|Volume 6 Number 3||www.ntskeptics.org||March 1992|
An increasing number of legal commentators and judges realize that the rules of evidence have become too lax over the last two decades, and that some reform is necessary. An important article by Bert Black in the 1988 Fordham Law Review, " A Unified Theory of Scientific Evidence," epitomizes this new thinking.
Black argues that decisions about the admissibility of scientific evidence should distinguish between validity and reliability. "Validity" means that an expert's conclusions result from sound and cogent reasoning. Validity is thus a scientific question. "Reliability" means that a successful outcome or a correct answer when applying the expert's reasoning is sufficiently probably for a given situation. Reliability is thus partly a legal question: given a valid method, how certain does the result have to be before we render a judgment affecting lives and fortunes?
Courts should not make the question of an expert's qualifications a substitute for examining his reasoning or methodology. What is valid methodology should be determined by the standard of Frye v. United States: the methodology and reasoning the expert uses to connect the facts to the conclusions should be generally accepted within the scientific community. Black would change the Federal Rules of Evidence (now adopted by most state courts as well) to explicitly require experts to explain the reasoning leading to their conclusions, and then to judge that reasoning against scientific consensus.
The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans recently adopted Black's argument and read such a requirement into the Federal Rules in Christophersen v. Allied-Signal Corp., decided last fall. The Fifth Circuit held, in an unusual opinion with all judges participating, that Frye is not dead, and the Federal Rules of Evidence must be aligned with the requirement that the expert's reasoning be generally accepted within the scientific community.
Christophersen was a toxic tort case from a Texas federal district court. The plaintiffs, survivors of a battery-plant worker, claimed that the worker acquired a rare form of cancer from years of intermittent exposure to fumes from nickel-cadmium battery manufacturing.
The plaintiffs' expert, Dr. Miller, was a medical doctor with experience in cancer treatment, and certainly qualified in the usual sense. The trial court, however, examined Miller's reasoning about how Christophersen's cancer resulted from his exposure. The defendants' experts all maintained that there was no support from epidemiology, live animal testing or in vitro testing which showed that this type of cancer could result from this particular kind of exposure. Miller conceded that these were the main methodologies accepted by medical science, yet he did not use them in arriving at his conclusion. The court held that Miller's reasoning was nothing more than a "scientific hunch," and thus not admissible. The appellate court affirmed.
This decision effectively overruled several older Fifth Circuit cases which held that questions regarding the scientific basis of an expert's opinion affect " ... the weight to be assigned that opinion rather than its admissibility and should be left to the jury's consideration." Four judges of the thirteen dissented, arguing that the Federal Rules cannot be interpreted to authorize a court to examine methodologies or disapprove an expert's opinion. All the dissenters, in my opinion, overlook the connection between the scientific validity of an expert's reasoning and methodology, and the reliability of his conclusions. This case is likely headed for Supreme Court review, and, if upheld, could have profound consequences for all litigation involving novel scientific evidence.
Finally, there is no reason to believe that judges cannot deal with the underlying rationale of scientific testimony merely because most of them do not have scientific training. In cases where the focus is directly on the scientific issue, instead of causation inferred from scientific reasoning, the courts generally do well. Patent litigation is a good example. District and appellate courts routinely examine scientific methodology in the most arcane disciplines and reach sound results by analyzing how a scientific expert reasons and how that reasoning fits into the scientific consensus.
The Arkansas creationism case, McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, also shows judges can analyze scientific reasoning if they choose to. Judge Overton's opinion in that case is one of the most lucid and succinct explanations of scientific method and practice to be found anywhere. There is simply no excuse for tossing disputes about novel scientific evidence into the jury box, where the baffled jurors are not even told explicitly that they are deciding a question of scientific validity, much less given any help to do so. John Thomas is the former President of the North Texas Skeptics and serves as an NTS technical advisor. He has an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Texas-Austin. He has a law practice in Grand Prairie, Texas.
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At the end of each year, many well-known "psychics" issue predictions for the year to come. Twelve months later, they issue another set of predictions, conveniently forgetting those made the year before, which are always nearly 100% wrong. Each year, however, the Bay Area Skeptics dig up the predictions made the year before, to the embarrassment of those who made them.
Many of the "psychic" predictions made are so vague that it is impossible to say if they came true or not: for example, Jeane Dixon's prediction that "pressures behind the scenes will force Carol Burnett to make an important decision about her future this winter" is not obviously true or false.
