Advice to Publicists: Know Your Audience

A publicist who obviously didn't read my site very carefully sent me this e-mail:

Subject: wow...website is giving away free psychic readings with a famous psychic

Thought your audience would be interested in this. The savvy staff from the site, wowOwow.com, is offering a refer-a-friend sweepstakes that's unlike anything else ...

wowOwow.com, whose contributors include Whoopi Goldberg, Marlo Thomas and "60 Minutes" Lesley Stahl, is offering four people the chance to win a free psychic reading with revered psychic, medium Peggy Rometo. Peggy has worked with celebrities such as Demi Moore and Fortune 500 execs to provide life-affirming and life-changing information.

Feel free to post the link on your Web site and share this opportunity with your readers.

http://www.wowowow.com/post/win-free-reading-world-renowned-psychic-peggy-rometo-100318?hp=100318

If any of you want to enter this sweepstakes, readers, have at it. But somehow, I doubt we're the intended audience.

I'd never heard of this "famous psychic" Peggy Rometo, so I went and Googled her name. Judging by the number of results - a few dozen at best, most of which were advertising - I'd say "world renowned" is out of the question, and even "famous" would be stretching the truth. She doesn't have any discernible history prior to her affiliation with this site. Even by the necessarily lax standards of psychics, her credentials seem extraordinarily thin, and I strongly suspect she's only getting all this promotion because she's a personal friend of one of the owners of this site. Not that this stops her from charging a jaw-dropping $500 per hour for personal consultations, according to her own website, which also hawks books and CDs with titles like "Using Your Intuition in Real Estate". (If only Wall Street had sought her advice before investing in all those subprime mortgage bonds!)

If you still haven't had enough Peggy, there's also this interview, which liberally piles on the gibberish:

My main psychic sense is hearing and feeling (known as a clairaudient, clairempathic and clairsentient); seeing is secondary (clairvoyance). I mainly focus and listen for any thoughts that come through my inner right ear/right brain. A spirit will oftentimes express themselves to me by interrupting me, unless I've asked for them ahead of time, per the client's request. I always start out a session by connecting to what I call "Universal Consciousness"; it's an energy flow that is available to all of us, at all times and is all inclusive of everything we should ever want or need.

With all those incredible powers, I don't suppose you'd be interested in applying for James Randi's million dollars while the challenge is still open, would you, Peggy? No? Didn't think so.

In all seriousness: This, from all appearances, very garden-variety psychic is just another specimen of the legions who exploit people's deep-seated fears and personal troubles for profit and offer nothing in return but trite platitudes and supernatural gibberish. It's a shame, and frankly an insult to women, that a site designed to appeal to the female gender promotes such credulous nonsense. There are plenty of smart, skeptical women out there. Why don't we hear from them instead?

September 16, 2008, 8:41 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink12 comments
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Run Your Car on Water! (No, Not Really)

The other day, I came across a pseudoscience site so laughably ridiculous I just had to share it:

http://www.runyourcaronwater.com/

(Warning: Page has sound.)

As the URL indicates, the unknown people behind this site are selling a kit which they claim will enable you to turn your car into a "water-burning hybrid" that can use ordinary tap water as a fuel source. I'll go over the mechanics of why this is impossible in a minute, but first, I want to call attention to this curious claim:

You can run your car on water, supplemental to gasoline, to increase your car's fuel efficiency and reduce your fuel costs significantly.

Supplemental to gasoline, not as a replacement for it. The site elsewhere claims that this technology allows you to save "over 40%" on fuel costs. Now, if you think about this, why would it be only 40%? Either water works as a fuel source or it doesn't, and if it does, then why can't you rely on it exclusively? Why can't you make a car that runs entirely on water and doesn't use any gas at all?

In any case, the site has an explanation of how this technology is claimed to work:

Our easy conversion guide will show you how to use electricity from your car's battery to separate water into a gas called HHO (2 Hydrogen + 1 Oxygen). HHO, also called Brown's Gas or Hydroxy, burns smoothly and provides significant energy - while the end product is just H2O!

Clearly, the proprietors of this site are banking on their readers not knowing the laws of thermodynamics. Yes, water can be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen gas; and yes, those gases can be burned and will recombine into water. The inconvenient fact that this ad leaves out is that each step of this process necessarily involves a loss of energy. This technology "works" only in the same way as a businessman who loses money on every sale but thinks he can make up for it on volume.

The problem is that water, unlike natural gas or petroleum, is a highly stable compound. The chemical reaction that turns hydrogen and oxygen into water is said to be thermodynamically irreversible - that is, under natural conditions, it runs only in one direction. To put it another way, it takes more energy to break water into its component elements than you get by putting those elements back together. You certainly can use an external source of energy, such as a car battery, to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen; but the process of burning those gases will inevitably release less energy than it took to break the water down in the first place. Therefore, if this technology operates as described, it not only will not increase the mileage of your car, it will actually decrease it!

