REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

I think we're in the middle of what many people term "the silly season," so-called because reporters apparently don't have enough to report on, and so look into items that are, well, silly. I've heard this reference before, but hadn't noticed the magnitude until this past month. Read on, and you'll see what I mean.

Reach Out and Hoax Someone

I received a couple of complaints last month because I didn't include anything about the alleged alien autopsy (supposedly film taken after the Roswell crash, in 1947) video in my REALLity Check column. I have to be honest here: I didn't even watch it.

Why didn't I watch it? Well, one reason is that I just plain forgot. But also, I have been hearing about this video on the nets for months now -- it simply wasn't "new" for me. By the time Fox showed their special about it, even most UFO believers had come out saying it was a hoax. Besides, the show only had a few minutes of actual "autopsy" footage, with the rest being discussion among "experts" about what could or could not have been faked using special effects. That is all well and good, but I don't think it's where we should be focusing our efforts. Instead, we should continue to press the film's proponent, who refuses to allow the actual film to be tested for its age (he has sent a piece of film "leader" to be tested, but since it doesn't have any footage on it, there is no way to be sure it was actually from that film!). In addition, there are other testable portions of the film, one of which well-known UFO skeptic Phil Klass discussed in his most recent Skeptics UFO Newsletter (SUN).

According to Klass, Tom Holzel, a former AT&T employee (now a V.P. at an electronics company), saw the Fox show and wondered about the modern-looking telephone on the wall in the background of the autopsy. He found a book, Once Upon a Telephone, by Ellen Stern and Emily Gwathmey (published 1994), about the history of the telephone. That book verifies that the phone in question did not yet exist. The phone on the wall has a coiled phone cord; desk phones with coiled cords were first introduced in 1949, and the first wall phone with a coiled cord wasn't debuted until 1956 -- nine years after the autopsy was supposedly filmed.


For those who are interested (and if you're interested in the UFO phenomenon, you will like this newsletter), Klass's newsletter is published bimonthly, and you can subscribe for $15/year by mailing a check to Philip J. Klass, 404 "N" St. SW, Washington, DC 20024.

Too Much Thinking!

The above is an example of critical thinking and problem solving. We look at the overall situation and investigate it to find the best answers. However, according to Springfield School Board candidate Laura Catherwood, we shouldn't be teaching children such things.

The Illinois Times (10/26) reported that Catherwood "wants the district to focus more on memorization of multiplication tables instead of teaching children critical thinking and approaches to problem solving." If there is one thing that I have noticed in my time with REALL -- especially writing this column -- it's that we don't teach enough critical thinking!

Perhaps a later statement in the article explains this, however. "Instead of supporting eliminating evolution from science classes, ... Catherwood thinks it should be taught side-by-side with creationism, and both should be presented as theories, 'giving only the facts.'" Indeed, the only way the schools can possibly put creationism into science class is to remove critical thinking from the curriculum. (I wrote about this in a letter to the editor which I hope to see in the November 2 issue.) Once again, we see creationists who don't know what a scientific theory means, or, apparently, how science works.

Being familiar with this topic, it unfortunately doesn't surprise me that there is a political candidate who doesn't understand science and who wants to put creationism in the public schools. However, I don't think I've ever heard of a School Board candidate who is against thinking.

Shoot the Moon

As you may have heard, several Asian countries were witness to a rare solar eclipse. To prepare for this occasion, Cambodia's government ordered police and soldiers not to fire their guns at the moon in order to scare it so it will spit out the sun. Women in the country put pots of lime on their abdomens and hid indoors to prevent "eclipse sickness" (mental retardation of their children). Etc.

Hmmm, if critical thinking were taught over there...

Milk It for All It's Worth

Nature (9/28) reported on India's "milk miracle," in which statues of Ganesha, the elephant god, appeared to drink spoons of milk provided by worshippers.

According to the article, many of the people who lined up with their milk watched it disappear as soon as it touched the wet surface of the statues' trunks, though some had worse luck and were admonished by priests that their spoons remained full because they lacked the proper faith.

In response to these claims, the All India Scientists and Rationalists Association explained the phenomena as a "demonstration of capillary and surface tension at work." Scientists from the National Council for Science and Technology Communication showed the capillary action by adding red dye to their milk and following it as it was sucked into the idol and then dripped out. (It seems to me that if anybody was going to have a spoon that stayed full due to lack of faith, it would have been these guys. Amazingly, however, the "miracle" still worked for them.)

Leading scientists signed a statement calling on educated Indians to help ensure "that primitive obscurantism and superstition did not hold sway over a society on the threshold of the 21st century" (there go those scientists -- suggesting people think critically again). The Delhi Science Forum said the claimed miracle was a well-planned conspiracy and suggested that those who started the phenomena knew exactly what was happening; the ruling government has further suggested that the opposition was trying to stir up religious fervor through the supposed miracle in order to gain support in the upcoming elections.

