NTS LogoSkeptical News for 3 September 2003

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

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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In the News

Today's Headlines - September 2, 2003

from The Washington Post

Back-to-school pop quiz: Why do poor children, and especially black poor children, score lower on average than their middle-class and white counterparts on IQ tests and other measures of cognitive performance?

It is an old and politically sensitive question, and one that has long fueled claims of racism. As highlighted in the controversial 1994 book "The Bell Curve," studies have repeatedly found that people's genes -- and not their environment -- explain most of the differences in IQ among individuals. That has led a few scholars to advance the hotly disputed notion that minorities' lower scores are evidence of genetic inferiority.

Now a groundbreaking study of the interaction among genes, environment and IQ finds that the influence of genes on intelligence is dependent on class. Genes do explain the vast majority of IQ differences among children in wealthier families, the new work shows. But environmental factors -- not genetic deficits -- explain IQ differences among poor minorities.

from Associated Press

Two leading scientific journals are reviewing their editorial policies after complaints that they published material by researchers with undisclosed financial interests in their research fields.

Editors at Science, located in Washington, and London-based Nature said none of the examples involved results of experiments.

Instead, the articles in question fall into a secondary category of editorials, commentaries and data reviews of other scientists' work. Generally, these are not covered by disclosure policies.

from The New York Times

Call it the theory of anything.

Einstein once wondered aloud whether "God had any choice" in creating the universe. It was his fondest hope that the answer was no.

He and subsequent generations of physicists have hoped that at the end of their labors there would be one answer — a so-called Theory of Everything — that would explain why the details of the world are the way they are and cannot be any other way: why there was a Big Bang, the number of dimensions of space-time, the masses of elementary particles.

For 20 years, physicists have lodged those hopes in string theory, a mathematically labyrinthian effort to portray nature as made up of tiny wriggling strings and membranes, rather than pointlike particles or waves.

from The New York Times

It is not as though Dr. Richard E. Smalley, a winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in discovering a new form of carbon, needed another obsession when he began pondering the world's energy future a year and a half ago.

Dr. Smalley, a 60-year-old Rice University professor, is the closest thing to a celebrity in the world of materials science.

He was busy with research on carbon nanotubes, the astonishingly strong cylindrical molecules that researchers created as a follow-up to the work that earned him the Nobel. He was chairman of a company trying to commercialize the nanotubes. He had classes to teach and joint custody of a young son.

Moreover, he was in constant demand as a speaker on nanotechnology, the rapidly growing field of research and business revolving around materials with dimensions measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter.

Vet Uses Herbs, Acupuncture

Tue September 2, 2003 10:42 AM ET SINGAPORE


(Reuters) - Traditional Chinese herbs and acupuncture needles are being successfully used by a Singapore veterinarian to treat horses, giraffes and even a stressed out Indonesian Komodo dragon. Oh Soon Hock, who is also a medical practitioner, said on Tuesday he had became disappointed with the effect of modern medicine on animals at the Singapore Zoological Gardens, and in frustration turned to traditional Chinese methods.

"I've used the powdered herbs to treat chest wounds in giraffes and cornea infections in horses. It has proven to be very effective," Oh said.

"Using Chinese herbs actually saves the zoo a lot of money because it's really cheap," said Oh, who has fed some of his animal patients bizarre-sounding herbs such as astragalus root.

Despite its 3,000-year history, Oh said Chinese medicine is often viewed with skepticism.

"People are still suspicious about Chinese medicine. When I first started using the herbs no one believed in it. I had to fight to use it on animals... Now I've got to prove that it works."

Oh, who has been working with animals for 13 years, has begun dabbling with another form of traditional Chinese treatment -- acupuncture.

Since early August, Tirto, a sun-loving giant lizard from the Indonesian island of Komodo, has had thin acupuncture needles placed in his back, legs and mouth twice a week to help cure a neurological disorder.

"Before the treatment, he had trouble eating and swallowing and was very depressed," said Oh.

"The treatment is working really well. He is much better and when the sun is out, he is rather active."

But animals are not Oh's only patients. He also lectures and provides consultations at a free clinic that uses traditional Chinese remedies. "During the day I treat animals, and at night I treat humans."

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

SWIFT - Online Newspaper Of The JREF Foundation - August 29, 2003

From: James Randi

"Down Under" Quackery, The JREF Million, Race Touts and Psychic Friends, Reiki Disillusionment, Geller on Holiday, A Plethora of Senses, Needling Away Fat in China, Ingersoll on Religion, Weirdness in UK Employment, Ana Becomes an Expert, Twain on Hawaii and The Jews, Cold Reading Gets Hot in Australia, Pipe Dowsing in Iowa, Alaska Airlines Calls on God, The MEG is Back, and Forbes Touts Astrology

Pseudoscience surges ahead. Here's the theory and working scenario of the wonderful "Rangertell" — or "Examiner" — device that anyone can have for a mere A$999 (that's Australian dollars, US$670) and reader Steve Green of Canberra directs us to http://www.rangertell.com/infosite.htm and http://cgi.ebay.com.au/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=3039978043&category=14955 to educate ourselves on the wonders of current quackery Down Under.

This was inspired by our recent mention of Carl Moreland on the "LectraSearch" dowsing device. Steve came across a very similar looking device that claims to find gold and other precious metals at ranges of many kilometers. As Steve notes, it appears to be nothing more than a cheap calculator strapped to a zippy box and an antenna, and is sold through EBay in Australia. Here's what Steve says is his favorite question from a "FAQ" that appears in connection with this fakery:

Q.: How does it work?

A.: Each entity in the universe is made up of a chemical and atomic structure that makes it that particular entity. In simple terms if you can imagine the atoms vibrating in these objects you will see that there will be a high and a low to each vibration and that eventually the same vibration pattern will occur. This is the frequency of the oscillating or vibrating object. Each object has its own frequency. When you tune to a sample of that object the electronics in the locator will resonate or harmonize with the same vibration in the target and the alignment of the barrel will occur as it attempts to find the correct magnetic polarity between the unit and the target. The Examiner is different since all you need do is enter in a provided frequency. We've worked out the frequencies for you. The principle though is the same.

Yes, it's the same principle: You send the money, we send the junk, you weep, we laugh. Simple!

We continue to receive inquiries about why we refuse to place the million dollars prize money of the JREF challenge in escrow to satisfy the fears of applicants that it might not be available when they so easily sweep in and claim the prize. This was the latest lame defense of Sylvia Browne to Larry King, an excuse of course not questioned in any way. What follows is a brief treatment of that situation, one to which I will refer all such future inquiries.

By placing the million dollars in escrow, the JREF would lose the income from the money, and besides, we are not in the business of catering to the whims of these people. This is our challenge, not theirs. The rules at www.randi.org clearly state that no such vanities will be catered to.

When we've asked the complainers to pay the interest that we'd lose if the sum were to be placed in escrow, they have always terminated the discussion.

We are legally and ethically committed to paying that sum to anyone who passes the agreed-upon test. We have no possible escape from that obligation. They put up nothing, we put up a million. That million is in a special investment account, clearly designated as the "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account," held by Goldman-Sachs. It cannot, by the terms of the account, be used for any purpose other than the awarding of the prize, though we may — and we do — periodically withdraw the interest that is paid on that account, to assist in covering the operating expenses of the JREF. The base sum never drops below one million dollars.

Where's the problem, here? The problem is that the grubbies out there are aware of the security of this account, of the reality of the prize money, and of their inability to meet the JREF challenge. Their only recourse is to ignore those facts, create canards and myths about the challenge, and hope that others believe them. They know that written validation of the account is available from the JREF in return for a stamped, self-addressed envelope — but they hope that no one else finds out about that, and they themselves decline to seek that evidence.

If the JREF were to issue falsified documents in that regard, the legal penalties would be severe, and the 501(c)3 status of the Foundation would surely be revoked. We are, and always have been, frank and honest about the nature of the challenge. It is one of the distinctive aspects of the JREF that the grubbies cannot fight, though they may — and do — choose to deny its reality.

Reader Rick Winkler has uncovered an interesting connection….

I am a frequent visitor to your website, and wanted to let you know that I support what you do, and am appreciative of it. While reading one of your August commentaries, I was reminded of something I thought you might find interesting (unless, of course, you have already touched on this subject — I just learned of your website a few months ago).

There is a fellow, Mike Lasky, also known as Mike Warren, who claimed to be this amazing sports handicapper. It occurs to me that these self described "Gurus" convince their gullible customers (unfortunately, they are for the most part people who have gambling problems and need help) that they are the world's greatest handicappers. In their advertisements, they go on and on about their past records of correctly picking winners in games, etc. While the gullible gambler is not told that these people are "psychic", they are, in the very least, snookered into believing that said Gurus do tons of research on sports teams, thus making your chances of winning a bet better than you could ever imagine. The inference is that if the gambler were to try to do the same research that the handicapper does, he would fail miserably because "we have a whole staff that works 9-5 doing nothing but research...blah blah.

Here comes the interesting part. Mike Lasky/Warren would have, for every weekend in football season, what he would call his "Pick of the Week," or "Lock of the Week." What he would then do, is send thousands of mailings to the West Coast, and an equal amount to the East Coast. The West Coast would get one team, the East Coast would get the opposing team. All for the low, low, price of $100 each "tip." The result was this: say the West Coast team won. Those people (who you have to believe bet big money on their team, since they already paid $100 just for the pick) would be dancing in the streets, thinking Mike Warren was the best handicapper in the world. The East Coast team, which would have the losing team, would be seething that they paid $100 and on top of that, bet the house on that team and lost.

What Mike would do, is have his telemarketers handle the 50% of the calls that were gripers, and they would apologize, and tell the caller how badly Warren felt, but to make it up to them, he would give them next weeks "Lock of the Week" for free. This guy must have made millions before they finally caught up with him, but as you all too well know, these scam artists just pop up in another venue, like some cat and mouse game. My research found that this guy was the creator of the "Psychic Friends Network" of Dionne Warwick fame. He was also convicted of fraud after obtaining $6,000,000 in loans and credit lines. Anyway, thanks for letting me tell this story. Hope you found it interesting.

As usual, there's little surprise here for us. The handicapper scheme was common on racetracks at one time, a tout giving each potential customer a tip on a winner — each got a different horse — then following up for a few more races until — inverted-pyramid-style — it got down to a group of winners who had "proven" faith in the tout. A share in the final winnings made the profit for the tout. Lasky/Warren improved his chances by feeding off the psychic-sucker racket, too.