The description quoted above - "use electricity... to separate water" into Brown's Gas, and then burning the Brown's Gas, which "provides significant energy" - sounds suspiciously like a perpetual motion machine. Another excerpt confirms that that is what this site is claiming:

Your car will become at least 40% more fuel efficient...

The only way this could make your car more fuel efficient is if burning the Brown's Gas produced more energy than it takes to extract it from water, and if that were the case, this cycle could be repeated indefinitely. If this technology worked as its vendors claim, it would produce unlimited energy for free. Anyone who chooses to believe that this is possible is joining the long line of perpetual-motion devotees who've bet against the first law of thermodynamics. And, as noted physicist and skeptic Robert Park points out in his book Voodoo Science, no one has ever won that wager.

That said, there is a plausible, non-crackpot scheme for using water as a fuel. That technology is called nuclear fusion. With a working fusion reactor, such as the one the ITER consortium is currently building, it's theoretically possible to extract hydrogen from water and then, under extremely high temperatures, fuse that hydrogen into helium. But this, too, is a thermodynamically irreversible reaction, and more importantly, it's a nuclear reaction. It in no way resembles the crackpot pseudoscience of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, then recombining those gases into water and somehow ending up with more energy than you started with.

August 16, 2008, 11:37 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink37 comments
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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:

...no 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
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The Harm Psychics Do

Out of Toronto, this jaw-dropping story: Colleen Leduc, a local mother, was accused by school officials of letting her autistic daughter Victoria be sexually abused - based on the word of a psychic! (HT: Boing Boing).

Leduc's weird tale began on May 30, when she dropped young Victoria off for class at Terry Fox Elementary and headed in to work, only to receive a frantic phone call from the school telling her it was urgent she come back right away.

The frightened mother rushed back to the campus and was stunned by what she heard - the principal, vice-principal and her daughter's teacher were all waiting for her in the office, telling her they'd received allegations that Victoria had been the victim of sexual abuse - and that the CAS had been notified.

..."The teacher looked and me and said: 'We have to tell you something. The educational assistant who works with Victoria went to see a psychic last night, and the psychic asked the educational assistant at that particular time if she works with a little girl by the name of 'V.' And she said 'yes, I do.' And she said, 'well, you need to know that that child is being sexually abused by a man between the ages of 23 and 26.'"

Thankfully, despite the irrational hysteria that often surrounds claims of child abuse, this wild accusation went no farther. The Children's Aid Society sent a case worker to Leduc's home, who concluded that she was a diligent mother, called the accusations "ridiculous" and closed the case. It was probably a great help that Leduc's daughter was equipped with a GPS unit that also continuously recorded ambient audio, providing conclusive proof that no abuse had ever happened. The accusations were unsupported by even a shred of evidence and were swiftly dropped.

Still, for those who would claim that a little belief in the paranormal never did anyone any harm, this story is a ringing counterexample. What if the phony psychic had said that Victoria was at dire risk of being kidnapped or harmed and that the authorities wouldn't listen? Would this endlessly gullible educational assistant have taken it upon herself to spirit the girl away? What if the accusation had been laid against the mother herself rather than some non-existent man, thus adding the further injustice of a false charge against an innocent person? How far might this have gone if definitive counterevidence had not existed?

Psychic scammers can and do invent claims as it pleases them, with no regard for the truth. Since they're unconstrained by facts, there's nothing to prevent them from making up charges against innocent people or otherwise telling harmful lies. And when credulous people take those falsehoods seriously, the result is harm and suffering for those who've done nothing to deserve it. Consider the callous fraud Sylvia Browne telling a woman that she was the child of an affair, or falsely telling grieving parents that their missing son was dead. If the recipients believed these claims, imagine what would ensue - entirely needless anger and recrimination that could shatter a family, or despairing parents calling off the search for their child. Yes, phony psychics do cause harm - a great deal of it - and it is futile to pretend otherwise. (I'm glad to see Toronto readers offer similar thoughts on this story and roundly dismiss psychics. Way to go, Canada!)

I don't know whether the laws permit it, but I hope the psychic who made this claim is punished for it just as anyone who falsely reported a crime to the police would be. She deserves to pay a penalty for the fear and heartache she's caused this family and for her frivolous alarm causing a waste of state resources. And this educational assistant ought to be dismissed. Anyone who seeks out and consumes this pseudoscientific nonsense, and takes it seriously enough to act on it in cases like this, is not sufficiently rational to be entrusted with the care of others' children.

June 19, 2008, 7:46 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink18 comments
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Popular Delusions IX: Numerology

As you can see from this picture, the building where I live has no thirteenth floor:

Triskadekaphobia

But of course, what this picture depicts is a mathematical impossibility. My building does have a thirteenth floor; it's just that it's mislabeled as the fourteenth floor, with all the floors above it similarly mislabeled by one.

