The Harm Psychics Do, Continued

You know, I was going to write about the Pastafarian who won the right to wear a metal colander on his head for his driver's license photo - but by the time I got home from work yesterday, half a dozen other atheist bloggers had already posted about it, so never mind. Here's something a little heavier instead.

I wrote a post in 2008, The Harm Psychics Do, about a self-proclaimed psychic who announced on the basis of no evidence that a local woman's autistic daughter was being molested. Thankfully, that claim was conclusively disproved by evidence and went no further. But not all flirtations with woo have such a satisfying ending. Sometimes, people trust the reassuring lies of psychics and pay dearly for it, as this jaw-droppingly horrifying story shows:

Mr Day, 60, revealed he had already planned his suicide as he spoke with Mrs Stack in a session that was recorded on a CD.

She told him: "I would understand why you would do that." She later said: "Well you go with my blessing then" - adding: "If you do die, come back and have a cup of tea and a chat with me."

When a despairing client announced that he was contemplating suicide, this loathsome psychic pretender told him to go ahead and do it - and then encouraged him to come back afterward and have a chat with him from the afterlife. And a few days later, sure enough, he went home and fatally shot himself. He called the police just before he did it, and when they called back, they got a voice-mail message saying, "If you want to contact me, you'll have to get in touch with a clairvoyant."

As I've written before, the religious teachings about an afterlife distort morality by making this life seem less real or less important by comparison. This fraud was no doubt just following her usual line of patter when she told her client that death isn't the end of consciousness, but a mere transition into another world from which he could return at will. And while that wasn't the whole cause of his suicide, it certainly was a contributing factor, as his last voice-mail message shows.

The defense she offered at the inquest was that she was only an "entertainer" - i.e., someone not qualified to help with people's serious personal problems, which begs the question of why she was passing herself off as one. And then there's this:

The ex-Samaritan said her training meant she could not break the confidence of anyone, even if they planned to die.

Even if "psychics" are under the same legal restrictions on disclosure as psychiatrists or real counselors, which I doubt (and, in the U.S. at least, even a doctor can report a client to the police if they believe he's in imminent danger) - there's a cryingly obvious point: She didn't have to encourage him to kill himself! Was she really so malicious to say this to a suicidal stranger, and if so, why? Or, worse, does she genuinely believe that death isn't harmful, in which case she might well give this advice to more people in the future? ("Lost your job? Getting a divorce? Go ahead and kill yourself! Things will be much better on the other side.")

By definition, most of the people who seek psychics' help are either gullible, desperate, or both. This makes the potential harm of bad advice much worse, and this story is a tragic example. Charlatans enriching themselves by telling people soothing lies is bad enough, but causing death and chaos in the real world is far worse. The lesson we should learn is that, whether it's traditional orthodox hate and hellfire or New Age fashionable nonsense, there's no such thing as harmless woo, which makes it imperative to defend reason and expose these con artists for what they are.

July 14, 2011, 10:05 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink20 comments

I Am An Atom of Atheism

The blog Ungodly News has created a whimsical periodic table of atheism, and I was surprised and pleased to find out that I'm on it:

I'm an actinide, if you can't find me - one of the green rows on the bottom, labeled as "The Wicked of the Web". I'd never have counted myself as one of the basic and indivisible elements of atheism, but given the distinguished company I'm listed among, this is a true honor! You may now commence the jokes about making compounds of atheists...

In other news, here's a quick link roundup:

• I was happy to hear that Geert Wilders has been acquitted by a Dutch court, putting an end to the shameful prosecution of a man for exercising the right of free speech. Whatever one thinks of Wilders' ideas, the correct way to respond to an argument is with another argument, not the threat of punishment. The court's ruling recognized this principle, even if it disappointingly described his opinion as "the edge of what is allowed".

• The self-help guru James Arthur Ray has been convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three people in a sweat lodge at an October 2009 retreat he organized. Woo is not harmless, not even the vague and fluffy-headed New Age variety.