Reader Debbie Tripp had an adventure she shares here with us….

Earlier this spring I had heard about Reiki and thought maybe it would be an interesting thing to pursue. I signed up for a one day course — it only takes one day to be certified for Reiki Level One! Imagine. One day, and of course $150. I and two other "students" were in this course, and our teacher prided herself on being taught by one of the great Reiki Masters. Well, she started off the course by telling us how she had suffered terribly for years from some kind of connective tissue syndrome (I just can't recall the name) and it wasn't until Reiki that she could finally move and walk again. She droned on about the power of Reiki — and I mean droned. Zero personality. She put on some tape that went on about Reiki, and I had to bite my lip so I wouldn't start laughing. I thought to myself, this is sooo stupid. I looked about the room and saw all sorts of trashy knickknacks — mostly religious — lots of Jesus statues. She started droning on about Christ and I was thinking, I've got to get out of here. I came to learn about some mystical Reiki power, not to be preached to. She told us to close our eyes, as she had to give us an "attunement" — this somehow should open up our energy fields. Only a Reiki Master can give one of these and if you haven't been given one, you cannot have the power of Reiki. It involves some kind of waving of her hands over your body, in a certain formation. Of course, the students must have their eyes closed so they cannot see these magical signs.

Now we could start practicing Reiki. And get this — you don't have to touch the person as the energy will flow through anything, even solid objects. After we got a "treatment" she asked us what we felt. The other two students said they felt "heat." Well of course they felt heat; the room was frigging cold and you could literally feel the body heat radiating off the hands that were skimming just an inch over the surface of your body! Besides, these students wanted to feel something so they gave responses like, "I felt heat, I feel more relaxed," blah, blah.

One of us was asked to lie down on a massage table and once again we passed our hands over the person. Then when the person got off the table, we were told to pass our hands over the table and note any warm spots. This would indicate areas of trouble? Duh...this was just radiant body heat coming off the table. Of course it will be "hotter" where the trunk of the body lay as opposed to where the legs were.

The "teacher" went on to say that you can cure all ills, but only when the sick person gives up their emotional baggage. All diseases/illnesses are caused by emotions and feelings. I asked her what about people who live in an area that has toxic waste buried in their backyards? Does she not agree that the toxic waste might be the reason for their illness? She babbled something like, "They chose to live there"!

She kept on saying that Reiki can cure people and that she has actually cured cancer! But it can only cure people who deal with their emotions and realize that these emotions are what are causing the illnesses. I then said "that's a very convenient answer — if the patient is not cured it's their fault for not dealing with their emotions." I then asked her "what about animals that you claim to work on," and she replied "Well, animals have feelings too!"

I just rolled my eyes. I couldn't believe I had wasted $150! So Reiki only works if the subject believes and can deal with their emotions.

Debbie also referred to the Quackwatch sites I've provided here.

Yes, I read that commentary and visited the Barrett sites. I passed along the information to a group of people that belong to an e-group I'm on. One subject frequently discussed on this list is the various types of alternative medicines. I myself am quite skeptical and passed on Dr. Barrett's website so others could go and read for themselves. One person wrote back with the website www.mnwelldir.org/docs/editorial/quack.htm — in case you were not aware of this site and how upset they are with Dr. Barrett. I just wish I had come across your website before I embarked on that silly adventure into Reiki. I now use your site to look up things that sound a bit too good to be true. Good idea, Debbie! As for that website, there's much more to be told than what is printed there in multiple colors, believe me. You'll be hearing more about that from Dr. Barrett in person at the Amaz!ng Meeting coming up in Las Vegas!….

Reader John Walker, UK, reports to us on a TV program there titled, "On Holiday With The Gellers"….

Disguised as a travel program, complete with ridiculous plinky-plonky tune, syrup-voiced narrator, and on-screen information about the prices of hotels stayed at, cruises taken, and activities embarked upon, a camera followed Geller, his wife, Shippi, and his daughter and her boyfriend, on holiday to Croatia.

It was constantly brilliant, edited against his usual desires, as Geller rushed around attempting to show off to anyone unlucky enough to be in a room with him. His need to bend spoons for people, even people who appeared not to want him to, was intensely strange. And his desire to boast to complete strangers was even embarrassing to his family. His daughter was an excellent foil to Shippi and his wife's tolerance, as she often got fed up of her father, criticizing him, and pointing out when he was talking rubbish.

A few highlights: While on a boat, Geller insisted that the captain be shown something. He hunted around the boat, the camera running after him, as he tried every corridor and door to find the bridge. When he got there the captain thought he was David Copperfield, but despite this, he dragged him onto the deck while they uncovered a manual compass for him. It was "the biggest compass I have ever tried to move" — completely standard size for a small cruise ship — and it oh-so-mysteriously moved when he willed it to with all his energy, mind-rays... oh, and when he put his mouth almost on top of it.

He saw a dog, and after making some extremely odd cooing noises, announced "I always know. This dog is nine years old. Nine. Seven and a half to nine." Asking random people if the dog was theirs, in English to some locals' confusion, he finally found the girl to whom it belonged. "Your dog, is it eight?" "No, he's two," was the incredulous response, leaving Uri looking flustered and upset. Not one of the three different ages he was certain it was, were right.

When asked by the filmmaker about the significance of the number 11, after he had insisted that they sit at table 11 in the restaurant, he explained that he went through a time when he constantly felt a need to look at digital clocks, and they would always say "11.11". Then the number sprang up everywhere (like they do). He said, "Which room am I in here? 208? 209?" He was told 208. "There you go! You see! 2, 0, 8, makes 10. Drop the zero, and you have 11!!" His daughter looked to the camera and said, "Well, that made absolutely no sense." When he asked what she meant, she pointed out that 2 + 8 equals 10, not 11, and that dropping the zero was nonsense. He began spluttering, and she added, "It's a good job it's the last day."

But best of all, by far, was his attempt to make the bell in a town clock chime. He sat by the bell, put his hands to his temple, and CONCENTRATED. And the bell suddenly went, BONG, BONG, BONG, BONG. Geller ran down the steps and immediately phoned someone (I couldn't hear who) to tell them. The other person's words were subtitled on the screen. "Yes, but it probably does that every hour... If it happened five minutes ago, it would be because it was four o'clock."

His face crumpled. It was just so funny. The filmmaker had suggested he try it, and I can only assume that he must have noticed the time. Geller then began talking about an extra thump after the four chimes, and that this could have been him. But then even he couldn't maintain that, admitting it probably wasn't.

The strange thing about all these tricks was that he really didn't seem to be doing it for the camera. He seemed to need to do it for the complete strangers he approached. He couldn't stop being Uri Geller, at any point. He infuriated his family by insisting on running after every meal, and by stretching in a ball on the floor in airports, staircases, and hotel lobbies. He made the most enormous fuss about being a vegetarian, talking as if he had a unique dietary requirement, celebrating bowls of cabbage with the fervor of someone you just know gets a Burger King drive-thru every time he's on his own.

It was a masterful program, carefully disguised as a holiday show, and not explained at any point. That Geller fell for it, surprises me, as he's usually quite canny about these things, but this time he fell hook, line and sinker. I've never seen a program on Geller that showed his misses — apart from live tv, of course, where they are usually hidden away. No such hiding took place here. There were his usual party tricks, like a seed growing in his hand (one seed, out of a few hundred, that was at the bottom, hidden) to two young girls, numerous bent spoons, and a very poorly-bent key.

Thanks, John. We can only imagine how "creative editing" by a less scrupulous producer could have resulted in miracles left and right. Though most of us will have a tough time believing it, there are some folks to whom the striking clock would have ranked with the best of miracles, and for whom a moving compass is a major departure from the ordinary. It takes very little manipulation to turn the mundane into the marvelous. And as you mentioned, the producers simply let this program speak for itself, rather than pointing out the obvious. Kudos!

Reader Kai-Mikael Jää-Aro comments on the "49 senses" touted by the American Society of Dowsers, quoted last week:

Don't be too hasty here. The "five senses" are really just an Aristotelian hold-over and not a very accurate description of human perception. I don't know about "intangible senses" but twenty "normal" senses does not seem too far off. Consider: the "touch" sense is really several parallel systems, sensitive to pressure, heat, cold (separate system!), pain, etc. You have a sense of gravity (balance), your proprioceptive sense tells you where your limbs are, you have a sense of space, of the passage of time, and so on. My favorite recommended source for reading up on this is "Sensation and Perception" by Coren, Ward and Enns. It also contains lots of interesting and amusing experiments you can try.

Yes, as a teen, I recall that I identified many more than five senses, pressure and temperature among them, certainly more than five. Reader Henry Richardson also observed, in this respect:

With but a little thought, I'm sure that you could come up with many tangible senses. Why, I can think of many after but a few moments' reflection, such as:

Sense of Wonder
Sense of Humor
Sense of Irony

Of course the quote from Mr. Berard about the psychic camp for children certainly triggered my Sense of the Ridiculous. The biological receptor for all of these is, of course, the brain, but only if it has been developed.

The experts at the Aimin Fat Reduction Hospital in northern China are treating the chronically obese from Europe to Oceania, who come to poke away pounds expensively via the fine needles of acupuncture. Looking at the regimen, we see that Aimin workout sessions look almost effortless: acupuncture in the morning and light dance aerobics in the afternoon, interspersed with well-balanced meals and counseling. Seems easy enough. But did anyone think to try it without the needles? That would bring the admission price down, since quackery is always expensive. Why do I strongly suspect that the secret ingredient here is in the "well-balanced meals"?

Daniel Murphy gives us a passage from freethinker Robert Ingersoll, one that also answers those who assert that I'm saying that humans who need myth to sustain them should be left without hope. Here is an excerpt:

Then they say to me: "What do you propose? You have torn this down, what do you propose to give us in place of it?" I have not torn the good down. I have only endeavored to trample out the ignorant, cruel fires of hell. I do not tear away the passage: "God will be merciful to the merciful." I do not destroy the promise: "If you will forgive others, God will forgive you." I would not for anything blot out the faintest star that shines in the horizon of human despair, nor in the sky of human hope, but I will do what I can to get that infinite shadow out of the heart of man. "What do you propose in place of this?" Well, in the first place, I propose good fellowship — good friends all around. No matter what we believe, shake hands and let it go. That is your opinion, this is mine: let us be friends. Science makes friends; religion and superstition, make enemies.