Many other "predictions" involve things that happen every year, or else are not difficult to guess, such as hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, marital strife for Charles and Diana, or severe winter storms. Many supposed "predictions" simply state that ongoing events and trends will continue, such as economic uncertainty, or conflict in the Middle East.
Some predictions did of course come true, especially those that were unspecific, or not at all difficult to guess: Jeane Dixon correctly predicted that the "tenure will be short" for "the new priest-president of troubled Haiti" Jean-Francois Aristide [The Star, April 16, 1991]. However, since in recent years the government of Haiti has been averaging about one coup a year, such an outcome was hardly unexpected. Significantly, not one prediction which was both specific and surprising came true.
Other supposed "predictions" are not really predictions at all, but are actually disclosures of little-known events which are already under way, such as movie productions, business ventures, or developing scandals. Because questionable claims of having made an amazing prediction frequently are made in the wake of major news stories, the Bay Area Skeptics only evaluates predictions that were published or broadcast before the events they claimed to foretell.
Denver "psychic" Lou Wright predicted that a magnitude 7.0 earthquake would devastate the Los Angeles area in September [The Globe, Dec. 25, 1990]. She also predicted that an air disaster would kill hundreds of vacationers on their way to Hawaii in March, and that a famous politician would cause a scandal when he leaves his wife for Whitney Houston [National Enquirer, Jan. 1, 1991].
Los Angeles "psychic" Maria Graciette predicted that a massive earthquake would strike the Grand Canyon in the spring, and that Tom Cruise would temporarily go bald because of a stress-related illness [National Enquirer, Jan. 1, 1991].
"Psychic" Tony Leggett predicted that Vice-President Quayle would temporarily stand in for the president when Bush is stricken with heart problems, that a former U.S. president would die in the fall, and that an assassination attempt on Soviet president Gorbachev would be foiled by a courageous American tourist [The Examiner, Dec. 25, 1990].
The famous Washington, D.C. "psychic" Jeane Dixon, who supposedly has a "gift of prophecy," saw Rev. Jimmy Swaggert's ministry being "saved" by a last-minute donation this year, rather than being destroyed by another scandal involving a prostitute. She also predicted that Prince Charles and Princess Diana would announce their separation [The Star, Dec. 25, 1990].
In April of this year, Jeane Dixon issued her predictions for the aftermath of the Gulf War. While this did contain the correct prediction of the release of the Western hostages in Lebanon, she also predicted that Saddam Hussein would either be assassinated, or else be put on trial for war crimes in a Moslem court. She also saw terrorist attacks being made against the British Royal Family, and Monaco's Prince Rainier, and predicted that the world would be stunned as "the old order" in China, Korea, and Japan suddenly fell apart, like the Berlin Wall. No major changes occurred in any of those governments during 1991 [The Star, April 16, 1991].
Southern California "psychic" Judy Hevenly predicted that Saddam Hussein will be killed in February, in an accidental nuclear explosion at a secret Iraqi facility, and that scientists would find evidence of extraterrestrial life using the Hubble space telescope [National Enquirer, Jan. 1, 1991]. Another of her predictions was that Pope John Paul II would have a "close call" while visiting U.N. Troops in Saudi Arabia when he would be charged by a "crazed camel" [The Globe, Dec. 25, 1990].
Another Southern California "psychic," Clarisa Bernhardt, who is claimed to make "uncanny earthquake predictions," foresaw that the much-heralded earthquake that was supposed to hit Missouri in December 1990, will actually strike in the fall of 1991. She also predicted that Imelda Marcos and Tammy Faye Bakker would team up to open a nationwide chain of clothing and shoe boutiques [National Enquirer, Jan. 1, 1991].
[Here] in Northern California, "psychic astrologer" Terrie Brill predicted that a massive earthquake would hit the West Coast from Washington to Mexico, causing California to fall into the ocean [San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 1, 1990, p. 1B]. She also predicted that housing prices in the Bay area "will go down by at least 25%," and perhaps even 50% [San Jose Mercury News, Dec. 31, 1990, p. 5B]. In reality, the average price of a house in San Jose today is very close to where it was 12 months ago. She also foresaw Liz Taylor going back into the hospital in a "near-death situation" [San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 31, 1990].
