The View from Number 80

 

 


Backwards Glances Index 2002

A word of warning - owing to the Weekly Glance's attempted topicality some of the links below may be even more ephemeral than usual. (Tip - a search for cached versions of missing sites is often productive using either Google or The Internet Archive Way Back Machine.)

June 29th 2002 Do You Believe? Science versus Seance         

July 7th 2002 Is Scientology a Religion?

July13th 2002  Temple Cure for Depression?

July 20th 2002  To Catch a Thief

July27th  2002  Signs of the Times

August 3rd 2002 Vampires and Reality

August 10th 2002 Chemical Trailer Trash

August 17th 2002 The King is Dead - Long Live the King!

August 24th 2002 The Pinocchio Error

August 31st 2002 What's New Pussycat?

September 6th 2002 Do Atheists have Morals?

September 13th 2002 Tire Tracks to Trash Twerps?   

September 20th 2002 Pyramid Selling

September 27th 2002 Velocirapture

October 4th 2002 Shrouded in Mystery

October 11th 2002  Saints - Who Needs Them?

October 18th 2002 Hollow Promises

October 25th 2002 What the Hell are You Afraid Of?

November 1st 2002 Get your Scam Patented

November 8th 2002 Box of Hot Air?

November 15th 2002 Sites for Sore Eyes

November 22nd 2002 The Miracle of St Rorschach

November 29th 2002 In God's Name?

December 6th 2002 British X-Files UFO

December 13th 2002 Horizontal Homeopathy

December 20th 2002 Indispensable Division

December 27th 2002 A New Year's Resolution to Keep 

 
 
June 29th 2002

Do You Believe? Science versus Seance - Spirit Photographs! -  to get the ball rolling is a site brought to 80's attention by The Skeptic (a highly recommended website and magazine). The < > American Museum of Photography is showing an exhibition of Spirit Photography 1868 - 1935. It is worth a look if only to see the face of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a blob of ectoplasm dangling from a medium's nose! These pictures are fascinating and in many cases unintentionally hilarious. Even at a time when the art and science of photography were new it still surprises that so many fell for these images. Well, if you are determined to believe in something facts or common sense can have little sway. Of course some people are still at it. Much more credible to 80's rheumy eye are these Tall Tales photos by William H. Martin.


  July 7th 2002

Free Book Available Online! Is Scientology a religion? From the current look of the Scientology home page it would appear that they are keener than ever to push this idea. The letter "I" in the logo at the top of the page has mutated into a cross. Below is a picture of a loving family who thank Scientology for keeping them "happy and stable" and for giving them "a strong moral and spiritual base." (This is, no doubt, interesting news to those who portray the late L. Ron Hubbard's organisation as a dangerous cult). In fact the overall appearance of the page is reminiscent of various christian websites - a clue perhaps, as to who they are targeting? Covering all the bases, this same page promotes Dianetics, a quack psychotherapy invented by Hubbard, as a science. This is certainly not the view of The Skeptic's Dictionary which, in one withering page, demolishes such a claim. And the free book? This is a biography of Hubbard by Russell Miller and is called "Bare-Faced Messiah" kindly made available online by Operation Clambake. For a "warts and all" portrait of Hubbard this is highly recommended. Liar, charlatan, scientist, fantasist, prophet? Read the book and find out! ( see Time Travel Clams for more on Scientology)


July 13th 2002

Temple Cure for Depression? Two recent articles one from New Scientist and one from InteliHealth report that at the temple of Muthuswamy in South India, 31 people, diagnosed as suffering from various mental disorders, were treated over a period of a month. The researchers state that, according to what are termed "standard psychiatric scores", the subjects showed improvement comparable to that achieved by modern drugs. (New Scientist notes that the leader of the research team admits there were no controls and a double-blind study is needed.) Sundry medical claims are made and with the advent of the Web many such claims reach a wider audience than ever before. Most people would like certainty with regard to medical matters but science can offer no such thing. The answer is to look for the best data and advice to make an informed decision. An excellent resource for keeping abreast of some of the more radical claims is Quackwatch, a site operated by Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist. There is a huge amount of information here, much more than a brief mention such as this can do justice to. Sample headings include Questionable Products, Services, and Theories, Questionable Advertisements and Nonrecommended Sources of Health Advice. So, if you have a question about that magnetic bracelet  , chiropractic treatment  or aromatherapy  take a look at Quackwatch. A final observation from the late Douglas Adams "If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands."


July 20th 2002

To Catch a Thief? - There is an old saying that you have to set a thief to catch a thief. This has added meaning when investigating claims of the paranormal. Scientists examining the universe by and large expect Nature to be sometimes complex, even obscure, but not deliberately deceitful. This can place them at a disadvantage when investigating claims of the ability, for example, to bend spoons by mental power alone. This relatively trivial conjuror's trick was sufficiently well done by Uri Geller to convince two scientists, Puthoff and Targ, that he was using paranormal powers. Any of the items in a psychic's bag of tricks can be replicated by a competent stage magician - therefore ANY investigation of such claims must be able to call upon the advice and skill of such a magician. One of the first debunking magicians was the great Harry Houdini - today's scourge of psychics and the like is James "The Amazing" Randi. Not only has he famously offered a $1 million prize for proof of paranormal powers but he also operates the James Randi Educational Foundation. Its "aim is to promote critical thinking by reaching out to the public and media with reliable information about paranormal and supernatural ideas so widespread in our society today." One vital, sometimes angry, sometimes amusing and always informative part of this effort is Randi's Weekly Commentary, a not to be missed look at the world of the paranormal and pseudoscience. Whether it is Free Energy scams, medical quackery, astrology or Scientology, Randi has something to say that is worth hearing. Bookmark the Commentary in your favorites list to enjoy a weekly dose of waspish sanity.


July 27th 2002

Signs of the Times - Another persistent modern myth is getting the Hollywood treatment. After such edifying spectacles as The Mothman Prophecies, < > The Philadelphia Experiment , and  Communion  here comes Signs  starring Mel Gibson with, wait for it, crop circles! This at one time uniquely English phenomenon, now worldwide, is featured in a plot about a small town preacher's (Gibson) test of faith when a 500 foot crop circle appears on his farm. After the historical inaccuracies of The Patriot and Braveheart this is a change of pace (and inaccuracies) for Gibson and yet another chance for Hollywood to try and make a buck from the public fascination with the paranormal. 80 has looked at circles before in The Cereal Artists back in September 2000. There was mentioned the great Circlemakers site with its collection of pictures which convinced 80 that art rather than aliens is the prime inspiration here - some of the designs are jaw-dropping (and all completely artificial). Circlemakers makes mention of the new movie (also check the news page for much more) as does CSICOP  (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) unsurprisingly in a less than complimentary fashion. The Skeptics Dictionary supplies its usual accurate summation of crop circles. If you still want more, Crop Circle Connector is a large site with many images and many links to circle pages.