• Via Andrew Sullivan, this haunting and gorgeous short film of Saturn and its moons, made by splicing together thousands of still images from the Cassini mission.

• In the wake of (unfortunately small and sporadic) protests by women across Saudi Arabia asking for the right to drive, a Saudi Arabian doctor has appealed for the right to choose her own husband. The fact that women are still denied these incredibly basic human freedoms ought to be a cause for national embarrassment in this ignorant and backwards theocracy.

• Via Slacktivist, an evangelical pastor tries valiantly to silence his own flickers of conscience over the doctrine of eternal damnation:

"It is clear that Bell is not comfortable with the idea that billions of people may suffer in hell. But then, who is comfortable with that? The majority of evangelicals who hold to the orthodox understanding of hell... are troubled by its implications."

Maybe those evangelicals should consider listening to their consciences for once.

June 26, 2011, 4:07 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

News Flash: Psychics Still Useless

You may have heard about this bizarre story out of Texas this week, where a self-proclaimed psychic called police with a tip that a certain home was the site of a mass grave containing dozens of dismembered bodies, including the bodies of children. A swarm of reporters, FBI agents and Texas Rangers promptly converged on the address, bringing cameras, news helicopters and cadaver-sniffing dogs.

At first they found spots of blood on the porch, seemingly proving that the psychic tip-off was good as gold. But after obtaining a search warrant and examining the property in more detail, they found that the blood had a mundane explanation, and there were no bodies, no mass grave, and indeed no indication of any crime at all.

"With the assistance of various agencies out here at the scene," Captain Evans said, "we were able to search the premises after the arrival of a search warrant, and we have no indication that there are in fact any bodies located in the residence, the shed, or any property here at the scene."

(Some news agencies excitedly and mistakenly reported at first that bodies had been found, only to be forced to retract that claim subsequently.)

Are any of us surprised? Of course not, because as this story demonstrates further, all psychics are worthless frauds and con artists. Shame on the Texas police for not knowing that from the beginning and treating her "tip" as the useless hoax it was. How do they justify this colossal waste of time and resources chasing a wild claim from a posturing charlatan?

"Some of the information that was provided to us did specifically match information we found at the scene," Mr. Evans said.

Ah yes, of course. Because there was in fact a house at the location described by the tipster, that means that the wild claim of a mass grave was plausible? This reminds me of the Christian apologists who say that if the places described in the New Testament were real, that proves that Jesus really did walk on water and come back from the dead. You can't justify an extraordinary claim with merely ordinary evidence.

The obvious explanation for how the tipster was able to describe the house is that it's someone who knows the people who live there. That was in fact suggested by one of the homeowners, who believes the source was a mentally unstable neighbor with a vendetta against them. The Texas police say they plan to track down the tipster and charge her with filing a false police report, as they should, and I hope this embarrassment is an object lesson to them the next time some deluded person calls in with another wild story.

But the most comical part of it all is the "real" psychics claiming - wait for it - that this sort of thing makes them look bad!

"Oh my God, now we're all going to get a black eye," was Jacki Mari's first thought when she heard that a false tip from a psychic had led law enforcement officers on a fruitless search for a mass grave in East Texas on Tuesday night.

Ms. Mari, also known as Sherlockjackie, has, by her own reckoning, helped solve more than 400 murders and missing persons cases around the world -- all without leaving her office outside Chicago. Her own psychic powers -- she calls it "extrasensory intelligence" -- told her that the informant's tip was spurious, Ms. Mari said...

You'll also note that, once again, a credulous media has given a pretender unrebutted column space to claim they've "helped" in dozens of cases, without debunking this claim or even asking for follow-up details about which cases these were. The standard M.O. for psychics in a real police investigation is to provide dozens of tips, ranging from the absurdly specific but unverifiable to the uselessly vague ("The body will be found near water," "The body will be found near a church"), and then claiming that they "helped" if any of those statements turn out in retrospect to be true - even if many more of them are wrong, and even if the "psychic"'s advice played no role in actually helping the police find the body or catch the criminal. (Another classic example was the "remote viewing" company which wrongly claimed kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart was dead.)