Based on the continuing failure of the "psychics" to make accurate predictions over the years, the Bay Area Skeptics urges everyone — including the media — to exercise some healthy skepticism when "psychics" and other purveyors of the paranormal make extra-ordinary claims or predictions. Anyone who swallows the "psychics'" claims year after year without checking the record is setting a bad example for students and for the public.
It is important to note that no "psychic" succeeded in predicting the genuinely surprising news stories of 1991: The military coup in the Kremlin that was defeated almost bloodlessly by supporters of democracy, followed just a few months later by the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union; Saddam Hussein deliberately causing one of the world's largest oil spills, then torching Kuwait's oil fields; the most destructive wildfire in California history devastating the Oakland and Berkeley hills; the arrest of Pee-Wee Herman for "indecent exposure"; a highly-publicized rape trial involving a member of the Kennedy family.
These major news stories were so totally unexpected that someone would have had to be genuinely "psychic" to have predicted them! Given the sheer number of so-called "psychics" out there, one would expect that if even one of them were genuine, these things would have been correctly predicted; and since they were not, it suggests that all such claims of "psychic powers" are without foundation. Editor's note: For more information about the activities and publications of the Bay Area Skeptics, you can call their recorded message line at 510-LA TRUTH, or write Bay Area Skeptics, 4030 Moraga, San Francisco, CA 94122.
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We are in the process of creating a map for out-of-town visitors to the CSICOP convention, and we want it to include more than the usual tourist sites, hotels, restaurants, and unfathomable Dallas highways. We want to include those local attractions that would pique the interest of our widely divergent group of scientists, philosophers, and wise guys.
A few obvious sites come to mind, of course. For those interested in religion, there is the Biblical Arts Center. For those interested in theater, there is Word Of Faith. For those keen on regurgitation, there are the embarrassingly abundant Robert Tilton billboards. And on the subject of billboards, there is the Dianetics billboard on Central Expressway which urges you to dial them at 1800"For Truth" ... which is, to this day, the only eight-digit phone number I've ever seen. I guess if you've been dead for years and you're still writing best-sellers, then anything is possible.
Anyway, you get the idea. We have a lot of people coming in who share our interest in the occult and bizarre, and it would be great to offer them a list of local attractions and distractions. So if you have any suggestions, please put them in a card or letter and send them to me or Mike Sullivan (or call 214/492-8998 Ed.). We are planning to do a special CSICOP Convention issue of The Skeptic, and I'll try to include as many of your suggestions as I can in that issue's column. Let me hear from you.
Morales subpoenaed the records, and Tilton got a temporary restraining order, which bought him a few weeks. This is a pretty routine legal maneuver; all it did was give him until early March to come up with a good reason why he shouldn't have to show Morales his records. But Tilton trumpeted it to his congregation as if it were vindication from on high.
"Thank God for federal judges!" he roared to his flock on the Sunday morning following his temporary reprieve. Surely, this is the first time those words have ever passed the lips of a televangelist.
But the victory was short-lived: Tilton's own lawsuit against Morales' office resulted in him being ordered to appear in court and answer questions about his finances on February 22. At the time of this writing, no information about his depositions has been released, but Tilton did talk to reporters (yet another Tilton-related miracle!) after the meeting. He claimed that he had shown all his records to the FBI, and the Attorney General of Texas is nothing compared to the FBI. Since the state Attorney General is the official attorney of the people of Texas, it's nice to know just how deep is his contempt for us all.
Those of you who are wondering how this rubber-faced Don Knotts look-alike became such a power in the God biz should check out the February 6th issue of the Dallas Observer. It contains an engrossing and very well-researched history of Tilton's early days, before the poisonous ink from all those prayer requests forced him to have cosmetic surgery on his crow's feet (his logic, not mine).
The article covers Tilton's youth as a hell-raising, drug-using bully, his carefully doctored resume, the origins of his "prosperity theology," and Tilton's wholesale plagiarism of his early sermons from a series of cassettes by Oklahoma evangelist Kenneth Hagin.
Saddest of all, the writer speaks to some people who believed in Tilton at the beginning and who went out of their way to give him food, clothing, and shelter ... but who found themselves shut out when they turned to him for help years later. It also points out that Tilton is far from a Biblical scholar; in fact, as much as he wraps himself in the Bible, there is some reason to believe that he has never even read it all the way through.
During the past few weeks, The Dallas Morning News has also run stories on Tilton's early years and on his lawyer, J.C. Joyce, but the Observer piece is far more detailed and in every way, a superior piece of reporting. It's worth digging out of the library.