This may be a small thing, but every time I step into the elevator, it's a jarring reminder of how superstitious beliefs still permeate our society. I can see the logic in, say, a casino mislabeling its thirteenth floor - after all, that business makes money primarily by catering to irrational people. But an apartment building, really? I live in a modern high rise in a well-to-do section of New York, and I can assure my landlords that they would not have difficulty finding people willing to live on the 13th floor.

Numerology and number phobia may be among the oldest of superstitions. Ironically, the specific numbers that are considered "unlucky" vary from culture to culture - in Western societies it's 13 (ironically, Indians consider 13 to be a lucky number), while in Eastern cultures, 4 is usually thought of as unlucky, since it is pronounced similarly to the word for "death". 11 is unlucky in Italy, for a similar reason: the Roman numeral "XVII" can be rearranged to spell "VIXI", which means "I lived". 666, a very unlucky number indeed in Christianity, is lucky in many Eastern cultures. 7 is often considered lucky in the West and 8 in the East, but both of these are unlucky to Buddhists.

The usual accompaniment of unlucky-number superstition is numerology, which can be found among groups from September 11 conspiracy theorists to Jewish devotees of the Kabbalah (who call the practice gematria). All devotees of the practice use the same technique: assigning number values to letters and words, then putting those numbers through an arbitrary series of mathematical transformations until they arrive at some number arbitrarily deemed "significant". A related method is to sort through huge numbers of numerical facts, looking for a number which several of those facts share in common, and assuming that those facts must also be connected.

Since there are literally no rules to this process, and since there are vast pools of numerical data to draw from, it's no surprise that devotees of this method can arrive at whatever numbers they deem to be significant. But the significance is not in the numbers themselves. Like seeing patterns in clouds, the significance is imposed on the numbers by the mind of the observer. This can even be done with apparent mathematical rigor, as in this column from Jane Bryant Quinn:

David Leinweber, an expert in quantitative investment, satirized the "science" of prediction by sifting through numbers to see how he could have forecast the performance of the U.S. stock market from 1981 through 1993. He combined the total volume of butter produced each year in Bangladesh with the number of sheep in the U.S. and a few other variables, to produce a formula that forecast the past with 99 percent accuracy.

If precise, quantitative formulas can be so easily exploited to find seeming significance in patternless numerical noise, it's no surprise that the far less rigorous devotees of numerology can do the same. The mathematician John Allen Paulos, in his recent book Irreligion, has an example of how easily these spurious correlations can be concocted:

Think of any four numbers associated with yourself (your height or weight, the number of children you have, your birthday or anniversary, whatever) and label them X, Y, Z and W. Now consider various products and powers of these numbers. Specifically consider the expression Xa Yb Zc Wd, where the exponents a, b, c and d range over the values 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, or the negatives of these numbers.

...Among all these values, there will likely be several that equal, to at least a couple of decimal places, universal constants such as the speed of light, the gravitational constant, Planck's constant, the fine structure constant, the boiling point of carbon, and so on. (p.23)

The astronomer Cornelis de Jager, who came up with this formula, was able to use it to prove that there is a deep connection between the laws of the cosmos and his bicycle: the square of his bike's pedal diameter, multiplied by the square root of the product of the diameters of his bell and light, was 1,836 - the same as the ratio of the mass of a proton to the mass of an electron. A shocking cosmic kismet? Proof of some grander and deeper significance to the manufacturing of Dutch bicycles? Rather, like all numerology, it is simply an example of the law of truly large numbers: although the odds of one particular coincidence are small, given enough data, the odds that some coincidence will occur are very good indeed.

Other posts in this series:

April 7, 2008, 7:53 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink27 comments
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The Million-Dollar Challenge Ends

Some news from earlier this year you might have missed: James Randi is officially ending his million-dollar challenge to those who claim they have psychic or supernatural powers. The challenge will be offered for two more years, and assuming no one succeeds and claims the money, will be terminated in March 2010.

It's not hard to see why Randi would do this. After ten years without a single successful applicant, I think he's made his point. Unsurprisingly, the best-known, most prominent psychic pretenders (Sylvia Browne, John Edward, etc.) have refused to even come near the challenge. The people who do apply are usually either recalcitrant and uncooperative or obviously mentally disturbed, in either case forcing Randi's staff to spend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to get them to commit to a clear, testable claim. Here are some typical applications from the JREF's blog:

There are alternate versions of myself in different types of highly evolved states that work interchangeably to form the time process in its phasic reflective capacitations of experiential transience.

I want to show the matrix. To prove solutions and cures are withheld. Prove manipulations of sinister intent exist.

This money can be more effectively used to promote the causes of scientific inquiry and skepticism, rather than being held in trust while its caretakers try to sort through this river of nonsense. If there were any prospect that high-profile psychic claimants would agree to be tested, then I would encourage the challenge to continue, since debunking their claims in a major public forum could attract attention and interest that would greatly advance the skeptics' cause. But of course, these famous psychic pretenders know full well that this would be the outcome, and so they steadfastly avoid Randi's challenge. From their perspective, sad to say, it's a rational decision: why risk near-certain exposure and embarrassment by going up against a canny skeptic, when they can make comparable sums by safely exploiting the credulous and the gullible?

