NTS LogoSkeptical News for 29 September 2002

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Sunday, September 29, 2002

Religious madness (28/9/02)


Outside of those countries which have to suffer under religious rule it is rare these days to hear much talk about heresy, so it is an exceptional week when not only are two people publicly accused of heresy in Britain, but those two people are spiritual leaders of large faiths. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathon Sacks, and the Archbishop of Canterbury designate, Rowan Williams, are both being pursued by groups of fundamentalists. Rabbi Sacks' sin was to suggest that it is possible to learn something by talking to people from other religious groups. To thinking people, this is called "tolerance" and is taken for granted. It is ironic that Jews, of all people, should be unaware of the dangers of certainty and intolerance

2001 Awards


The Millenium Project Previous Years 1999 2000

Last year's winner could have won again. It is difficult to go past a site that uses a dying child to promote a fake cancer cure, and even more difficult when the site is still asking for money to help the poor boy six weeks after his death. In fact, at the time this is being written, the site does not even mention that Thomas Navarro is no longer alive, but it does mention how he is being treated by a quack. To be fair to everyone, however, sites can only win an Anus Maximus Award once.

The sites winning awards are ones that I remember and are not necessarily the worst sites here, because my brain and stomach could not take looking at and reading every one of the thousand sites again. Also, please note that "highly commended" is a prize-giving expression and does not mean either "highly recommended" or "highly commendable". Just the opposite, in fact.

Winners each receive a tube of haemorrhoid cream and a wire brush applicator. Prize recipients must come to where I live at their own expense to collect their prizes, which will be awarded (including the haemorrhoid cream application) at public ceremonies in a busy commercial district at lunchtime. I will arrange press and television coverage.

Award winners are invited to mention the award on their sites and to display the award graphics.

In Early Returns, Islamic Party Gets 10 Percent of Available Parliament Seats


Sep 28, 2002

By John Leicester
Associated Press Writer

RABAT, Morocco (AP) - An Islamic party that favors making women wear veils, banning alcohol and amputating thieves' hands more than doubled their number of seats in Morocco's parliamentary elections, according to preliminary government figures.

With 41 seats still available, the Justice and Development Party had 37 places in the 325-seat parliament, Interior Minister Driss Jettou said on Moroccan television Saturday. That more than doubled the 14 seats the Islamic group held in the previous parliament.

The socialists of Abderrahmane Youssoufi, prime minister in the last legislature, were leading with 44 seats, Jettou said. The conservative Istiqlal Party had 40. A center-right party also had 37 seats. Other parties divided up remaining places.

Jettou said the numbers were provisional and complete, and that official results were expected not expected until Sunday night.

The Interior Ministry blamed the delay on the large number of polling stations, new procedures aimed at curbing vote fraud and complex calculations being used to distribute seats on the basis of proportional representation.

Twenty-six parties covering the political spectrum contested Friday's election and none were expected to emerge with a majority. The official results were expected to be followed by a period of uncertainty as parties worked to piece together a coalition government.

The advances by the Islamic group, known as the PJD, appeared to confirm signs that Islamic sentiment is growing in this moderate Muslim-Arab country, particularly among the poor and unemployed and those angry at Western support of Israel and policies toward Iraq.

"I think we'll be among the foremost parties," said Abdel Aziz Rabbah, a PJD election spokesman. "We are reorganizing the field of politics."

Mustapha Ramid, a senior party leader, said the PJD would like Islamic sharia law - including cutting off thieves' hands - to be applied in Morocco.

"Long-term, we want sharia applied completely," he said.

Rabbah said the party also wants to ban alcohol, phase out the liquor industry and establish Islamic banks. He also said he found it "incredible" that some young Moroccan women wear revealing clothes.

"What we will impose are good morals, good traditions, good practices. We don't accept that a woman goes out almost naked on the streets, it's not normal," he said. "We want a law to forbid that, that says women and even men should wear things that do not attack morality. So we must impose the veil."

As for amputation, Rabbah said it only should be "a last resort" for otherwise incorrigible thieves "who have stolen billions and billions."

"These people, one way or another, need punishment that is a little severe. This severe punishment can be amputation or something else," he said. "We are not going to cut a small guy who can't find enough to eat."

In cities such as the capital, Rabat, it is difficult to imagine how the PJD's vision could become reality. Bars that serve Moroccan-brewed beer are packed late into the evening with Moroccan men.

Many young women wear Western fashions, including body-hugging pants and tops, even while others stick with traditional headscarves and baggy dresses or robes. Some Moroccans say they feel as if they have feet in two camps: Africa and Europe, just across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar separating Morocco from Spain.

The executive powers held by Morocco's king, Mohammed VI, also present another obstacle to any PJD effort to push for sharia. The king appoints the prime minister and controls key ministries: the interior, defense, religious affairs, justice and foreign affairs.

Ramid said the country is not ready for Islamic law yet and Moroccans would need educating before it could be applied.

AP-ES-09-28-02 2105EDT

Article on John Edward in SMH Saturday

Medium rare
By Jonathan Pearlman
September 27 2002

On his talk show Crossing Over with John Edward, which is now being broadcast on Channel 10, Edward claims to reunite people with loved ones who have "crossed over".

Edward, 32, from New York's Long Island, claims he first communicated with the dead when he was 15.

After graduating from college with a degree in Public Administration and Health Care Administration and a brief stint working in hospital management, he became a full time psychic medium.

He has sold more than half-a-million copies of his three books and has sold out his first show at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in January. His supporters include Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Bill Falk, who spent a month trying to debunk Edward but eventually had to reconsider. "I'd been a reporter for 20 years and dealt with a lot of trained liars: politicians, PR people, the like," Falk has said. "But it was the specificity of the information that I couldn't refute."

But Edward also has his detractors, who have attempted to explain his methods.

In the show, Edward transmits messages from dead friends and relatives of audience members who are invited to validate the messages. Sydney-based psychic medium Marlene Stoten is a keen admirer of Edward's show.

``He's speaks to people who have crossed over and gives comfort in saying to people that they're loved ones are OK,'' she said. ``He's great at what he does.''

Stoten claims to channel messages from a universal power rather than dead people, but believes her power of channelling messages is similar to Edward's powers:

``We see them and hear them and feel them. Everybody has the ability to do it but with some people it's a major power. This has been with me since I was a little child.''

``I get messages from spirit beings which have never been human - some people would call them angels or ascended masters. They tell me what people should do. Then I do readings that give advice to people on big decisions.'' Barry Williams, executive officer of Australian Skeptics, has also seen the show - and thinks its ``bloody awful.''

"It preys on vulnerable people who are grieving,'' said Williams.

"He tells people what they want to hear. In the right frame of mind, people will believe anything.

"John Edward's show does cold readings of an audience. He throws out some generalisations, gets some feeback from people and then gives it back to them. It's pretty crass - people have been doing that in America since the Spiritualists in the nineteenth century.''

Williams said mediums such as Edward provide people two forms of false hope:

"First, they offer people hope in an after life. Second, no matter what misunderstandings people have had with an uncle or a grandfather, the medium offers them freedom from any guilt for any wrongdoings."

The show's website explains:

"Since John does not know your friends and relatives, it's very important you give feedback. A simple nod of the head, a yes or no answer goes a long way in a reading. Please don't give more information than John asks for." The show's website provides some rules for participants to follow.

First, Edward cannot control who "comes through". He has read the cameraman and the soundman and somebody in the next room during rehearsals.

So, if you're not willing to be read, you are asked to give up your seat for someone "someone who's anxious for a reading".

The second rule - though it reads more like a caveat - is that there are no guarantees your loved one will come through:

"Have no expectations. You may REALLY want to connect with one specific relative...but there's a good chance they may not come through. Keep your mind open and welcome whoever comes through during the reading. We don't want you to be disappointed or broken-hearted if your chosen loved one doesn't come through. As John says, "Please don't put earthly expectations on a heavenly experience."

Cold Reading

Edward's critics claim he uses a trick of the psychic trade known as "cold reading", which involves posing questions and suggestions shaped by the subject's previous response.

An article about Edward by Joe Nickell on the website of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), states:

"The 'psychic' can obtain clues by observing dress and body language (noting expressions that indicate when one is on or off track), asking questions (which if correct will appear as 'hits' but otherwise will seem innocent queries), and inviting the subject to interpret the vague statements offered. For example, nearly anyone can respond to the mention of a common object (like a ring or watch) with a personal recollection that can seem to transform the mention into a hit."

The article lists some of the suggestions made by Edward during a television appearance on Larry King Live in 1998:

"I feel like there's a J- or G-sounding name attached to this."

