by David Bloomberg
The biggest news (as far as I'm concerned, anyway) these past two months has been that Detective Bruce Walstad and I appeared on the Downey Show to debate some "psychics." A showing of this video is the feature of our meeting this month, and I'll be writing it up for our next issue, with all the amusing backstage details, so I won't say much more about it here. But for those of you at our last meeting, you'll recall that we were talking about how some skeptics just sit quietly and try to calmly explain the facts while the pseudo-science proponents get the camera time. Well, that didn't happen this time...
Dateline NBC has apparently made a several-part series out of its investigation into fortune teller cons. As described last month, Dateline sent a producer to find cons in the fortune-telling business. In this most recent report (1/3), they interviewed a former Gypsy fortune teller, who explained several of the cons.
The main con explained was a trick with an egg. The fortune teller instructs a person to bring an egg from home. Then she goes through a ritual in which she rubs the egg all over the person and then breaks the egg open, showing a dark mass within it -- supposedly representing the evil curse that was taken into the egg. In fact, as shown by the ex-fortune teller, the dark mass can be brown bread, ham, or any similar material, which the fortune teller slips into their palm via sleight-of-hand and then pushes up through the egg when breaking it. Meanwhile, the fortune teller does this several times over different sessions, and eventually starts bringing money into the equation. Another sleight-of-hand trick involves getting the client to bring a stack of money to "sacrifice." But before the money gets burned, the fortune teller switches it for a fake packet and keeps the money herself.
To sum it all up, a police expert said that these people "prey on the fears and superstitions of believers."
Also on Dateline NBC (1/20) was a feature on children with cancer who were using alternative medicine to treat it. Now, I didn't see the whole thing, so I'm not sure just what was said before I turned it on, but it appeared that Dateline, which has in the past taken a very skeptical attitude with respect to such claims, may have softened a bit on this one.
The portion I saw discussed a child who had cancer and whose parents took him off chemotherapy as soon as the cancer went into remission, against the advice of doctors who said he should finish the whole series. They put him on some herbal treatment, and the cancer came back. So, back he went to the chemotherapy until, again, it was in remission. Once again, they ignored the doctors' advice to continue to the end of the series and went back to the herbal mix. The child died. The mother still believes in the healing herbs. I'm not sure what more there is to say.
The other case I saw was similar, with a child on chemotherapy. He hated the treatment (which is not surprising, since it is rather debilitating), and convinced his parents to take him off (unlike the previous case, his cancer had not gone into remission). As of the date of the story, he had started an herbal treatment to "cleanse" his body, which promised to cure the cancer in 21 days. By the time you get this newsletter, that 21 days should be almost up, so I'll be on the lookout for an update. However, the parents have already admitted that, even if this treatment doesn't work, they will still believe in alternative medicine and will not go back to conventional medicine to save their son.
(If anybody saw this entire piece, please let me know if I missed anything here.)
Speaking of alternative medicine, all we seem to hear about alternative medicine in the general media is how great it is and how the horrible medical establishment is for saying it should be tested like any other form of treatment. As we see above, even when the alternative fails horribly, the believers still believe. Well, the Chicago Tribune, "Discoveries" section (2/12) discusses yet another case of spectacular failure.
Chaparral, an herbal compound supposed to be a potent antioxidant, has been linked to a woman's case of liver failure. Indeed, there have been a number of cases of toxicity related to this compound, and the FDA has warned against taking it. Unfortunately, many of the alternative medicine proponents have little use for anything the FDA says. After all, if the death of their own son didn't convince the couple discussed above that perhaps alternative medicine isn't so great, I doubt if a mere liver failure linked to this particular mixture will cause any true believers to think twice before taking it.
Cardinal Bernardin and his former accuser, Steven Cook, have reconciled. Cook apologized for previously accusing him of sexual abuse -- a charge he withdrew when he declared that his own memories, recovered through hypnosis, were unreliable (see "REALLity Check", Vol. 2, #3).
At this meeting, described by the Chicago Tribune (1/5), Cook told Bernardin that he was now 95% sure that Bernardin had never abused him and needed only Bernardin's reassurance to be 100% certain, which Bernardin gave to him.
I hope the publicity received by this reconciliation encourages more people to think critically about the claims of "recovered memories." It is only too bad that it took an accusation against such a well-known person to bring this problem more out into the open.
Yes, that's right! We had our very own UFO flap right here in Springfield, Illinois, this past month.
On Friday and Saturday, January 27 and 28, the Springfield Police, Illinois State Police, and Sangamon County Sheriff's office received numerous calls from people in town reporting UFOs over the town.
The State Journal-Register's "Police Beat" reports that the lights which produced all those calls were not alien visitors but actually were caused by Blockbuster Video's grand opening, at which they had an advertising truck which can "beam the flashing lights in the air."
Springfield Police Cmdr. David Searcy was quoted as saying, "No one has been kidnapped or raised into a spaceship, yet."
Sure, that's what They want us to believe...
Wired, a magazine focusing on the "information superhighway," had an article in its February issue discussing those bastions of great information, psychic hotlines.
The author, Rogier van Bakel, points out that these hotlines, typically running at $3.99 per minute, are the most expensive sources of "information" available by phone. So, he decided to give on a call and see what they could tell him. To put it mildly, he was not impressed.
When he called, the woman on the other end did everything in her power to keep him on as long as possible. She would ask questions which one of us might think she'd know, as a "truly certified" psychic, and then she'd take her own sweet time writing down the answers while the clock ticked away and his bill ticked upwards. These questions started with the mundane, such as his birthday, name, and location. They moved to his favorite color, animal, and then questions about sex. Finally, she got around to using her tarot cards, which she duly shuffled for him over the phone (for 30 seconds, or roughly $2). She told him he'd soon be meeting a woman very soon and he'd ask her to marry him (this would probably come as a shock to his wife). He asked if he could get his money back if it didn't happen, but the "truly certified" psychic told him that they couldn't do that, or else people might call up and <gasp> lie to them after the psychics told them the "true facts."
Is this result really surprising? Not to most of us who get this newsletter. But the more we see such articles in other periodicals, the better chance there is that somebody who might have called and wasted their money will see through the baloney.