought of it as harassment, but she knows the rules of evidence and also knows how whistle-blowers are treated. She probably thought Thomas could help advance her career even without giving in to him. She only came forward when the Democrats asked her to.
[Reeder's] comparing her with Whitley Streiber is completely unjustified. I think the people who attack Anita Hill don't want to believe this country could have a Chief Justice who is a liar.
--- David K. Schumacher
To the editor :
... Reeder's comparison of Anita Hill to persons who claim to have been abducted by UFOs was, to say the least, highly inappropriate. While I agree with the basic premise that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, I can't for the life of me figure out how Reeder manages to include Anita Hill's charges into this category.
For me, an extraordinary claim is one for which there are no known previous occurrences, which carries only a very remote probability of occurring normally, or which runs contrary to, or is unexplainable by established physical or natural laws. Anita Hill's charges against Thomas fulfill none of these criteria ....
What Reeder does in this article is repeatedly to describe a piece of Hill's evidence against Thomas, show how that piece of evidence taken alone fails to measure up to the standard of "extraordinary proof," and then state that a person who claimed to have been abducted by a UFO has presented their evidence in a similar manner.
The effect of this repeated comparison is to portray Anita Hill's charges as being no more believable than a claim of UFO abduction. In fact, Hill's charges are more believable than a claim of a UFO abduction because, if for no other reason, they are simply less extraordinary. I am not suggesting that Hill's charges against Thomas should not be viewed with skepticism -- they very definitely should -- only that they should not be held up to the same standards of proof as a claim of UFO abduction ....
--- Gary Eakman
Pat Reeder replies :
My reply to Mr. Schumacher:
The fact that there is evidence that sexual harassment is widespread has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the guilt or innocence of an individual accused of that crime.
As an analogy, consider the indisputable fact that the burglary rate in Dallas is skyrocketing. Do you seriously believe that the court system would jail someone simply because I swore that he robbed me, with no fingerprints, no evidence, no witnesses, no record of prior arrests and a strong denial from the accused? Would any judge or jury say, "Well, there's no proof he did it ... but there are so many burglaries, somebody must be committing them, so we'll put him in jail, just to be on the safe side?" Pretty doubtful.
Also, if you'll reread that column, you'll notice that I never said Thomas wasn't lying. He may well have been (if so, he'll certainly be the first lawyer in Washington to have ever done that!). But despite millions of individual subjective "perceptions," there was simply no objective evidence and no witnesses who could verify the truth of Hill's story. And under our system of law, as Sen. Biden so eloquently pointed out, the benefit of the doubt goes to the accused, not the accuser.
Frankly, I think that's a damn good thing for all of us. When you start bending the rule of law because of the passionate feelings of the public about the crime, there can be no end to the bending. The idea of being innocent until proven guilty is one of our greatest protections against mob rule for minorities and women, as well as for conservative Supreme Court nominees. In this case, it saved Clarence Thomas. But next week, it may save the people who opposed him. And I say thank God for that.
Incidentally, I didn't thing Clarence Thomas' defenders were so unattractive. And so what if they were. Are only beauty queens harassed on the job?
My reply to Mr. Eakman :
I apologize for not answering all the points in your letter, which was too long to be included in its entirety.
As far as the point about the greater probability of sexual harassment than of UFO abduction, I refer you to my reply to Mr. Schumacher's letter.
As to the assertion that I suggested Hill's claim to be held to the same standards as a UFO abduction claim, again I refer you to the original column. I did not say that she had to provide the exact same type of extraordinary proof a Whitley Streiber would be required to provide. I merely pointed out that, like Streiber, she made a claim which was widely disputed and offered NO evidence or first-hand witnesses to support it. And in this way, yes, she was bound by the rule of law that requires evidence before anyone can be found guilty.
As to a couple of your points we did not have room to print:
I agree with you about the polygraph test; it did not prove Hill was telling the truth, nor that she was lying. And because of this, it was not satisfactory evidence. So why was it even brought up? For once, it wasn't leaked to the media. It was presented to reporters by Hill's representatives.