"Linda or Lindy or Leslie; who's this L name?"

"Either Ellen or Helen, or Eleanore-it's like an Ellen-sounding name."

"Gone is the clear-speaking eloquence of yore," writes Nickell, "the dead now seem to mumble."

Hot Readings

Edward has also been accused of hot readings, which involve surreptitiously acquiring information on subjects which is then passed off during readings as a mystic revelation.

An article in Time Magazine in February, 2001, accused Edward of conducting a hot reading of New York marketing manager Michael O'Neill, who received communications through Edward from his dead grandfather.

According to the article, Edward "mystified everyone by dropping family names and facts he could not possibly have known". But O'Neill, after seeing the performance on television, became suspicious:

"Clips of [O'Neill] nodding yes had been spliced into the videotape after statements with which he remembers disagreeing. In addition, says O'Neill, most of Edward's "misses," both on him and other audience members, had been edited out of the final tape."

The article went on to say that O'Neill remembered before the show Edward's assistants had got people to fill out cards with family information before showing them to preassigned seats. Then the show was delayed for more than an hour because of "technical difficulties".

"And what did most of the audience - drawn by the prospect of communicating with their departed relatives--talk about during the delays? Those departed relatives, of course," stated the Time article. "These conversations, O'Neill suspects, may have been picked up by the microphones strategically placed around the auditorium and then passed on to the medium. (A spokesperson for Crossing Over would say only that Edward does not respond to criticism.)"

The claim that Edward is a hot reader was also made after a reading on NBC's Dateline program. During the program, Edward claimed: "They're telling me to acknowledge Anthony."

When the cameraman signalled that was his name, Edward asked: "That's you? Really?... Had you not seen Dad before he passed? Had you either been away or been distanced?"

But, writes Nickell, the reading was later exposed as a hot one: "Hours before the group reading, Tony had been the cameraman on another Edward shoot (recording him at his hobby, ballroom dancing). Significantly, the two men had chatted and Edward had obtained useful bits of information that he afterward pretended had come from the spirits.

Nickell records a follow-up interview between Edward and Dateline presenter John Hockenberry:

HOCKENBERRY: So were you aware that his dad had died before you did his reading?

Mr. EDWARD: I think he - I think earlier in the - in the day, he had said something.

HOCKENBERRY: It makes me feel like, you know, that that's fairly significant. I mean, you knew that he had a dead relative and you knew it was the dad.


HOCKENBERRY: So that's not some energy coming through, that's something you knew going in. You knew his name was Tony and you knew that his dad had died and you knew that he was in the room, right? That gets you . . .

Mr. EDWARD: That's a whole lot of thinking you got me doing, then. Like I said, I react to what's coming through, what I see, hear and feel. I interpret what I'm seeing hearing and feeling, and I define it. He raised his hand, it made sense for him. Great.

HOCKENBERRY: But a cynic would look at that and go, 'Hey,' you know, 'He knows it's the cameraman, he knows it's DATELINE. You know, wouldn't that be impressive if he can get the cameraman to cry?'

Mr. EDWARD: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Not at all

Selective editing

Critics also claim that Edward's TV show inflates his hits by selectively editing his performances. The show's website advises participants to "expect an all-day taping (at least 6 hours)" though each episodes lasts less than half-an-hour.

For a 2001 article in The New York Times Magazine, Chris Ballard attended a taping of the show. Ballard wrote that occasionally Edward said something "startlingly specific" such as a peculiar family nickname or a long-forgotten keepsake.

Ballard transcribed one such reading between Edward and an audience member:

Edward: "Is there a joke between them with the celery or something?"

Audience member: "It's onions."

Edward: "The chopping of it?"

Audience member: "No, they have a nickname in Italy. It means like a running onion."

Edward: "So if they show me the vegetable joke, you know what it means?"

Audience member nods, grinning.

But, Ballard wrote, Edward's statements "have a throw-it-all-against-the-wall-and- see-what-sticks flavor" and he hit "well below 50 per cent for the day." The edited version of the show included "only the onion woman and the second-best reading of the show."

See what you think. His show is tomorrow night on Channel Ten at 7.30.

Barry Williams


It's called "The Lifter" and 100s of hobbyists around the world build them for fun! It takes only a triangle frame of balsa sticks, wrapped in aluminum foil, add a jolt of electricity, and your UFO Lifter will rise off the table, defying gravity and laws of physics! NASA discovered the effect, but can't explain it.


Saturday, September 28, 2002

Skeptic Newssearch - 9/28/02


Woo Woo and You
New Times L.A.


"So when I walk into Lynn Rodden's Beachwood Canyon apartment -- oh, yeah, baby, I recognize that old woo-woo juju. See, long have I been a devotee of many things woo-woo. Which is to say I once dropped out of college to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, not more than three months after Shirley MacLaine wrote her best-selling woo classic, Out on a Limb. There, I dated a woman who wore eagle feathers in her hair and owned a crystal shop. I had my tarot cards read by Gypsies drunk on carrot juice. I did the full sweat-lodge, drum-circle tour. I spent a bad month eating crap food in an ashram in upstate New York. I moved to San Francisco and got up at dawn to sit zazen with the Buddhists monks. I mean, I have had my fair share of the woo-woo life."

Why Was the Dot-Com Boom So Bad, Again?
SF Weekly


"The phrase "arts and crafts" sends most artists into cold sweats, but not nearly as quickly as the phrase "data entry," which is why we responded recently to a Craigslist job posting for "arts and crafts production." A few days later, we are invited to a "group interview," and, all too aware of how hard jobs are to come by these days, enthusiastically agree to participate. We frantically search for something appropriate to wear. Alas, financial suffering has wreaked havoc on our wardrobe. Temping has worn our "corporate casual" options threadbare; what remains in interview-worthy condition, if perfect for Wall Street, is, we fear, way off the mark for -- oh, let's say -- some dank basement studio where they make spirit rocks."

Shooting down UFOs, stamping out Bigfoot
Rochester City Newspaper


"As Chairman of the Center for Inquiry in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, Paul Kurtz has a big job. His organization hunts down and attempts to annihilate fraudulent ideas. Last week, Kurtz shared his skeptical ideas about religious beliefs and other aspects of our culture. Our discussion continues with a look at some of the more absurd claims that have nevertheless gained a firm foothold in the public consciousness."

Panel Says Bell Labs Scientist Faked Discoveries
New York Times


"A series of extraordinary advances in physics claimed by scientists at Bell Labs relied on fraudulent data, a committee investigating the matter reported yesterday."

Fallen Christian puts faith in the law
By Kelly Burke
Sydney Morning Herald


"Loraine Daly arrived at church armed with her faith. But that faith proved to be misplaced when the spirit of the Lord entered her body and she hit the floor. And there was nobody there to save her."

Killed on 9/11, Fire Chaplain Becomes Larger Than Life
New York Times


"At the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery here, people come every day to stand before his gravestone and recite the prayer he wrote. Children, a street, a ferry and a federal law have been named for him. He has worked miracles, some say."

Flying Saucers Land at Ukrainian Web Site
By Brian Arengi
Moscow Times


"UFO's exist and they must be studied, according to Yury Korzhenevsky, the driving force behind the UFOs and Secret Projects web site."

Dowser looks for unmarked graves
By Mary Hopkin
Tri-City Herald


"Using two metal rods fashioned out of coat hangers, Glenn Brewer can find a water line buried 20 feet in the ground or a dead body, your choice."

Clinic Closes Due to Witchcraft
by Frederick Kiwanuka
New Vision [Kampala]


"A GOVERNMENT health unit in Nakasongola was last week closed over allegations of witchcraft."

ESPecially Unique Research off Campus
by Macy Parker
Duke University Chronicle


"Despite its proximity to Duke's Research Drive, the Rhine Research Center is conducting a slightly different type of research than what most Duke students are familiar with. The Rhine Center is one of the world's leading facilities for the study of parapsychology, or psi phenomena, which includes extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis. I got a chance earlier this week to visit the center and speak with some of the researchers there about psychics, telepathy and the new frontiers of psi-ence."

Reptilian queens, UFOs, a cancer cure — strange New Mexico case gets under way
By John Springer
Court TV


"In a case that will likely include testimony about aliens, UFOs and a smashed vial of blood, a New Mexico fashion designer faces a potential death sentence if convicted of murdering a woman whose body has never been found."

