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It Just Never Stops ...

A Magician in the Lab

James Randi

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.3, May/June 2017

To introduce you to the kind of really silly material that I regularly receive for consideration and can deal with only briefly, I ask you to consider this item: From Paris, France, I received a 102-page book—in French. Its title translates as: Released from Mathematics, to Finally Know What the Universe Really Is, Concretely, and How It Works.

For clarification, I’ve made very minor changes to the two paragraphs from the letter that accompanied the book so that you’ll have some idea of what really advanced nut-stuff can do to the human brain. Selected from that letter, written to me in English for my convenience:

Here is the explanation of what the “memory” of water is, and consequently homeopathy, and finally the complete and definitive explanation of what is really, concretely the universe, which, among other factors, at last goes to make the “paranormal” normal.

That “explanation” continued, with portions shown here exactly as emphasized in the original document. Prepare yourself:

The universe being only inter-reactions between frequencies of pulsation (of vibration) of atoms and of molecules, the “memory” of water (like that of other bodies), and consequently homeopathy, explains itself by the fact that water, the molecule of water (as that of other bodies) has this property to “espouse” the frequency of pulsation (of vibration) of other molecules put into contact with it, molecules which then can thus leave it while having left in it their frequency of pulsation (of vibration)—beneficial frequency in the case of homeopathy. It is all and it is all that makes the universe, the inter-reactions between the frequencies of pulsation (of vibration) of the atoms and the molecules, continuously in pulsation (vibrations).

And it went on and on in the same vein. Mercifully, I’ll allow the author to remain anonymous.

In 2012, I received by mail an “evaluation/promotion” copy of a 217-page book, Crystal Clear—subtitled, “The end of the world is not nigh. It is now!” No index of the contents, of course. . . . It deals with a hoax involving “Skully,” a beautiful life-sized human skull said to have been fashioned out of a solid piece of quartz. Advance Bummer: Skully was made of clear acrylic plastic.

This object, we’re told, had been presented to “3,912 professional psychics” over a period of six years and was given 1,735 “channeling” sessions by these “experts,” who were asked to determine the age, the source, and the general history of the object. Apparently, not one of these authorities experienced an epiphany that would’ve told them it was a fake only a few years old. Instead, we’re told, they all produced colorful stories—using their own preferred brands of supernaturalism—in attempting to divine the less-than-divine truth about Skully. This means—if all holidays are suspended, no weekends off—Skully was examined about twice a day, every day, for 2,192 days, which is six years! I find this difficult to believe, but—as always—I’ll try.

Richard T. Cole, the author of the book—who I cannot find among the plethora of Richard T. Coles on the Internet—notifies the reader that he’s disguised the names of all participants mentioned in the publication, often at the demands of lawyers. While the contents of the book provide some entertainment, they also evoke a certain sadness about the fact that grown people will involve themselves in such useless activity. There were many obvious clues that required no paranormal powers to provide suspicion about the qualifications of Skully as an ancient artifact. For example, no one seems to have tried scratching the artifact, which would have revealed that it’s made of relatively soft acrylic plastic that was easily scratched—while quartz is very, very, hard. Also, it weighed just 44 percent as much as a similar quartz object would; think of the weight of a solid stone skull, and I’m sure that you would probably have been sufficiently alerted.

The literary skills of Mr. Cole seem to be compromised by basic misunderstandings of how the real world works. He wrote, “The flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Scotland can trigger a hurricane in Sicily.” This naive concept of a poetic idea, enhanced by his incomplete grasp of optics, basic physics, and science, may have rather limited Cole’s analysis of Skully. Nevertheless, the book is still fascinating due to the examples of human frailty it relates.

We’re now bombarded by quack claims from every direction, even in advertisements for well-recognized quality items that have chosen to join the noisy ducks. The Philip Stein line of high-quality wristwatches got my attention when I saw their product name subtitled, “Natural Frequencies Inside.” What “unnatural frequencies” might be, I could not imagine. Reading on, I found:

Relax. Wear a Philip Stein. Our Natural Frequency Technology has key frequencies to life and health. Customers report benefits of better sleep, less stress, increased focus and improved overall well-being—we simply call it the Feel Good Watch.

This blurb was accompanied by an illustration with a mirror-image of the back of the watch that revealed two gold buttons labeled “Natural Frequency Technology,” both of which are countersunk into the watch-casing and therefore cannot make contact with the wearer’s wrist! Though I’m not about to buy one of these wonders of technology to find out, I doubt that there’s any wiring inside that transmits those beneficial “vibes” to the owner. Perhaps an interested reader might pursue that inquiry.

A confident, purring, female in a beautifully presented vocal ad explains as much as Phil is ever going to provide for us (my punctuation inserted):

Philip Stein’s “well-being technology” was engineered to help us re-connect with Nature. Our natural frequency technology acts like an antenna which is fine-tuned to pick up those natural frequencies that are most beneficial to human well-being. Live in tune. Philip Stein.

It goes without saying that a substantial reward should of course be available to the Philip Stein people, but I believe that they might have a certain reluctance to have their vapid claim examined. In any case, the “frequencies” mentioned are not defined as audible, vibrational, electromagnetic, or of some other cosmic origin, but the naïfs who are drawn in by such an ad wouldn’t know the difference anyway. They only have money from which they obviously can be parted, and I’m sure that the Stein company doesn’t much care.

