The Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet
Demand for alternative "healthcare" continues to grow faster than the American waistline; therefore, job prospects for alternative-medicine practitioners who can offer clients cures for every conceivable disease and condition, along with invented ones, such as restless text-messaging syndrome, are rather rosy. One of the more lucrative areas of alternative-care practice is chiropractic, in which not only do chiropractors make a decent living by manipulating patients, but they also get to call themselves "doctor," sort of like the television actor who pretends to be "Dr. House." Cool or what?
This disturbing trend in which the public is turning to alternative forms of questionable, unscientific, and Oprah-approved treatments for whatever ails them is growing by steroid-induced leaps and bounds, and it shows no signs of going the way of the Tonga ground skink. Why would the public part with its hard-earned money, and in some cases, intelligence, to dial up a chiropractor for undefined pain, myasthenia gravis, allergies, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibro-myalgia, PMS, autism, or a clogged toilet? Although there may be several reasons, one of the primary problems is the general public's lack of scientific knowledge, which is an uphill battle for stem-cell research, but a boon for nasal dilator strips.
On the other hand, although most people are not necessarily scientifically literate, they generally believe they are reasoning, rational creatures, despite evidence to the contrary, such as the popularity of Ann Coulter, queen of the logical fallacy, who writes that gaps in the fossil record is a reason public-school children should be taught creationism. Huh? Therefore, by studying the origins and "science" of chiropractic, it should be rather easy to arrive at a consensus as to the logic behind its claims, right?
(Unlike many of the oddball, questionable ancient cures that have been recently rescued from obscurity and discovered in tunic pockets by get-rich-quick woo-woo peddlers, chiropractic is a fairly modern alternative treatment. It's barely over one hundred years old, which to some, gives it more credibility than other scientifically challenged, ancient fixes promoted today, such as urine therapy and harmonic healing ("There are tones in your bones!").
It was in 1895 that DD Palmer inadvertently stumbled upon chiropractic as a way to create a bogus profession out of thin ether. Although born in Canada, Palmer spent much of his adult life in the United States, or more specifically, in the state of delusion. Before his infamous discovery, he was involved in various occupations that provided him with a rock-solid scientific knowledge, such as beekeeper and grocer.
In his spare time, Palmer avidly read up on the latest medical beliefs and theories of the time, such as the wisdom of bloodletting and the dangers of masturbation, which could result in insanity due to excessive enjoyment. During the mid-1880s, while settling in Davenport, Iowa, Palmer's obsessive interest in the healing sciences, along with his fascination with spiritualism and unicorns, led him to pursue a career in a well established, field: magnetic healing.
At the time, magnetic healers advanced the idea that human bodies were surrounded by invisible-like magnetic energy. By manipulating this field with his hands, a magnetic healer could cure most diseases, excluding general gullibility, while simultaneously drawing money out of a patient's pockets, which actually made DD quite wealthy???a money "magnet" so to speak. In his spare time, DD spent hours studying anatomy and physiology books and French postcards. Eventually, he felt he had developed a keen understanding of the workings of the human body, which, as will become evident, was on par with how fully most of us understand the physics behind string theory.
It wasn't until 1895, however, that DD Palmer created history by stumbling upon a cure for every human disorder and illness in the known universe: the art and artifice of spinal manipulation. Relying on the same magical thinking that kept his bank account well nourished by working as a magnetic-healer, he was convinced that there was a single source in the human body responsible for almost all diseases and disorders, suggesting he may have spent too many hours studying French postcards.
His "Eureka!" moment occurred in the bowels of his office building when he learned that a janitor working in his building was deaf. During a long "discussion" (or game of charades) with the janitor, Harvey Lillard, the custodian revealed that seventeen years earlier, when stooping down in a cramped area, his spine "popped" and immediately his hearing "stopped" (Seuss 16). Relying on his extensive experience as magnetic healer and grocer, DD deduced that the two events were likely linked. With no more knowledge about the complexity of the vertebral column than could be coaxed out of a clam, DD decided that Lillard's hearing problem might have resulted from misaligned vertebrae in the neck. Palmer eventually convinced Lillard to hop onto a table so that he could fiddle around with the janitor's cervical vertebrae. As the legend has been passed down, as soon as DD found and corrected a misaligned "bump" on Lillard's upper spinal column, the janitor could suddenly hear.