Interestingly, Randi's challenge is not the only one of its kind. The Skeptic's Dictionary lists numerous similar challenges offered by skeptical groups around the world. So, to handle the inevitable flood of flimflam artists who will step forward just after the challenge ends and announce that they could have won it, I advise pointing them to one of these challenges instead. A person who could win one or several of them would have an excellent claim for having their powers scientifically validated. Randi has also said, I believe, that he'd consider temporarily resurrecting the challenge if a famous psychic wanted to apply - so we can rest assured that woo-woo advocates will not be able to wriggle away from those pesky requests for proof, either now or in the years to come.

March 13, 2008, 7:22 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink12 comments
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Popular Delusions VIII: Anti-Vaccine Hysteria

In all of human history, the invention of vaccination should be classed as one of our greatest medical triumphs. This innovation has saved millions of lives and prevented untold suffering and misery; it has brought many once-epidemic diseases under control, and eradicated others altogether. Tragically, our era has seen a dangerous new strain of pseudoscience emerge, one that threatens all of these gains.

The theory behind vaccines is conceptually simple. Human beings possess an exquisitely evolved immune system with a remarkable ability to learn from experience. For many diseases, once we've had them, we develop antibodies that "recognize" the particular pathogen that causes it, giving us lifelong protection against ever catching the same disease again. The innovation was to realize that we could administer killed or weakened germs - not enough to make the recipient sick, but sufficient to trigger the immune system and stimulate it to develop antibodies, so we can gain the immunity without ever having had the disease. In modern times, this technique has been refined by introducing not whole germs, but characteristic molecules that appear in a bacterium's cell membrane or a virus' protein coat. Done properly, this is sufficient to trigger the creation of antibodies.

For decades, the benefit of vaccines was unquestioned. But in the last few years, a vehement anti-vaccination movement has erupted. Hysterical, paranoid rhetoric about how doctors and pharmaceutical companies are "poisoning children" for the sake of profit are the stock in trade of this movement, which makes up in shrillness what it lacks in scientific support.

The anti-vaccine movement got its start in 1998, when a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the Lancet. This paper suggested that there was a link between childhood vaccination and autism, claiming that twelve (!) children who had received the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine showed developmental regression soon thereafter. (Ten of Wakefield's twelve co-authors have subsequently retracted this interpretation, and it's been reported that Wakefield himself was being paid by trial lawyers seeking to file a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. This conflict of interest had not been previously disclosed, and the Lancet's editor has said he would not have accepted the paper if he had known about it.)

Despite the collapse of its scientific claims, Wakefield's paper caused a firestorm. Vaccination rates in the UK showed a significant drop soon afterward. Soon, the antivaccinationists had even identified a supposed causative agent: thimerosal, a preservative that was used in MMR and some other vaccines. The molecular structure of thimerosal contains an atom of mercury, and it was this that antivaccinationists labeled the culprit. Some went so far as to label autism a kind of mercury poisoning - an obvious falsehood for anyone who knows the symptoms of the two conditions.

In response to public fear, scientific bodies such as the CDC asked vaccine manufacturers to remove thimerosal from their products. Although this was an understandable effort to reassure people who were worried, it only added fuel to the fire. Leading antivaccinationists boldly predicted that, as thimerosal was phased out, we would see a dramatic drop in autism rates.

This did not happen. Even after thimerosal was completely removed from vaccines, autism rates continued to rise, confounding the antivaccinationists' predictions. (This is probably due to better screening and a widening of the diagnostic criteria, rather than a real increase.) In addition, numerous large, well-run studies have failed to find any causal connection between vaccination and autism.

An evidence-based movement would have dwindled away by now, but the antivaccination movement is not based on evidence. It is a pseudoscientific movement based on irrational fear, on obstinate mistrust of the medical establishment, and on the cultish sense of us-vs.-them which the movement's leaders have taken care to cultivate. The evidence weighing against thimerosal as a cause of autism has grown so overwhelming that even some antivaccinationists can no longer ignore it, but rather than change their position, many of them have simply shifted the cause of concern to conveniently undefined "toxins" (a common, meaningless buzzword of quack-medicine communities), and continue to rail against the medical establishment with equal fervor.

In some respects, vaccines are a victim of their own success: the terrible diseases they were invented to combat have been so effectively defeated that people have forgotten just how bad they were, and so they no longer fear the consequences of not vaccinating. But few of those diseases have been completely wiped out. Instead, they linger on the margins... and when a significant number of people in a community refuse vaccination, they can come back with a vengeance. In one community in Colorado, whooping cough has reemerged, with sometimes fatal results:

In 2000 it killed seventeen people in the United States, including two Colorado babies, both of whom were taken to the hospital too late. "It was very sad," Tina Albertson, a pediatric resident who cared for one of the infants, told me. "She was a six-week-old girl with a sister and a brother, four and six. The family had chosen not to immunize, and the week she was born, her siblings both had whooping cough. When they're real little, the babies don't whoop—they just stop breathing. This little girl was septic by the time they got her here."