  August 3rd 2002

Vampires and reality - Vampires are still very much a part of popular culture even in the 21st century. The success of author Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire), the Blade movies, and the ratings of Buffy the Vampire Slayer show that this particular myth still has strong appeal for a young audience. Originally it is likely that the idea of the undead came about because of the difficulty of being certain that someone has, in fact, died - even today we hear horror stories of people waking in a morgue after being pronounced deceased. This basically eastern European peasant folklore received a boost with the 19th century romances by such as Bram Stoker (Dracula) and Sheridan Le Fanu (Carmilla) which not only ennobled the vampire but introduced a sexual element. When movies arrived this facet became one of the reasons for the genre's continuing popularity, as evidenced by Universal Studio's pre-war movies and the later Hammer revivals. Now and again it is reported that this old belief is not restricted to works of fiction - most recently with a shocking murder in a Welsh town. A young man, 17 years old, has just been convicted for the murder of his elderly neighbor, his apparent intent the acquisition of immortality by drinking her blood and performing other rituals. In the man's home were found books and other materials on vampires - although a lot of the media were more interested in the fact he had visited vampire websites. These certainly exist in great number, some of them claiming to cater to "real" vampires and are full of information about things vampiric - most of these are no sillier than a hollow earth or angels site. Doubtless there will be a cry for such sites to be shut down - the web as scapegoat is popular with certain sections of the print media, although no one is likely to ban Stoker's Dracula let alone touch a money and merchandise machine such as Buffy (apart from the fundamentalist would-be censors). The sad and horrific events in Llanfairpwll, Wales say nothing about vampires - which do not exist - but do say a lot about that heady mixture of sin, sex, violence and immortality that has intrigued, repelled and simultaneously attracted folk for at least the last century and more. Sadly, once in a while, someone tries to bring this legend to life - in this recent case resulting in no immortality, the tragic and violent death of an elderly lady, and the imprisonment of a deranged and gullible young man - and countless tabloid headlines.


August 10th 2002

Chemical Trailer Trash  - After the horrific events of September 11th 2001 one of the first actions taken was to ground commercial flights across North America for three days. This coincidentally allowed scientists to assess the effects on climate of airplane vapor trails or contrails (as reported this week in New Scientist, Scientific American and elsewhere). Effectively, when a moving aircraft disturbs particles of ice or water vapor, it causes a pressure reduction above the wing surfaces which, when combined with water vapor in the engine exhaust gases, tends to condense, leaving a visible trail of condensed water vapor. Given the right atmospheric conditions these trails can form artificial cirrus clouds. Now natural clouds of this type, by absorbing heat from below and reflecting light from above, can moderate the extremes of temperature to which planet Earth would otherwise be subject. The absence of contrails for three days allowed a comparison with earlier observations showing a quantifiable effect on temperatures which suggests that contrails contribute to the moderating effect of natural cirrus clouds on climate. All of which should be reassuring as it suggests that, if anything, contrails are mildly beneficial (unlike, say, fuel residues). Such a conclusion is anathema to chemtrails fanatics - whose websites are full of dire warnings about how humankind is being manipulated by chemicals deliberately and secretly injected into contrails. (Chemicals plus contrails equals chemtrails - nothing like a snappy buzzword for your threat when you are trying to scare the pants off people.) Who are these chemtrails folk? A quick look at their pages reveal most of the usual suspects - conspiracy theorists who are quick to link their imagined threat to the "New World Order", a high level "weather- war", anti-global warming climate adjustment, sinister US government mind control projects or Chicken Little. Most of their sites are adorned with pictures of apparently perfectly ordinary vapor trails - until you read the doom-laden captions. Such idiotic scaremongering is in the main ludicrous but obviously finds enough believers for the bandwagon to keep rolling. For more information see Past View - Chemtrails Cydonuts Loons from November 2000 (and also this from New Mexicans for Science and Reason). Many of the links cited by 80 in that piece are now dead but any of those given above will substitute well enough - new sites, same old claptrap.


August 17th 2002

The King is Dead - Long live the King! When someone who has found a place in the hearts of the public dies relatively young (or from mishap or violence or means other than just old age) many people do not want to let go, having invested so much hope and confidence. The wish that in a time of great need a hero of the past will return to set things aright is a natural one. Just think of the legends that surround various  figures such as King Arthur, "The Once and Future King" asleep in a cave somewhere ready to waken should Britain be threatened, Frederick Barbarossa, also asleep in a cave awaiting the call to save his people, Francis Drake whose ghostly drum can be heard when dire times are upon England, and the best known of all, Jesus, with the promise of his "Second Coming". The modern world too has its great, lost hero (perhaps idol is more accurate with its overtones of an unhealthy fixation), so loved that many cannot believe he is really dead - the King himself, Elvis Presley. The number of websites devoted to the reporting and cataloging of sightings of Presley is large and seem to have no shortage of material with which to work. These sightings are reminiscent of the Acts of the Apostles particularly the meeting on the Road to Emmaus - where two people meet, talk and share a meal with a mysterious stranger. It is only after the stranger's departure that the truth dawns. This story could almost be a template for a great number of Elvis sightings which very likely spring from the same needs. (A funny and to some offensive list of Jesus/Elvis "similarities" can be found here.) Presley died 16th August, 1977 and there are many news items commemorating the 25th anniversary of his passing (aided by at least 10 different drugs in his bloodstream according to the autopsy.) It will be interesting to see if this upsurge of media-driven interest will give rise to a parallel upsurge in reported sightings. If 80 were rash enough to place a bet this would be a pretty safe one. On the subject of wagers the British "bookies", William Hill have odds of 1000 to 1 that Presley is still alive somewhere. If he is, perhaps he has joined the line shuffling past the grave in a candle-light vigil at his Graceland home, which is also graced by the presence of his former wife Priscilla  (with E-meter) and daughter Lisa Marie (with vapid look), stalwart Scientologists both. 80 will find more entertainment elsewhere watching Elvis impersonators, particularly the Chinese ones and also some of these guys.


August 24th 2002

The Pinocchio Error - Imagine how useful it would be to have a reliable way of knowing if someone is telling the truth. The children's fantasy, Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi, was first published in book form in 1883. Even those who only know the story through the somewhat anodyne Disney movie will remember the little wooden puppet that so desperately wanted to be a real boy, and also what happened when he was "economical with the truth" - his nose grew, and kept getting longer with each subsequent lie. Poor Pinocchio's nose was a sure and reliable indicator of his veracity - plainly visible for all to see. What a boon to crime detection and national security if a real world equivalent of the little puppet's nose could be found. (Preferably not in the form of a lengthening proboscis as 80 can imagine many politicians would be unable to raise their heads, bowed down by nasal weight.) But hold it, you say, we do have such a thing - the polygraph, more commonly known as a lie detector. Yes, the polygraph exists and is used by some US government agencies investigating spy allegations, anthrax mailings and the like. Now the UK government is looking at their use in investigating the lapse rate of pedophiles after punishment/treatment. The worrying thing is that many very reliable sources can find no merit in the device at all (this is a comprehensive website dedicated to polygraph debunking, which, although somewhat strident, presents a good case). In fact it is very likely to be dangerous by engendering a false sense of security in the authorities or by leading to false imprisonment of a suspect. Many scientific organizations have expressed serious misgivings. The device works by measuring changes in a subject's heartbeat rate, blood pressure, and skin resistivity (affected by sweating). Initially questions are asked to which the answers are already known to "calibrate" the device before the investigative questions start. For more detail see here. The problem is that many other things can cause a change in the observed reactions other than lying - also a case can be made that a pathological liar may not even be aware of telling a falsehood anyway. A further complication is the possibility of a subjective element in interpreting the results (in fact this process has been described as pseudoscientific and more akin to an astrological reading). On these grounds alone the lie detector should be legally inadmissable. An added problem is that some private companies are using the device with far less scrutiny of how it is applied than even governments manage. Many of the concerns mentioned above and others are detailed here and here. The bottom line is that too many sections of society are still enamored of a quick technological fix for problems and the polygraph fits the bill - even if it doesn't work.