(The less romantic version, according to Lillard's daughter???and maybe the more accurate one???is that the founder of chiropractic whacked her father on the back with a book he was carrying in the hall after laughing heartily at the janitor's punch line ["Palmer? I didn't even know her!"]. Days later Lillard claimed his hearing had improved, which inspired Palmer to add manipulation to his magnetic-healing practice, along with a magazine rack.)
Shortly after the Lillard incident, Palmer claimed to have cured an undefined patient of an undefined heart problem, also through spinal manipulation. Now, with two totally unrelated disorders corrected by adjusting the vertebrae, the evidence was irrefutable. Palmer was convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that a crooked spine was the route of all evil, like I-15 to Las Vegas. The experiment was peer reviewed by Palmer himself. Although neither one of these extreme success stories has ever been duplicated, the seed of a new money-making occupation was planted. All that was needed was the spreading of manure.
Palmer theorized that by realigning the troublesome spine (or subluxation, as it was later known), he had reopened the "nerve pathway" that supplied healing energy to the rest of the body, such as the ear, which was truly miraculous since nerves from the inner ear feed directly to the brain; they do not detour through the cervical spine. However, if we start dabbling in logic now, we'll lose our train of thought. This novel "theory" was closely related to the pretzel logic behind magnetic healing, which was also based on the idea that blocked nerve pathways created friction, heat, and inflammation that could cause all kinds of pyrotechnic problems, such as a rash of people bursting into flames.
Heady with this newfound marketing potential, er, these success stories, DD was outright giddy with inventive theories. Our Man of Science was on a roll. He labeled the "stuff" that flowed through the spine "Innate Intelligence," a mixture of the soul, the spirit, and Vermont maple syrup. This magical, curative goop supposedly coursed through the peripheral nerves to the body's tissue and organs, acting as a natural-healing agent. An out-of-whack spine simply cut off the "I-I" supply, like a clogged-up educational system. Palmer concluded that 95% of diseases was caused by misaligned spines, while the other 13% was caused by global warming. Just like that, a new medical science had been created out of thin air bypassing the usual gold standards for approval, such as reason, tests, evidence, and the Good Housekeeping seal.
Without a catchy, medical-sounding name, however, a new, surefire cure can quickly fall on its coccyx. In the spirit of marketing and advertising, of which Palmer had a better grasp than anatomy, he needed a legitimate-sounding name for his invention. After hunkering down with his friend Reverend Samuel Weed, who was familiar with Greek root words, they arrived at the term "chiropractic," which loosely translated means "done with hands" or even more loosely translated means "hand job."
As Palmer spread the word about his new technique???through local directories, newspapers, and his own newsletters???the public trampled over logic and reason as they beat a path to his door. By simply realigning the spine in his special way, and without dispensing drugs, Palmer freed up the flow of Innate Intelligence vanquishing fevers, pains, infections, myopia, constipation, epilepsy, the flu, and unsightly ear hair.
This new-found fame gave a boost to his already humongous ego. Although the specialty of proctology was a few years away, Palmer was becoming quite adept at pulling strange medical ideas and beliefs out of his ass. He championed chiropractic as a combination of science, art, philosophy, and ATM machine, placing it in its proper place alongside other trusty curative techniques, such as reflexology, iridiology, and rain dances. He was able to correct "abnormalities of the intellect as well as those of the body." The self-degreed "Dr." Palmer had discovered the single cause and cure of 95% of all diseases, according to the science lab he had built in his head.
Not wanting to miss a profitable business opportunity, a couple of years later Palmer opened his first chiropractic school, "Palmer School of Chiropractic" (PSC, now "Palmer College of Chiropractic"). For a few hundred dollars, Palmer promised the graduates a "doctor" degree after a grueling and lengthy three to six months' education. His son BJ, whose store-clerk and circus experience proved invaluable for a medical career, was one of the first four "Doctor of Chiropractic" (DC) graduates. In Dr. Palmer's lifelong disdain for the medical profession, he bragged that a chiropractic education was more valuable for curing diseases than any other medical education, although his school's chiropractic degree was to medicine as intelligent design is to intelligence.
Often overlooked is the religious connection Palmer brought to chiropractic. To him, the spirit, body, and soul each played a part in his "cure." Later writings revealed that Palmer was an admirer of the powerful, autocratic, and wealthy Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, "anutter" organization that also promoted a drugless and baseless spiritual healing (although she was a morphine addict). Palmer believed that chiropractic, too, was a "religion," in which God, in his spare time, chose him as founder. He compared himself to Mrs. Eddy, Christ, and Martin Luther.