When a psychic can provide a convincing demonstration of their powers in a controlled test, I'll believe there may be something to their claims. Until and unless that ever happens, the only reasonable conclusion is that psychics are all either self-deluded or deliberate fraudsters, and don't deserve to be taken seriously by the police or anyone else.

June 10, 2011, 12:22 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink37 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

I noticed a few stories this week that I haven't had time to write more about, but wanted to mention briefly:

• So-called "psychics" defraud their gullible customers out of thousands of dollars, usually through laughably obvious ploys in which they claim the client's money needs to be "cleansed". Can we please regulate these con artists already? Or should we even try - do the suckers deserve what they get?

• And proving that corruption and hypocrisy crosses denominational lines, a Greek Orthodox "holy man" is sentenced to 15 years in prison for raping two women by convincing them that having sex with him was the only way to rid themselves of curses.

• Couldn't have put it better myself: Stephen Hawking says that the afterlife is "a fairy story for people afraid of the dark".

• The tight link between religion, education and income in America. The non-religious are up there, although it's Hindus, oddly enough, who take the crown.

• And although this is in no way related to atheism, it was too cool not to share: Google is lobbying Nevada to legalize self-driving robot cars, which the software giant has been quietly testing for some time.

I've always thought driving was a tedious chore, and I can't wait for cars that can do it for me. Not only would it be extremely convenient, it'll almost certainly be safer: a robot car never falls asleep at the wheel, never drives drunk, never lets its attention wander, and ought to be able to react to hazards much faster than a human. We are entering the future, and I for one can't wait to see it!

May 17, 2011, 8:11 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments

Swimming in a Sea of Pseudoscience

This past weekend, I was out at brunch when I saw a rack of free magazines in the restaurant's foyer. I picked out one of them, which as it turned out was a promotional brochure and schedule for something called the New Life Expo to be held in New York City this coming weekend.

I read on, and the further into it I got, the more appalled I was. If you thought that humanity was entering a new and enlightened age, this magazine will force you to reconsider. If you took your impressions of the human race from these pages, you'd have to conclude that we're barely keeping our heads above water in a sea of irrationality, one that freely blends religious mysticism and pseudoscientific gibberish alike. Every kind of nonsense that human beings have ever invented is bursting from these pages - and I don't doubt that this expo will attract legions of the duped, the gullible, and the woolly-headed to feed from the trough.

One of the recurring themes among presenters at the expo is 2012. They're all tremendously excited by the imminent arrival of this year, and they're certain, with the infallible certainty of all good apocalyptic prophets, that something momentous is going to happen. The amusing thing is that they don't agree about what it is. Among the possibilities touted are life-threatening catastrophes and pole shifts, the battle of Armageddon, the emergence of an Antichrist-led global tyranny, life-altering waves of light, the creation of glorified bodies by the Archangel Metatron, a great cosmic awakening, and more:

Some of the presenters at this event, I'm sure, are simple con artists who are cynically exploiting the gullible by learning the right buzzwords to stir into their word salad ("ascended", "enlightened", "indigo", "vibration", "natural", "angelic", "harmony", "dimension", "shamanic" and "consciousness" are perennial favorites). But it's the sincere ones that concern me more. At least some of these people are probably mentally ill, but they're not getting the help they need because they're surrounded by fellow-believers, creating an environment where psychiatric delusions are normalized and rewarded rather than recognized as symptoms. Here are two likely examples:

Like the demon-obsessed evangelicals who treat mental illness as an event of religious significance rather than a medical condition, New Agers are discouraging the genuinely sick from seeking help and treatment. Their endless doctrinal flexibility and limitless tolerance for the absurd are part of the reason for this. But I can't believe that no one among the organizers of this event noticed the symptoms or drew the obvious conclusion. It's more likely that they just see this as an additional source of income, whatever the consequences.