What's New Pussycat? - The tail end of the summer is known as the "silly season" for odd, daft or whimsical stories in the media. So, apparently right on cue, the BBC are reporting increased sightings of "big cats" in the British countryside - and by big they mean something considerably larger than your pet tabby. This is a subject that has some parallels in the world of UFOs, with unsubstantiated sightings surfacing intermittently and dutifully trotted out by the media on slack news days. The only evidence, so far, seems to be a few photographs and eye-witness accounts. The pictures, lacking a definable scale, are practically useless for estimating the size of the "beasts" shown - cats, unlike say, dogs, have a very similar body shape whether they are a pussy or a puma. The eye-witness accounts, many of which are completely sincere, rely upon fleeting views, often at great distance by non-experts. This is not to belittle the "witnesses" only to say such accounts are not actually useful as evidence, no matter how sure folk were of what they saw. Another UFO similarity is the existence of an organization devoted to such sightings, the British Big Cat Society (BBCS) which states "The BBCS has been formed to scientifically identify, quantify, protect and catalogue the Big Cats that freely roam the British countryside." An admirable aim, but one that seems to already accept the existence of these cats which surely does not say much for the group's objectivity. Many countries have odd creatures that crop up now and again - generally the result of the loss or deliberate release of someone's exotic pet - but it seems unlikely as an explanation for the BBCS's claim that " it has received more than 800 reports of animals including pumas, black panthers, leopards and so-called Fen tigers over the past 12 months." True, the society acknowledges many of these are likely domestic cats but they also claim to have "firm evidence" that the majority are real, evidence which does not seem convincing enough for local authorities and the police. Again the similarity to the UFO world is striking. This cat business is, in some ways, a subset of the non-science of cryptozoology, a subject 80 has looked at before (see Crypto Bamboo Movies - Crouching God Bear Hidden Bunyip). This site, Cryptozoology Jungle is devoted to the subject and has a page dedicated to the British "big cats". 80 found it particularly fitting that the background sound to the site's homepage is Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan cry - famously a fake-up of Weissmuller's own voice and a mixture of several other animals (if you want to visualize such an animal do look at this!). So what IS new, pussycat? On the face of the evidence offered - nothing much.


September 6th 2002

Do Atheist have Morals?   - Richard Dawkins has pointed out in Free Inquiry that to see how outrageous this is, try substituting 'Jews' for 'atheists'.) Bush's statement is part and parcel of an often held view that one has to be a believer to be a moral person. The christian, for example, will claim that the ten commandments are essential to lead a good life - but threats of a vengeful god or eternal damnation should not be necessary to coerce good behavior. Also if one takes one's moral lead from the bible "Thou shalt not kill" is fine but how about "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" - a cause of torture and death for many women in the past? How about "Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people." Tough on any who work Sundays, does this include fire, police and ambulance workers? "For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death" should help resolve family rows and is certainly more permanent than being grounded. Yet if you accept the bible as holy writ who gave you permission to pick and choose which laws and commandments to obey? (For more on this see past View- Baneful Biblical Basis?) The atheist is in no such straitjacket but can establish moral precepts based upon reason. Richard Carrier, featured in the next View from Number 80, has a number of pieces on the web regarding morality and an atheist world view - a kind of primer, What is Atheism All About? and Our Meaning in Life are two, the latter is particularly moving and and is recommended reading - for believers as much as anyone. A third essay from Carrier attempts to formulate in three sentences the values of reason and freethought espoused by most atheists. Inquiry and doubt are essential checks against deception, self deception, and error. Logic and the scientific method is the only way the world can arrive at an agreement on the truth about anything. It is better to be good to each other and to build on what we all agree to be true, than to insist that we all think alike. Precepts such as these should be compared to say, Joshuah's genocidal campaign in the bible watched with gleeful approval by the almighty and then you can decide which has a place in our world. On Saturday, November 2nd there will be a march on Washington by "Godless Americans" a large and mainly ignored citizenry - amazingly estimated at 13% of the population, perhaps 30,000,000 people, more than many religious groups. This will be a chance for such folk to declare their presence, to have a voice in a country whose current administration seems determined to undermine the Constitutional separation of church and state. On that November day it would be instructive for George Bush Snr to look at the folk thronging National Mall and see just many good citizens he tried to disenfranchise with his foolish statement. (The above may seem specific to the USA but take a look at your own country - for instance.)


Tire Tracks To Trash Twerps? - It was reported in the news this week that a La Jolla, California based company TransOrbital Inc. has succeeded in obtaining approval from the US authorities to photograph, explore, and eventually land on the Moon. Due for launch in 2003, the Trailblazer mission is designed to enter lunar orbit and after 90 days of high-resolution imaging deposit a time capsule on the surface.This imaging will consist of pictures and video capable of 1 meter resolution. Which leads to an interesting possibilty beyond the obvious exploratory and scientific ones. At the original announcement of Trailblazer back in October 1999, Gregory Nemitz of TransOrbital said "We expect to be able to see the tire tracks from the Apollo-era rovers." Not only tire tracks but also the descent stages of the Lunar Modules and abandoned Lunar Rovers and assorted scientific equipment that litter the Apollo landing sites will be visible. 80 wonders how this will sit with the "Moon landings were a hoax" twerps who sadly still abound (see Past View - Hollow Fox Abduction). Despite the best efforts of such sites as Phil Plait's excellent Bad Astronomy and NASA's The Great Moon Hoax people such as Bill Kaysing , David Percy and Bart Sibrel still peddle their ill-informed, deeply sad little theories about how the Moon missions never happened and still find many folk ignorant and/or dupable enough to give them credence. (An interesting and enjoyably caustic survey of Kaysing, Percy and others is here, part of a larger and very good site by redzero - recommended.) The suggestion that men of the caliber of astronauts Pete Conrad, John Young and Neil Armstrong ,to name just three, took part in such a deception and then maintained a lie for over 30 years is not only deeply offensive to them, but also to the memory of those who lost their lives in the drive to reach the moon, including the crew of Apollo 1. The reaction of Buzz Aldrin veteran Gemini and Apollo astronaut and tireless space advocate, reported here, to being accosted by a Moon Hoax advocate, if true, is entirely understandable to 80. So, is it likely that Trailblazer's images of Apollo artifacts will change the minds of dedicated Moon Landing conspiracy nuts? Not these twerps.

Update - TransOrbital have arranged for Russian Dnepr rockets to launch their lunar satellites in 2003, according to SpaceDaily.