The turn of the century found Old Dad Chiro touring the country, drumming up support for chiropractic, and leaving son BJ behind to run the Davenport school, which is like putting politicians in charge of lobbying reform. During this time, unfortunately Old Dad Chiro had a couple run-in's with the law related to practicing medicine without a license. While spending a brief stint in jail in 1906, BJ plotted a hostile takeover of the school (which eventually became the Palmer College of Chiropractic). When Old Dad Chiro was eventually released, BJ convinced his father to sell him the school. After the sale and for the rest of their lives, father and son were no longer on speaking terms based on philosophical differences about the direction of chiropractic, and the son's bottled-up resentment about being saddled with the initials "BJ."
It's true that Old Dad Chiro is still considered the Father of Chiropractic, but it was BJ, a public-relations genius and developer of the "science" of chiropractic, who built an empire out of nothing???literally. Always the successful promoter, "Dr." BJ Palmer, also known as Colonel, as well as Galactic Ruler, even purchased radio stations during the 1920s to further advance chiropractic, including WOC ("Wonders of Chiropractic") in Davenport and later WHO ("With Hands Only") and WOO-WOO ("Woo-Woo") in Des Moines. To Col. BJ's credit he made no "bones" about his motivation. Once, when asked, "What are the principal functions of the spine?" BJ replied, "To support the head; to support the ribs; to support the chiropractor," and he was immediately offered a sitcom. Although "Dr." BJ also railed against the real medical profession his whole life, before his death in 1961, he turned to standard medicine when Innate Intelligence apparently couldn't cure his cancer.
There's no doubt that the Palmers' creative fiction about the connection between "nerve interference" and disease is pure hooey, yet it's been the cornerstone of chiropractic for over 110 years. There are a number of valid reasons for "pinched" spinal nerves, but a vertebral subluxation is about as credible as a karate kick in the spine from Bigfoot. Only a willing and gullible public, in conjunction with the placebo effect???not science???is responsible for the commercial success behind happy spines.
Although today's chiropractors come in different flavors ("traditional or objective straight," "mixer," "reform," and "less-filling"), most still fall under the category of alternative-medicine practitioners, many of whom endorse???in place of widely accepted health practices???other unproven methods, such as hair analysis, homeopathic remedies, colon irrigation, magnetic therapies, and Head-On.
A chiropractor may look like a doc, walk like a doc, and "quack" (oops) like a doc, but chiropractors aren't medical-school graduates. In fact, many practicing chiropractors never graduated from college. It's like the difference between real turkey and tofurkey. Only recently, and probably because of the lack of meaningful political lobbying reform, have some accreditation boards recognized the "doctor" of chiropractic degree as valid, along the lines of a "Dr." of Pepper degree. Although some chiropractor schools are supposedly trying to raise their standards ("Sing along with me class: 'and the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone???/ With the hip bone connected to the back bone ???'"), most graduates earn their "doctor of chiropractic" degree in four years, while it takes "doctors of medicine" at least eleven to fifteen years of keg parties.
Why does the public give so much credence to this mostly pseudoscientific hogwash? Ignorance of its history? A lack of scientific knowledge? Marketing? Mad cow disease? It's generally agreed upon by most medical organizations that there are only two valid reasons to visit a chiropractor: 1) mild back and neck pain and minor musculoskeletal issues (although most physical therapists would be just as effective) and 2) a healthy disregard for science, facts, critical thinking, and history!
If you insist on visiting a chiropractor, however, do some research beforehand: First ask the "doctor" to sing a few bars of "Dry Bones" ("With the toe bone connected to the foot bone / and the foot bone connected to the ankle bone???"). If he blows the lyrics, hobble out the door, head for home, plop down in front of the television, and keep watching. It's only a matter of time before a much more reliable and affordable alternative shows up on your screen: Spine-On.
Humorist Paul DesOrmeaux teaches writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Monroe Community College. His goal is to introduce skepticism to a broader audience by combining reason and science with humor/satire to expose myths, pseudoscience, fraudulent claims, and nonsensical ideas.
I recently ran across a short article about a California clinical psychologist whose license to practice was put on probation because he persuaded two of his clients to enroll in his Amway business.