And money, of course, is a huge motive of the expo's organizers and presenters; they're not even shy about it. Ironically, some ads rail against the profit-driven corporatocracy and the greed of the mega-wealthy while hawking their own products and charging hundreds or thousands of dollars a pop for seminars and private consultations. Others promise that they can teach conference-goers the infallible way to acquire fabulous wealth for themselves, using the law of attraction, astrology, or whatever other fashionable nonsense is in vogue. Still others run the classic snake-oil salesman's game of enriching themselves by selling false hope to the desperate, promising good health with no effort or magical cures for incurable diseases. The cures on offer run the gamut: psychic powers, prayer, ionized water, "far infrared light" (a new one to me), fad diets, "detoxification", and classic scams like the Rife machine. One unintentionally hilarious ad apparently touts a raw-food diet as a means of healing gunshot wounds.

Most of the ads also display the credential inflation so common among pseudoscientists. Since most of their "specialties" require no knowledge and no certification, why not claim as many as you can? If one kind of bait doesn't hook a potential client, maybe another one will! In that vein, here's one who claims to be an MD as well as "an ordained rabbi in the Baal Shem Tov lineage, clan chief of the Lakota Spirit Dance, a Native American Sundancer, and a lineage holder in the Nityananda liberation tradition, and acknowledged as liberated by his two recognized enlightened spiritual teachers. He is an in-depth teacher in Advaita Vedanta, japa yoga, bhakti yoga, nada yoga, and karma yoga." (Busy fellow! - and he must be absolutely up to his eyeballs in student-loan debt.)

Like the Learning Annex, the organizers of the New Life Expo believe that appealing to the lowest common denominator is a can't-miss money-making strategy, and they're not wrong about that. For the most part, human beings are eager to be swindled, and lack the critical thinking skills needed to tell the difference between science and bullshit. I'd like to say that, unlike the theocratic believers organizing to take over the state, their brand of woo is harmless - but to people who let psychics make all their important life decisions, who rely on colonic cleanses rather than chemotherapy, or who encourage and enable psychotics and schizophrenics, it's not harmless at all.

March 18, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink20 comments

Weekend Link Miscellany

I've got a couple of links this weekend, some atheism-related, some not:

• Lost a digital camera lately? It made me smile to find out about I Found Your Camera, a website helping to reunite lost cameras with their owners.

• After the terrible and entirely preventable deaths of three people during a "sweat lodge" ceremony last year, the New Age community in Sedona is suffering a tourist backlash. Is this what it takes to make people realize that pseudoscientific gibberish is not harmless?

• "The most rapidly growing religious category today is composed of those Americans who say they have no religious affiliation." An excellent piece on the rise of atheism among young people, due in part to obnoxious evangelicals insisting that conservative politics are a prerequisite for believing in God. (Thanks, guys!)

• NPR covers the founding of a secular student group at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. (See also).

• The FFRF stops Christian proselytizing at a Tennessee public school. One board member complains that anyone who didn't want to hear the prayers could just "put their fingers in their ears".

• A wonderful meditation on atheist spirituality. (HT: Unequally Yoked)

• And lastly, any female readers want to advance the course of science? My brother is working on his graduate thesis, and he's looking for volunteers to take this study on female sexual response. It's completely anonymous and doesn't collect any personal information.

October 23, 2010, 7:06 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

An Opportunity Suggests Itself

On the flight back from my honeymoon, I noticed an ad on my airplane promoting this sweepstakes - and my attention was drawn to the grand prize:

Win a one-on-one meeting with the renowned author and mind-body expert, Deepak Chopra, M.D. and rejuvenate your spirit with his Seduction of Spirit Retreat at the Chopra Center. Dr. Chopra is a global force in the field of human empowerment and the prolific author of fourteen bestsellers on mind-body health, quantum mechanics, spirituality and peace. Time Magazine heralds Dr. Chopra as one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century and credits him as "the poet-prophet of alternative medicine."