'Ethical' witches plan to gather in Greenbrier forest
By Mannix Porterfield
Beckley Register-Herald


"You won't find Bonijean Isaacs in a pointed hat and a flowing black gown, hovering over a bubbling cauldron deep inside a moonlit forest, armed with a bag of spells up her sleeve."

UFO meet opens Saturday
By Jon Gambrell
Cox News Service


"The 39th annual National UFO Conference lands Saturday in Warren County."

Hoax hoopla
U.S. News & World Report


Paranormally Yours: The Psychic Community in Durham
by Greg Veis
Duke University Chronicle


"With a gallon jug of cynicism, a wad of cash (psychic readings run about $40 a pop) and a handgun (for protection), I braved the Triangle's mean streets in search of her best psychics. To test each one of these soothsayer's "gift," I envisioned myself asking them obscure questions with very definitive answers, and watching with perverse delight as they tried to squirm to some toss-up of a conclusion."

'Media blows up rumors, irrationality, superstition'
Jakarta Post


"After a television aired a story last week about an unoccupied house in Pondok Indah, South Jakarta, which is rumored to be haunted, thousands of people visited the house, causing traffic jams in the area. The Jakarta Post spoke to several people to get their take on the matter."

Best Secret
Houston Press


"The legend is so old that some of the current students don't even know the sordid past of their school's basketball court. But we do. The High School for Performing and Visual Arts is located in the older section of the Montrose that used to be all houses. Legend has it that a couple lived there with their young daughter."

Lorenzo's oil finally proven to work
New Scientist


"The controversial do-it-yourself medicine that inspired the heart-rending movie Lorenzo's Oil has finally been proved to work. The new research ends years of uncertainty about the treatment and demolishes the claims of experts who repeatedly said it was a worthless quack remedy."

Villagers Lynch Suspected Witch, Torch Ten Houses
by Henry Nyarora
The Nation [Nairobi]


"A man was lynched and 10 houses burnt after villagers raided homes of suspected witches in Nyamira."

Dayak folk-healing yields to modern cures
by Erma S. Ranik
Jakarta Post


"The cold was gripping in Sikukng mountain range area, Jagoi Babang district, Bengkayang regency. The clock struck 11 -- a time when everyone in the village goes to bed."

Medium rare
By Jonathan Pearlman
Sydney Morning Herald


"On his talk show Crossing Over with John Edward, which is now being broadcast on Channel 10, Edward claims to reunite people with loved ones who have "crossed over"."

There's No Stopping Them
By Graham P. Collins
Scientific American


"Robert Sheckley's mischievous 1954 short story " The Laxian Key" centers on a wonderful device called a Free Producer, an artifact of Meldgen Old Science that the hapless Arnold buys for next to nothing at Joe's Interstellar Junkyard. The machine " grabs energy out of the air, out of space ... anywhere. You don't have to plug it in, fuel or service [it]. It runs indefinitely." The Old Scientists of planet Meldge would've had a hard time getting a U.S. patent on their Free Producer: it sounds a lot like a perpetual-motion machine, which is verboten by U.S. Patent and Trademark Office policy, not to mention the laws of thermodynamics."

Round in circles
by Rodney Chester
Queensland Courier-Mail


"IF THE "croppies" are right, there is a race of aliens who travel across the universe to communicate with the people of Earth, and the way they choose to leave their message is through crop circles that no one understands."

New York Post


"A respected Brooklyn judge is under round-the-clock armed guard after a jailbird tried to find a witch doctor to place a deadly voodoo hex on him, The Post has learned."

Bell Labs Fires Star Researcher
Associated Press


"A star researcher in electronics at Bell Labs has been fired after an outside review committee found he falsified experimental data."

The New Yorker


"In the mid-forties, on the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History, there stood the remains of a tyrannosaurus. Towering above hordes of awestruck kids, this pile of bones inspired two of the best-known careers in twentieth-century science—that of a writer and that of a researcher. The most impressive thing about these careers, though, was that they were both pursued by the same person: Stephen Jay Gould."

'You have to admit, it's kind of eerie'
by Sharon Dunn
National Post


"Maybe it's because there have been one too many amazing coincidences in my life, but something intrigues me about Nikki, psychic to the stars. Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Cher and Rod Stewart have all had readings by the attractive clairvoyant. So did Shirley MacLaine for that matter, but you know Shirley MacLaine. "Not just the stars," Nikki assures me. "I have a long list of clients on Bay Street, even CEOs." No, Nikki will not disclose who her heavy hitter clients are, and I can understand that. Would you really want to do business with someone who makes decisions based on Nikki's predictions? Actually, maybe you would, since she doesn't seem to have a bad track record."

NASA's incoming calls to public affairs are out of this world
By Chris Kridler

"When the phone rings at Kennedy Space Center's public affairs office, the caller might just communicate with aliens. Or have psychic powers. Or see UFOs."

New York Post

"Colleagues said he had magic hands and was on his way to the Nobel Prize."

Court Battle over Ted Williams' Body May Collapse
By Paula Nino


"The court battle waged by a daughter of Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams to remove her father's body from a cryonic freezing process begun by other family members may collapse because she is struggling to pay legal fees, her lawyer said on Wednesday."

Before the vote, a war of words
By David Burch
Marietta Daily Journal


"Emotions were heated on both sides of the debate at Thursday night's Cobb Board of Education meeting."

Amended evolution policy OK'd
By David Burch
Marietta Daily Journal Staff Writer


"The Cobb County Board of Education unanimously approved an amended policy Thursday allowing "disputed views" to be taught in local classrooms."

Ga. Board OKs Evolution Options
Associated Press


"School board members in this conservative Georgia school district said they don't see the harm in encouraging critical thinking about evolution, even if that means teaching creationism."

Cobb unanimously approves discussion of other theories
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


"The Cobb County school board approved a controversial policy Thursday that critics say will pressure science teachers to include faith-based pseudo-science when they discuss evolution in class."

Ga. school board OKs alternatives to evolution


"A suburban Atlanta school board Thursday night voted unanimously to allow teachers to introduce students to different views about the origins of life."

Cobb Schools Open Door on Evolution
By Joel Thomas


"The board of Georgia's second-largest school district voted Thursday night to give teachers permission to introduce students to varying views about the origin of life -- including creationism."

BOE race revives evolution debate
By Mary Clarkin
Hutchinson News


"Voters aligned with either side in the evolution debate should find a candidate of their liking in the State Board of Education's 7th District race."

Psychic may have `seen' Milly's killer
by Robin Turner
Wales Western Mail


"A WELSH psychic investigator has drawn a picture of the man she thinks murdered Amanda Dowler."

Hate crime charge filed in bar fight
by Bill Morlin
Spokane Spokesman-Review


"A former Aryan Nations member who was at the center of a landmark assault case in North Idaho now faces a state hate-crime charge stemming from a Spokane Valley incident."

Ex-guard for Aryan Nations charged with hate crime
by John K. Wiley
Associated Press


"A former Aryan Nations security guard who was at the center of an assault trial that led to the bankruptcy of the neo-Nazi group has been charged with a hate crime in Washington state."

Woman guru offers message of love
Chicago Tribune


"The teacher made her entry in pearls and a white silk sari before a spellbound crowd."

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Shroud of Turin Update

From: Scott Peterson

Restoration work carried out in secret on the Shroud of Turin during the summer has set off heated debate between the custodian of what many consider Christianity's most sacred relic and scientists studying its authenticity.

Cardinal Severino Poletto said at a news conference in Turin that experts had "rejuvenated" the shroud, which is preserved in a bulletproof aluminum and crystal casket in the city's Cathedral of St. John.

"I believe they were well intentioned. I also believe that they made a terrible mistake," William Meacham, a University of Hong Kong archeologist, said at another news conference in Rome.

Many Christians revere the 17-foot-long linen sheet, which bears an outline that resembles a photographic negative of the body and face of a bearded man. Those who believe the shroud is authentic say it is the winding-sheet in which Jesus was wrapped after his crucifixion. Two million people filed past the shroud in 2000 when it was last put on public display.

During 40 days of work completed on July 25, experts removed patches that Clarisse nuns sewed on the cloth after it was damaged in a fire in the French Cathedral of Chambery in 1532. They replaced its backing of holland fabric, also dating to the 16th century, and vacuumed up particles of pollen, burnt cloth and other impurities.

"Nothing has been lost," Cardinal Poletto said, "because everything that was removed--particles and threads--was cataloged and conserved. It will be an object of study."

In addition, he said, when the holland was removed, both sides of the shroud were scanned digitally for the first time, measurements and other observations were painstakingly recorded and photographs were taken at each step of the work.