As long as we are on the unpleasant subject of Robert Tilton, I would like to recount an interesting conversation I had recently with a young man I met in a local print shop. He was handling some skeptic-related copying for me, and he volunteered the information that he was a Tilton fan ... not a follower, just a fan. He watches Tilton's show, "Success 'N' Life" for laughs, usually with a group of friends who play a game in which the viewers all have to take a drink of alcohol every time Tilton speaks in tongues. The last one still conscious wins.
I suggested that with Tilton on the TV, the first person who was unconscious was the true winner. We also noted that the initials of the show, "SNL," are the same as those of "Saturday Night Live," so perhaps it really is just a bad comedy sketch.
This led into a discussion of Tilton's followers. This young man stated flatly that anyone stupid enough to believe Robert Tilton could provide miracles deserved to lose his or her money.
I countered that there are many people who are not stupid, but are simply vulnerable. Purveyors of miracles generally prey on the elderly, the chronically ill, the bereaved, and the destitute people whose problems are so insurmountable that only a miracle can help. I have no desire to take away their hopes, and I pray that they receive their miracle. But when someone comes along and takes their last dime (Tilton has publicly encouraged viewers to empty out their savings accounts and send him the money), promising a miracle in return, then leaves them in worse straights than before, that sounds to me like a classic con game. There are laws against bunco artists, and when the scam is so big, so lucrative, and so utterly without conscience as this one, then those laws should definitely be enforced. I'm happy to say that my new young friend did see my point.
Just for good measure, I told him about Joseph "Yellow Kid" Weil, one of the all-time great con men, who invented some ingenious scams during the first half of this century. At the 1956 Estes Kefauver crime hearings, Weil said of con men like himself, "Our victims were mostly big industrialists and bankers. The oldtime confidence man had a saying: 'Never send them to the river.' We never picked on poor people or cleaned them out completely. Taking the life savings from poor old women is just the same as putting a revolver to her head and pressing the trigger."
Consider them side by side ... one of America's most infamous con men and one of its most famous "religious leaders." Now you tell me: which has the higher morals?
Still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Tilton maintains his hard-core following. In recent weeks, the papers have been filled with letters from his flock, condemning the investigators, crying that if Tilton is investigated, it can happen to any other church (I'm sure the Presbyterians are quaking with trepidation), and inevitably, comparing their man Bob to Jesus. Well, the only thing Robert Tilton has in common with Jesus is that he, too, got nailed.
Jesus staged a miraculous comeback. Let's hope Bob does not.
Apparently, that odd dichotomy lives on today. The Associated Press reports that Scotland Yard's detective-chief superintendent Eddie Ellison set out 18 months ago to discover whether police do indeed consult psychics, and whether they help. After a year, his findings were that "There were no cases of psychics either offering effective help or being invited to assist investigations." While psychics are allowed to volunteer information, it is "evaluated and followed up on in the normal way," and in all cases proved to be useless.
As might be expected, the psychics claim that this is not true. They say that they are constantly approached for help by lower level investigators who are just afraid to tell their superiors that they consult psychics. Gee, I wonder why they are such low level investigators? By chance, are any of them named "Lastrade?"
But just to prove that superstition and nonsense are not the sole province of lower levels of British authority, it was recently reported that the Duchess of York has consulted a Greek-born spiritual healer named Vasso, who relieved her back pain by letting her sit under a blue plastic pyramid and "soak up the energies." If her back did feel better afterward, it was perhaps because her purse was considerably lighter.
Still, this is nothing new to the Royal Family. Prince Charles is a big believer in alternative medicine. In fact, at the exact moment that the Vasso-pyramid story broke, Prince Charles was unavailable for comment because he was in India consulting a holistic healer.
Isn't it sad when cousins marry?
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The ads claim that "30 years of clinical research has proven that people of all ages and all prescription strengths may improve their sight by exercising their eyes!" We are told that "Your eyes need exercise or they lose their strength. The Aerobic Training Eyeglasses exercise and relax the eye muscles ... allow[ing] the eye muscles to relax, blood circulation to increase and eye strain and tension to be reduced." — all of this just by squinting through the dark plastic "lens" perforated by dozens of tiny pinholes!
More amazing, the ads go on to state that by performing the exercises outlined in the instructions and "wearing glasses or contacts that slightly undercorrect your visual needs, you can gradually reduce the correction in your glasses and possibly eliminate them altogether."