And see also:

"It is a frightening illness to see the paroxysms of coughing, especially in very young children," Clark said. "They can cough uncontrollably and turn blue and not be able to get a breath. And it's all so concerning because it is so exquisitely transmissible."

Worst of all, parents who choose not to vaccinate are putting not just their own families but other people at risk as well. Few vaccines are 100% effective; instead, vaccination as a public health strategy relies on "herd immunity", the idea that an epidemic can never catch hold in a population of resistant individuals. But even a small number of unvaccinated people can serve as reservoirs of disease, providing a repeated source of exposure and increasing the chances that even people who are vaccinated will get sick. This form of pseudoscience is a particularly vivid illustration of the dangers of credulity.

Other posts in this series:

January 25, 2008, 7:22 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink35 comments
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The Cure for Cancer! (Cure Not Included)

The other day, I received a jaw-dropping piece of spam e-mail:

The Detox Box

The Detox Box is a remarkable device that uses frequencies to destroy toxins in the body. It's similar to how a singer can hit a note and shatter a wine glass.

According to the e-mail, this marvelous machine is based on the ideas of one Dr. Royal Rife, who lived in the 1930s and claimed to have developed the world's first "virus microscope". (It is physically impossible to resolve the average virus with a light microscope, since the size of a typical virus is smaller than the wavelength of visible light. This gives the reader a good idea of the quality of evidence supporting Rife's claims.) Rife then went on to invent a "beam ray" device which, he said, could cure cancer and other diseases using the principles outlined below.

Rife was able to observe the frequency at which viruses and bacteria vibrated... When increasing the intensity of the frequency at which they vibrated, its natural oscillation also increases, causing it to disintegrate from the structural stresses and break just like the wine glass did. Rife named this intensified frequency the mortal oscillatory rate, or "MOR". He discovered that every microorganism has its own frequency and can be destroyed by intensifying this frequency until it explodes. Rife invented a frequency machine (now known as a Rife machine), the forerunner of today's "Detox Box" instrument.

As is usual for pseudoscience, the companion website gives a large number of unsubstantiated, anecdotal testimonials and is generously larded with fear-mongering "facts" about how modern medicine is poisoning us all. Thankfully, the "Detox Box" can purge one's body of these toxins. (Any substance or organism that causes people harm is lumped together under the heading of "toxins", which is also standard practice for alternative medicine.) Apparently, all one needs to do to use this treatment is to hold two stainless steel cylinders (shades of Scientology's E-meter) or apply electrode pads to the skin to let the healing frequencies flow through the body.

Also as usual, the principles being advocated have only a superficial resemblance to actual science. First of all, some of the "toxins" the website lists are arsenic and lead. How is the "Detox Box" supposed to help with this? Arsenic and lead are atomic elements. They are not compounds that can be "shattered" by any kind of destructive resonance, unless this product is claiming to produce nuclear fission inside the body, in which case the user has bigger problems.

And though it scarcely needs saying, viruses and bacteria are not wine glasses. Resonance of the type that shatters glass can only occur in a uniform substance with nothing to damp out vibrations, so that every part of the object vibrates at the same frequency and there is nothing to absorb or cushion the vibrational energy. This will not happen with a bacterium, or any other complex object with many different component parts. And even this effect only occurs with sound waves, not electromagnetic energy as this quack device provides.

So, how much are the proprietors asking for this dubious panacea?

The professional price is $1495, which is a $500 savings off the regular price of $1995.

That was where this e-mail ceased to be amusing. Taking advantage of the sick and the desperate by selling quack machines at outrageous prices is no longer a harmless deception, it is an act of evil. People have died after forsaking evidence-based medicine in favor of Rife machines to treat cancer and other lethal illnesses. The attorneys general of several states have won injunctions against operators of these machines for making fraudulent claims about their efficacy.

Although I don't anticipate swift results, I'm going to bring this site to the attention of the FDA. If experience is any guide, it's likely that it will fold on its own before any action is taken. I only hope that no one else is hurt or dies needlessly before that happens.

October 15, 2007, 5:00 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink51 comments
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The 40th Skeptics' Circle

The doors of the Observatory are closed, and an eager crowd has gathered before them, milling about anxiously to await the unveiling of the newest Skeptics' Circle. Your host, Ebonmuse, steps up to a podium beside the doors and addresses the crowd thusly:

"Step right up, folks, to the Daylight Atheism Museum of Superstition and Pseudoscience! Dare to plumb the most bizarre depths of the human imagination! Marvel at the fascinating beliefs cultures throughout history have dreamed up to explain the world around them! We have a stupendous and spine-tingling assortment of strange and wild ideas for your edification and amusement. You'll laugh at their gullibility, you'll learn from their mistakes, and just maybe, you'll learn something about how your own brain works. Admission two for a penny - who'll be first to dare the weirdness within?"