They say: "Belief is important." I say: No, actions are important. Judge by deed, not by creed. Good fellowship, good friends, sincere men and women, mutual forbearance, born of mutual respect. . . .

I do not believe in forgiveness as it is preached by the church. We do not need the forgiveness of God, but of each other and of ourselves. If I rob Mr. Smith and God forgives me, how does that help Smith? If I, by slander, cover some poor girl with the leprosy of some imputed crime, and she withers away like a blighted flower and afterward I get the forgiveness of God, how does that help her? If there is another world, we have got to settle with the people we have wronged in this. No bankrupt court there. Every cent must be paid. . . .

That is what I believe in. And if it goes hard with me, I will stand it, and I will cling to my logic, and I will bear it like a man. And I believe, too, in the gospel of Liberty, in giving to others what we claim for ourselves. I believe there is room everywhere for thought, and the more liberty you give away, the more you will have. In liberty, extravagance is economy. Let us be just. Let us be generous to each other. . . .

"Ah! but," they say, "it will not do. You must believe." I say, No. My gospel of health will bring life. My gospel of intelligence, my gospel of good living, my gospel of good-fellowship will cover the world with happy homes. My doctrine will put carpets upon your floors, pictures upon your walls. My doctrine will put books upon your shelves, ideas in your minds. My doctrine will rid the world of the abnormal monsters born of ignorance and superstition. My doctrine will give us health, wealth and happiness. That is what I want. That is what I believe in. Give us intelligence. In a little while a man will find that he cannot steal without robbing himself. He will find that he cannot murder without assassinating his own joy. He will find that every crime is a mistake. . . .

"Oh," they say to me, "but you take away immortality." I do not. If we are immortal it is a fact in nature, and we are not indebted to priests for it, nor to bibles for it, and it cannot be destroyed by unbelief. As long as we love we will hope to live, and when the one dies that we love, we will say: "Oh, that we could meet again," and whether we do or not, it will not be the work of theology. It will be a fact in nature. I would not for my life destroy one star of human hope, but I want it so that when a poor woman rocks the cradle and sings a lullaby to the dimpled darling, she will not be compelled to believe that ninety-nine chances in a hundred she is raising kindling wood for hell. One world at a time is my doctrine. It is said in this Testament, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," and I say: Sufficient unto each world is the evil thereof.

And suppose after all that death does end all. Next to eternal joy, next to being forever with those we love and those who have loved us, next to that, is to be wrapped in the dreamless drapery of eternal peace. Next to eternal life is eternal sleep. Upon the shadowy shore of death the sea of trouble casts no wave. Eyes that have been curtained by the everlasting dark, will never know again the burning touch of tears. Lips touched by eternal silence will never speak again the broken words of grief. Hearts of dust do not break. The dead do not weep. Within the tomb no veiled and weeping sorrow sits, and in the rayless gloom is crouched no shuddering fear. I had rather think of those I have loved, and lost, as having returned to earth, as having become a part of the elemental wealth of the world. I would rather think of them as unconscious dust, I would rather dream of them as gurgling in the streams, floating in the clouds, bursting in the foam of light upon the shores of worlds, I would rather think of them as the lost visions of a forgotten night, than to have even the faintest fear that their naked souls have been clutched by an orthodox god. I will leave my dead where nature leaves them. Whatever flower of hope springs up in my heart I will cherish, I will give it breath of sighs and rain of tears. But I cannot believe that there is any being in this universe who has created a human soul for eternal pain. I would rather that every god would destroy himself; I would rather that we all should go to eternal chaos, to black and starless night, than that just one soul should suffer eternal agony.

I have made up my mind that if there is a God, he will be merciful to the merciful.

Upon that rock I stand.

That he will not torture the forgiving. Upon that rock I stand.

That every man should be true to himself, and that there is no world, no star, in which honesty is a crime. Upon that rock I stand.

The honest man, the good woman, the happy child, have nothing to fear, either in this world or the world to come. Upon that rock I stand.

Good rocks upon which to stand, in my opinion. Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a US freethinker/politician/lawyer/orator whose work is still useful to read and consider. Look him up.

Reader Trevor French of Hitchin, UK, writes me — for some unknown reason, all in lower case, which I've corrected so that it can be more easily read and understood — to describe just how bizarre the employment standards are, in that part of the world:

I guarantee you this is absolutely true. About two years ago, I was unemployed and wanted to become an audio engineer, music producer. Without money, I had to "sign on" (In England, that's the term for receiving benefits) until they presented me with an option to train in a field I wanted. I had the most trouble securing a course in this field and was eventually taken off the option after the course was stopped midway through. So every week I had to sit in the unemployment office and be told I couldn't do an engineering course because it was hard to come by. But here's the thing that makes it so frustrating for me. In the job center (unemployment office) where I attend, they had a poster up for the same training option, only the course was "Reiki," so apparently I could do that, but not something as mystical as engineering or as I have now found out, HTML and web design. Maybe I should see if I can sacrifice goats as a training option.

If the government are backing this sort of lunacy then, it might add some credence to the new world order after all (he writes tongue in cheek). I think it's a disgrace.

Trevor, I trust that you resisted the temptation to take up quackery, even though you don't really have to have any talent or skill for that profession. You'd be a lot richer, but perhaps you'd have to avoid looking at your reflection in a mirror — if any remained.

Reader Kris Vasquez Davantes offers us this account of his daughter Ana's heady introduction to becoming an "expert."

I read this week's commentary about the Enchanted Forest Intuitive Camp. While I have nothing that outrageous to report, I thought you might be interested in the way my daughter's elementary school introduces its students to research. They use something called an "Expert Fair," and the idea is that every child can choose a topic that interests them and become an expert on it. The child then presents their topic in a science-fair type of display. Overall, I have no quarrel with it, except that there are no topics out of bounds, and "facts" from any source are considered legitimate. So my daughter and her friend ended up next to each other with displays on astrology. Her friend had "facts" like "If you're an Aries you're stubborn" and "Astrology was invented before 1965." My daughter, after much discussion in our household, conducted a test at the fair. She pasted 12 adjectives onto cards on her display board and asked people to choose the one they thought described them best, then lift the card to see if they had identified their "sign." She asked each person to write down what they chose and what their birthdate was. She learned two things. First, of more than 80 people who passed her booth, only 5 managed to select their "sign" — so we had a good discussion about laws of probability. Second, most of the adults could not understand why she was doing this, even after she explained it to them. Sigh. Enclosed is a photo of Ana with her "Certificate of Expertise."

Thanks, Kris. I'm happy to see that you're concerned enough about the standards employed by the school. I wish more parents took that much interest.

Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

More quotations from Mark Twain, all very applicable today and pertinent to the work we do at the JREF. The first one deals with his observations in Hawaii, supplied to us by reader Bernard Lobo:

Nearby is an interesting ruin — the meager remains of an ancient temple — a place where human sacrifices were offered up in those old bygone days...long, long before the missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and make [the natives] permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there; and showed the poor native how dreary a place perdition is and what unnecessarily liberal facilities there are for going to it; showed him how, in his ignorance, he had gone and fooled away all his kinsfolk to no purpose; showed him what rapture it is to work all day long for fifty cents with which to buy food for the next day, as compared with fishing for a pastime and lolling in the shade through eternal summer, and eating of the bounty that nobody labored to provide but Nature. How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell. All past history, now. Hawaii has kept up with the Mainland by adopting and eagerly embracing every superstition and mythology available.

And from Harper's Magazine, September 1899, we glean this remarkable Twain item, sent to us by several readers. Some noted that in Twain's discussion of how "insane" religions are, he didn't mention the Jewish faith. Perhaps this article explains his reason for that:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

And Twain had never even heard of a chap named Albert Einstein, who the Nazis threw out of Germany so that he could flourish in America…. That list is long….

Reader Rod Langlands writes us:

I am a senior school teacher in Perth, Western Australia. I have had an interest in skepticism for many years now and I always try to encourage it with my students. I was recently explaining the absurdity of "pet psychics" never knowing the name of the pet they are "communing" with, without asking the owner of course. I decided to take things a bit further and practice a bit of cold reading with one student to see if I could further explain the deceit and absurdity of the whole thing. I started with the ever reliable "I'm getting an 'M'. Someone close to you has a name starting with 'M'." This was of course a completely random pick on my part. After some hesitation from her, and gentle insistence from me that she did indeed know someone with a name starting with 'M', she agreed, looking a bit sheepish too as if I had caught her out pretending that she didn't know this person! While this was going on I moved in and out of "character" explaining the process as I went. I then decided to move to the absurd end of the spectrum and make a completely silly assertion about this student. "Someone important to you has only one leg." And I continued with evasions as she firmly denied this "fact." "It's very strong, someone close to you? Someone in this room? I'm getting a very strong feeling here," etc. A male student two seats away piped up in a slightly embarrassed manner, "My Dad only has one leg." You could have heard a pin drop! "I said it was close!" etc, giving further examples of how a complete miss is turned into a hit. The amazing thing is this: the students all knew it was a setup, that I was demonstrating the technique. I had no knowledge of this student's father's leg situation and yet one female student was totally sucked in by the whole thing and seriously referred to the incident as "spooky." It is no wonder that the thieves and charlatans can get away with the con. Their marks want/need to believe, exactly as you have detailed on many occasions.

Reader "Crazy Dave" expresses his thoughts….

Wow! I have a lot of reading to do [in the JREF archives]! I've always enjoyed watching your TV specials and have recorded several to help bolster my opinion when confronted by "believers"...lol. I watched the Tech TV "Homeopathy" show last night and that inspired me to find your website. Most interesting reading: "Dowsing," as I have a quick story of my own. I ran an interstate gas station years ago. The Pump Maintenance Man "located" the underground pipes from the tanks to the pumps with his own dowsing rods. His rods were 90-degrees bent coat hangers. His dowser tools enjoyed a prominent place in the tool locker on his truck right next to the electronic device that he next used to confirm the lines placement. He didn't seem to appreciate my observation that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I also noted that he consulted the dowsing rods for a couple minutes, whereas he consulted the electronic device much longer before breaking up the tarmac! For which I am thankful!