September 20th 2002

Pyramid Selling - No building has captured the imagination over the centuries like the Great Pyramid at Giza. Many theories have been spun as to its purpose from the relatively mundane idea that it is a tomb, to Phararies, a power plant or even a giant pump (see Past Views - Birthday Triangle Pyramid and Don't Mention Atlantis). Recently the Pyramid was subjected to further investigation by robot. Masterminded by the publicity savvy Dr. Zahi Hawass, director of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, and shown live on TV, the plan was for a small robot explorer to investigate a narrow shaft that opens into the so-called Queen's Chamber. This followed on from earlier robotic exploration by German Rudolf Gantenbrink in 1993. This was stymied by a limestone block apparently wedged into the shaft. The latest robot was to was to drill through the block and insert an optic fiber to reveal what lay beyond. Well hyped beforehand, there was much speculation as to what would would be found - most of it from the loonier side of pyramid research. The BBC, in a surprising lapse, turned to Robert Bauval, of Orion Mystery fame, for his opinions (perhaps all the real egyptologists were busy that day). Elsewhere on the web others had their say, plugging their own ideas about the real purpose of the pyramid. One such is Christopher Dunn who predicted that the findings will confirm his view of the pyramid as a giant power plant, a theory arrived at by his "engineering analysis". Crichton Edward McGregor Miller believes the shafts hold artifacts confirming the pyramid as a sort of protractor, ".... an advanced mathematical device, capable of astronomy, navigation and surveying." Ann Walker, "psychic" and co-founder of the White Arrow Spiritualist Church (named for her spirit guide) has travelled (in spirit, naturally) beyond the limestone plug and has made detailed drawings and descriptions of what lies there including an antechamber with 4 feet high solid gold falcons and, in a further chamber, a golden statue of a man. Back in the real world, what did the robot find behind the stone "door" blocking the shaft? Another stone door, which, it seems, no one had predicted. So wait for the next expedition, more hype and more speculation - this one could run and run.............

(for much more on archaeology and cult archaeology visit Doug's Archaeology Site  and Frank Doernenburg's pages- recommended)

September 27th 2002

Velocirapture - a fast track to heaven? It would seem that there is a large number of folk who can't wait for the end of the world. They have visions of the apocalypse where they, and anyone else they designate as "chosen" will be snatched away before the rest of the world's population is consigned to hell. Many of the loonier christian groups are convinced that the Last Times are upon us and fill websites with signs and portents all with the appropriate biblical (invariably the King James Version) quotations to back them up. That the believers at the time of the writing of the Christian New Testament thought they were living in the Last Times either means they got it wrong or the Last Times should be renamed the Long Times, having lasted over two millennia. In case you are worried you don't have to keep your own checklist countdown to doomsday, when the chosen will fly up through the air (raptured) to meet the Messiah, for handily the Rapture Index does this for you. These industrious folk assign numbers to various categories such as how many False Christs are around, Beast Government (whether the Beast is elephant or donkey is not clear), Wild Weather etc. and arrive at a rating - currently 171 on the "prophetic speedometer" and the advice is fasten your seatbelts. But hey, all is not doom and gloom - you can still make a buck or two out of this - why not sell Rapture Wear and keep in with Mammon before Armageddon? Another good market is for Survivalist type provisions and equipment - for the Last Times or perhaps if you miss the bus (too busy sinning?) and need to survive in a post- apocalypse world. Surely you say there will be nothing left? But there will be those Left Behind - who incidentally provide another moneyspinner in the here and now in the form of a series of fantasy novels written by an evangelist,Tim LaHaye (whose website has an impressive first page - an excellent Last Days primer - and to 80 unintentionally hilarious) and Jerry Jenkins, an author who amongst many other accomplishments assisted Billy Graham with his memoirs. Sadly 80 has yet to find time in a punishing schedule to read these books but a swift perusal leads to the conclusion that Clancy or King need not fear the competition. (Here are a trio of interesting reviews contrasting with the mainly breathless adulation on the Amazon site.) No literary giants, the Left Behind pair at least know a good opportunity when they see one with a Kids Series, CD edition, and a Visual Guide with Fold-out Prophecy Chart all pulling in the filthy lucre. Yes, the doomsday business is doing well and is likely to do so for a long time yet - after all it has only been 2000 years so far................................
 

(afterthought - does Left Behind plus Right Behind make a Complete Ass?)


October 4th 2002

Shrouded in Mystery - many thought the Turin Shroud had been debunked beyond saving but this is far from the truth.To the faithful and the gullible this medieval relic is supposed to be the burial shroud of none other than Jesus Christ miraculously imprinted with his bodily likeness, post-crucifixion wounds and all. Now the Shroud has appeared in the news once more. Modern scientific carbon dating of the cloth points to a date in the middle ages, some 650 years old. This dating has since been challenged by believers although their claims of contamination of the cloth affecting the dating process do not bear up under scrutiny. Now an acknowledged expert on ancient textiles has joined the fray, Mechthild Flury-Lemberg, following her examination of the shroud when she carried out preservation work this summer. Based on her examination, which included the normally unseen back of the cloth she stated that it could be almost 2,000 years old. She related the style of weaving and sewing to known examples from the 1st century, from Masada. Though one has to wonder a little at Flury-Lemberg's scientific objectivity in the light of further remarks. "However, this cloth left a radiant expression on me," Flury-Lemberg told UPI. She made it clear she was not a Roman Catholic but a Lutheran, "but this shroud is not just a Catholic relic but a treasure of all Christendom." Sounds like objectivity just flew out of the window - a point the UPI article quoted seemed to miss entirely, it goes on to say "She said regardless of this impression, she has had to work on the Shroud dispassionately "like a surgeon operating on his own wife."" Very reassuring, particularly when the article goes on to quote Karlheinz Dietz of Wuerzburg University in Germany who trots out what is little more than hand waving and apparent wishful thinking. "If you believe that the cloth hails from the Middle Ages then you must also believe that a man looking exactly like Jesus ... was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified and then placed on linen imported from the Middle East and sprinkled with aloe and myrrh, and that on top of all he had invented monumental photography." Someone should point out to Dietz that it is not a matter of what "you believe" , it is a matter of objectively considered physical evidence Also what does "looking exactly like Jesus" mean? Has Dietz a photograph? (Other than the image on the shroud itself of course). A more sober and distanced view of the shroud and the continuing controversy concerning its age and authenticity is available from the ever informative Skeptic's Dictionary, which acts as a necessary counterpoint to the credulity and wishful thinking that surrounds holy relics of all kinds. But just consider if the shroud were, unlikely as it seems, dated to the 1st century CE - what does that say about the existence of a historical Jesus and claims of his divinity? Absolutely nothing. There is a lot in the press recently about conflicts between science and religion - and when religion comes up with claims about a physical artifact that can be examined, as opposed to more nebulous claims of a spiritual nature, then look out - for this is where the late Steven Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" overlap and it is religion that will end up diminished by the encounter.


October 11th  2002

Saints - who needs them? - Are they a part of the modern world or some ancient hangover, no longer relevant? Beatification and canonization seem these days to be the preserve of the Roman Catholic church rather than other Christian denominations some of which are hostile to the idea. The process was exercised recently in the case of Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest and founder of the Opus Dei movement (often seen as a sinister organization). Escriva was beatified (declared blessed) back in 1992 but it is the final stage of canonization that makes a full saint. For this, evidence is required, although the kind of evidence is unlikely to be of a type acceptable in a court of law or scientific investigation. So what are the requirements for the full canonization? This is dealt with in exhaustive (very) detail by the Catholic Encyclopedia and more accessibly here but the one thing that attracts everyone's attention is the miracles. This is a neat encapsulation "Miracles: observable events or effects which — because they cannot be explained by the ordinary laws of nature — are attributed to direct action of God. Proof of one miracle is required for beatification; proof of a second miracle is required for canonization." These miracles seem to be of an exclusively medical nature, as the days of water walking or changing water into wine (a surprisingly trivial miracle) are apparently no longer with us (or because such tricks are too easily tested by the likes of James Randi). Here many may see a problem - suppose that you have an illness that has not responded to medical treatment. After praying for help from the prospective saint to intercede with God to cure you, you are suddenly well. However, many illnesses and diseases can run their course dealt with by the immune system. Perhaps the earlier medical treatment had a delayed action effect upon the condition. Or the condition was misdiagnosed in the first place. Or the hypothetical soul of a dead person put in a word with God. (An interesting point is why would God need to have a middle man or woman ask for help on your behalf - with omniscience it would seem a little redundant.) Applying Occam's Razor, which of these four explanations is the most likely? The latest candidate for sainthood is Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who did much work with the poor in crowded slum conditions. (It is a fair question to ask that if the Roman Catholic church had stopped its opposition to contraception would there have been quite so many in need of Teresa's ministrations?) Earlier this month it was announced that the Vatican has approved a miracle attributed to Teresa - a 30-year-old Indian woman, Monica Besra, was allegedly healed of stomach cancer after praying to the nun. This was declared by Vatican officials as "scientifically inexplicable" and will likely lead to her beatification. Ultimately one has to step back into the real world and ask, does any of this really matter? It merely seems to be a mechanism to create what the ancients termed demigods, and who believes in them these days? Mmmm, maybe the Parish Church of Saint Hercules does have a certain ring about it ...................