Consider: the official Philip Stein page states, re their “iconic brand”:

. . . 2002 . . . marked the first time in history that frequency-based technology had been incorporated in a luxury watch brand. . .The Natural Frequency Tech­nology in Philip Stein watches are [sic] key frequencies beneficial to life and health. The frequencies embedded in Philip Stein watches provide information to the biofield that makes the person wearing a Philip Stein watch more resilient and adaptable to stress.

Within a year of the official launch of Philip Stein watches, the company was overwhelmed by testimonials—better sleep, less tension, improved concentration and improved overall wellbeing. But perhaps the most important endorsement came in 2003 when media giant Oprah Winfrey featured the watch on her “Oprah’s Favorite Things” show.

Better sleep, less stress, improved performance, overall wellbeing…

Well, if Oprah supports this claim, we can’t disbelieve! But moving along to an even greater and startling scientific discovery made by Phil:

Today, Philip Stein watches are sold in 25 countries around the world. The product line has expanded to include a wide range of styles. And, the company has taken its technology one step further, to include lifestyle accessories, including the Philip Stein Wine Wand. The wand uses a mix of natural frequencies to accelerate the “breathing” process of wine, making it ready to drink in minutes.

I obviously need a Stein Wand. Don’t we all? How I’ve muddled along without one for so long, I can’t imagine. I was driven to compare the price of a genuine Harry Potter Wand—with its far greater spectrum of attributes—to the Philip Stein Wine Wand. At $49.95, Harry’s product works just as well as Phil’s—which goes for $525—and Harry’s seems far more versatile.

Now, I’m much less enthused about the sort of science that I encounter in the press and on television, and the Information Age has become a possible enemy rather than a friend, as we once thought it would—and certainly could—be. Any nonsense that powerful people such as Oprah Winfrey choose to promote is featured as fact, quackery is extolled, and pseudoscience is flaunted in news media rather than on pulp magazine racks.

The woo-woo field being so bizarre, it’s sometimes difficult to spot the simple pranks. For example, there was a 2001 study published in a year-end issue of the British Medical Journal (now titled BMJ) that used the records of 3,393 patients who were being treated for blood infections at the Rabin Medical Center, the second-largest such facility in Israel, to study retroactive intercessory prayer (RIP). Yes, you read that correctly: retroactive intercessory prayer. Just try to think what that means, folks. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of thing that parapsychologists can easily take in stride. To compound the alleged miraculous power of prayer itself, those experimental prayers were performed several years after the patients had either already left the hospital alive or had died from their bloodstream infections! Nonetheless, three primary outcomes—mortality, length of stay in the hospital, and duration of fever—were all found to have been significantly improved in the intervention group, implying that prayer can even change events in the past. The author concluded that “Remote, retroactive intercessory prayer was associated with a shorter stay in hospital and a shorter duration of fever in patients with a bloodstream infection.”

Then, to the profound relief of those real scientists—and to myself—who, I admit with some embarrassment, had not readily detected the joke, the author ended his paper with this huge paragraph, though I must say that he’d assumed more perception by readers than I might have assumed:

Discussion

By now it should be abundantly clear to most readers that the reported study and its results are entirely fictitious. However, despite this irreverent satire, we believe that it might actually be worthwhile doing a large-scale retroactive prayer study of the kind discussed here, just for the sake of testing what we regard as an extremely improbable reality, i.e., a “God signal” that would manifest itself in the manner exemplified here—for certain combinations of prayer and prayee. Some have suggested that the notion of retroactive prayer is so preposterous that researchers need not waste their time investigating it. Others have pointed to instances in physics in which nonlocal interactions in quantum theory or alleged connections between consciousness and quantum theory make this possibility worth an empirical look. Although these latter connections are entirely speculations, and frowned on by nearly all physicists as being without substance (most would use stronger words), I do not believe one needs to invoke such metaphysics to justify an empirical test. For example, if it were true that a personal God exists who sometimes grants prayers, retroactive prayers are just as easy for Him to grant as proactive ones, and they do not require backwards in time signals from the prayee, since God knew who was going to be prayed for all along…

There was more, but this point is clearly made: there are scientific “papers” published regularly all over the world that are comparable to this one—without any discussion/disclaimer. They’re meant to be taken seriously, and they often are. The utter foolishness, the juvenile approach, the presumption of these “papers” makes them tissue-thin and patently transparent (multiple puns intended) to anyone with a trace of critical thinking operating for them. Serious journals continue to publish these useless items; the media grab them up and exploit them; and woo-woo is given another boost so that the quacks and frauds can continue to perpetuate their chosen opulent lifestyles.

In that issue of the BMJ, the author eventually—officially—admitted that his paper had been a joke, an understood and expected seasonal feature of this otherwise very sober publication, and in the next year they ran similar discussions on RIP and the possibility of quantum physics being involved.

And I trust that the subtle “RIP” acronym was not lost on my readers.

James Randi

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James “The Amazing” Randi is a magician, investigator of psychic claims, author (Flim-Flam!, The Faith Healers, The Mask of Nostradamus, The Magic of Uri Geller), and the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. He was a founding fellow of CSICOP. This article is based on a special presentation on investigating psychics he gave at the Fifth World Skeptics Congress, Abano Terme, Italy, October 8—10, 2004.