If you're not familiar with Deepak Chopra, there's a detailed summary at the Skeptic's Dictionary. Suffice it to say that he's a physician who realized that peddling pseudoscience was much easier and more profitable than actually curing sick people. His repertoire includes generous doses of garbled nonsense that tries to connect quantum mechanics with ancient Indian superstitions, plenty of woo-woo New Age creationism, a healthy disdain for atheists, and most bizarrely of all, the claim that one can reverse the aging process by an effort of will.

So much for Chopra. But it occurred to me, why should one of his many credulous, worshipful followers win this award? Wouldn't it be great if the one-on-one meeting was with a knowledgeable skeptic who could take this pompous fraud to task? Granted, it probably wouldn't accomplish much; but the chance to prick Chopra's bliss bubble, to force him for once in his life to face genuine criticism, is too good to pass up. And the public embarrassment it would cause him could provide some welcome, entertaining press for the skeptic movement.

So, I'm seriously considering entering this sweepstakes. The contest is open until June 25, so there's plenty of time for skeptics to get on the bandwagon. Anyone else who'd relish the chance to confront Chopra want to throw their hat into the ring along with me?

May 31, 2010, 1:31 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink12 comments

Popular Delusions: Out-of-Body Experiences

Most religious people believe in the soul, an ethereal locus of consciousness that separates from the body upon physical death and travels elsewhere to receive its reward. To people who hold this belief, it's a natural next step to guess that the soul or spirit could sometimes leave a person's body while they're still alive and travel to distant places on its own initiative. Such is the belief in out-of-body experiences, the subject of today's Popular Delusions post.

Belief in OBEs is probably as old as humanity. The Bible alludes to a man who was "caught up to the third heaven", "whether in the body... or whether out of the body, I cannot tell" (2 Corinthians 12:2-3), and the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah claims to describe that famous prophet caught up out of his body and taken to heaven to witness prefigurements of Christianity. However, OBEs today are mostly the province of New Age believers, who usually refer to them as "astral projection".

Although many purported OBEs involve voyages to dreamlike, conveniently unverifiable "spiritual realms" (where meetings with Jesus, guardian angels, and other religious figures are guaranteed crowd-pleasers), the existence of the phenomenon is an eminently testable claim. All that would be needed is for a person having an OBE to travel to some distant location, view it, and then give accurate details of their experience that could not have been obtained through normal sensory channels. Alas, all such attempts have come up short.

One of the most famous was the planetary voyage of the psychic Ingo Swann, who was enlisted by ESP researchers Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff to take an astral voyage to Jupiter. As reported by Swann, Jupiter was an eerie and compellingly beautiful place, with a surface of shifting sand dunes, enormous mountain ranges, and lakes or oceans in which icebergs floated. These marvelous discoveries were only slightly tarnished by the fact that none of them turned out to be true; Jupiter is a gas giant with no solid surface. Not to be deterred, Swann later claimed that he must have accidentally overshot Jupiter and traveled into another solar system entirely, and was describing a different planet which he saw there.

Other tests of OBEs, though more modest, proved equally flawed. The best-known were carried out by Charles Tart, such as this one on a subject who claimed she had experiences in which she left her sleeping body and floated up to the ceiling or through the walls of the room. Tart claims that his subject correctly perceived a remote target consisting of a five-digit random number during an OBE, but his methodology was less than rigorous:

The sleep laboratory consisted of two rooms... A large window was between the rooms for viewing, but in this experiment it was covered with a Venetian blind in order that the subject's room could be reasonably dark for sleeping. An intercom system allowed hearing anything the subject said. I monitored the recording equipment throughout the night while the subject slept and kept notes of anything she said or did. Occasionally I dozed during the night, beside the equipment, so possible instances of sleep talking might have been missed.

