REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

It's been a few months since my last column here, so I'm going to select the best of the best (or the worst of the worst) that's been in the media since my last one.


I have to start with what must be labeled as the most amazing, extraordinary, astonishing, and remarkable piece: A skeptical article in the Chicago Tribune's Tempo section!

Long-time readers of this column know that the Tempo section has a habit of featuring the worst possible articles in terms of skeptical viewpoint, and, indeed, I often use them as a point of comparison against other papers. However, on April 23, they actually printed an article suggesting that alien abductions might not be real! This is made all the more astounding because the author links it to false memories of childhood abuse, which is what skeptics have been saying for years. What makes it so important here is that this is the same newspaper that was talking scientifically about false memories in light of the accusation against Cardinal Bernardin a couple years ago and then publishing a horrible Tempo article completely ignoring that information and buying into claims of huge satanic conspiracies -- all the "memories" of which were "recovered" by patients of a therapist in the Chicago area.

This article quotes well-known skeptical psychologists in the memory field, such as Richard Ofshe and Elizabeth Loftus, and discusses how therapists can create false memories through hypnosis.

An added twist comes from University of Illinois, Chicago, psychologist Len Newman, who says that the abduction tales these people often come up with -- such as being strapped to a table, probed in various places, etc. -- "sounds a lot like the stories people tell when they're weaving masochistic fantasies." Indeed, he further notes that "Believers in the 'abductions' often ask why anyone would make up such stories. But, hey, there are people who pay a lot of money to have experiences very close to this."

Personally, I think he may just be reading a little too much into it, as the therapist-induced false memories theory does seem to explain the vast majority of these cases. What he seems to be saying is that these people have masochistic tendencies and just happened to go to therapists who induce false memories; that seems a bit coincidental. It also would indicate that "normal" people who went to these therapists would not have such false memories implanted, and I’ve seen no evidence to suggest such a case.

Loftus had an interesting side note at the end of the article. She said that alien abduction stories might be preferable to "recovered memories" of abuse. "Whatever need this is filling, it might be better to do it with alien abduction memories instead of 'Daddy did it and so did Uncle and Grandpa.' At least fewer families will be destroyed in the process." A good point, but I think we'd all prefer if none of these false memories were implanted at all.

Haunting All In The Head?

Long-time REALL member Tim Harte was featured in the Illinois Times (4/10) recently with his "ghost" hunting materials.

According to the article, Harte, following the lead of Michael Persinger, thinks that electromagnetic fields can disrupt the proper functioning of the brain's temporal lobe and cause people to feel that they have experienced a "supernatural" event.

Harte's equipment measured the electromagnetic field in an area (such as a house) to see if perhaps that could be the cause of "ghost" sightings. According to this article, all of the "haunted" places that Harte has tested have had strong electromagnetic fields. Unfortunately, he has not had time to compare these to "non-haunted" places (he took readings in his own office at UIS, but has not had a chance to review the data), and he does understand that the information he has to date does not prove that Persinger's theory is correct, but it is somewhat interesting.

Personally, I would like to see more in the way of a double-blind study. For example, the article leads off with a description of a boy who was having regular nightmares that a girl hanged herself in his closet. Harte found a strong electromagnetic field in the room and, when the boy was moved, the nightmares ended. However, we have to remember that we are dealing with subjective phenomena here, and, in this case, with the perceptions of a child. After all, a child may sometimes think there is a monster under the bed; once an adult tells him that everything is okay, that is often enough to soothe the child. Similarly, in this case we don't really know if the change in room -- and thus removal of the electromagnetic field -- was the cure, or if it was merely that the boy was told this would cure his nightmares. In other words, I wonder if this could be an extension of the placebo effect.

As I said, this possible explanation is interesting and, unlike the purveyors of most ghost stories, at least it doesn't involve any "supernatural" or "paranormal" forces. Perhaps Mr. Harte can come and give us a talk sometime soon.

Energy or Hogwash?

On the flip side, there was an article in the State Journal-Register's Sunday A.M. section that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see in the Tribune's Tempo section. You may recall that the Illinois Times had an article last year about Feng Shui, a mystical oriental way to pay somebody money to reorganize your home. Well, on April 13, the SJR covered it and didn't do any better.

Throughout both the article and its sidebar, the author, Julie Cellini, kept talking about "energy." We read about how the organization of one's house helps in "the proper flow of energy," how mirrors "reflect energy," mountains have "chaotic" energy, round tables "slow down the energy and help patrons relax," sharp corners "pierce the energy field," etc. Unfortunately, Ms. Cellini doesn't seem at all interested in telling us just what this mysterious energy is or how it can be measured. Indeed, anything even remotely scientific is completely left out of the article. The closest anybody gets to even acknowledging that perhaps everything isn't as clear-cut as it seems is when a Feng Shui consultant is quoted as saying, "There's a 4,000-year-old track record that says Feng Shui works for many, many people. I'm not interested in convincing anyone." In other words: To heck with evidence!

The author notes, "Cynics may consider it as reliable as a newspaper horoscope, but in places such as Hong Kong, it is taken very seriously." So only "cynics" will consider this to be nonsense? How about just rational people? Unfortunately, no such people were interviewed for this story, as is so often true of "fluff" pieces.

Perhaps the most ironic quote comes from Mark Burnett, owner of Sebastian's Restaurant. He said, "I'm not into cosmic stuff. In fact, I think most of it is hogwash." Yet a good portion of the article talks about how he is buying into this particular brand of hogwash and how he plans to change the layout of his restaurant accordingly. Meanwhile, the Feng Shui consultants are laughing all the way to the bank.

By the Book

Speaking of laughing all the way to the bank, the Chicago Sun-Times had an article about one "fortune-teller" who has done just that (4/6). This scam could have come right out of a book on fortune-teller con games and went down exactly the way REALL's longtime friend Investigator Bruce Walstad has described so many times. Indeed, Walstad was interviewed for this article.

The short version of the story is as follows: A 67-year-old woman died of a heart attack. In going through her belongings, her son, Paul Kubiak, found that she may have spent as much as $150,000 on a fortune-teller. In her purse he found strange rocks and a torn dollar bill held together with needles in the shape of a cross. She kept financial records chronicling her trips to the fortune-teller, including payments of cash, a Rolex watch, a new car, plane tickets, etc. According to Kubiak, "My mom ... was shopping at Nordstrom's for this woman, and we [didn't] even have a dress to bury her in." He has filed a complaint with the Cook County state's attorney, but since the only witness is dead, there isn’t much chance of a successful prosecution.

Within the story, Walstad is quoted several times with information about the way these scams operate. The "psychic" starts with a cold reading -- telling the client general things that can apply to just about anybody. She gets more specific as she gets cues from the client and suddenly she seems to know all about the client. If the con artist thinks she has a good target, she then talks about curses and cures and asks the client to do all sorts of strange things. If the client complies, the "psychic" knows she will be coming into some money soon -- at the client's expense! These sorts of things explain the torn dollar bill and strange rocks in Mrs. Kubiak's purse.

It was nice to see this entire scam outlined in one of Chicago's major newspapers. Maybe, just maybe, somebody who is currently being targeted by a "fortune-teller" will see it and pull out before it's too late.

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