Also, at the end of your letter, you noted that having Thomas on the Supreme Court may lead to decisions that are unsavory to skeptics; i.e., teaching of creationism in schools. I agree. In fact, I never said that I would have picked the guy.
But to convict him of sexual harassment without evidence, just to prevent him from possibly making future decisions that I disagree with, is not my idea of a fair trial. Seems to me we should be devoting more energy to electing people we agree with, and less energy to blindsiding those with whom we disagree.
--- Pat Reeder
Irving, Texas _ The Harvey Hotel D/FW has been selected as the site for the 1992 annual conference for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). CSICOP officials visited several airport-area hotels in early November and negotiated for the best facilities and pricing. CSICOP Business Manager Mary Rose Hays confirmed on November 20 that the Harvey presented the best overall package for the CSICOP meeting and would be chosen to host the event.
CSICOP has also made tentative plans to move the dates of the meeting away from the October 30 - November 1, 1992, dates first mentioned. The original dates would have fallen on the weekend just prior to the 1992 presidential elections, and would have made it difficult for the CSICOP meeting to attract any national media attention. The dates now being considered are two weeks earlier in October, October 16-18, 1992.
The giant Harvey Hotel D/FW will provide an excellent setting for the 1992 CSICOP conference. The 5-year-old high-rise brick hotel, located at the northwest corner of Texas Hwy. 114 and Esters Road in Irving, boasts some of the most spacious and flexible meeting space in the Metroplex. The Harvey is just 10 minutes east of D/FW Airport, and easy to reach by car from anywhere in the Metroplex via I-635, Hwy. 114 or Beltline Road. Spacious, Modern Hotel Facility
The CSICOP meeting will use about half of the 35,000 square feet of meeting space in the Harvey. The general sessions for the conference will be held in the huge Trinity Ballroom, with the Awards Dinner and fund-raising luncheon in a separate section of the Trinity. CSICOP's book sales area, press room, operations desk, hospitality room and executive conference rooms will all be located together in one area of the giant meeting facility. In addition, the Harvey's unique 10,000 square-foot meeting gallery area provides plenty of room for conference goers to visit before and after presentations.
Sleeping rooms at the Harvey for CSICOP conference guests are modern and comfortable, with amenities including a lighted work desk and two telephones in every room. The Harvey was able to offer CSICOP attendees an extremely attractive rate of just $68 per night for a single or double room, with free 24-hour shuttle bus service to and from Dallas/Ft. Worth International airport.
CSICOP attendees will be well-fed during their stay at the Harvey, with excellent food from either of the Harvey's two food outlets. Beyond the catered functions planned for the meeting, the Harvey's two restaurants offer very reasonable prices for a wide selection of food from 6:00 AM until midnight each day. In addition, Harvey meeting coordinators will provide additional food service to accommodate the CSICOP functions, with take-out meals and extra seating to handle the 350-500 people expected for the meeting. Metroplex Attractions
Besides the excellent facilities located within the Harvey itself, CSICOP attendees will be able take advantage of other Dallas-area attractions before or after the convention. The dates now planned will fall during the last weekend of the State Fair of Texas, and low-cost bus transportation to and from the Fair will be arranged from the Harvey. Free shuttle bus service to Dallas' "Restaurant Row" along I-35E at Walnut Hill Lane will also be provided on Friday and Saturday nights during the conference for those not attending the scheduled CSICOP functions.
Other on-property or nearby features will make the 1992 CSICOP convention in Dallas one of the best yet:
NTS and CSICOP are working hard to make the 1992 conference a big success, and we need your help. Putting together a meeting like this requires help from many volunteers and donations from individuals and businesses. These are some of the items and services that must be arranged for the meeting:
If you or someone you know can help with a donation of time or services, please fill out the coupon elsewhere in this issue and return it to the address shown so we can contact you as the planning continues.
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