The Rev. Giuseppe Ghiberti, president of the conservation commission, said experts had been recommending since 1969 that the holland, a stiff cloth sometimes used in book binding, be replaced to help preserve the cloth. The old fabric will be displayed in a museum.

But Meacham, who has studied the shroud since 1981, called the work "radical and invasive" and said it was begun without sufficient consultation. He said the removal of particles will seriously hamper scientific investigation.

"There was no urgent threat to the shroud," he said. "Most conservators would have recommended doing nothing at all, especially avoiding excessive handling, stitching, unstitching and exposure to light."

The Rev. Heinrich Pfeiffer, a Jesuit professor of early Christian art at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, also questioned the need for the work.

"I have never heard that carbonized particles could damage the healthy parts of a fabric after a fire put out centuries ago," Pfeiffer said.

In other church news,

Mother Teresa reportedly passed her first major milestone on the road to sainthood in record time this week when the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved her "heroic virtues."

The Italian news agency ANSA said the congregation will meet again Oct. 1 to consider a miraculous cure attributed to her intervention. Proof of a miracle would qualify her for beatification, the step just before sainthood.

If the Vatican continues to act with the unusual speed it has displayed so far, the way would be clear for Pope John Paul II to declare Mother Teresa blessed early next year.

The congregation based its action Tuesday on 5,000 pages of documentation on Mother Teresa's life collected in five volumes. The information before the cardinals and bishops summarized testimony from 113 witnesses and documents collected by 15 investigators in 80 volumes totaling 35,000 pages.

Mother Teresa's cause got a head start when the pope waived the five-year waiting period normally required between a death and the opening of a process toward sainthood. The Vatican announced his action on March 1, 1999, less than 18 months after her death on Sept. 5, 1997, at age 87.

The miracle attributed to Mother Teresa is the healing of an Indian woman who suffered from an abdominal tumor.

If it is given final approval by the pope, Mother Teresa's name could be included in the Vatican's proclamation just before Christmas of candidates approved for canonization.

A second miracle occurring after beatification is required for canonization.

Scott Peterson

Friday, September 27, 2002

Haunting Mockumentary Reaches New Lows

Review for the Council for Media Integrity (CMI)

Tom Flynn

A Haunting in Georgia, 2-hour "special documentary." Produced by New Dominion Pictures, executive producer Tom Naughton. Viewed on Discovery Channel, Sunday September 23, 9:00 - 11:00 p.m. Eastern. Will be rebroadcast frequently.

With A Haunting in Georgia, the docudrama/mockumentary* genre reaches new lows, both in its credulous treatment of the paranormal and in the way it further muddles the already-murky truth standards of the re-enactment documentary form.

The story. An Ellersie, Ga., family claims to be undergoing extended hauntings at their home. At age three, Heidi Wyrick met a stranger she called "Mr. Gordy," who became her constant companion. No one else could see him; the family took years to decide that Mr. Gordy was more than Heidi's imaginary friend. At six and a half, Heidi awoke with apparent claw marks on her cheek. A year later her father Andy woke up with similar gashes on his torso. Meanwhile the visions continued: not just Mr. Gordy, but a man with a severed hand and a shadowy figure with a hooded face. Mr. Gordy and the one-handed man were discovered to be long-dead past residents of the area: how could Heidi have known anything about them? Unsolved Mysteries did a piece on the Wyricks in 1994. Heidi's sixteen now, and the visions are still coming. Her younger sister and her mother, Lisa, sometimes see things too. Amazingly, the family never moved. Instead they went to parapsychologist William Roll, who chalked up the apparitions to "place memories" triggered by positive ions produced by a nearby earthquake fault. The makers present this as a "scientific" explanation! Dissatisfied with Roll's counsel, the family consulted psychic Amy Allen, who detected several spirits, one of them evil, another a "protector." Finally, after almost a decade of manifestations, the Bible-believing Wyricks thought to involve their church, undergoing a bargain basement exorcism while New Dominion's cameras rolled.

A Haunting in Georgia purports to tell the Wyricks' story as a two-hour mockumentary. New Dominion crews spent fifteen days filming the family and picking up background shots. Like the same producers' Discovery series The New Detectives and The FBI Files, Haunting relies heavily on fictionalized re-enactments. Purists decried the technique when shows like Unsolved Mysteries pioneered it, but it's become depressingly standard today. As New Dominion's police procedurals show, historical accuracy (which, admittedly, can get expensive) is a low priority: The FBI Files famously re-creates crime investigations from the 1970s in which agents have 17" Gateway monitors on their desks, use cell phones, and drive Dodge Intrepids. Still, the form retains a rule or two, especially this one: give viewers enough clues to know when they're viewing a re-enactment and when they're viewing the real participants. On The FBI Files, the fully-dramatized cinematic segments are clearly re-enactments with actors, while present-day commentaries by actual participants are shot news-style, with superimposed titles identifying their talking heads. (Usually you can't persuade the actual participants to stoop so low as to re-enact themselves.) Episodes usually close with mug shots of the actual offenders, whom viewers can compare to the actors who portrayed them.

That's the last vestige of cinematic veracity that still adheres to the making of made-for-cable documentaries, and A Haunting in Georgia throws it in the compost heap. The entire program was shot in a uniform fictionalized cinematic style, with actual participants and re-enactors mixed so wantonly that you can't tell them apart without a scorecard. Unfortunately, this being a cable show, the scorecard (the end titles) flashed by too fast to read. But there were a couple of screenfuls of credited re-enactors - this despite the fact that most Wyrick family members played themselves. Most footage was apparently shot at the actual Wyrick home where the manifestations allegedly took place. And that's part of the problem - with the Wyricks re-enacting their alleged experiences of ten years ago, seven years ago, and a couple of months ago, and all of it shot in a uniform style, it's impossible to guess where reality lets off and the fictionalizing begins. Obviously little Heidi at age three and age six had to be played by child actresses. But the others? Was it the real William Roll or an actor? The real psychic, or an impersonator? There's no way to tell. The talking heads and the re-enactors are the same people, and no one gets an identifying super that would say, "Okay, viewers, this is the real Amy Allen."

With this departure from established mockumentary technique, viewers lose their last platform, however rickety, from which to tease perhaps more-reliable participants' claims from the less plausible re-enactments. Ironically, it may serve to degrade the program's verisimilitude. Viewing A Haunting in Georgia without any advance research, I assumed that everyone on-screen was a re-enactor. Only after some Web research did I learn that the makers had shot so much footage at the Wyrick home with the real Wyricks. And only then did I begin to consider that it might have been the real William Roll, the real Amy Allen, and so on. Haunting's makers have actually managed to underplay the most unique aspect of their production, its unusually lavish access to actual settings and participants.

I don't think the folks at New Dominion mind. It's pretty clear that they hunger to move out of the documentary "ghetto" and into something more filmic. Haunting feels less like a re-enactment documentary than a TV-movie with heavy voice-overs - a cross between Blair Witch Project told in the third person and The Amityville Horror on an even lower effects budget.

Sadly, another casualty of this final step beyond documentary form is that the makers felt no obligation to include critical comments by skeptics. In Haunting's two solid hours, the broad assumption that hauntings happen is never challenged. The narrator intones breathtaking claims like "Science has proven that strong geomagnetic fields are associated with ghosts"** without a questioning rebuttal, or even a backward glance.

Whatever one may think of the Wyrick family, average viewers can't help but come away with the impression that ghost-hunting of the Hanz Holzer magnetometer-held-high school has a solid scientific basis. And oh yeah, psychics work too.

Haunting passes faster if you keep a mental catalogue of the numerous anachronisms and continuity flubs. Mother Lisa Wyrick doesn't age a day -no effort was made to change her appearance or wardrobe for the scenes set when daughter Heidi was a child. Then again, maybe Lisa stays youthful because she's so thrifty - the camera keeps poking into the parents' bedroom: Lisa's worn the same plaid nightshirt for almost a decade. Maybe that's what drew her to Dr. Roll, who visited Heidi as a child and returned years later, still wearing exactly the same late-1990s sportcoat, dark-colored shirt, and tie.

Despite its ludicrous aspects, A Haunting in Georgia merits skeptics' serious concern - and the attention of anyone who cares about the documentary form's power to transmit genuine knowledge (or harmful misinformation). Haunting presents highly questionable paranormal claims as fact, and does so in a "newish" way that will discourage many viewers from expecting any skeptical rejoinder, or from finding its absence remarkable. By eroding the already-porous boundaries of documentary technique, Haunting undercuts the last stylistic clues most viewers can rely on to estimate the possible veracity of any given shot or sequence.