Homeopathic Writing

The State Journal-Register (10/12) had a special insert, "Active Times" magazine, which featured alternative medicine as its main article. Unfortunately, the writer appeared to be practicing homeopathic writing, in which any substance became so diluted that the article ended up essentially saying nothing.

I can sum up the article in two sentences: Many people are looking to alternative medicine. Some people say it works, others say it doesn't. This is news? Actually, this is the type of article I expect to see in the Chicago Tribune Tempo section.

A couple of statements do deserve brief mention, though. One discusses a 75-year-old man who had colon cancer. He had surgery to remove it, and he said that a year later, "a CAT scan showed there could be something questionable about my liver." He didn't undergo any further testing, but changed his diet to one of large quantities of grains and vegetables, fermented soybean soup and small amounts of fish and fruit. Twelve years later, his check-ups show he is cancer free, and he apparently credits his diet. The reason I mention this is that it is a common way of "proving" that an alternative therapy works. The problem is that this man never underwent the additional testing to see if the "questionable" area was, indeed, a return of the cancer. Since we don't know that, we can't make a scientific judgment as to whether or not his change in diet actually did anything to help him. This is the case in many claims, where a person receives a preliminary test result and immediately runs to alternative medicine, thus leaving the final results unknown.

Several times, the author mentions people (mostly practitioners) talking about how homeopathy has no side effects. I have one thing to say to that: Of course not. When you dilute a chemical to the point that there is a negligible chance that there is even one molecule of it left in a dose, what kind of side effects could exist? The author fails to mention this, and also fails to mention that, similarly, there is nothing left in the dose which could actually help the patient either.

I know, I know. I'm just being picky and thinking critically again. Maybe I should just go memorize a multiplication table instead.

I Spy with My Third Eye

I have often been asked, regarding psychics, what it can hurt if people believe in them. Generally, I respond with a story about a woman who was taken to an empty lot in the middle of the night by two psychic detectives and told to dig in order to find her missing daughter. When her digging found nothing, the psychics "realized" that her daughter had been cut up into little pieces and burned, and that's why she couldn't find the body by digging. As emotionally hard- hitting as that story is, I now have another one to tell, one that hits people in a different place -- their wallets.

According to Jack Anderson's column in the State Journal-Register (10/29), the CIA and Pentagon have been spending our tax money on psychic spies for several decades now. Perhaps the most amazing part of this column is that Mr. Anderson seems to completely believe the tales he relates. For example, his first paragraph says that the "psychic spies" "use a form of extrasensory perception to help gather intelligence in foreign countries." Not "allegedly" or "supposedly," he just states it as if it were absolute truth.

Apparently, this project began with help from Russell Targ and Harold Putthoff; some of you may recall that these are the scientists who tested Uri Geller at the Stanford Research Institute -- that should tell you something right off the bat. Anyway, our tax dollars have continued to support this nonsense while they come up with stories much like ones we are used to hearing from proponents of "psychics" -- in other words, tales which cannot easily be verified or falsified, and which may have undergone changes in the telling over time. Anderson lists a couple of these as "successes" that apparently prove to him that this unit is accomplishing its role.

Alas, Anderson must address the failures of this project -- its "Achilles heel," he calls it. However, he merely writes off those failures by saying that the rest of the CIA makes blunders as well. Oh, well, then it's OK. So, as usual, we see that the supposed "hits" are lauded and the "misses" are ignored. How typical.

As we have seen in the past, journalists who are skeptical of politicians fall all over themselves to buy into extraordinary claims.

(I have been told that there is more to this Jack Anderson/CIA psychics story, and I'm going to be getting more information soon. However, I didn't want to hold this entire piece for that info, so look for a continuation of this piece next issue.)

REALL Writing

It's not often that I get to write about a REALL member writing about a REALL member. In fact, I'd wager that this is the first time. But it's something I'm happy to do.

In this case, REALL Board Member Steve Egger wrote a book review of REALL member (and two-time speaker) Richard Walker's new book, The Running Dogs of Loyalty: Honest Reflections on a Magical Zoo (reviewed by me in The REALL News, Vol. 3, Number 7) for the State Journal-Register (10/8). Egger wrote, "[I] find more little tidbits" each time he rereads the book, and I, as well as several others I have talked to, have encountered the same phenomenon. The book may not be long, but it is packed!"

Egger said he plans to use the book in his class at the University of Illinois-Springfield because it is both a fun read and promotes critical thinking. Uh oh, there is that term again...

If you haven't gotten a copy of this book yet, I encourage you to do so -- especially since REALL members can get a discount if you order through us.

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