...The subject slept on a comfortable bed just below the observation window.... Immediately above the observation window (about five and a half feet above the level of the subject's head) was a small shelf (about ten inches by five inches)... This five-digit random number constituted the parapsychological target for the evening. I then slipped it into an opaque folder, entered the subject's room, and slipped the piece of paper onto the shelf without at any time exposing it to the subject.

So, to review: the number the subject was supposed to be psychically viewing was on a shelf five feet above her head throughout the night. She was neither recorded nor observed; the window into her room was covered by a blind, and Tart, who was sitting in the next room, helpfully notes that he dozed off several times during the night. Readers are invited to imagine a non-supernatural means by which the result could have been achieved.

This sloppy methodology, subjective judging, and flat-out inaccuracy pervades parapsychological research in general and on OBEs specifically. It shouldn't be a surprise that all the most striking claims of people gaining true information through OBEs are completely anecdotal, even hearsay - as in the famous case of the woman named Maria who allegedly saw a tennis shoe on a window ledge outside the hospital where she was having one. We have only the word of one person, a social worker named Kimberly Clark Sharp, that this OBE happened at all or that the shoe was there as described. Anecdotal accounts like this are impossible to test or verify. And so far, no rigorous, well-designed experiment has proven that people can acquire information this way at rates significantly greater than chance, much less that they can use it to do something genuinely useful, such as sending or receiving messages.

As with many other popular delusions, belief in OBEs is probably sustained in part by natural psychological phenomena which true believers have misunderstood (such as the role of sleep paralysis in alien abduction and haunting claims). The truth is, many people do have out-of-body experiences - that is to say, they have the experience of being outside their body. But that is not the same thing as saying that something actually leaves the body. Instead, these experiences appear to be nothing more than elaborate hallucinations caused by the brain misfiring.

I wrote on Ebon Musings about the brain's superior parietal lobe, also called the "orientation association area". Among its other functions, this part of the brain orients a person in three-dimensional space and calculates how to move through the world. In deep meditative states and other circumstances, the superior parietal lobe ceases its activity, causing a person to feel as if the physical boundaries of their self have been dissolved - they can no longer tell where their body ends and the world begins. It's easy to see how such an event could be implicated in an OBE. Another brain area, the angular gyrus, is involved in OBEs more directly. In at least one experiment, when electrically stimulated, it repeatedly caused them to occur in the patient.

No matter how impressive they may feel, out-of-body experiences are just tricks of the brain, and do not contain any sensory information not accessible to a person through normal means. A well-designed, repeatable experiment could prove otherwise, but an endless string of unverifiable anecdotes does not.

Other posts in this series:

June 29, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink24 comments

Popular Delusions X: Crystal Power

To mark the tenth installment of Popular Delusions, I'm turning my attention to one of the most common and enduring superstitions among the New Age set: the belief that naturally occurring crystals have some sort of special power to store, concentrate, or focus vaguely defined "energies".

A web search readily brings up hundreds of sites discussing the magical potencies of various crystals, most of which have to do with their supposed healing powers. Here's an entirely typical example:

Bloodstones are believed to have mystical and magickal powers, thought to be able to control the weather and have the ability to banish evil and negativity and to direct spiritual energy. It heightens the intuition and stimulates dreaming. It is a powerful revitalizer of your body and your mind. Bloodstone calms the mind, dispels confusion and aids in the decision making process. As the name suggests, they are very good at cleansing the blood and are known to be a powerful healer. It is used for an energy cleanser and immune stimulator for acute infections. It aids the circulation and reduces the formation of pus, neutralizing over acidification. It cleanses the lower chakras and realigns their energies.

All that in one stone! Others even discuss the supposed side effects or dangers of improper crystal use:

If a woman is trying to get pregnant or is in the first two trimesters of pregnancy, she should avoid any direct contact with Green Tourmaline.... Manipulating a woman's male energies by wearing Green Tourmaline could upset her endocrine system and could compromise the pregnancy or possibly harm the fetus.