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry and director of Inquiry Media Productions. He authored the article on "Photography as It Applies to the Paranormal" in Gordon Stein's Encyclopedia of the Paranormal.


* For terminological clarity, docudrama means a program shot in an entirely fictionalized cinematic style, but which purports to tell the story of real events. Mockumentary means a program shot in a faux documentary style which uses latter-day re-enactments to supply narrative material for which actual historic footage is unavailable or would be impossible to obtain.

** Not an exact quote, I'm working from memory but trying to convey the sense of several bald statements that claim clear scientific support for extremely dubious statements about paranormal or fringe phenomena.

The Council for Media Integrity is an educational outreach and advocacy program of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). It was founded in the summer of 1996 at the first World Skeptics Congress, held at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The Council is comprised of a network of distinguished international scientists, academics, and members of the media concerned with the balanced portrayal of science in the media. Members of the Council include E.O. Wilson, Martin Gardner, and Sir John Maddox.

Science In the News

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Today's Headlines – September 26, 2002

from The New York Times

A series of extraordinary advances in physics claimed by scientists at Bell Labs relied on fraudulent data, a committee investigating the matter reported yesterday.

The findings, in effect, dismiss as fiction results from 17 papers that had been promoted as major breakthroughs in physics, including claims last fall that Bell Labs had created molecular-scale transistors.

The committee concluded that data in the disputed research, published between 1998 and 2001, had been improperly manipulated, even fabricated, confirming suspicions raised by outside scientists in May. The committee placed the blame for the deceit on one Bell Labs scientist, Dr. J. Hendrik Schön.

"He committed scientific misconduct," said Dr. Malcolm R. Beasley, a professor of applied physics at Stanford University who headed the committee. "Nobody else did."


from The Washington Post

Almost 14 months after President Bush first allowed federal funding of human embryo cell research, U.S. scientists remain frustrated by a lack of access to the controversial cells, researchers told a Senate subcommittee yesterday.

The number of laboratories making the cells available to scientists has begun to increase, senators were told. And a handful of labs have now received grants from the National Institutes of Health to help them scale up production and distribution of the medically promising cells.

Nonetheless, scientists said, the restrictive nature of the Bush policy, patent conflicts and the technical difficulty of keeping the fragile cells alive have conspired to stifle research in what they had hoped would be, by now, a highly energized research field.

"Embryonic stem cell research is crawling like a caterpillar," said Curt I. Civin, a pediatric oncologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The cells, Civin said, are accessible "only to those persistent and patient enough to jump through a series of hoops and endure lengthy waits. I am still waiting to receive my first stem cell line."


from The Chicago Tribune

MARIETTA, Ga. -- Barred by the courts from promoting religion-based curricula in public schools, creationists have adopted a more scientific approach to challenge the teaching of the theory of evolution to students. They have recruited intellectuals to challenge the Darwinian theory, forced disclaimers onto science textbooks and lobbied for equal time in classroom discussions on the origins of life.

More than 75 years after the infamous "Monkey Trial," in which John Scopes was tried for teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school, the theory of evolution is still being challenged across America. In the last three years, controversial attempts to introduce in schools some form of creationism--traditionally a religious doctrine based on the book of Genesis in the Bible--have been made in Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Kentucky.

The latest effort is taking place in a conservative suburb of Atlanta, where the Cobb County School Board is scheduled to vote Thursday on a policy that would allow science teachers to introduce "disputed views" on how life began. Last fall, the board approved placing stickers in middle school and high school science textbooks that tell students evolution is a theory, not a fact. The disclaimers are being challenged in court.

In Ohio, school officials also are embroiled in a debate over whether teaching evolution theory--that life developed from simple forms into complex entities--in effect censors other theories. The state Board of Education is considering a more sophisticated alternative to teaching evolution, called intelligent design, which embraces some aspects of evolution but disputes Charles Darwin's idea of natural selection, which he suggests drove evolution.


from The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - An experimental device that acts like a miniature drill and vacuum cleaner partially broke up clogs inside diseased heart arteries and sucked out the debris, letting doctors conduct angioplasties that were a little safer for their patients, researchers announced Tuesday.

Angioplasties restore blood flow through clogged arteries with a balloon- tipped catheter threaded inside the blood vessel and inflated to push back blockages. More than 1 million angioplasties are performed each year in this country alone.

They carry a risk: Clogs usually are a mix of soft and hard plaque, and while balloons push aside the hard stuff, they can break up the softer plaque so that it floats downstream and lodges in another blood vessel to cause a heart attack.

Doctors have long explored different ways to filter out that debris, a technique called thrombectomy.


from The Christian Science Monitor

Call it global warming's dirty little secret. Those much-publicized scenarios of how carbon-dioxide (CO2) pollution may gradually heat up the earth don't tell you another key fact: that climate has sometimes changed without warning. It can go from warm to cold – or cold to warm – in less than decade, and stay that way for centuries.

Water-circulation data from the North Atlantic now suggest the climate system may be approaching that kind of threshold. If man-made warming or natural causes push it over the edge, the system will chill down many temperate parts of North America and Europe, even while the planet as a whole continues to warm.

Terrence Joyce, chairman of the physical-oceanography department at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is one of a handful of scientists trying to raise awareness about this possibility. He says he is "not predicting an imminent climate change – only that once it started (and it is getting more likely) it could occur within 10 years."

Mr. Joyce explains that many of the computer simulations of climate change "never predict any abrupt transition." But, he says, such an event could occur. "Abrupt climate change has been a part of our history," he says.


from The Christian Science Monitor

Gaze at the moon through a telescope and you will remark on how sharp the lens is. Look at Saturn, and you will forget the telescope altogether, too in awe of the glowing halo girdling the planet.

For me, astronomy began when I saw Saturn through my wife's 8-inch Dobsonsian reflector.

Prior to Galileo, Saturn was the most distant planet humans could see. Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, were invisible to the unaided eye. In 1610, the Tuscan inventor recorded seeing some "bumps," a bulge around the middle of the planet. But his instrument's resolution was not powerful enough to distinguish the rings.

The Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens, with a more powerful telescope than Galileo, first saw the rings in 1659. Fascination with Saturn has not ceased since.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

To Andrei Linde, the eminent Moscow-born cosmologist at Stanford University, the end of the universe is nigh.

In a startling new set of calculations, Linde and his physicist wife have just proposed that the entire universe, born in the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago, will collapse and end with a Big Crunch in the next 10 billion years or so.

And when the final collapse comes, even a single proton -- the heart of a hydrogen atom -- would be too big to contain the dead remains, Linde maintains.

Linde and his wife are among a worldwide band of physicists and astronomers who are trying to puzzle out the complexities of the cosmos from clues hidden in distant exploding stars, in the echoes of the universe's earliest instants, and in the tangled equations of relativity and space-time.


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The bull fighter
Rochester City Newspaper Part 1


"Last week, on the anniversary of September 11, religious organizations all over the United States commemorated the events of last year with prayer services. But in a modern building in a suburb of Buffalo, a small group gathered for a secular commemoration."

SEPTEMBER 25, 2002
Shooting down UFOs, stamping out Bigfoot
Part 2 By Ron Netsky


As Chairman of the Center for Inquiry in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, Paul Kurtz has a big job. His organization hunts down and attempts to annihilate fraudulent ideas. Last week, Kurtz shared his skeptical ideas about religious beliefs and other aspects of our culture. Our discussion continues with a look at some of the more absurd claims that have nevertheless gained a firm foothold in the public consciousness.

Christian networks trying to snuff out public radio
By Blaine Harden


"The Rev. Don Wildmon, founding chairman of a mushrooming network of Christian radio stations, does not like National Public Radio."

No Charges Filed Against Aldrin
Associated Press


"No charges will be filed against Buzz Aldrin for allegedly punching a man who called him a liar and demanded that the former astronaut swear on the Bible that he'd been to the moon."

Top scientists rip Cobb evolution disclaimer
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


"One of the most prestigious science organizations in the nation urged the Cobb County school board Wednesday to drop its effort to encourage discussion of disputed views of evolution, which could include versions of creationism, in science classes."

Cell phone-cancer link not proven


"A review of cell phone studies commissioned by the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority has found no bconsistent evidence of a risk of cancer from usage, the agency said."

Magnetic mattress pads are a fraud, lawsuit claims
By Edgar Sanchez
Sacramento Bee


"A seminar on the purported health benefits of magnetic mattress pads drew 20 senior citizens, including a widow named Del M."