He sweeps a hand dramatically toward the doors, which open onto a wild scene. The great telescope has been stowed away, and the vast domed room instead contains a madcap menagerie of trophies and exhibits that showcase the follies of humanity throughout history. Beneath the high ceiling, an elaborate orrery contains detailed models of the planets of the solar system encased in a set of interlocking crystalline Platonic solids. Animals crowd the decks of a scale model of Noah's Ark at the far end of the room, and putative Philosophers' Stones are scattered on pedestals, misshapen lumps some of which glow with their own inner light. Ancient statues of minotaurs, centaurs, mermaids and other fantastic beasts glare down on the exhibits in frozen stone.

Your host leads the tour group into the museum. "First, we have the Alternative Medicine wing - a durable field that's spawned all sorts of strange ideas. Just look at this authentic ancient Chinese acupuncture needle. Taking a cue from a classic pseudoscience, modern practitioners believe that sticking needles into people, and even into animals, can cure diseases by diverting the flow of an imaginary energy called qi! Skeptico sets them straight, in an essay titled No point to acupuncture on animals."

The next exhibit is a collection of hypodermic needles. "So like the acupuncture needle and yet so dissimilar, this one differs from the last exhibit in that it has actually cured people of suffering and disease. Sadly, some people reject the benefits of modern medicine in favor of ineffective quackery. Autism Street, in An Old New Twist on Undead Bad Science?, debunks a study claiming to detect correlation between autism and heavy metal levels in children's hair."

The tour's next stop is before an apparently empty glass case. "This case may seem empty, folks, but in fact, it contains the scientific integrity of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. They weren't using it, you see, so they've generously agreed to donate it as a permanent bequest to our museum. P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula gives us the full story in Damn the NCCAM."

Before a flourishing tray of deadly nightshade, poison ivy and hemlock, Ebonmuse continues, "And let's not forget, folks, that 'natural' medicine has been held out for ages as the cure to all ailments, as if the products of nature were somehow intrinsically better for you than the products of science. The Saga of Runolfr casts a critical eye on claims that consuming raw honey will cure pollen allergies, in The Cure for Allergies? And for a classic example of how 'natural' products can still be harmful, what could be more natural than HIV? A Moment of Science, in Skepticism Run Amok, an Appropriate Level of Skepticism in Evaluating HIV/AIDS Causation, asks why, if HIV does not cause AIDS, anti-retroviral drugs developed specifically to combat HIV are effective in extending AIDS patients' lifespans.

Our next exhibit, as you can see, is a single glass of ultra-pure distilled water. If the claims of homeopaths were correct, this would be the most powerful medicine known to man! The Two Percent Company informs us of the remarkable range of ailments that homeopaths claim to be able to treat with a single herb, in You Might Need Arnica Montana.

And finally, we have this table of assorted old-fashioned medical instruments - best not to ask what most of them do. The skeptical grandmaster Orac of Respectful Insolence is never one to shrink from the details, however, and gives us not one but two Friday Doses of Woo: Mere regularity is not enough and the appetizingly titled Would you like a liver flush with that colon cleanse?

Our next stop is the Psychics and ESP wing, another reliable source of uncritical thinking. The Island of Doubt, in The sense of being stared at ...not, registers disappointment that his alma mater, the University of British Columbia, is giving a platform to the notorious credulophile Rupert Sheldrake and his claims that people can psychically detect when they're being stared at.

Next, Skeptico again favors us in Medium guesses about serial killer, pouring rightful scorn on the vagueness and after-the-fact rationalizations of Allison Dubois.

And lastly, See You at Enceladus spins a tale of The Beirut Syndrome or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Credulity, about psychics who claim to have predicted the current warfare in Lebanon."

Beneath a gallery of faded and tattered documents, Ebonmuse continues, "History is the noble art of unearthing the past. Yet this genuine science, too, attracts the hoary speculations of the gullible. What we need is some skepticism to root them out, and thanks to several generous donations to this museum, we have it! The Second Sight, in Giant UFO Built Yowie Pyramids of Bullshit, offers sharp criticism of the true believers who are convinced of the existence of ancient contacts between pharaonic Egypt and aboriginal Australia; while Be Lambic or Green throws down the gauntlet against claims that Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci were the first Europeans to catch sight of the New World, in Rediscovering America."

As the tour takes another turn, the parchments and scrolls on display grow more ancient and venerable, and the sound of distant chanting echoes in the air. "That's right, ladies and gentlemen," your host announces, "we've come to that most sacred of all cows: religion. In Render unto Caesar [nothing], Infophilia analyzes the meaning of the biblical verse 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's,' concluding that it does not necessarily mean what it has always been construed to mean.

We also have an exhibit courtesy of Debunking Christianity that is titled Which Part Fits in Which Slot, Again?, remarking on the difference between natural events and miracles and the inconsistency with which Christian apologists invoke both categories. In a related vein, The Philosophy of the Socratic Gadfly asks whether 'ineffable' is a meaningful and useful term to use in arguments over the existence of God.