(For those seeking advice as to how to become a saint this page is invaluable, funny and suitably irreverent.)


October 18th 2002

Hollow Promises - What have Edmund Halley, he of comet fame, Edgar Rice Burroughs, he of Tarzan fame, and a British Lord (not Greystoke!) in common with each other and a current item of scientific news? The answer is something that 80 has looked at briefly before, the Earth's core and the Hollow Earth theory (Past View - Hollow Fox Abduction). This belief has been around a long while and mounting scientific evidence over the centuries of the impossibility of a vast inhabited void within our planet has diminished the fervor of believers not one bit - no surprises there then....... Halley is credited by many as the originator of the idea, although rather than one large hollow he proposed the idea of four spheres nested within each other. Others happily adapted this over the years adding their own embellishments as described at the intriguingly named UnMuseum. The idea was certainly current enough to be taken up in their fiction by Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who placed a lost civilization there, in the land of Pellucidar. By the time of Burroughs it was obvious that the temperature and pressure prevailing within the Earth ruled out such a place but then ERB was never noted for scientific accuracy. Scientific accuracy also does not trouble the creators of the many websites on the subject overmuch but amongst some of them a sort of concensus seems to have been reached that the world beneath our feet is the source of various things, lost civilizations, Nazi enclaves, and most particularly, UFOs. Which brings us to the late Lord Clancarty, otherwise known as Brinsley le Poer Trench, author of several books on flying saucers and the instigator of a debate in the House of Lords on that very subject. His contribution to Hollow Earth studies is acknowledged by Dennis Crenshaw in his well laid out  Hollow Earth Insider website. Now recent scientific investigations have revealed new information about the Earth's core, although the interpretation of the result is a matter of dispute. Researchers, analyzing data from some 300,000 seismic events, claim to have evidence of a core within a core, perhaps shedding new light on our planet's formation. A suggestion has been made that this innermost core is the original seed around which the Earth accreted although there are other less exciting conclusions that can be drawn, such as a change in density rather than a discrete core within a core. One thing about these recent discoveries is that they in no way alter the fact that the temperatures and pressure at such depths comprehensively debunk a Hollow Earth - which in turn will do little to dampen the enthusiasm of fervent Hollow Earthers - which seems more a matter of faith than science. To quote Professor Guy Masters, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, " The core is just so strange that it seems to catch people's attention."

Stop Press - Here is new information on studies of the Earth's core and magnetic field perhaps heralding a pole reversal". - a subject that gives rise to  much concern for some and which 80 intends to look at in a future View.


October 25th 2002

What the hell are you afraid of?  - All Saints Day. It is also, and this is what gives some folk the willies, the last night of the year in the     old Celtic calendar, claimed by so-called modern witches as one of their celebratory days. These devotees of "Wicca" are generally as ill-informed and superstitious as their Christian bretheren (although in the main lacking their self righteousness). Mostly they are followers of a comparatively recent revival in nature worship who claim an unsubstantiated link with the old Celtic religions, about which little is known. To the Christian Fundamentalists  Halloween is condemned because like their early forebears they view any remnant, however tenuous, of pagan beliefs and practises as the work of the Devil, as are any other religions and denominations other than their own narrow interpretation. This accords nicely with their childish world view divided into Good (us) and Evil (everybody else). There are a large number of web sites run by     concerned Christians about the     dangers of Halloween and the evil Satan-worshipping implications of what these days is a     bit of fun. Nauseatingly over-commercialized like so much in our culture but just fun, no more no less. The kind of mind set that sees a threat in such a thing is more at home in the medieval world rather than the multicultural reality in which we find ourselves. Yes, the world is a dangerous place, with many dangerous people in it, without introducing supernatural bogeymen to scare children (and childlike adults) half to death. In the real world we have terrorism, global pollution, child abuse, starvation and all manner of cruelty between people and blaming it all on some evil spirit does nothing to fight such things. Many groups suggest using Halloween as a reason to     go around your neighborhood and spread the word of the Gospels - although 80 finds the stream of diminutive, scarily-dressed trick-or-treaters far less of a doorstep annoyance than some earnest evangelists desperate to share their delusions. What these people are afraid of is the demons and evil spirits they have conjured up all by themselves. To quote the late Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, who managed to scare the pants off a good few people himself, "There is nothing in the dark that isn't there when the lights are on."

additional - and it's not just the christians who object to Halloween


November 1st 2002

Get Your Scam Patented! Recent budget cuts in several countries have led to less than stringent scrutiny of patent applications particularly those that claim to produce more power than is put in - so-called "over unity" devices but better known to the skeptical as  perpetual motion machines. Whilst many a lighthearted piece can be written about wacky patents those that put forward these over unity devices and the like are wonderful news for the conmen who make a rich living duping folk with their free energy scams and apparently more respectable businesses peddling pseudoscientific gobbledegook which does not bear close examination. Also see the excellent What's New for more on this.

A country that has come under the spotlight recently is Indonesia after the appalling terrorist attack in Bali. In an otherwise good piece from the BBC about religion in Indonesia, emphasizing the number of religions and their "tolerant nature" - 80 found one paragraph disturbing reading although it obviously did not bother the reporter. "The founding principles of Indonesia, the Pancasila, include a belief in God. But beyond this, religious tolerance is seen as the cornerstone of relations between different faiths - even though almost 90% of Indonesians are Muslim. Moderation is therefore built into the country's constitutional framework." Moderation yes, but apparently only for believers in God, according to these principles. If the recent atrocity is what can be done to fellow believers then 80 thinks any atheists should give the country a very wide berth indeed. (Christian victims of earlier bomb attacks would also view these words with a somewhat jaundiced eye.)

In an echo of an early Robert Heinlein (?) short story where a fiercely anti-space politician changes his views when he is told the treatment for his heart condition is available only in freefall in Earth orbit Nancy Reagan is now said to be privately lobbying for  stemcell research. It is believed such research could benefit Alzheimer sufferers such as her husband. How this will sit with the current administration's attitude to the subject remains to be seen as Mrs Reagan is held with great regard in such circles.
 

Update - the Washington Post notes the US administration has redefined human embryos as "human subjects" in what is seen as victory for those campaigning for greater rights for the unborn. This would appear to be a religiously rather than scientifically driven move which may have far-reaching implications in many medical fields including fertility clinics and particularly stemcell research. This redefinition seems to blur any distinction that may be made between embryos and fetuses.