'Sorcerer' killed in Mexico


"Officials in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas say at least four indigenous people were killed and five injured when a group of men attacked a house in the town of Chamula."

Carcass thought to be basking shark
By Brian Medel
Halifax Herald Limited


"The discovery late Monday of an unusual-looking carcass, some six to seven metres long, on a rock beach in Annapolis County has residents talking."

Bigfoot's toehold on region up for debate at conference
By Carl Prine


"He stinks."

"Of Moths and Men" by Judith Hooper
Review by Alison Motluk


"Almost everyone is familiar with the magnificent story of the peppered moth. In the second half of the 19th century, lepidopterists in Britain began noticing that a dark version of a well-known pale speckled moth, Biston betularia, started appearing in great numbers in the industrialized regions. The more polluted the area, the more they seemed to thrive. Soon, they outnumbered their pale cousins, and Darwinists, eager for a real-life example of evolution at work, suggested the color change might be due to "natural selection.""

Doctors create out-of-body sensations
BBC News

"Doctors say they have triggered out-of-body experiences in a female patient by stimulating her brain."

Area 51, truth seekers 0
By Alex Johnson


"For more than four decades, an unusual alliance of mainstream lawyers, conspiracy theorists and UFO enthusiasts has tried to find out just what is going on at Groom Lake, Nev. b the top-security Air Force facility better known to fans of The X-Files as Area 51. Now they will have to wait at least another year after President Bush reissued an executive order Wednesday barring the disclosure of any information about the site."

Would you choose to be frozen after death?
BBC News


"One lucky New Scientist reader will win the chance to have their body frozen after death in the hope of being brought back to life in the future."

Indian police crack down on fake holy men
By Jayashree Lengade


"In tradition-bound India, if someone claims to be able to exorcise ghosts, levitate or pull a gold chain out of thin air, it does not take long for him to become known as a "godman"."

Religious Group Seeks To Raise Girl From Dead
Associated Press


"Members of a Tennessee religious group were hoping for a miracle at a teenage member's funeral."

Vatican scientists accused of destroying Turin Shroud
By Bridget Morris
Glasgow Sunday Herald


"MICROSCOPIC particles that could have proved whether or not the Shroud of Turin could be dated to around the time of the death of Christ have been destroyed by Vatican scientists."

Mushroom are sign from below
By George Rowand
Fauquier Times-Democrat


""It's been a curiosity," Eustace said, pointing to a seemingly endless number of perfectly circular markings on his land. "It looked like the fleet had landed.""

Couple Defend Selves in Girl's Death
Associated Press


"A couple charged with killing their adopted daughter by forcing her to drink large amounts of water said Wednesday they were treating her "severe problems of sneaking and lying" with rules to promote family bonding."

"Strange Matters" by Tom Siegfried
Review By Thomas Wilson


"In the fourth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Democritus postulated the existence of atoms, indivisible particles of matter that formed the basis of all reality. Although none of his writings have survived, many of his views were taken up and refined by Epicurus and his followers.

Ancient atomic theory reached its zenith in Rome shortly before the birth of Christ, when Lucretius published his magnum opus, "De rerum natura "("On the Nature of Things"), possibly the only epic poem about theoretical physics. Two millennia later, some of the 20th century's greatest scientific minds, including a young Albert Einstein, finally succeeded in conclusively establishing the existence of atoms. Of course, the particles turned out to be rather different from Democritus' conception, but the episode remains one of the most remarkable stories in the history of ideas."

9-1-1 Numerology
St. Petersburg Times


"When the winning number in the New York Lottery came up 911 on 9/11, statisticians assured us it was a coincidence. A 1-in-1,000 chance, they said. Not bizarre. Just random."

Beware the Coconuts
By Buck Wolf


"They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright Brothers. And they laughed at Kligerman who eventually laughed all the way to the bank."

For More Stories Vist:


Thursday, September 26, 2002

Temples Packed to See 'Miracle' Statues

September 23, 2002 10:01 AM ET

AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) - Thousands of Hindu devotees flocked to temples in western India after rumors spread of water flowing from holy phallic symbols believed to represent the Hindu god of destruction, police said Monday.

Police across Gujarat state struggled to keep order as crowds jostled to get a glimpse of a "Shiva Linga," worshipped by Hindus as a symbol of the Hindu god Lord Shiva.

"Everyone was rushing to the nearest Shiva temple. But I couldn't see a thing except that I sprained my neck," said Prakash Dave, a resident of Gujarat's largest city Ahmedabad.

Some devotees said they had also heard about the appearance of the Hindu symbol "Om," meaning "cosmic force," on top of carved, stone linga statues.

A senior police official in Ahmedabad said the whole thing was "pure mass hysteria." The rush to see the statues began late Sunday but appeared to have died down Monday, police said.

Hindus make up nearly 90 percent of Gujarat's 50 million people. The state was racked earlier this year by Hindu-Muslim violence in which more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.

Dan Clore

Now available: The Unspeakable and Others

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Jodi Dean, who teaches political science at Hobart and William Smith colleges, thinks our culture may be slightly paranoid on the topic of aliens.

"The X-Files capitalizes on and contributes to pop-cultural preoccupation with aliens. Although Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate a variety of paranormal cases for the FBI, the series' underlying theme is the governmental conspiracy surrounding the alien presence. With story lines compiled from cases in UFO literature, The X-Files hints at varying levels of explanation, complicity, disinformation, and intrigue as Mulder searches for 'the truth.' Scully and Mulder have discovered what appear to be alien bodies, submerged saucers, and miles of underground files on genetic experimentation. Scully has been abducted and Mulder attacked by aliens. Yet they always lack 'hard evidence'; they never quite reach 'the truth.' A poster in Mulder's office says, 'I want to believe.'

"The alien dares us to take a stand, to hold a position, to accept or reject it. Confrontation with a story of flying saucers or alien abduction pushes us to one side or another: Is it real? Do we believe? The alien seduces us into a critical reassessment of our criteria for truth: How do we determine what real is? Why do we believe? The claim to truth and its challenge to our practices for establishing it are what enable the alien to function as an icon of postmodern anxieties. Because its appeals to evidence incorporate scientific and juridical criteria, the alien works as an icon that allows us to link into embedded fears of invasion, violation, mutation. It uses the language of reality to contest our taken-for-granted experience of reality. The alien marks the radical strangeness and unknowability increasingly part of contemporary life. It serves as the ubiquitous reminder of uncertainty, doubt, suspicion, of the fugitivity of truth. We live with the alien while never knowing it.

"Intrinsic to this challenge to truth, however, is its confirmation: the truth is out there, after all. Or, as a participant at the 1992 MIT abduction conference observed about the lack of conclusive proof of UFOs, 'the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.' By reinscribing the promise of truth, the alien reassures us that everything is not up for grabs, although anything could be. Some things are certain. We just don't know what they are."

See Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace

Magicians' deceit put to public poll


Wellcome Trust funds research into psychology of magic.
25 September 2002


Is this man telling the truth? Your vote could help psychologists understand what makes a successful liar.

Magicians are practised at pulling the wool over our eyes during shows. Now psychologist and Magic Circle member Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, UK, is trying to find out what makes them masters of deception.

Wiseman and colleague Peter Lamont of Edinburgh University travelled to the home of magic, Las Vegas. They tracked down 'mentalist' Max Maven, a performer renowned for his verbal skills and improvization. They shot two videos of Maven talking about his life, one in which he is honest, the other in which he lies.

You can vote on which video you think is truthful here. Wiseman will ask delegates attending this week's sciart Symposium and the Science on Stage and Screen Symposium in Liverpool, UK, to do the same. Last year Wiseman used a similar web-poll to find the 'funniest joke in the world'.

"I'll be really interested to see the results," says mind-reader Ian Rowland of London, UK. Rowland writes and lectures on the physical and verbal techniques mentalists, mind-readers and psychic entertainers use to manipulate and deceive.

Although the experiment is small, Wiseman hopes the results might help police, customs officers or financial negotiators to detect liars. He trains people to pick up clues in body language, speech and stammers that might reveal deceit.

Wiseman and Lamont's study is part of a year-long project exploring the relationship between magic and science, funded by a £10,000 Wellcome Trust grant. They also plan to use eye-tracking equipment to investigate how magicians control audience attention.

Psychology turns tricks

Wiseman and Lamont hope psychologists can also help conjurors. The pair has developed a new trick to be presented at this week's symposium.

The scam is based on the phenomenon that people are blind to obvious changes in their surroundings. At a doctor's surgery, for example, patients who have been filling in a form are often oblivious if the receptionist ducks down behind the desk to file it - and a different person pops back up.