Atheist author Sam Harris has been making waves with his book The End of Faith, reviewed by Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds."

The last stop in this section, incongruously, showcases a Bible next to a vacuum cleaner. "But the comparison is more apt than you might think, as Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant explains in Jesus' Lubricant, which compares religious proselytizers to salesmen who steer every conversation into a pitch for their product.

After all this credulity, you must be hungry for some real science, my fellow skeptics. Luckily for you, we have exhibits on that too." He points upward, to where several smaller, less regular bodies orbit among the planetary models hanging below the ceiling. "What constitutes a planet? Interesting Thing of the Day gives a skeptical viewpoint in Xena: Troublemaker on the edge of the solar system.

In that vein, Humbug Online reenacts the Moon landing in the conspiracy theorists' preferred style, in Spooked911 Moon landing faked!

While we're on the topic, I'm particularly honored by the presence of our next benefactor: the illustrious Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy Blog. In Bad TV on the Science Channel: The Apollo 11 "UFO", the foe of bad astronomy everywhere mercilessly debunks a credulous and dishonest documentary which asserts that the Apollo 11 astronauts witnessed a UFO.

And isn't our Earth one planet among many? Deltoid and Thoughts from Kansas keep us up-to-date with the goings-on of this blue and green orb - with a refutation of the myth that environmentalists caused needless deaths by unconditionally opposing the use of DDT, in Zombie DDT Myth Will Not Die, and some good news for science from a recent slate of elections, in Final tallies: Science wins in Kansas.

A major part of science is critical thinking. In Doggerel #30: "You Need to Think Outside the Box!", Rockstar's Ramblings rants about claims that skeptics don't "think outside the box", pointing out that true believers are actually the ones whose thoughts are limited by their jumping to magic as the first explanation for everything.

And when it comes to understanding science," your host continues, "nothing is more important than educating the younger generation. Agnostic Mom has an account of one mother's plan to do just that, in An Accurate Guess Is Still Just A Guess."

As the tour nears its end, the tour group passes through a set of doors into a back room. "We have a special treat for you all today, one not open to ordinary visitors - a tour of our archived collections, the interesting material that just didn't fit anywhere else. For example, Salto Sobrius has donated an exhibit on the skeptical leanings of a classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy author, in Fritz Leiber, Skeptic.

And then there's Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, who debunks the religious mythology that has grown up around flag-folding ceremonies, in Flag ceremony update.

And last but not least, Unintelligent Design laments the credulous leanings of Alton Brown, host of the Food Network TV show "Good Eats", in Alton Say It Ain't So!"

Following a sign reading "This Way to the Egress", the tour lets out before the museum's front doors. Ebonmuse addresses the group one final time. "Thank you for attending, fellow skeptics and critical thinkers! It's been my honor to play host to you all, and I'd like to extend my special gratitude to the many excellent bloggers who generously contributed to this exhibit. Don't forget, the next Skeptics' Circle will appear at Interverbal in two weeks, so get those submissions in!"

August 3, 2006, 8:28 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink52 comments
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Popular Delusions I: Astrology

I do not regularly read the New York Daily News, which could be generously described as a tabloid, but two juxtaposed stories in the May 29 edition happened to catch my attention, and not in a good way. To the right is a scan of the page (click for larger version):

As readers can see for themselves, just below a story on the birth of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's newborn daughter is an article by the paper's astrology columnist, Susan Miller, confidently asserting what the girl's personality characteristics will be based on the date and time of her birth. We are informed that her birth constellation, Gemini, is an "air sign" that will cause her to be "versatile, adaptable, communicative" and that since Jolie is also a Gemini, "mother and daughter will turn out to be very close and share a similar worldview". Due to the influence of Mercury, the Sun and the Moon, the child "will be a quick learner and will likely have excellent verbal skills at a very early age".

Astrology is a pseudoscience through and through, a superstition based on credulous notions of magical thinking. Putting an astrology column on the entertainment page, with comic strips and puzzles, is bad enough. But interweaving it with an actual news story, as if it were legitimate information that informed citizens should know about, is inexcusable. (This should not be taken to imply that the frenzied pursuit and harassment of celebrities by paparazzi is a legitimate journalistic endeavor in its own right. If the tabloids want to write a story worth reading, they could instead be discussing Angelina Jolie's extensive humanitarian and charitable work on behalf of Third World nations.)