November 8th 2002

Box of Hot Air? - Recently there came to a light in a private collection an ossuary, or "bone box", which has caught the attention not only of "biblical" archaeologists but the general public. The limestone box, dated from between the 1st century BCE and 70 CE, is of a type used to contain the bones of the deceased after the flesh had rotted away. What made the item newsworthy was the Aramaic inscription it bears, given in most reports as "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". A more accurate rendition would be "Ya'akov bar Yosef ah.uy de-Yeshu'a" or "Ya'akov son of Yosef, brother of Yeshu'a" - all common names at the time and not necessarily connected with the characters mentioned in the New Testament. The popular translation has been enough to spark speculation about whether this box can be taken as evidence of a historical Jesus. Many commentators are quoted as saying that James and Jesus were real people, their reality being attested elswhere, outside the New Testament. Whilst this may be true of James, in early and not just late documents, it is not true of Jesus. The only reference of a supposedly early date by Josephus, a Jewish historian and apologist, is suspect and most likely a later Christian addition to the text. The earliest Christian writings, the letters of Paul, predate the first Gospel, Mark, by some decades. In his letters Paul refers to James as the "brother of the Lord" and met with him - in fact it appears they had a somewhat rancorous relationship. The Jesus that Paul refers to seems to be of a different order, more some sort of spiritual being rather than the itinerant preacher painted by the Synoptic Gospels. (Bear in mind the "Apostle to the Gentiles" never met Jesus in the flesh but only in a vision. Also the reference to James as "brother of the Lord" may not necessarily imply a blood relationship.) In fact a very good case can be made for there having been no historical Jesus at all, as has been convincingly argued at Earl Doherty's excellent Jesus Puzzle website. So where does this leave the ossuary and its inscription? Given these names were of no special significance at the time the only unusual aspect seems to be the mention of the deceased's brother - it is difficult to draw any conclusions (perhaps this Yeshu'a/Jesus merely paid for the tomb and rated a mention on those grounds). At least it gives the theologians (surely one of the most useless occupations humans have dreamed up) a chance to argue pointlessly about Jesus' supposed relationship with both Joseph and James. A good example is that of Roman Catholics, trying to perpetuate the frankly loony dogma of Mary as ever virgin, even after her giving birth. To them, James, and other brothers and sisters referred to in the Gospels must be either from a previous but unrecorded marriage of Joseph, or else the siblings were in fact cousins.

Amazingly it now appears that such an interesting artifact was inadequately packed when sent for its first public viewing and is now cracked - although not as cracked, 80 would suggest, as those that believe this ossuary is evidence for a historical Jesus, let alone a supernatural being of any kind.

Update - Is the ossuary a fraud? Some scholars dispute the authenticity of the inscription.


November 15th 2002

Sites for Sore Eyes - We humans are very much creatures of habit and even with a relatively new technology such as the World Wide Web and the surfing thereof patterns of regular behavior soon develop. There are certain web sites that act as a welcome counterbalance to the flood of nonsense coming from the TV news and tabloid (read gutter) press. Some are updated weekly, some monthly and some not nearly often enough. The first ones are New Scientist and Scientific American. Inevitably in the reporting of current news items there is some duplication but not to the point of redundancy. For anyone wanting to keep reasonably informed on scientific developments both can be recommended. Scientific American does get one demerit - no one likes pop-up ads - but then gains a point for Michael Shermer's monthly Skeptic article - this month intriguingly titled "The Captain Kirk Principle". For more on Shermer's activities visit Skeptic.com and sign up for his email newsletter, E-Skeptic.
 Bob Park's online newsletter What's New appears weekly on The American Physical Society's  site although there is a typical Parkian disclaimer on the page - "Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the American Physical Society ....... but they should be." Park takes no prisoners, particularly when dealing with what he terms "Voodoo Science" - highly recommended.
 Another item on a seven day schedule which 80 has mentioned  before and doubtless will again is James "The Amazing" Randi's Weekly Commentary on the James Randi Educational Foundation site. Randi is not one to suffer fools and scam merchants gladly and  80 has previously described him as waspish but his Commentaries are unmissable, covering a great range of topics with much input from his readers. Excellent stuff.
 Also well worth a regular look is the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal's pages which features items of current news and affairs. Currently in the Doubt and About section is a piece by Chris Mooney, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Skeptics". (Because the plot of the current Potter movie is discussed there are blacked out Spoiler sections in the text but these can be dispelled by a magic wand that appears in lieu of your mouse cursor!) The whole piece is a spirited defense of Rowling's books against those who despair of the current craze for fantasy fiction. Recommended.
 
 Update - a while ago the Weekly Glance in "To Catch a Thief?" (July 20th) pointed out how effective a good stage magician is at seeing through trickery which has suckered many a trusting scientist (spoonbending anyone?). The above mentioned Randi is a very good example of such a magician and 80 thinks he may well approve of a new web-enabled experiment open to all. Just cut along to Nature to participate in Richard Wiseman's online poll on the detection of deception - can you tell the truth from the lies?


November 22nd 2002

The Miracle of St Rorschach - Human beings are pretty good at spotting patterns on the basis of very little coherent visual input. Whether the pattern is real or not is another matter. It is easy to imagine this ability could be of great use in certain circumstances. If one of our distant ancestors saw a dappled outline in the bushes and resolved it into a lurking leopard then it would make sense to give those bushes a wide berth. If it was only sunlight on the leaves and not a predator, erring on the cautious side would seem to be a safe evolutionary bet. Much better to avoid a hundred bushes in such a situation than to become prey just once. This ability to make something distinct out of what may be random effects of colors, light and shade rejoices in the name pareidolia (here is more detail). It can have some odd effects in our everyday world, far removed from ancient game trails, particularly when combined with religious fervor, gullibility, or a wish to believe. The latest example to hit the headlines recently is the "miracle chapati" of Bangalore, India. A woman saw the burn marks on the surface of a freshly-baked chapati (unleavened bread) as the face of Jesus. She managed to convince others of this miracle - the bread is now in a glass case and church officials claim nearly 20,000 people have paid homage to it. (Certainly a very handy crowd-puller for the Catholic Charismatics who are displaying the thing.) It seems the Creator of the Cosmos has a fondness for appearing on foodstuffs, most famously tortillas in various places and at least one of these too has been enshrined. But if God is into miraculous comestibles the Virgin Mary does windows - as evidenced by her glassy manifestation in Clearwater, Florida. This singularly unconvincing apparition was visited by thousands of the devout, incidentally making a few bucks for local entrepreneurs selling Virgin Mary T-shirts. Lest you think such tomfoolery is exclusively Catholic, or even Christian here is a page detailing similar "miracles" that have been witnessed by Muslims such as the tomato that, when sliced in half, revealed a message from God in Arabic (naturally). Interestingly these miracles too have a strong food connection, involving a melon and eggs and beans. Again, lest you think these delusions are the special preserve of the religious what about the so-called Face on Mars? This and the other imaginary "artifacts" dotting the Cydonian landscape are again the result of pareidolia.(see Past View - Aliens about Face) Psychologists have even tried to use this effect in an analytic procedure, the famous Rorschach Inkblot Test, although there is little or no evidence of its effectiveness.