As I live in Iowa, I must keep some of my skepticism "in the closet." Whew, I have had several very angry farmers not appreciate my opinions on dowsing!

Reader Rebecca Watson relates:

I was flying Alaska Airlines a few weeks ago, and with my dinner came a little slip of paper with a majestic mountain scene. Printed over it were the words "I will be glad and rejoice in you. I will sing praise to your name O most high. PSALM 9:2" Boy, was I happy for the opportunity to thank the Christian god for that blessed bounty of fruit cup and undercooked rice dish. Plus, sitting right next to me was a woman going on and on about the great new bulletin board she was making for her Christian 1st graders. Personally, I thought it a little simplistic — teddy bear, crucifix, etc. Did I stumble onto some airline cult, sucking me in with low, low fares and a direct flight to Boston?

Anyway, I just wanted to warn you about the Christians' powerful new weapons: competitive pricing and warmed-over meals. Thanks again for dedicating your life to such an amazing cause.

Frequent contributor Ian MacMillan gives us this report on the matter of that ridiculous "MEG" device that had the world of pseudoscience so excited last year:

The MEG — One Year On On March 26 2002, the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Washington issued US Patent #6,362,718 for the Motionless Electromagnetic Generator (MEG). This remarkable device, mainly the work of a retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel, Tom E. Bearden of Alabama, is claimed to be able to produce free energy from the vacuum, and run without a power input. Traditionally, patent offices do not accept claims of this kind, since they would violate all known laws of how energy works. After writing to the USPTO and pointing this out, I received in August last year a letter from the Commissioner of Patents, Nicholas P. Godici, informing me that a Director Ordered Re-examination of the MEG was planned.

That was twelve months ago, and nothing has been heard since. The MEG is still on the list of US patents. To be honest, this is not a big worry. My biggest fear was that Tom Bearden would use the patent to make money by selling the machine, but this has not happened. When I e-mailed Bearden's associate, Jean-Louis Naudin and offered to buy an MEG, he replied that it was "under development and not yet ready to the market" [sic].

The MEG is in many ways reminiscent of another infamous US patent, the Johnson Permanent Magnet Motor (#4,151,431, April 24 1979). Howard R. Johnson of Michigan claimed that his motor used a permanent magnet as its source of power. Critics pointed out that this was a perpetual motion claim, since the motor would in effect be self-powered. 1979 also saw the start of Joe Newman's long legal battle to patent his "output-greater-than-input" motor. Newman never did get his US patent, but he was issued a patent in Mexico. He then claimed that under the terms of the NAFTA trade agreement, patents valid in one NAFTA country are valid in another NAFTA country, so therefore the Newman Motor had a US patent. The USPTO replied that it did not see it that way.

Given the time and trouble that the US Patent Office spent on preventing Joe Newman from patenting his machine, it is all the more remarkable that it should have issued a patent to the MEG, a machine with zero energy input that still claims to have an energy output. Unless the laws of physics have been fundamentally revised since the 1980s, this is as unlikely now as it was then. In today's world, perpetual motion has become the love that dare not speak its name. Inventors use phrases like "free energy," "new energy," "vacuum energy" and "zero point energy," but read the fine print and it is still the same old perpetual motion claims that are being made. Quantum jargon is now the preferred way of making claims of this kind, and Tom Bearden has produced a large amount of material of this sort on the Internet. In the enclosed link, Bearden complains about the rules used to test free energy machines. His favourite phrase is COP>1.0, or "Co-efficient of Performance greater than one." To the untutored ear, this certainly sounds like a claim of free energy. The only claim that an engineer would want to test is whether the machine produced more energy at its output stage than the amount that was being used to run it. Inventors of free energy machines also tend to run away from the question of what would happen if the output of the machine were connected back to the input. With greater than 100% efficiency, the machine should continue running indefinitely with the original power source disconnected. Eric Krieg argues that this is the only worthwhile test for free energy machines, since it would follow logically from greater than 100% efficiency. It would be interesting to know if the examiner at the USPTO suggested this while examining the MEG.

Tom Bearden promised that the MEG would go into production in an unnamed country in 2003, but there are still no MEGs on sale at E-bay. This brings to mind the Ogden Nash poem:

A child need not be very clever
To know that "Later, dear" means "Never."
Thanks, Ian! Well done.

Forbes Magazine, that advisor to the investors of the world, just ran an article that gleefully accepted the claims of a commercial astrology firm who peddle financial advice to the naïve, based on movements of the planets against the stars. Surprising? No, not at all, bearing in mind that journalists are often profoundly ignorant of the realities of science. A perceptive Forbes editor might have spotted the fact that the reporter was merely accepting the data offered him by those selling the nonsense, rather than doing original research into the validity of the data. As a sample of the lack of knowledge exhibited by the reporter:

Even if you don't buy these planetary predictions, a look up into the night sky will showcase Mars shining bright, just as it does every August. It's a visible reminder of the presence of cycles in nature. Markets also tend to move in cycles. Mars is visible up there every August? Now, that would be news! The lame appeal to "cycles," that notion so popular with occultists and second only to "vibrations" — neither of which they understand — and the inclusion of "nature" for validity, show the reporters attempts to dress up his venture into pseudoscience. Again, where was an editor, so obviously needed here….?

I still haven't seen the "Ultimate Psychic Challenge" TV program that I did in the UK, so my comments and analysis — copious! — must be delayed for another week. And my comments on the Alabama "Ten Commandments" brouhaha are just so extensive because of the contributions from readers and extracts from news articles and other commentaries, that the item might just make up an entire week's web page….

James Randi

New devices catch liars in the act


Brain monitors prove more reliable than polygraphs

PHILADELPHIA, June 6 — In the quest to build a better lie detector, scientists are seeking to go beyond the body's indirect signals to the very seat of deceit: the brain. One researcher has built a headband outfitted with lights and detectors able to "see" blood-flow changes in the brain. Another uses magnetic resonance imaging to snap several split-second pictures.

BRITTON CHANCE, a biophysicist at the University of Pennsylvania, leads the headband project, which uses near-infrared light to peek at the brain's prefrontal cortex, the place where people make decisions — and where lies are born. Research subjects wearing the headband are told to answer some questions truthfully and others deceptively. At the moment a subject makes the decision to lie, before even uttering it, there's a milliseconds-long burst of blood flow. Those bursts are read by the sensors and show up as spikes on a laptop computer. One day, Chance said, the headband might not be needed at all. Perhaps one would need only point a sensing device at people — making it possible to test someone's truthfulness without their knowledge. "We're interested in covert detection of prefrontal activity, where the subject may not be told the experience is occurring. That's in the future but it is possible," he said. "Obviously, there are ethical problems." Critics agree. 'THE LAST INVASION OF PRIVACY'?

"There's only one thing worse than a lie detector that doesn't work, and that's a lie detector that does work," said physicist Robert Park, a longtime polygraph critic. "It's the last invasion of privacy that you can imagine, and it frightens me that we seem to be almost able to do it." Traditional lie detectors, known as polygraphs, measure heart and respiratory rates as a person answers questions.

Critics claim polygraphs are easy to beat — they say something as simple as stepping on a tack placed in a shoe can skew results in the test-takers' favor — and largely unreliable, as evidenced by people like former CIA agent Aldrich Ames, who passed polygraphs, concealing his work as a Russian spy.

Though federal agencies use polygraph tests to screen workers and job applicants, courts do not allow the tests to be admitted as evidence.

Researchers believe the technologies they're working on could change that — though it could take several decades to get it right.

"I doubt that anything in life will ever be 100 percent reliable, including lie detection. But will we have a technique that's good enough to be taken as one source of evidence? Probably," said Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard University psychology professor who is studying the brain scans of liars.

Langleben's MRI detects which part of the brain is active in response to specific stimuli. Volunteers were told not to divulge a playing card they were given. They were then placed within an MRI scanner and "interrogated" by a computer. When volunteers lied, Langleben said, part of their brains lit up.

Chance and Langleben contend that people can't change what happens in their brains during a lie, so a machine accurately measuring those changes would be next to impossible to beat. Polygraphs, on the other hand, essentially measure the fear of getting caught lying, symptoms that can be beaten. "It strikes me as odd that people seem rarely to see the positive side of a reliable lie detector," Kosslyn said. "If you're innocent, wouldn't it be nice to have a way to support your claims?" A VARIETY OF USES

Researchers say more accurate lie detectors could help courts and police. Doctors could also determine whether patients are being less than truthful in describing their symptoms. Corporations could check whether their employees — or perhaps even their chief executives and accountants — are truthful.

Other scientists are looking at "thermal imaging" (training a heat-sensitive camera on people's faces that would register increased blood flow around the eyes) and "automated face analysis" (a computer that analyzes the tiniest expressions in the face) as potential lie detectors. Lawrence Farwell, an Iowa-based neuroscientist who runs Brain Wave Science Inc., has developed what he calls "brain fingerprinting." It focuses on a specific electrical brain wave, called a P300, which activates when a person sees a familiar object.

A convicted murderer petitioning for a new trial has already tried to use brain fingerprinting as evidence in an Iowa court. The test showed that the defendant, Terry Harrington, had no memory of the crime scene, but the judge refused to accept it as evidence.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program, warns that none of the new technology has been proven to work like the scientists claim.

But if it does, Steinhardt said, "then it would become another weapon in the arsenal of those who want to put us into a surveillance society where every action, every deed and one's very thoughts can be monitored, categorized and correlated."

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

School board gives nod to creationism, abstinence-only


WORLAND (AP) -- School board members want theories other than evolution -- such as creationism -- taught in Worland science classes and only sexual abstinence -- not how to use contraceptives -- taught in health classes.

The board voted Tuesday to present the policy changes to the district's Policy Committee for consideration. Over 100 people attended the meeting.

The recommendation for sex education reads: "It shall be the policy of Washakie County School District No. 1, when teaching sex education, the curriculum shall be based on abstinence only."

Also endorsed was a recommendation for teaching biology: "It shall be the policy ... when teaching Darwin's theory of evolution that it is only a theory and not a fact. Teachers shall be allowed in a neutral and objective manner to introduce all scientific theories of origin and the students may be allowed to discuss all aspects of controversy surrounding the lack of scientific evidence in support of the theory of evolution."

Board member Tom Ball, who opened the discussion on the proposed changes, said he thought the evolution recommendation should use the word "required," rather than "allowed."