The inimitable Skeptico has already provided abundant evidence that astrology doesn't work, so I will focus on providing some reasons why astrology doesn't work. For one thing, astrologers speak as if the constellations we see were distinct and fixed objects in their own right, but nothing could be further from the truth. The stars that make up the constellations are of different types, different sizes, different ages, and different distances from each other and from Earth. The only reason they appear to fall into the patterns they do is because of the way they are superimposed from our planet's vantage point. From a different location in the galaxy, they would seem to fall into a completely different pattern, or no pattern at all. In fact, this will happen: our Sun and our solar system are orbiting the center of the Milky Way galaxy, taking the Earth with them. Due to this motion, in a few tens of thousands of years, the night sky as seen from our planet will appear substantially different, and the current constellations will no longer exist. (The picture below and to the left shows the Big Dipper as it appeared from Earth a million years ago, half a million years ago, and at present; to the right, the Zodiac constellation of Leo as it appears from Earth today and as it will appear from Earth in one million years. The future version could, with sufficient imagination, be seen as a radio telescope. Illustrations from Carl Sagan, Cosmos, p. 197-198.)

And why, for that matter, should these arbitrary arrangements rather than others be significant? The constellations are, without a doubt, highly imaginative interpretations of certain stellar arrangements; they are hardly glaringly obvious patterns in the night sky apparent to all. If I decide that half the stars in Leo and half in Cancer can be put together into a new constellation that affects my life in different ways than either of those two, on what grounds could an astrologer say that this is incorrect? And what about other cultures who see very different constellations than our own?

There is no even vaguely plausible mechanism by which arbitrary arrangements of distant stars could influence the personality traits of human beings here on Earth, much less by which they could do so in such a consistent and predictable way. Vague "gravitational resonances" have sometimes been proposed as the explanation, but this cannot possibly work. For purposes of illustration, take the most massive star known to astronomers, the Pistol Star, which may have as much as 150 times the mass of the Sun. Take, also, the closest star system to Earth, Alpha Centauri, at a distance of about 4 light-years. (One solar mass is about 2 x 1030 kilograms; one light-year is approximately 9.4 x 1015 meters.) Plug these figures into Newton's law of universal gravitation to determine the gravitational force that a star the size of the Pistol Star at the distance of Alpha Centauri would exert on a 100-kilogram person on Earth:

F = (G * M1 * M2)/r2
where
G = 6.67300 × 10-11
M1 = 300000000000000000000000000000000
M2 = 100
r = 37600000000000000

This yields a result of 1.4 x 10-9 newtons of force, or in other words, about a billionth of a newton. By comparison, a 1-kilogram object, such as an apple, at a distance of 1 meter from a person exerts a gravitational force of about 6.7 x 10-9 newtons on that person - about five times as much. Another 100-kilogram person standing one meter from you exerts on you a gravitational force of 6.7 x 10-7 newtons, a hundred times as strong as even this example, which is generously slanted to favor the claims of astrology. In reality, the stars making up the constellations are far less massive and far more distant than the numbers used here. Any gravitational force they could exert on us would be utterly negligible and completely swamped by the far more powerful (though still insignificantly tiny) gravitational attractions of nearby objects.

Recognizing that gravity is a non-starter as an explanation, most astrologers simply wave their hands about conveniently undetectable "energies", deploy extremely garbled understandings of quantum physics, or make naked appeals to magic with principles such as "as above, so below". These explanations are nothing but modern versions of the ancient and superstitious notion of sympathetic magic, where when two objects are alike or connected in some way, one is assumed to influence the other. (Other classic examples of pseudoscience, such as homeopathy, rely on the same principle.) And while it is true, as astrologers say, that just because we have not yet discovered evidence for such a force does not prove that it does not exist, to claim astrology is valid on this basis is a fallacious attempt at shifting the burden of proof. If astrologers want their beliefs to be accepted as truthful, they should and must provide real evidence, not simply make excuses for why the evidence has not been discovered yet. Whatever the claimed principle is by which astrology works - gravitational resonances, quantum entanglement, synchronicity, harmonic convergences, or just plain magic - can any astrologer demonstrate its existence and efficacy in a well-controlled scientific experiment?

What would have been genuinely impressive would be if astrologers had predicted the existence of large, planetary-sized Kuiper Belt bodies, such as Sedna, Quaoar or the recently discovered 2003 UB313 (alias "Xena"), by recognizing that there were hidden influences on people's charts not accounted for by known planets. Of course, they did no such thing, and now that genuine scientists have established the existence of these bodies, astrologers are only now eagerly speculating about their possible influences.

Finally, it should not be overlooked that most horoscopes, including Miller's, include a generous proportion of statements so vague and general as to be nearly impossible to disprove, i.e., Barnum statements. (What person would not "love to travel and learn new things"?) Human confirmation bias does the rest, leading individuals to pick out the elements that seem most applicable to their situation and overlook the rest. Should a horoscope contain some seemingly devastatingly accurate information - and given the millions of different people who read their horoscopes every day, it would be more surprising if this never happened - without a doubt it will be remembered by the recipient; but the far larger number of horoscopes that contain no such relevant information are forgotten. (A similar phenomenon explains religious testimonies supporting the efficacy of prayer.) But in a controlled test where such common errors of reasoning cannot be brought into play, astrology, like other popular delusions, inevitably fails to prove that it is of worth.

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June 5, 2006, 7:35 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink21 comments
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