It would seem to this cynical observer that the only modern benefits of this pattern recognition effect is not for the beholders so much as for those cashing in on the naive and susceptible by waving a collection box under their noses, selling T-shirts or peddling Mars conspiracies.

Recommended further reading is Examining Miracle Claims by the excellent Joe Nickell and for more miraculous apparitions try Look Everyone It's Jesus!


November 29th 2002

In God's Name? - If you click on the banner at the top of this page you can then sign a petition organized by Amnesty International to protest at the barbaric sentence of stoning to death of a young woman in Nigeria according to so-called sharia law. Nigeria has also been witness to the most violent rioting over the last week triggered by an alleged insult to Islam by a journalist reporting on the now aborted Miss World competition. Now the northern Nigerian state of Zamfara has endorsed an Islamic judgement calling on Muslims to kill the fashion writer who wrote the offending article. This is part of an increasing trend of intolerance from Islamic fundamentalists by no means limited to northern Nigeria, as noted here (registration may be required) by one who knows a thing or two about fatwas - Salman Rushdie. One thing puzzles 80 - if you believe god is the supreme ruler and creator of the universe and all living things why would he need you commit murder in his name?
 
 On a much lighter note it looks like Disney have some explaining to do - Mickey Mouse's first appearance was not, as we all thought, in the animated short Steamboat Willie in 1928 but rather in a small church, St Christopher's, in Carinthia, Austria, in about 1300. One commentator has tried to pass off a recently discovered fresco as possibly a "beaver or a weasel" - if so it is a beaver or a weasel wearing a Mickey Mouse costume. Given Disney's fierce defense of what they regard as any infringement of their trademark characters perhaps they in turn can expect a letter from the church's lawyers.
 
 Recently in the news was pop singer Michael Jackson. The strangely metamorphosed star was the center of a row when he apparently dangled his baby son, Prince Michael II, out of a third floor window. Later Jackson explained he was overcome by "the excitement of the moment" at seeing his fans flocking below. Never one to miss getting into the news was Jackson's friend spoonbender Uri Geller who had this to say- "I think it was a silly thing to do. He probably did it because he was overwhelmed emotionally by the fans." But Geller had suspected the baby was a fake, saying he (Jackson) was "too protective" of his children to do something like this. Suspected the baby was a fake? Surely his psychic powers should have told him for sure one way or the other?
 
 It is dead but it won't lie down - the Roswell saucer crash makes the news again. Apparently a team of archaeologists have been investigating the crash site. Who bankrolled this waste of time? The SCI FI Channel of course, who have a special coming out on the Roswell bunkum which they say has new evidence and a "smoking gun" revelation described as "fascinating and compelling". Just bear in mind before you bother to tune to the SCI FI channel those same masters of probity are also responsible for such televisual gems as Crossing Over from John Edward and an upcoming series of paranormal tosh, "Taken" featuring UFOs, Roswell (yawn) and alien impregnations. "Taken" is the subject of a good piece by Chris Mooney in Slate entitled Getting Taken -  Steven Spielberg, paranormal huckster.
 
 
 Finally here is a page that is absolutely the last word on the Apollo Moon Landing Hoax - definitive images that finally dispel any doubts.


December 6th 2002

British X-Files UFO - Recently released under the Freedom of Information Act is the UK Ministry of Defence's so-called Rendlesham File. The Rendlesham incident has a treasured place in the hearts of UFO fans, some claim second only to Roswell (and everyone knows how convincing that case is). Apparently, back in December 1980, a glowing triangular flying object was sighted near a USAF base in Suffolk, England by several service personnel. Over time, like other supposed sightings and helped by the usual bureaucratic reticence of the authorities, the story has been embroidered and expanded. Now with the release of the file it can be seen, again like many other sightings, that confusion, a lack of information and, above all, wishful thinking inflated a minor story into an X-Files type mystery. In fact Rendlesham was pretty thoroughly debunked years ago by Ian Ridpath, but as can be seen from the Roswell story this has little effect on "true believers" and also those that have a nice little industry going trotting out variations on the same, tired old stories. A bracing antidote to such drivel is provided by the BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse in a piece uncompromisingly entitled "Why I Believe UFOs are Bunk". For a more detailed look at the subject there is Robert Sheaffer's UFO Skeptic page (with some of his own "saucer" photos!) which is a rich source of information and links. Highly recommended also are the Klass Files, a collection of reports by Philip Klass, perhaps the world's foremost UFO investigator and skeptic. His tireless efforts to reveal the truth about many sightings have resulted in a huge body of information for the would-be researcher and have also earned him infamy amongst the believers - in fact this page asserts that Klass (and CSICOP for that matter) are "not true sceptics, but rather a clandestinely controlled false propaganda operation of the OSI (Office of Scientific Intelligence, a branch of the CIA’s Science Directorate under its Clandestine Services, Operations Division). Their operations within the continental U.S. are illegal. Their job is the evaluation of conditions, collection of intelligence, and dissemination of disinformation, in a program designed primarily to conceal the reality of and technology behind man-made flying saucers." Somehow 80 finds the "UFOs are bunkum school" just a tad more believable.
 
 Back in the world of Identified Flying Objects the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission (along with NASA and others) begins a year-long celebration of the centenary of powered flight. December 17th 2002 is the 99th anniversary of the the Wright brothers' first powered flight above the sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, USA and the day chosen to start a series of events and commemorations of this engineering feat and its far-reaching legacy.


December 13th 2002

Horizontal Homeopathy - The long running BBC tv documentary series, Horizon, has a distinguished record for maintaining a high standard and is not afraid of exposing sloppy thinking and sloppy evidence. A notable previous episode focused on the imaginings of cult archaeology figure Graham Hancock and now, with the able assistance of James "The Amazing" Randi the claims of homeopathy were scrutinised in a recent program. The full story is here, the verdict being no great surprise. As the case for homeopathy seems to rely upon blind faith and the placebo effect 80 doubts whether any minds will be changed - certainly not the minds of those who make a living peddling water to the gullible.
 
 There are a couple of deaths to report - that of Ray L Wallace, credited by many as one of the main perpetrators of the Bigfoot hoax, who apparently strapped big wooden feet on his boots and stomped around much to the mystification of Sasquatch fans. Naturally the believers think there is more to the legend than Wallace's antics - 80 is inclined to agree, if only on the grounds he cannot have been the only faker. The second passing was that of Santa Claus according to an English clergyman. It seems he upset many very young members of his congregation by debunking the Santa story, saying the jolly fat man was dead and claiming that if the reindeer flew fast enough to deliver gifts to all households they would burst into flames. If the Reverend Lee Rayfield thinks he is unpopular for destroying belief in old Santa wait until he starts on really crazy stuff like someone raising the dead and walking on water.............................
 
 Another unwilling figure in recent news has been the wife of the British Prime Minister. The story is only of interest to 80 for the spotlight it incidentally throws upon Cherie Blair's New Age predilections. The fact that she is an intelligent woman with a successful legal career makes such beliefs a little puzzling - then 80 remembered a piece by Michael Shermer, entitled Smart People Believe Weird Things, and it all became a little more understandable, still regrettable, but understandable. It is a pity she does not apply her legal mind with its ability to sift evidence to find the truth to some of her other activities which are looked at by the British press here, here and here . It is interesting to speculate how, as a practising Roman Catholic, she squares New Age flummery with her faith. (Not that 80 distinguishes much between old or new irrational beliefs.)
 