Claims like this drew the attention of the Greater Dallas—Ft. Worth Area Council Against Health Fraud, which issued a press release about the "Aerobic Training Eyeglasses" and similar pinhole specs on February 17. Los Angeles-based TV consumer advocate David Horowitz also investigated the claims made for the pinhole specs and found that his vision became worse while wearing the lenses.
Looking through a pinhole has the effect of increasing the depth-of-field for the viewer, much the same way a small-aperture setting on a camera lens brings near and distant objects into better focus. The downside to this approach is the great reduction in visual field and image brightness cause by the pinhole, making use of the glasses while driving or operating equipment extremely dangerous. Moreover, the glasses provide no protection when used as sunglasses and may be harmful if used as such.
Dr. Bruce E. Spivey, Executive Vice-President of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, stated that there is no data to support the claims made for the glasses, nor that eye exercises will reduce or eliminate the need for glasses.
Dr. Gorski goes on to state that the use of the word "Aerobic" for the lenses is a cynical attempt to cash in on the widespread knowledge of the benefits of cardiovascular physical exercise.
Horowitz purchased a pair of Laser Vision pinhole glasses for $43, then consulted with Dr. Walter Chase of the California College of Optometry. Dr. Chase pointed out that a person is nearsighted or farsighted because of the shape of their eyeball. "Looking through a hole in an opaque material isn't going to change the length of your eye," he said.
Our thanks to Dr. Gorski for his contribution in the preparation of this story. - Ed.
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North Central Tejas Chapter
American Society of Dowsers
5409 Farquhar Dr.
Dallas TX 75209
Dear Ms. Epstein:
I found The Dallas Morning News article on January 24, 1992 about you and your Society's recent convention in Dallas quite informative. The abilities claimed by dowsers in the article are truly incredible, Ms. Epstein, and The North Texas Skeptics are interested in seeing if you or any other dowsers can back up those claims with proof. We are willing to provide you with a public forum in which you can submit those claims to open inquiry.
The North Texas Skeptics is an all-volunteer, non-profit, tax-exempt scientific and educational organization dedicated to scientific inquiry and the examination of extraordinary claims. As part of our educational efforts, we present a series of free public programs on a variety of topics involving science and scientific inquiry. We would be delighted to have you or another of you members speak at one of our meetings. I'm sure our members and guests would welcome the chance to hear first-hand about your claimed dowsing skills or those of others. We have openings in our program calendar throughout 1992 for your presentations.
If you are not able to speak at one of our meetings, perhaps you would care to submit an article about your claimed skills and the evidence you have to support your claims. We would be happy to provide space for your article in our monthly newsletter, The Skeptic. I have enclosed a copy of a recent issue for your review.
You or one of your dowsing colleagues may also be interested in our $2,000 cash award. We have a standing offer to pay $2,000 cash to anyone who can prove a paranormal effect under scientifically controlled conditions, and we promise to publish the results of all such tests regardless of the outcome. If you or another dowser can prove the locating powers claimed in the newspaper article, the money will be yours, or you may wish to donate it to a charity of your choice. Please contact me if you are interested so I can forward complete details of our $2,000 challenge.
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
cc: NTS Board of Directors
Larry Powell, Columnist, The Dallas Morning News
Victoria Loe, Today Editor, The Dallas Morning News
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But ... I must decline.
You see ... I have been blessed with lots of money and a wonderful practice of hypnotherapy ... and I tithe to my favorite charities on a regular basis ... so I don't need your money to give to them. And ... I'm not at all competitive about the dowsing thing. It is not the least bit important to me that anyone else believe it. I believe it .. I know it ... It is a vital part of my life on a daily basis and is as real to me as breathing. I would never degrade my other senses by proving to your group that I can see, smell, hear, taste or feel ... and I wouldn't need to prove to you that I have a well-developed sense of energies that surround me.
So ... thanks for the invite. I will pass this letter on the national headquarters and they can re-print it in the quarterly if so deemed. There will probably be someone who will take you up on your offer ... someone with a different value system about dowsing than I have.
However ... if your club would one day like to have a lesson in dowsing so that they, too, can develop their gifts of the spirit ... I am an excellent teacher and am offering my time to you.
May the most joyous days of your past be the darkest days of your future.
5409 Farquhar Lane
Dallas, Texas 75209
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