Several people addressed the board including Pastor Bud Surles who said "evolution is more a product of Hollywood movies than based on real science." He also said the district should teach that "sex is safe only in a heterosexual, monogamous relationship" and that abstinence until marriage should be the message delivered by the district.

Another pastor, Mike Brush, quoted scholars he said "understand the misconception of evolution" and are more inclined to accept the "intelligent shaping of matter."

"Intelligent design is not religious-based. I would not want you to teach religion in any way, shape or form," he said.

Worland High School health instructor Dawn Bellis, who told the board she teaches the "controversial part" of sex education, said she was disappointed no one on the board contacted her, health instructor Jackie Pike or Principal Hal Johnson to find out what was being taught before going about changing policy.

"It seems backward to change a curriculum and policy without knowing what is being taught," she said.

"Sexuality is a three-week portion of my semester's class. Children cannot make decisions without being informed and that includes knowing the consequences of their decisions."

She said her class ultimately is "totally based on abstinence."

High school student Charity Ward told the board she took one of Bellis' classes. She urged the board not to teach "abstinence-only," saying she found it helpful to learn about sexually transmitted diseases and other potential consequences of having sex.

"Without that information I probably would have made bad choices," she said.

Kitsy Barnes, head of the high school science department, said Wyoming teachers are mandated by the state to teach the state science standards.

"Science teachers are prohibited from teaching creationism due to the Supreme Court ruling Edwards v Aquillard, which states that teaching creation science is a religious idea and thus an illegal violation of the church-state separation.

"Science is a way of understanding the world, not a mountain of facts. Before anyone can truly understand scientific information, they must know how science works. Science does not prove anything absolutely -- all scientific ideas are open to revision in the light of new evidence. The process of science, therefore, involves making educated guesses -- hypotheses -- that are then rigorously tested."

School district attorney Bill Shelledly cautioned the board that every time they write a new policy, it is like putting up another lightning rod that can get hit. He held up a blue binder containing the board's policies and said, "I don't want one more page put in this policy book."

Pointing to the crowd, he said, "This is only part of the community. You are elected to represent the entire community."

Three readings by the board are required to approve a policy change.

Mummy thought to be Nefertiti may be a man

CAIRO, Egypt (Reuters) --The mummy a British Egyptologist says could be the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, renowned for her beauty, is much more likely to be a man, Egypt's antiquities chief Zahi Hawass said.

Nefertiti, wife and co-ruler with the pharaoh Akhenaten and stepmother of legendary boy King Tutankhamun, has long been considered one of the most powerful women of ancient Egypt.

Joann Fletcher, a mummification specialist from the University of York in England, said in June there was a "strong possibility" her team had unearthed Nefertiti from a tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings in Luxor. The Discovery Channel publicized the find in a television program aired this month.

But Secretary-General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), Hawass, expressed doubts Saturday about the find and said there were questions over the gender of the mummy.

"I'm sure that this mummy is not a female," Hawass told Reuters at his office in the Egyptian capital.

A report submitted to Egypt's SCA from the University of York expedition leader Don Brothwell said of the mummy: "There has been some confusion as to the sex of this individual."

However, the report concluded that the mummy was a female because of a lack of evidence of male genitalia.

Hawass said a double-piercing in the mummy's ear was common to both sexes, but in a different period to the Amarna era in which Nefertiti lived. He said it was even more common in men.

"All the queens used to wear earrings in their wigs, not in their ears," Hawass said, who has worked in the field for 35 years. He added that the male mummy found alongside the mummy said to be Nefertiti's also had pierced ears.

A sculpted bust of Nefertiti, whose name means "the beautiful woman has come," is exhibited in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

Her husband Akhenaten, who ruled from 1379-1362 BC, is believed to have all but killed off the idea of pharaoh as god-king in trying to impose a form of monotheism.

"Nefertiti gave birth six times, so her hips should be very broad, but this mummy's hips are very narrow," said Hawass, who inspected the mummy on Friday.

Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo Salima Ikram said X-rays of the mummy taken by the University of York's expedition would clarify whether the body had given birth.

"The evidence does not at all support the finding of Nefertiti," Ikram said in a telephone interview. "It would be very obvious from any X-rays of the mummy whether it had given birth...there would be specific markings."

Hawass said Nefertiti was widely believed to be at least 35 years old when she died, but Brothwell's expedition report concluded an age range of 18-30 for the mummy.

Reuters obtained a copy of Brothwell's report from the SCA.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Monday, September 01, 2003

Yellowstone Volcano: Is "the Beast" Building to a Violent Tantrum?


August 30, 2001

When the volcano in Yellowstone National Park blew 6,400 centuries ago, it obliterated a mountain range, felled herds of prehistoric camels hundreds of miles away and left a smoking hole in the ground the size of the Los Angeles Basin.

Modern Yellowstone doesn't dwell on its cataclysmic past—or its potential for another monster eruption.

Rangers tell people to keep their distance from bison and steaming geysers. But there are no signs, aside from nature's own bubbling mud pots and geysers, that visitors are wandering through the caldera of one of the largest active volcanoes in the world.

"This is a geologic park, and not many know it," said Robert Smith, a geophysicist at the University of Utah who has spent his career piecing together the story of the Yellowstone volcano. "It's not a bison park. Not an elk park. It's a geologic park."

New sensors have allowed researchers to confirm a suspicion that Smith has held for a long time: that the ancient volcano scientists dub "the beast" is a living force. The instruments record a continuing pattern of heaving and bulging and act as an early warning system.

Installed without fanfare and hidden from view, the sensitive devices are an acknowledgment that the past could be prologue, that this seemingly serene plateau could blow so hard it would make the 1980 Mount St. Helens explosion look like a sneeze.

Stepped-Up Monitoring

This summer, Yellowstone was added to the nation's handful of official volcano observatories. The others, smaller but far better known, are in Hawaii, Alaska, the Cascades, and California's Long Valley.

The Yellowstone observatory consists of a string of 28 electronic detection stations scattered through the park. Related plans call for at least 100 more monitoring sites.

For Smith, who argued for years that the volcano deserved more attention than it was getting, the observatory is sweet vindication. The beast is finally getting its due.

What took so long for science to put its ear to the ground, given the fact that geophysicists have known for 30 years that Yellowstone was a major volcanic system?

For one thing, Smith said, they couldn't decide whether the Yellowstone system was still active or in its death throes. For another, it doesn't look like a volcano.

It's just too big. From a viewpoint on the north rim of the caldera, a few miles from the Yellowstone River's Upper and Lower Falls, the southern edge of the caldera is obscured. It's more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) away—well within the massive park, but lost in the haze.

The last huge eruption was 640,000 years ago. Since then, a series of smaller ones have filled in the caldera "like tubes of toothpaste squeezing out all over the place," Smith said. The 3,000-foot-thick (one kilometer-thick) glaciers of the last Ice Age erased edges of the caldera, which is now a broad, undulating plateau rimmed by mountains.

The Earth has always shaken periodically around Yellowstone. But without the proper monitoring equipment in place, no one knew how often it happened or why. Smith, who has been investigating here for more than 30 years, set up seismometers and found earthquakes by the hundreds.

The Basin and Range country that extends from California to Montana is one of the most seismically active regions east of California's San Andreas Fault. It is being stretched apart as tectonic plates beneath it move.

But the earthquakes Smith started tracking three decades ago—15,000 between 1973 and 1998, often in swarms—didn't altogether fit conventional notions of seismicity. There were quakes where you would expect them to occur, along north/south fault lines perpendicular to the stretching. But there were also some along parallel fault lines—activity that seemed to have no relation to the stretching.

Smith started thinking about the quakes in combination with Yellowstone's famously unstable plumbing. Was it possible that both the quakes and the geysers were products of volcanic action, of underground magma flows?

Hot Spot

Atop a volcano, mountains are pushed up by swelling magma; the subsequent explosion then destroys them and engulfs their remains.

In 1965 a team led by Robert Christiansen of the U.S. Geological Survey mapped the massive caldera and various lava flows in detail while NASA tried out a new remote-sensing technology in the region.

"It was not a surprise it was a young volcano," Christiansen recalled. "It was a surprise it was as young as it is."

He turned to Smith, whose seismic data would reveal whether the volcano was still rumbling. Together, the two men were able to see the system for what it was: a very active and large volcano that had sculpted much of the Northwest.

Smith and Christiansen saw evidence that a huge plume of magma rose from deep within the Earth and bore through the continental plate. As the plate moved southwest, the "hot spot" left a series of what Smith terms "ancient Yellowstones" across a 500-mile (800-kilometer) swath of southern Idaho from Oregon to Montana.

The hot-spot theory was dismissed when it was introduced by Smith in 1973. Accepted wisdom said volcanoes were found at the edges of tectonic plates and that hot spots occur mainly on the seafloor. "It took people a while to catch on," Smith said.

The evidence, ultimately, was incontrovertible.

There was the blasted topography, the layers of lava flows, the misaligned earthquake faults and Yellowstone's superheated, effervescent plumbing. Only one force was big enough to account for it all: a massive volcano. What Smith still didn't know was whether it was asleep.

In the mid-1970s, while surveying an old benchmark put into place when the first roads were cut through Yellowstone in 1923, Smith found that the ground had risen three feet (one meter) in five decades.

There could be only one explanation. The volcano was bulging upward. Smith and his students spent two years confirming the observation. By 1979, when he published the findings in the journal Science, even skeptics were becoming convinced that Yellowstone was an active volcano.

The caldera rose an inch a year until 1985. Then a swarm of earthquakes occurred nearby. By 1987 measurements showed that the caldera was falling an inch (2.5 centimeters) a year. In 1995 it started rising again. The caldera is now bulging again, toward the southwest.

Confirmation that the volcano was active was one of the most important factors in getting a new observatory established here. The movement of the volcano also suggests a controversial new idea forcing many geologists to rethink the very definition of hot spots and how they work.

Will It Blow Again?

Until Smith came along, most scientists believed that hot spots originate 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) down, at the boundary between the Earth's core and mantle. The newly revealed geology of Yellowstone suggests that this hot spot might be very shallow, born of the vagaries of heat and changing pressures or some other process yet unknown.

As far as it goes, the scientists work has yet to answer the most important question of all: Will the volcano blow its top again?