In the new trick, a magician holds a pack of playing cards face down and turns them over one by one. The observer has to count the number of red suits that appear. After nine cards, they are asked 'what colour are the card backs?'

Blue, people invariably say - but turning them over reveals red. Only the first two cards had blue backs and the pack then blatantly switched to red, a fact that goes unobserved by those concentrating on the faces. Several magicians have already been fooled, claims Lamont - the ultimate test of a trick.

But Rowland maintains that magicians are several steps ahead of science - thanks to several thousand years worth of secret knowledge available only to members of the Magic Circle. "We probably knew the underlying principle for a long time before the psychologists," he says. "Any experienced magician could go head-to-head with a cognitive psychologist and wipe the floor with them."

© Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2002

Turin Shroud may be genuine after all


By Uwe Siemon-Netto
UPI Religion Correspondent
From the Life & Mind Desk
Published 9/24/2002 2:42 PM

GURAT, France, Sept. 24 (UPI) -- The Turin Shroud bearing the features of a crucified man may well be the cloth that enveloped the body of Christ, a renowned textile historian told United Press International Tuesday. Disputing inconclusive carbon-dating tests suggesting the shroud hailed from medieval times, Swiss specialist Mechthild Flury-Lemberg said it could be almost 2,000 years old.

Perhaps even more important is what Flury-Lemberg saw when she examined the back of the shroud -- the first researcher ever to do so. While it bore bloodstains, there were no mysterious marks comparable to those on the front of the cloth.

These marks show an amazingly detailed picture of a bearded man who had been beaten about the body, crowned with thorns and pierced with nails through the wrists and the feet. On the side of the body's outline there appeared to be an image of a wound, which was perhaps the one caused by a Roman soldier's spear when he tried to find out if the crucified Jesus was alive or dead (John 19:34). It was to this fist-sized wound the resurrected Jesus guided the apostle Thomas' fingers, whereupon this doubting disciple explained, "My Lord, my God!" (John 20:28).

Flury-Lemberg, a Hamburg-born scholar now living in Berne, Switzerland, did preservation work on the shroud this summer. She said the outline of the body looked somewhat like burn marks, but only in the top 2 millimeters of the cloth.

Some theologians believe this may have occurred as Christ's body exited the shroud during his resurrection. Flury-Lemberg was quick to point out, though, this could never be scientifically proven. The same applied to the question if the tortured and crucified man buried in the shroud was Jesus.

Flury-Lemberg investigated the cloth this summer as she separated it in from the Dutch linen cloistered nuns in Chambéry in Savoy had sewn it to after a fire in 1534. She explained the linen's progressing oxidization had been endangering the shroud. As she separated the two textiles, she removed "spoonfuls of soot."

She cleaned the shroud before it was sewn to a new cloth. Pollen analysis and the shroud's measurements suggested it originated in the Middle East and not in medieval Europe. Flury-Lemberg described its quality as "stunningly noble, with an almost invisible seam." She related she discovered identical forms of weaving and high-quality sewing on textiles found at Masada, the ancient fortress in southeastern Israel. They hailed from the year 73 AD.

According to the Berne scholar, other first-century cloths found in the Red Sea region showed weaving patterns similar to those of the Turin Shroud. "All these things are mosaics that don't prove anything scientifically," she insisted.

"However, this cloth left a radiant expression on me," Flury-Lemberg told UPI. She made it clear she was not a Roman Catholic but a Lutheran, "but this shroud is not just a Catholic relic but a treasure of all Christendom." She said regardless of this impression, she has had to work on the Shroud dispassionately "like a surgeon operating on his own wife." Flury-Lemberg questioned the relevance of findings by other researchers who discovered pollen and dust traceable to the Middle Ages on the cloth. "Of course it had such particles on it," she said, "after all, the Shroud was exhibited a great deal in those days."

Historian Karlheinz Dietz of Wuerzburg University in Germany shares Flury-Lemberg's doubts of the 1988 carbon-dating results claiming that the cloth was made between 1260 and 1290.

In an interview with the Germany daily, Die Welt, he stated, "If you believe that the cloth hails from the Middle Ages then you must also believe that a man looking exactly like Jesus ... was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified and then placed on linen imported from the Middle East and sprinkled with aloe and myrrh, and that on top of all he had invented monumental photography."

Dietz was referring to the discovery of the Christ-like image by Italian photographer Secundo Pia in 1889.

"On the Shroud we see a genuine 'photography' that originated long before photography was invented," Dietz said.

Scientists can't say what might have caused this ancient "photography" of a Christ-like figure. Many Catholic and Protestant theologians do not doubt, though, it was the Resurrection. If it was that, test results show it must have occurred no later than 36 hours after the dead man's bloody body had been wrapped in this expensive shroud. This too, corresponds to the Biblical narrative.

Copyright © 2002 United Press International

No Bull, Some Believe This Magic Cow Cures the Ill


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (Reuters) - Hundreds of stiff-jointed Cambodians are flocking to see a large brown cow whose lick is believed to cure rheumatism and other ailments, officials said Wednesday. "Over the last four weeks, as many as 20 people per day have been coming to see this cow," Puth Chandarith, governor of Kompot province in southern Cambodia, told Reuters. "Even I went to see it yesterday."

Ailing peasants in the impoverished southeast Asian nation offer incense, candles, flowers and water to the beast, which consumes the latter and then performs its licking duties on the prostrate patient. The cow's owner, Thun Nao, 59, a local teacher, said it all started after the animal escaped from its pen and started massaging his leg with its horns.

"I was having problems with my legs and could not walk to school, but one day the cow ... came up to me and rubbed its horn against my leg. Afterwards I could walk fine," he told a local newspaper. Authorities are keeping a watchful eye on the cow and its owner to make sure gullible patients, who buy their offerings for the cow from its owner, are not taken advantage of -- and that nobody ends up regretting their bovine faith. "Some people believe that it works, but if they are seriously ill, I would urge them to go to hospital instead of magic cows," Puth Chandarith said.

Belief in the magical powers of animals is a relatively common phenomenon in Cambodia, where over a third of the population lives on under $1 per day and cannot afford modern medicines. Snakes and turtles are often associated with supernatural healing powers.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002


by David Myers

As a follow-up to the piece on 9-1-1 coincidences in the last e-Skeptic, here is a wonderful opinion editorial by Hope College experimental psychologist David Myers, the author of an important new book entitled Intuition: Powers and Perils, that I just wrote a column on for Scientific American. More on intuition later. Enjoy.

The Power of Coincidence

David G. Myers

People around me have been both amused and aghast at the news that on 9-11 the New York State Lottery's evening number game popped up the numbers 9-1-1.

Is this a paranormal happening? A wink from God? Is there a message here?

It's hardly the first improbable lottery event. "We print winning numbers in advance!" headlined Oregon's Columbian on July 3, 2000. State lottery officials were incredulous when the newspaper announced their 6-8-5-5 winning Pick 4 numbers for June 28 in advance. Actually, the Columbian's computers had crashed. In the scramble to re-create a news page, a copyeditor accidently included Virginia's Pick 4 numbers, which were the exact numbers that Oregon was about to draw.

We've all marveled at such coincidences in our own lives. Checking out a photocopy counter from the Hope College library desk, I confused the clerk when giving my six-digit department charge number-which just happened at that moment to be identical to the counter's six-digit number on which the last user had finished. Shortly after my daughter, Laura Myers, bought two pairs of shoes, we were astounded to discover that the two brand names on the boxes were "Laura" and "Myers."

And then there are those remarkable coincidences that, with added digging, have been embellished into really fun stories, such as the familiar Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences (both with seven letters in their last names, elected 100 years apart, assassinated on a Friday while beside their wives, one in Ford's theater, the other in a Ford Motor Co. car, and so forth). We also have enjoyed newspaper accounts of astonishing happenings, such as when twins Lorraine and Levinia Christmas, driving to deliver Christmas presents to each other near Flitcham, England, collided.

My favorite is this little known fact: In Psalm 46 of the King James Bible, published in the year that Shakespeare turned 46, the 46th word is "shake" and the 46th word from the end is "spear." (More remarkable than this coincidence is that someone should have noted this!)

What shall we make of these weird coincidences? Was James Redfield right to suppose, in The Celestine Prophecy, that we should attend closely to "strange occurrences that feel like they were meant to happen"? Is he right to suppose that "They are actually synchronistic events, and following them will start you on your path to spiritual truth"? Without wanting to rob us of our delight in these serendipities, much less of our spirituality, statisticians assure us that the coincidences tell us nothing of spiritual significance.