Who knew ordinary crystals could be so dangerous? If this was true, one would think the many sites that sell green tourmaline should come with warnings. They might be exposing themselves to serious legal liability by selling those stones to just anyone! (I have to admit, I would just love to see that lawsuit...)

On the other hand, other crystal-boosting sites seem to shrug off these dangers. For example:

RULE NO. 1 - There are no rules for use of crystals or minerals in healing.

Now how could this be? If crystals do anything at all, there must be correct and incorrect ways to use them. If all methods of using crystals work equally well, the only possible explanation for this is that crystals are completely useless.

As with the green tourmaline example, one of the most ironic things is that different crystal-hawking sites often disagree about what the crystals they sell are supposed to do. One site says, "Fluorite's ordered crystalline structure brings stability and order into the wearer's life." But a different site advertising purple fluorite explains that it is for "Change. Helps one get out of ruts."

And how exactly do crystals work their magic? Do they have their own power? Apparently not:

There are a lot of people who think that crystals have power. They don't... Crystals are only tools which extend the power of intent of the healer and a medium.

On the other hand:

...we have proof that all crystals have power. The Power of love, from deep in the earth.

This flood of conflicting claims presents the sincere believer with a variety of serious dilemmas. Is there a right way or a wrong way to use crystal power? Which crystals are most effective for a given aim? Can crystals be dangerous? Is it possible that some crystals are dangerous in ways not yet recognized? Plainly, all of these are important questions, especially the last two. But how is the crystal enthusiast to go about answering them? There are a multitude of conflicting answers. What answer should we believe, and why?

As with all cases of religious confusion, these conflicting claims have come about because there is no evidence whatsoever that crystals have any supernatural or magical abilities. As one pseudoscience site puts it: instruments can pick up these vibrations or record any difference in energy around a crystal as crystals are things of Mother Earth not of man.

But if this alleged energy can't be measured or recorded, then how does anyone know it exists in the first place? What is the basis for all these grandiose and fanciful claims about the ailments and maladies that specific types of crystals can solve? The above mentioned site calls it a "hard and fast intuitive fact", which is just another way of saying that all of this is made up. Crystal use can be rescued from danger and chaos, but only by consigning it to irrelevance.

As often happens, New Age misunderstandings are built on a kernel of genuine scientific fact. Some crystals, such as quartz, display a useful property called the piezoelectric effect: they generate an electric voltage when stretched or compressed. This property has led to their use in a wide variety of industrial applications, including sensors that measure pressure, vibration and frequency. They're also used to build miniaturized motors, record player needles, radio transmitters and receivers, and even loudspeakers. The piezoelectric effect is a well-understood and precisely measurable phenomenon, however, and has nothing to do with meaningless handwaving about healing powers, chakra points or positive energies.

There's no doubt that crystals are an elegant example of the beauty that arises from the laws of physics. Fantastic formations like those of New Mexico's Lechuguilla Cave prove the point. But we don't need to believe crystals have any kind of magical power to appreciate their beauty. Such superstitions cheapen and undermine what there is of genuine wonder in the world. We need no supernatural add-ons to place between us and nature.

Other posts in this series:

July 4, 2008, 9:30 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink29 comments

Coming Soon to an Apocalypse Near You

Any informed observer of religious folly knows that setting dates for the apocalypse ranks among the major pastimes of fundamentalists and fanatics the world over. (The next most-popular pastime is explaining why those dates failed to pan out.) In fact, throughout human history, the years in which the end of the world has not been predicted to occur are probably far outnumbered by the ones in which it has. But what's most astonishing is the way these prophecies, after they have failed, are often taken up and recycled by the next generation of apocalyptic believers without a trace of shame, usually with little beside the date changed.