New studies by a research team at the University of Wisconsin that analyzed tiny crystals within hardened lava suggest a "dying, but still potent, cycle of volcanism."

Some people believe that the hot spot is moving under the Rocky Mountains, a much thicker and colder part of the continent, and that it will be effectively capped. Others contend that the cap won't stop the fury of the hot spot.

Smith and Christiansen can't say for sure, but they know the volcano is not dead. There is no reason, they say, it won't blow again.

Christiansen doubts the likelihood of another cataclysmic eruption any time soon, but he doesn't rule out something smaller. Earthquakes, rock slides, and steam explosions from geyser basins are all possible. A blowout on the scale of Mount St. Helens is conceivable, he said, adding: "We need to be prepared."

Copyright 2001 Ogden Publishing Corporation (for StandardNet)

New entry for SKEPTIC Bibliography


No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times
Dorothy Rabinowitz
2003, Wall Street Journal Books; 256p. psychology

Violet Amirault, her daughter Cheryl, and son Gerald ran the Fells Acres Day School in Massachusetts, and in the 1980's were found guilty of rapes and indecent assaults against children in their care. Rabinowitz documents how the three were not only innocent of the offenses; the offenses never even occurred, except in the minds of prosecutors, of so-called experts on child abuse, and of coached children. This clear and troubling book is a useful exposé of the horrific consequences of a moral panic, unskeptical acceptance of baseless psychological ideas, and a seriously flawed legal system. Gerald Amirault remains in prison.

[ Reviewed by Rob Hardy, robhardy@earthlink.net ]

Visit the full bibliography at http://www.csicop.org/bibliography/ Please consider submitting an entry yourself.

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC bibliographer

New entry for SKEPTIC Bibliography (Gauld: Survival)


Mediumship And Survival: A Century of Investigations
Alan Gauld
1982, Heinemann; xiv+287p., plates
survival, survival:defense

Alan Gauld is an academic psychologist who has written genuinely critical discussions of various aspects of the paranormal. In this book he presents evidence for survival based largely though not exclusively on mediumistic communications in the records of the British and American SPRs. Probably neither skeptics nor believers will like his conclusions, which are essentially non-committal. He finds that there is some evidence which is hard to discount, but it faces the difficulty that it is exceedingly difficult to explain how survival could occur in the face of the evident dependence of consciousness on the brain. It is possible to construct a rational case both for and against survival. Even if survival does occur, it may not be consoling. We could fade out gradually, or could survive in a zombie-like state. This is is probably the best modern discussion of the question that we have.

[ Reviewed by Anthony Campbell, ac@acampbell.org.uk ]

Visit the full bibliography at http://www.csicop.org/bibliography/
Please consider submitting an entry yourself.

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC bibliographer

New entry for SKEPTIC Bibliography (Bondeson: Medical Curiosities)


A Cabinet Of Medical Curiosities
Jan Bondeson
1997, Cornell University Press; 250p., illustrated
folklore, fraud, geographical, quackery, religion, science, shc, skepticism, superstition

Jan Bondeson, MD, PhD, describes numerous medical oddities in this fascinating volume. He introduces a topic, such as SHC, by describing several famous cases, then by describing how contemporary scientists explained them, the cases' similarity to folklore, their appearance in literature, then the modern medical explanation. Many of the topics Bondeson describes are bizarre and genuine. For each topic Bondeson emphasizes how easy it was for ordinary people to fool "learned men of the day," for example, the woman who gave birth to rabbits hoaxed England's Royal Anatomist. Bondeson includes chapters on stomach serpents, killer lice, gigantology (proving the literal truth of the bible from alleged skeletons of giants), premature burial, maternal impressions, tailed human races, conjoined twins, and the baboon-faced woman. This book is worth reading if you enjoy unusual medical phenomena, especially those with some truth underlying them.

[ Reviewed by Saffron Monsoon, smonsoon@yahoo.com ]

Visit the full bibliography at http://www.csicop.org/bibliography/
Please consider submitting an entry yourself.

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC bibliographer

Sunday, August 31, 2003


The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News
Number 651 August 28, 2003 by Phillip F. Schewe, Ben Stein, and
James Riordon

THE BIG RIP: A NEW COSMIC DOOMSDAY scenario takes the present acceleration of the expansion of the universe to new extremes. Dartmouth physicist Robert Caldwell and his colleagues Marc Kamionkowski and Nevin Weinberg at Caltech have determined that if the supposed dark energy responsible for the acceleration is potent enough not only will the space between galaxies continue to increase but that the galaxies themselves will fly apart as will, at successive times stars, planets, and even atoms and nuclei. Since the acceleration idea became established with astronomers a few years ago in the wake of observations of distant supernovae, it has been conventional to apportion the supposed energy inventory of the universe as follows: 5% in the form of conventional baryon matter (out of which atoms are made), 25% in the form of dark matter, and the biggest part, 70%, in the form of dark energy. Not a lot is known about dark matter, and even less about dark energy. Cosmologists have taken to discussing the enigmatic properties of the dark energy with the use of a new parameter, w, which is the ratio of its average pressure to energy density. The degree of this runaway expansion impulse is expressed by w. What is the nature of dark energy and how does it overcome the attractive pull of gravitation in order to speed up the cosmic expansion, and what is the proper value of w? In the best known model, the "cosmological constant" in Einstein's famous equations of general relativity corresponds to energy and pressure of the universal quantum vacuum, and is constant in space and time. Here the value of w is -1. In a second popular model, the "quintessence"model, the dark energy is associated with a universal quantum field relaxing towards some final state. Here the energy density and pressure of the dark energy are slowly decreasing with time, and the value of w is somewhere between -1/3 and -1 (w must be smaller than -1/3 in order for cosmic acceleration to occur).

In Caldwell's "phantom energy" model, there is no stable vacuum quantum state and the energy density and the expansionary pressure exerted on the universe seems to increase even as the spacetime itself expands (with ordinary gases, pressure falls with expansion). In this scenario w is less than -1. The implications of this new type of cosmology are that bound systems should in the course of time be ripped up (see figure at http://www.aip.org/mgr/png/2003/200.htm ). For example, at a w value of -1.5 the universe would last for 35 billion years before being ripped apart. About 60 million years before the end, the Milky Way would be torn apart. About 3 months before the end the solar system would become undone. About 30 minutes before that the Earth would explode. And about 10^-19 seconds before the ultimate moment of doom, atoms would be pulled apart. Caldwell (robert.r.caldwell@dartmouth.edu, 603-646-2742) suggests that deciding between this model and the others might be possible in coming years with much better data coming from microwave background, supernovae, and galaxy measurements. (Caldwell et al., Physical Review Letters, 15 August 2003; text at www.aip.org/physnews/select )

ULTRACOLD MOLECULAR BOSE GASES, where the gas consists of diatomic molecules of fermionic atoms (atoms with an overall half-integral spin value), provide two important opportunities---the chance to do high-precision spectroscopy of molecules and the chance to study the process by which fermions (normally unable to form into coherent quantum condensates) amalgamate into pairs. The pairs are bosons (entities with a whole-number valued spin) and can form condensates. Randy Hulet and his colleagues at Rice University, the first to engineer a Bose Einstein condensation (BEC) in lithium-7 atoms (http://www.aip.org/enews/physnews/1995/split/pnu237-1.htm ), have gotten a batch of Li-6 atoms to pair up (at least 50% of them at a time) at micro-kelvin temperatures by manipulating an external magnetic field. Although the group does not yet have evidence that the pairs, or molecules, have taken the final plunge by forming a BEC, the atoms have held together (in an optical trap) in their paired state for as long as 1 second, compared to millisecond times for previous experiments of this type. Hulet hopes that as the molecular gas hangs together long enough, it will cool off sufficiently through the evaporative process to form a BEC. Having a true BEC of molecules would give researchers the chance to study the Cooper pairing mechanism at work in superconductivity and in superfluidity of liquid helium-3. In ordinary molecules (joined by chemical forces) the constituents (atoms) are very close together. In the Cooper pairs characterizing superconductivity, the constituents (electrons) are only weakly coupled and are far apart from each other. Hulet and his group hope to dissociate the molecular condensate in order to produce Cooper pairs that fall in between these two cases, both as to the size and in the strength of the force holding the pairs together. One might even be able to simulate high-temperature superconductivity by loading ultracold fermion gases into an "optical lattice" consisting of crossed laser beams. (Strecker et al., Physical Review Letters, 22 August 2003; see figure at http://www.aip.org/mgr/png/2003/199.htm and lab website at http://atomcool.rice.edu; text at www.aip.org/physnews/select )

PHYSICS NEWS UPDATE is a digest of physics news items arising from physics meetings, physics journals, newspapers and magazines, and other news sources. It is provided free of charge as a way of broadly disseminating information about physics and physicists. For that reason, you are free to post it, if you like, where others can read it, providing only that you credit AIP. Physics News Update appears approximately once a week.

Controversial notion could be making its way into public schools


By Kevin Quinn
ABC13 Eyewitness News

(8/27/03 - MONTGOMERY CO) — It's a controversial move that some say could open the doors to teaching creationism in public schools. A local group is gathering signatures that would require science teachers in Montgomery County to teach a concept called 'Intelligent Design'.

Intelligent Design is a concept that suggests all of us and everything we know in this world were created intentionally by one single being. And volunteers have collected more than 1,000 signatures supporting the teaching of Intelligent Design at schools throughout Montgomery County.

"The science is about truth and that's what we're interested in -- the truth," said Jim Jenkins of the Republican Leadership Council.

Jenkins says his group has approached individual school board members at Magnolia and other Montgomery County school districts, asking that the schools allow equal time to theories that debunk evolution.

"The overwhelming evidence in many areas of science are pointing to a designer over something happening by chance," said Jenkins.

Lisa Hyder signed the petition supporting Intelligent Design.

"We want them to be able to think and to just present one point of view is limiting that," said Hyder.

Others, like Karen Palmisano, say this theory has no business inside a school.

"Intelligent Design is creationism," she said. "It's just another name."

Palmisano says teaching anything but evolution simply violates the Constitutionally protected separation of church and state.

"Intelligent Design is a religious concept and public schools are not supposed to be teaching religion.