 Here is a thoughtful piece by Chris Mooney on the latest Spielberg "masterpiece", the Sci-Fi channel's mini-series, Taken. On the way he takes a well-deserved swipe at Signs, Dark Skies and purveyor of alien abductee twaddle, Whitley Strieber.
 
 Finally, are you stuck for a seasonal gift idea for the person who has everything? Look no further, this is the answer which would also make a fine addition to any Christmas crib scene. If stock has run out there are still plenty of these available for the discerning.


December 20th 2002

Indispensable Division - One principle vital to democracy is the separation of church and state - or more accurately religion and the government. Most western democracies tend to have people of many faiths (and none) and the choice of just one of these, sanctioned by government, is a recipe for social disaster. Currently the US administration's espousal of so-called faith-based directives whereby tax dollars will be used to award funds and government contracts to churches and other religious groups with no apparent safeguards against the discriminatory policies of such groups is worrying many. Organisations, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation find common cause and concern over the increasing attacks upon secular government and the First Amendment of the US constitution. Many of the websites promoting religious involvement in the state don't mean ANY religion - they mean THEIR religion - with no room for other faiths or the god-free. All the debate and contentious interpretations of the First Amendment may seem dry and academic to some , but to see the outcome of the melding of politics and religion one only needs to look at the recent election result and its consequences in the Indian state of Gujarat - and don't think "it can't happen here". Most religions taken at their fundamental level are authoritarian and intolerant of other's beliefs and such fundamentalism allied with political power is a disastrous mix-  the Taliban were not an isolated case as Iranian students also know too well.
 
 There is some hope after the above gloomy prognostication - apparently the Barna Research Group, a (Christian) marketing research company that "has been providing information and analysis regarding cultural trends and the Christian Church since 1984." has came up with what to the American Family Association is less than good news. As this page puts it, "The American Family Association, a far right lobbying group in Washington, released results from a recent survey that shows mainstream Americans see evangelical Christians as one of the least likeable groups in the country. Researchers from the Barna survey asked respondents how they felt about evangelicals, born-again Christians, ministers, and other groups of people in society. According to the survey, evangelicals came in tenth out of eleven, narrowly beating out prostitutes.". Now this is probably no great revelation to regular readers of 80 but it is nice for folk like the AFA to see it for themselves. Just to push the point a little further, "Affirming results from other studies, the Barna survey also found the more highly educated non-evangelicals are, the less likely they are to have a positive view of fundamentalist Christians." So all is not doom and gloom but a powerful reason for the highest possible quality of secular education, leaving religious beliefs or none as a matter of personal choice.
 
 Still with the wacky world of religion last week Mexicans gathered on December 12th in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe,  the country's patron saint. The date supposedly commemorates the day in 1531 when a native peasant, Juan Diego, saw a vision of the Madonna. The pope canonised Diego this July, notwithstanding that his claims to sainthood are a subject of some controversy (see Backwards Glance - Saints- Who needs Them?) . The Vatican < > view is that Diego not only was vouchsafed a vision but an image of the Madonna miraculously imprinted itself on his cloak. The
awkward facts that the image appears to be nothing more than a painting, and a retouched one at that, and that poor old Diego likely never existed have done nothing to dampen the fervor of believers. Most importantly the usefulness of a native Mexican saint and an accompanying miraculous image in helping the Vatican counter the success of Protestant evangelicals amongst Mexican Indians is not to be dismissed lightly.
 
 Michael Shermer's latest Scientific American essay is now online, asking
Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Life? Lastly, is this worrying piece about the predicted end of the world (again!) according to one interpretation of the Mayan Calendar - worrying in that this bit of non-news (which is far from new) seems to be a thinly disguised puff for author Steve Alten's novel Domain, which features "The Great Pyramid of Giza, Stonehenge, the Nazca Drawings, the Pyramid of the Sun and the temple of Angkor Wat. How are they related to Humanity's prophesied Doom?" Far from being intrigued by such blurb 80 reckons that Alten has been hanging around with the cult archaeology nuts a little too much. 


December 27th 2002

A New Year's Resolution to Keep - with just a dollar - assuming you have not blown all your money over the festive season. After the Bush administration, in its short-sighted and callous way has cut funding for the United Nations Population Fund, it is worrying to think how the huge shortfall can be made up. To quote Jane Roberts on such an uncaring attitude, ''More women die in childbirth in a few days than terrorism kills people in a year. Ho hum. Some little girl is having her genitals cut with a cactus needle. Ho hum.'' If you feel you want to do something about this outrageous situation yet feel helpless there is a very simple solution. To compensate for the $34 million (how many bombs does that buy?) that the Bush administration denied the international family planning group why not send a dollar (or more!) to US Committee for UNFPA, 220 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10017. Make it the top item in your New Year's resolution list.

Bring on the clones - a real human clone or just a publicity stunt  by the Raelian cult? Known for their belief in humans being the product of alien science, the "scientist" who announced the news is one of their bishops - that should help with credibility.......For more background on the Raelians check out the ever useful Skeptic's Dictionary and this from the BBC. Anyone reading the Raelian view of history will find much familiar material, with a spooky similarity to the imaginings of Erich "Chariots of the Gods" von Daniken plus New Age elements such as crop circles and more than a dash of pseudoscience. The effort to achieve human cloning is "irresponsible and repugnant and ignores the overwhelming scientific evidence from seven mammalian species cloned so far," Rudolph Jaenisch, a cloning expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told New Scientist.

A short while ago 80 looked at the weird world of saints and canonization and Mother Teresa - now more information is available about the deceased nun's alleged ability to perform miracles (a necessary step toward full-blown sainthood - see Backwards Glance - Saints-who needs them?). It seems not everyone is that convinced - firstly the husband of Monica Besra, the woman "cured" by Teresa who says "It is much ado about nothing, my wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle." Also weighing in is Dr Manzur Murshed, who treated Besra for her cancer for nine months "With all due respect to Mother Teresa, there should not be any talk of a miracle by her." Not that it is likely the Roman Catholic sect at the heart of the matter, the Missionaries of Charity, will listen to any such naysaying, or the Vatican's Congregation for Causes of Saints, both of whom have too much of a vested interest. (For an excellent overview of the miracle mongering see this from The Valley Skeptic and this from the Indian Rationalist Association.)

One old chestnut being laid to rest (again) in recent news is the Curse of Tutankhamen. Mark Nelson, of Monash University in Australia, followed the subsequent histories of those connected with the opening of the royal tomb in 1923 and found nothing to confirm any curse story. Howard Carter, the archaeologist who led the excavation team had this to say on the subject "all sane people should dismiss such inventions with contempt". Despite the work by Nelson debunking the mumbo-jumbo 80 can safely predict this story will never go away.

San Francisco, always ready to enhance its "progressive" and somewhat bohemian image has passed legislation requiring psychics, fortune tellers and other purveyors of bunkum to obtain permits in order to practise their trade. The worrying thing here is that it seems to give some kind of legitimacy to the whole deceitful business. Supervisor Aaron Peskin is quoted as saying that he did not want to discourage legitimate, modestly priced psychics, seers, tarot card readers or sellers of fortune cookies. Legitimate psychics? Now there's a nice new oxymoron for you. Sounds like Peskin ought to start testing these folk for results before issuing permits - 80 is sure James Randi would be delighted to help.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

  

 
©Copyright 2002 - 2003   Ross W Sargent  All rights reserved