For example, take the Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Despite the authors' claims that theirs is the "first fictional portrayal of events that are true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy", the truth is that the idea of novelizing the Rapture has been done not just once, but multiple times before. As Catholic critic Carl Olson points out, Salem Kirban's 1973 novel 666 - published by Tyndale House, LaHaye and Jenkins' publisher - has the same plot, right down to many small details, including the opening, where a main character who is a nonbelieving reporter witnesses the Rapture while on an airplane flight.

And before Kirban, Sydney Watson also fictionalized the Rapture in a trilogy - the last novel of which, In the Twinkling of an Eye, was published in 1916. Again, as Slacktivist points out, this series too employed several tropes and stock characters that would later show up in Left Behind.

Still more works of Christian apocalyptic literature - some intended as works of fiction, others not - flourished in the 20th century. Herbert Armstrong's 1975 in Prophecy! forecast the end of the world in the titular year, due to a nuclear world war waged by a Europe united under the Nazi banner. More famous still was Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, a blockbuster 1970 book which argued that the end was imminent. A slightly revised sequel, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, was published thereafter and boldly proclaimed, "The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it."

Lindsey was not the only one swept up by prophecy mania in the 1980s. A previously obscure Bible student named Edgar Whisenant rose to prominence in that decade after publishing a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 - specifically, on Rosh Hashanah of that year. Whisenant was taken so seriously by Paul and Jan Crouch, founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, that they altered their programming on that date to show prerecorded tapes giving advice to those who had been left behind. Shockingly, despite Whisenant's many reasons, the Rapture somehow failed to occur on schedule.

The 1990s, too, saw their false prophets - such as radio evangelist Harold Camping's book 1994?, which opened thusly: "No book ever written is as audacious or bold as one that claims to predict the timing of the end of the world, and that is precisely what this book presumes to do" (source). (For reference, Camping's Family Stations radio network broadcasts worldwide, with more than 150 outlets in the U.S. alone.) Undaunted, Camping has since published a sequel, Time Has An End, which forecasts the end of the world in 2011.

Christian fundamentalists are not the only ones who've made a career out of erroneously predicting the apocalypse. New Agers have also gotten in on the act, via beliefs like the "Photon Belt":

Nevertheless it appears that for mankind on this planet the photon belt encounter will be essentially a spiritual experience--but this really depends on man. If we are sufficiently evolved at the time, great advancements will occur in our consciousness as we attune to the high-frequency photon rays. If we are negative, that is, possess too many lower vibrations, the result of selfish actions, we are not expected to survive the radiation. In other words, there will be a natural spiritual selection.

How photons, which according to the laws of physics are constantly in motion at 186,000 miles per second, are supposed to sit in place to form a "belt" is not explained - but no matter. When are we going to encounter this marvelous celestial phenomenon?

Scientists around the globe in 1992 predicted that the encounter would occur within months to a year; with significant disagreements.

Not to worry, however - the date of Earth's encounter with the "photon belt" has been revised to 2012. Like every other false prophet, these ones rarely experience anything more than a temporary setback as a result of their errors. Though some believers become disillusioned, many more who've invested their entire lives in the cult and are unwilling to walk away will eagerly accept whatever flimsy rationalization the founder offers to excuse their failure.

All these false prophets made the same mistake, the only truly fatal mistake in religion: they made a claim sufficiently specific that it could be conclusively disproved by evidence. LaHaye and Jenkins seem to have learned from their predecessors in this regard, refusing to commit to any specific date or time frame, despite their repeated coy hints that the Rapture will be soon, probably within their lifetimes. (Fred Clark of Slacktivist suggests looking at their estate planning to see if they really believe that themselves.) But in either case, they are deluding themselves. Once several more decades have passed and the Rapture still has not happened, today's Left Behind books will look as silly as the earlier Rapture novels, whose authors likewise foolishly believed they were living just before the end.

August 9, 2007, 7:25 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink20 comments

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