This comes at a time when the state of Texas is working on selecting text books that will be used in science classes for the next decade.
(Copyright © 2003, KTRK-TV)

Last Updated: Aug 27, 2003

A statement of the Society of Physics Students regarding science education standards

NCSE is pleased to announce a further addition to Voices for Evolution: a 1999 statement from the Society of Physics Students, a unit of the American Institute of Physics, reading in part, "Ideas about the structure and evolution of the universe, including Earth and its life forms, are unifying concepts in science. The development of students' informed views about these concepts is essential to knowledge of science. These concepts should therefore be included as a part of science frameworks and curricula for all students."

For the full statement, go to http://www.ncseweb.org/article.asp?category=2, click on Statements from Scientific and Scholarly Organizations, and then click on the Society of Physics Students. And be sure to visit SPS's web site at http://www.aip.org/education/sps/index.html.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x 305
fax: 510-601-7204

Sage herb 'can boost memory'

Centuries-old theories that the herb sage can improve memory appear to be borne out by modern research.

Scientists at the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria tested 44 people, who were either given the herb or a dummy placebo pill.

They found that those given the sage oil tablets performed much better in a "word recall test".

Experts believe the active ingredient may boost levels of a chemical that helps transmit messages in the brain.

The Medicinal Plant Research Centre (MPRC) at the universities are testing many old-fashioned claims about the healing powers of herbs and flowers.

Sage is often referred to in ancient texts - in 1597 the herbalist John Gerard said that it was "singularly good for the head and quickeneth the nerves and memory."

This proves how valuable the work by the old herbalists was Nicola Tildsley, MPRC Researcher Nicola Tildsley said the results of the study proved that, in some cases at least, the herbalists should be taken seriously. She said: "This proves how valuable the work by the old herbalists was, and that they shouldn't just be ignored because they were writing centuries ago."

There are still question marks over the herb's ability to boost long-term memory, she said.

"Tests would need to be carried out on people over a longer period of time to prove that sage improves exam performance - but we don't have any plans to do this at present."

Alzheimer's aid

However, it is possible that the herb could help patients affected by Alzheimer's disease, she said.

Alzheimer's is accompanied in many cases by a drop in the same brain chemical boosted by sage in experiments.

It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which may also conceivably help - although this is still far from proven.

The centre has already embarked on a study to test the effect of the herb on Alzheimer's patients, and results from this are expected soon.

The memory study was published in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2003/08/28 23:15:38 GMT

Saturday, August 30, 2003

MIOS MEETING Metroplex Institute of Origin Science

Bryan Thomas, MS
Will Present An Illustrated Lecture on

The Origin Of Life

Bryan Thomas has a Master of Science degree in Biotechnology from Stephen F. Austin State University. He teaches high school and college Biology at Ovilla Christian School located about 20 miles south of Dallas in Ovilla, Texas. He also serves as Research Assistant at the Creation Evidence Museum.

He is well qualified to describe the many problems confronting scientist who try to explain the origin of life naturalistically. He will demonstrate with a well-illustrated PowerPoint presentation that each of the parameters of this issue presents an unanswered challenge for evolutionists. Far from the glib claims of proof parroted in the textbooks, dilemma after dilemma face those trying to explain the origin of life without a designer.

This is an area of science where the answers are obvious but stubbornly refused by the naturalistic establishment.

Bucky Auditorium
Medical Office Building
2126 Research Row, Dallas, TX
Tuesday, September 2nd, 7:30 PM

Faith Healing Gone Wrong Claims Boy's Life



August 29, 2003

MILWAUKEE, Aug. 28 Terrance Cottrell Jr., an autistic 8-year-old, died on the floor of a hot, dingy storefront church in a forgotten strip mall.

His shirt was drenched in sweat when the congregants who were holding him down, saying they wanted to rid him of demons, finally noticed that he was dead. He had urinated on himself, and his small brown face had a bluish cast.

Terrance, who was supposed to start third-grade special-education classes at 65th Street Elementary School next Tuesday morning, will instead be buried here on Friday, exactly a week after he died of asphyxiation, a victim of the prayer service intended to save him. The medical examiner has ruled the death a homicide.

As relatives and neighbors on the city's North Side mourned for Terrance this week with small tributes three stuffed animals and a few room-deodorizer candles on the window ledge of his apartment, a photocopy of his picture taped to the church door some also denounced prosecutors' plans for the case as far too lenient.

Ray A. Hemphill, a 45-year-old preacher who led the spiritual healing service for Terrance last Friday night, has been charged with felony child abuse, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and five years of court supervision. No one else involved in the service has been charged.

According to the criminal complaint against Mr. Hemphill, he told investigators that he had been leading sessions to help Terrance for three weeks before the boy's death. During those sessions, Mr. Hemphill said, he and others would pray, sing and force Terrance to lie on the floor, holding down his feet, arms, head and chest when he struggled to get up, kicking and scratching.

The point, Mr. Hemphill said, was to deliver the boy from demons that were believed to possess him, as revealed by his erratic behavior: the way he jumped from his chair and made loud noises.

Mr. Hemphill was freed from jail on Wednesday until his next court hearing, on Sept. 8, on the condition that he promise to conduct no further spiritual healing sessions or exorcisms. He could not be reached for comment today, but investigators quoted him as saying he had received no formal training as a minister, aside from a calling from the Lord, and had been ordained by his brother.

The brother, David E. Hemphill, pastor of the tiny, independent Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith, where Terrance died, said the Hemphill family would have nothing more to say about what had happened.

But Mary Luckett, Terrance's grandmother, said that the spiritual healing sessions should never have occurred and that Mr. Hemphill ought to face more serious charges.

"How can a child be dead and these people get charged with child abuse?" Ms. Luckett said. "I can't even understand what these people are thinking. I don't care if it was a church. I don't care what they were trying to do."

Prosecutors defended their decision to pursue nothing more than abuse charges against Mr. Hemphill, saying that under Wisconsin law, they could not win a conviction for second-degree reckless homicide, or some even more serious homicide charge, without proving that he had been aware that his actions could create a substantial risk. That would have been difficult to show, if not impossible, said Mark Williams, an assistant district attorney.

"That is a subjective test," Mr. Williams said. "What matters from a legal sense is what was in his mind when he was doing what he was doing. And in his mind, he was trying to help this child."

That religious practices were involved complicates the legal situation, Mr. Williams acknowledged. "This wasn't a normal situation," he said.

Critics, including some legal scholars, said the case reflected a general discomfort among prosecutors with trying to draw lines where religion is involved.

"If the child had died in a home, there'd be a whole array of charges, maybe including child abuse but also homicide, or manslaughter," said Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York. "When a religious entity enters the picture, prosecutors get very nervous."

Professor Hamilton described a child abuse charge in such a case as "extraordinarily weak" and said the decision sent a devastating signal.

"It sends a message that if you are doing anything whether it's holding down a child or refusing to give them medical treatment, or whatever it is if it's religious, then they're not accountable to the laws," she said. "And that's not right."

Terrance, whose autism was diagnosed when he was 2 years old, was not an easy child, acknowledged Ms. Luckett, his grandmother. He rarely talked, and when he did, it was only a word or two. Neighborhood children said he snatched their ice-cream bars from them. His younger sister, a toddler, was the only one he seemed to obey, Ms. Luckett said.

He was being reared by his mother, Pat Cooper, who is single and in her late 20's. She had a relationship with Ms. Luckett's son, the boy's father, which ended long ago, Ms. Luckett said. Repeated visits to Ms. Cooper's home this week found her gone, and she has no listed telephone number.

Ms. Cooper, who met Mr. Hemphill and joined the church a few months ago, was part of the evening prayer sessions for her son, including the fatal one last Friday, the police said.

That night, Ms. Cooper held down one of Terrance's feet, investigators quoted her as saying, while two other women held down other parts of his body, and Mr. Hemphill held his head and body down. By the police account, Ms. Cooper told the investigators that at one point she saw Mr. Hemphill's knee pressed into the boy's chest. And Mr. Hemphill, who weighs nearly 150 pounds, acknowledged lying on top of the boy, chest to chest, the police said.

The medical examiner later found extensive bruising on the back of Terrance's neck, and said he had died of mechanical asphyxiation from pressure placed on his chest. Mr. Hemphill is quoted as saying that about two hours into the praying and the struggling, he got up, but Terrance was still.

Martin Gardner, reaching 89, a national intellectual treasure


By Michael Pakenham
Sun Staff
Originally published August 24, 2003

I seldom discuss on these pages, or assign to other reviewers, books comprised of material that has been previously published. There are just so many new books (about 100,000 a year in the United States alone), and so little time and space. Yet I cannot resist making an exception for Martin Gardner.

I do it not because Gardner, who is 89, is once again threatening that this book - he has published more than 70 previous ones - will be his last. I do it because I know of no one in my lifetime who has so consistently, voluminously and wisely brought common sense and comprehensible science into the noble war against quackery. I do it also because I love his work, and, reading for a living as I do, I seldom have time to read books I am not going to write about.

So now comes his Are Universes Thicker than Blackberries: Discourses on Godel, Magic Hexagrams, Little Red Riding Hood, and Other Mathematical and Pseudoscience Topics (Norton, 352 pages, $25.95).

Gardner is a living national treasure and a phenomenon of mind and nature. Many of the pieces in this most recent anthology are no more than two or three years old - written when he was 86 or 87. Yet Gardner's essays draw on an apparently limitless fund of literary, historical, scientific and social archives readily accessible in his mind. Gardner seems to write indefatigably, swiftly and prolifically. The pieces ring loud with clarity of expression, breadth and depth of recall and crackling energy.

When he was a freshman at the University of Chicago in 1932, he intended to transfer to California Institute of Technology to study physics. Instead, he backed into philosophy. And then into a writing job. He worked as a reporter for the Tulsa Tribune. His work went into journals, magazines and newspapers. His previous books have included two novels, plus work on literature and philosophy, as well as science and mathematics.

For 25 years, he wrote a column called "Mathematical Games" for Scientific American, which he served as mathematics editor. He has written extensively on Lewis Carroll - including two books that have been combined into his Annotated Alice, (Norton, 312 pages, $29.95) a brilliant guide. A few years ago, he compiled and edited a collection of Favorite Poetic Parodies (Prometheus, 200 pages, $25), which is a delight.

While his storehouse of knowledge is immense, what endures - most of all - in Gardner's writing is his skepticism. He has been and remains a hero and a major leader among practical and literate people who reject the superstitions, imbecilities and frauds of astrology, the occult, UFOs, channeling, pseudo-medicines and other such fads.