"In reality," says mathematician John Allen Paulos, " the most astonishingly incredible coincidence imaginable would be the complete absence of all coincidences." When Evelyn Marie Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice, newspapers reported the odds of her feat as 1 in 17 trillion-the odds that a given person buying a single ticket for two New Jersey lotteries would win both. But statisticians Stephen Samuels and George McCabe report that, given the millions of people who buy U.S. state lottery tickets, it was "practically a sure thing" that someday, somewhere, someone would hit a state jackpot twice. Consider: An event that happens to but one in a billion people in a day happens 2000 times a year. A day when nothing weird happened would actually be the weirdest day of all. Our intuition, as I explain in Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, fails to appreciate the streaky nature of random data. Batting slumps, hot hand shooters, and stock market patterns may behave like streak-prone random data, but our pattern-seeking minds demand explanations. Yet even the random digits of pi, which form what many mathematicians believe is a true random sequence, have some odd streaks that likely include your birth date. Mine, 9-20-42, appears beginning at the 131,564th decimal place. (To find yours, visit www.angio.net/pi/piquery.)

The moral: That a particular specified event or coincidence will occur is very unlikely. That some astonishing unspecified events will occur is certain. That is why remarkable coincidences are noted in hindsight, not predicted with foresight. And that is why even those of us who believe in God don't need God's special intervention, or psychic powers, to expect, yet also delight in, improbable happenings.

Social psychologist David G. Myers is author of Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, just published by Yale University Press. For information and excerpts, see www.davidmyers.org/intuition.

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

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Today's Headlines – September , 2002

from The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO - Journalists will be barred from a scientific conference next month that will bring together some of the best minds in stem cell science, one of the most promising - and controversial - areas of medical research.

The two-day conference, organized by the Strategic Research Institute, will draw scientists, biotech executives, venture capitalists, patent attorneys and a representative from the President's Council on Bioethics.

Journalists, though, will have to wait outside.

"I instituted this years ago as some members of your profession have caused irreparable ... damage with speaker relationships and in some cases their companies over coverage," Strategic Research executive Mark Alexay wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Hence no coverage. Over and out."


from The Wall Street Journal

MANASSAS, Va. -- An audacious idea is captivating biologists: Could a simple inhaler or injection help the immune system fight off a wide variety of germs that might be used in a bioterror attack?

The notion defies longstanding dogma that immune-system boosters such as vaccines must be tailored for a specific disease, such as polio or a particular strain of flu. But a breakthrough in immunology has given life to the idea of revving up an early stage of the immune reaction that could help the body battle almost any invader. This approach would be a boon in a bioterror attack, where the germ's identity wasn't immediately clear.

Harnessing "innate immunity," as this early-stage immune reaction is called, is a long shot. Some scientists doubt it can be done. But it is given a chance of success by such medical authorities as Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. And one prominent bioweapons expert has established a company around the idea and gained substantial federal funding.


from The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- A West Nile virus vaccine to protect against the sometimes fatal infection could be ready in as little as three years, federal scientists told Congress.

A way to test the nation's blood supply against the virus might be in place next summer, the scientists said Tuesday.

The mosquito-borne virus has infected 2,000 people in 32 states so far this year and killed 98. Particularly worrisome are recent discoveries that West Nile apparently can be spread through blood transfusions if someone donates blood shortly after becoming infected, and that it occasionally causes a polio-like paralysis.

Still, public health specialists are expressing cautious optimism. While West Nile virus is here to stay, they expect infections to fall sharply -- possibly as early as next year -- as more people become immune and communities act quickly each spring to destroy mosquito eggs and breeding grounds.


from The Chicago Tribune

A seismologist who tries to prevent disasters in poor countries, an artist who works with glass beads and a scientist who analyzes fossilized plants to study prehistoric societies were among the 24 winners Wednesday of this year's $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded the no- strings-attached grants to scholars, artists and others since 1981 to free them to pursue their work without having to worry about making a living.

Among this year's MacArthur fellows is Brian Tucker, 56, a Palo Alto, Calif., seismologist who founded the non-profit GeoHazards International.

"Having this level of recognition of our work is just wonderful for us," he said.

Tucker's group works with local officials in developing countries to make their cities safer in the event of an earthquake.


from Newsday

The amounts of toxins in cleaned apartments and offices near the World Trade Center site are low and well within public health guidelines, according to a study released yesterday by the American Lung Association of New York City.

But the study confirmed the fears of local residents that the concentration of diesel emissions from construction trucks and backup generators in lower Manhattan is "quite high."

"The equipment that was rolled in expressly to help this city rebuild and heal is, in fact, contributing to long-term health concerns," said Peter Iwanowicz, the association's director of environmental health. "The pollution from these engines is poisoning us and contributing to the incidence of respiratory illness today and in future generations," he added.


from United Press International

DALLAS - Scientists using genetically engineered animals to make breakthroughs in medicine and other fields were warned Tuesday they must also convince the public that they are treating the animals in a humane way.

Experts on ethics and animal behavior raised the concern at a conference called "Biotech in the Barnyard: Implications of Genetically Engineered Animals," sponsored by the non-profit Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

Transgenic cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and rabbits have been given an extra gene through genetic engineering during the past 20 years. They were used to produce everything from promising new vaccines to silk so strong it can withstand a bullet.

Dr. William Velander, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and a pioneer in genetic engineering, explained to about 150 participants how his research with transgenic pigs has produced a protein that shows great promise in the treatment of hemophilia.


from The San Francisco Chronicle

Ever snicker at the people who sniff a glass of wine and go on about its "toasty nose" or "grassy notes?" And then secretly wonder what they can smell that you can't?

You can. And no one's done more to make that possible than Ann Noble, retiring professor of wine at UC Davis. Bright, funny and exacting, she's a sensory scientist who for 28 years has trained the noses of future California winemakers, including neon names like cult consultant Mia Klein.

Noble's as far as you can get from a pinky-raised wine snob. She gets a kick out of telling you, "If you have a boring white wine at a party, add a piece of green pepper from the hors d'oeuvres. You'll have a more interesting wine, one like a Sauvignon Blanc."

She means it. Then she adds, delightedly: "Of course, people who are wine snobs think that's horrific."

What Noble has done is taught people a common language for describing wines.


'Science Musings'from The Boston Globe

Returning to the States from a summer in Ireland, I'm jet-lagged for several weeks. I wake up at 4 a.m. no matter how late I try to stay awake at night. There's nothing to be done but get up, shower, dress, toss my laptop into my backpack, and walk to work.

I wouldn't be out of bed at such an ungodly hour if my body clock were not awry, but once I'm up I count myself lucky. My walk takes me through woods and meadows in the care of my town's Natural Resources Trust and, for a few jet-lagged weeks in early September, I have those twilight acres all to myself.

Did I say ungodly? Surely there is no more godly hour than the dawn. Mist pools in the hollows of the meadow. The water in the brook slips under the bridge with a dreamlike languor. The stillness of fading night is broken by the tip-tip-tip of a nuthatch; in an hour, the roar of the nearby highway will obliterate natural sounds.

This is the hour when the mushrooms shoulder up in shadows, flexing their caps in the early light. From the top of a distant pine, a red-tailed hawk assumes its morning patrol. As I leave the woods and step into the meadow, there is always the possibility that I'll see a grazing deer or two; they bound into the underbrush at my approach, white tails flashing.


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Honolulu Police Drop 'God' From Oath

The Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) - Honolulu police recruits being sworn in as new officers will no longer recite a reference to God in their oath.

Police Chief Lee Donohue announced the change Monday shortly after the group Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church complained the oath violated state and federal law by including the words "so help me God."

Earlier this month, the police department removed a biblical passage and poems containing religious content from its Web site after the group complained.

The group also wants the fire department to delete the [word] "God" from a firefighter's prayer in the next printing of a department safety guide. The department has not responded.


But it's all natural

A 17-year-old girl who ingested a hallucinogenic weed commonly found in backwoods throughout the nation was found wandering the streets early Monday.

The girl, who was not identified, said she and a friend ate seeds from jimsonweed, which they found along a road after learning about the plant from the Internet. Her mother said police found her daughter around 4 a.m. wandering the street.

"I thought it would be safe because it's natural," the girl said Monday at Cresson Township police offices. "There aren't any chemicals or anything in it."

Authorities said the plant is so common it doesn't even have a street value. Cresson Township Police Chief Ken Gilpatrick said some symptoms include dilated pupils, thirst, panic and delusions.

Officers are now warning parents about the plant.


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