Four of these articles were originally published in Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, edited by Gordon Stein, delightful investigations of spirit mediums and professional magic - which often have overlapped. Gardner is a great fan of the craft and history of magic, and declares here that "Because magicians are the world's experts on the art of deception, it is one of the scandals of psychic research that investigators, except on rare occasions, will not seek the aid of knowledgeable conjurors when they test psychics who perform feats unexplainable by natural laws."

Some bits and pieces in this collection are three or four pages long, others far more extensive. Some are book reviews, others journal essays and magazine articles. They are grouped by subject: science, mathematics, religion, and literature - but many of them might well fall into all four of those categories.

He is as careful and as learned - and as clear of language - about arguments over the theological differences between St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as he is over mathematical puzzles and proofs or attempted proofs of theorems that defy the most intricate mathematical minds on Earth.

One the pieces that most moved and delighted me is Gardner's introduction to a 1999 edition of G.K. Chesterton's immortal, The Man Who Was Thursday (Ignatius, 1999, .xx pages, $YY). That novel stands as a brilliant exposition of the ambiguity of goodness - examining the paradox of how immense evils can exist in the world if there actually is a God. Gardner's conclusions are wise and persuasive. He is a believer, though a deeply skeptical one.

Many of the essays are expanded versions of their original appearances as book reviews in newspapers or magazines, or his columns for The Skeptical Inquirer, a bimonthly magazine published by the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which he has written for since its beginning in 1976.

He detests Ernest Hemingway - the man and his work. His piece expanded from a 2001 Skeptical Inquirer essay "Ernest Hemingway and Jane" is enormously revealing. However one feels about the man - and I remain far fonder of his work than Gardner is - Hemingway emerges as an almost incomparable bully and lout.

In another piece, he writes lovingly and eloquently about Edgar Wallace - now virtually forgotten but at one time and for many years well into the 1920s the most prolific writer in the English language. There is a learned essay on The Woodsman of Oz, Frank Baum's first Oz book. There is a delightful piece examining Little Red Riding Hood, and ridiculing, with a lethal scalpel, psychoanalytic interpretations of fairy tales. He detests Bruno Bettleheim almost intensely as he does Ernest Hemingway.

If this is Martin Gardner's final book, it will be a great loss for readers of sensitivity and intellectual curiosity. So, just in case he makes good on his threat, I would urge you to buy this one. And if you don't know his work, have a careful look at the cornucopia of wisdom and wit in his earlier volumes.

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun

Media bungled clone claim coverage


News outlets failed dismally in reporting on Clonaid
By Art Caplan, Ph.D.

Jan. 3 — I do not believe chemist Brigitte Boisselier and her cloning company Clonaid, which is sponsored by the manifestly crazy cult known as the Raelians, have created a clone. I do believe that a number of negative ramifications have resulted since Boisselier appeared just after Christmas in a tacky Hollywood, Fla., motel room to announce to the world that the first cloned human had been born. And the blame for these unfortunate events must be laid squarely at the feet of the media.

AS SOON as I heard about the Raelians' cloning claim, I knew it was nonsense. The group has no scientific or medical experience, published no articles or reports in any peer-reviewed journals related to cloning and produced absolutely no proof of their claim. Cloning has barely worked in animal species — maybe 1 in 100 live animals have been born per attempt — and a number of animal species have proven impossible to clone at all, including dogs and all primates. Clonaid officials' claims that the company has been successful in five of 10 attempts are simply incredible on their face. And now Clonaid is beginning to waffle on whether there will be any DNA testing allowed on the alleged clone baby, thereby making its claim completely worthless.

Soon after the story broke, I began a week of appearances on television and radio, and gave a host of newspaper interviews, all in an effort to try to debunk Clonaid. As I did so, I became increasingly angry about the media coverage of this non-event.

Some might ask, "So what if media coverage was bad? What difference does it really make if these latest cloning claims are simply a cult's way of raising money and recruiting new members? The cult members make for great television with their leader's "Starfleet Command" uniform and Boisselier's exotic appearance.

What is the problem with giving some air time to what at times is a vaguely amusing story about a UFO cult and its cloning fantasies?"

Unfortunately, when the media give voice to a disreputable cult in this way, great harm is done. For starters, the cult is using the media both to raise money from vulnerable people and to recruit new followers. In addition, some anti-abortion advocates, including President Bush and key Republican leaders, are using the cult's claims to advance their agenda to ban all types of cloning, regardless of whether it's for reproductive purposes or vital medical research.

To top it off, fringe scientists have been able to enhance their status by beating up on one of their own.

And, at the end of the day, the public comes away from the Raelian cloning story terrified by advances in genetics, the very science that holds the key to solving some of the biggest challenges human beings will face in this century.

Despite 24-hour media attention to the story, the American people have been left confused, scared and clueless.

Most Americans now believe that human cloning either has been done or will be done very soon, whereas most experts believe the opposite.

One example of this kind of misleading reporting is William Saletan's online article in Slate on Dec. 31. He writes: "Most scientists doubt Eve is a clone, but they agree on two things. First, the various groups that have been trying to clone a human will succeed pretty soon, if they haven't already."

The public also has been told that cloning devalues life, is linked to abortion and is a tool to raise the dead as well as to manufacture armies of clones. For an example, take a look at Cal Thomas' article "Why Not Cloning?" published by Tribune Media Services on Jan. 1. It is sheer nonsense.

Americans were not being told that Boisselier, Clonaid's chief scientist, is a chemist with no background in medicine or biology. She has never been published in a scientific journal related to cloning, given lectures on cloning or shown any expertise in cloning.

In addition, some of the so-called scientists used by the media — including CNN, MSNBC, Fox and The New York Times — to challenge Clonaid's claims score nearly as high on the "fruitball-ometer" as Boisselier and Rael. They include the discredited Panos Zavos and the kooky Italian clone-scientist-wanna-be Severino Antinori.

The message the public receives from this indiscriminate coverage is that science has no standards. CNN aired Boisselier's Dec. 27 "news conference" live. She produced no mother, no baby, no DNA test, no description of cloning methods and no independent corroboration. In short, no proof — no nothing.

There is no scientist who could get this kind of coverage with this kind of rambling drivel. But the Raelians did.

As soon as Clonaid said it had no proof to present, any serious media coverage of the story should have ended.

Also, the public has barely been told that Clonaid has a history of fraud. In 2001, it managed to scam Mark Hunt, a lawyer and former West Virginia state legislator whose 10-month-old son had died of heart disease. Hunt spent $200,000 on a project backed by Clonaid to bring his baby back. Ultimately, the Food and Drug Administration shut down the program, which clearly could not have cloned anything given that the expert involved was a graduate student with no background in cloning.

The American people are facing a real political choice about cloning. They must decide whether it should be used for stem cell research, or for making babies or people, or not at all. In light of the media coverage of the Raelians' cloning fantasies, the public could not possibly understand that choice.

To further confuse the issue, the media consistently allow politicians to get away with fuzzing their view on research as opposed to reproductive cloning. When lawmakers say they are for a ban on cloning, any journalist worth his or her salt should be asking, "For research, too?" Most have not.

The media have shown themselves incapable of covering the key social and intellectual phenomena of the 21st century, namely the revolution in genetics and biology. This revolution is sweeping into medicine and will soon revolutionize our understanding of human nature and behavior. It will fundamentally alter the way we make plants and animals, may cause us to rethink how we reproduce and offers the prospect of improving or enhancing our genetic makeup.

But despite the enormous importance of these issues, most Americans now associate genetics with a man with a ponytail in a white outfit who thinks that he can live forever by downloading his memories into a cloned body.

We must learn from this fiasco.

The media simply have to do a better job in reporting on science and medicine. Public policy on cloning or other possibilities presented by our exploding knowledge of genetics cannot be based on the pronouncements of cults, kooks and con men.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Editor's note: MSNBC.com covered the Clonaid story and featured it on our home page.

Alternative fusion machine limbers up

By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Scientists have taken another stride forward in the quest to develop fusion power - the energy source that powers the Sun and other stars.

Fusion promises relatively cheap energy - the fuel is seawater - with far fewer pollution problems compared with conventional nuclear power. But the path to this technology has been long and expensive, with no commercial generation in sight.

Now, US scientists have created a hot, dense plasma that produces thermonuclear neutrons - a step, they say, towards harnessing nuclear fusion energy they say.

The Z machine

To generate fusion power, atoms, usually light atoms like deuterium and tritium - isotopes of hydrogen - have to be forced to combine. This releases vast amounts of energy.

The problem is that forcing these atoms to fuse requires the use of superhot gasses, called plasmas, confined by intense magnetic fields. So far, success has been encouraging but limited.

An alternative method is to compress a pellet by firing powerful laser beams at it from all directions in the hope of forcing its atoms to fuse. Again, there has been encouraging but limited success.

The researchers at the Sandia National Laboratory in America have approached the problem in a slightly different way with their "Z machine". The Z machine does not confine low-density plasmas in strong magnetic fields, nor does it focus intense laser beams on a target.

Instead, it uses huge pulses of electricity applied with careful timing. The pulses create intense magnetic fields that crush tungsten wires into a foam cylinder to produce X-rays.

Towards high-yield

The action takes place within a small container, called a hohlraum, the size of a pencil eraser, positioned at the centre of the Z machine, itself 36 metres (120 feet) across.

The X-ray energy, striking the surface of a target capsule embedded in the foam cylinder, produces a shock wave that compresses deuterium within the capsule, fusing enough deuterium to produce neutrons - the signature of fusion.

The scientists say that while they have achieved fusion, an important step, their short-term goal is to achieve ignition, the point at which a fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining.

They envisage a much bigger machine than the Z that could achieve so-called high-yield fusion, which means that more energy is given out from the process than it takes to initiate it. "Pulsed-power electrical systems have always been energy-rich but power-poor," says Ray Leeper of Sandia.

"That is, we can deliver a lot of energy, but it wasn't clear we could concentrate it on a small enough area to create fusion. Now it seems clear we can do that."

Measurements indicated that the Z machine can produce 10 billion neutrons from a compressed deuterium target, in line with predictions.

The researchers say it is a start but there is a long way to go before any significant amounts of fusion power are produced by the Z machine or its successors.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2003/04/08 15:11:

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