The premise of Amway is that you are your own boss and that you buy Amway products that you then sell for a profit. The Real way to make money with Amway, though, is to sign up people you personally know to sell Amway. Because you were the one who enrolled these new Amway sales people, you get a share of the profits from any Amway products they sell. You will also get profit from the sales of anybody they sign up, and anybody they sign up, and on and on. The way to riches, supposedly, is get as many people as possible in your pyramid.
Although I long ago gave up being surprised at the shenanigans perpetrated by persons in my honored profession, the idea that a psychologist would make such a grievous violation of the ethics of the profession as to enroll clients in his Amway business genuinely disturbed me.
As a young graduate student, I was tricked into attending an Amway sales meeting by an employer. The techniques he, and the speaker subsequently used, were reminiscent of cult recruitment techniques.When I returned to graduate school to earn my doctorate, I had to find a way to support myself that gave me the flexibility to attend classes and work at an internship. I found a great job working as a painter for a realty management company. The company allowed me to paint empty apartments on weekends and on rare free days, and they paid far more than I could have gotten as a temporary office worker or a job at the university. I worked primarily for only one realtor at the company, whom I will call Mr. Jones, who was a friendly, garrulous man, who would typically give me a work list in the middle of the month.
A year later, and well into graduate studies, Mr. Jones called me at home and asked if I might be willing to speak to his men's group because one of the members of the group had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the members knew nothing about mental illness. Perhaps I could demystify this illness for them, he said. Of course I was flattered, and I depended on his business so I said 'yes' and arranged to meet Mr. Jones at his home the following Thursday evening.
Things got a little weird when I arrived at Mr. Jones' house. I carried a small stack of several one page handouts I had written up on bipolar disorder and Mr. Jones strongly suggested that we use his car. He then told me that his wife was joining us, which was a surprise because we were, after all, going to a men's group. I assumed, though, that she would drop us off and then pick us up when the group ended. The drive itself was confusing because Mr. Jones took surface streets for much of the drive instead of the highways and he ended up driving us to a neighboring city. It was also dark, which made trying to keep track of our route difficult. Finally, though, Mr. Jones pulled up in front of a two storey house and the sidewalks around the house were crowded with parked cars. When I entered the house, it was not at all what I had expected.
There were at least fifty people packed into the two main downstairs rooms, sitting closely together in rented metal folding chairs and all were listening carefully to a speaker, who was standing and speaking in a twangy Southwestern American accent. Initially, I refused to believe that I'd been conned and thought "how interesting ??? the men's group brought in a guest speaker to talk to the men and their families". My second thought was 'I'm not prepared to speak to this many people about bipolar disorder". After listening to the speaker for five minutes, though ??? and he spoke for two hours ??? it was clear that I had been lied to.
I initially thought it was a religious revival meeting. As it happened, though, it was not. It was a recruitment meeting for Amway. Once I figured that out, I listened with careful attention to the speaker and afterwards made notes of what had transpired. The speaker's style was dynamic and professional and at the same time, folksy and homespun. He spoke without the benefit of a microphone, notes or slides. There was a considerable amount of audience participation, where audience members would shout out 'Yes!' when asked if they wanted to be rich and 'No!' when asked if they were always going to work for somebody else. The speaker frequently mocked traditional ways of making money and provoked laughter from the audience when, for instance, he calculated how long it would take an average American worker, with negligible tax deductions, to save enough money to pay cash for a house. After speaking for nearly two hours, he chose people seemingly at random from the audience to talk about their "dreams." The dreams were painfully uncomplicated. One woman dreamed of owning horses. Another dreamed of having the money to send her two high school children to college. A man, a plumber, said that he dreamed of setting up his own business so that he never again had to take orders from other people. Still another man dreamed of owning a house. They were all reasonable aspirations and the speaker told these people that every one of those dreams was realizable, and that enrolling in the company he represented was the first step toward fulfilling those goals.
It became clear to me that many of the audience members were already enrolled in this business and had invited people they knew to the event to try to enlist them. The way to get rich with this company, the speaker told us, was to enroll other people into the company, and for this night and this night only, the guests were being offered the opportunity to buy an introductory sales kit for a sizeable discount. By investing in this company, and then by signing up our friends ??? and we were assured that we would be doing our friends a favor by doing this ??? one got a percentage of the profit of the sales of that person, and of the sales of anyone our friends subsequently recruited.
After the talk, all of the "new people" were approached individually by a company sales person who asked each of us to talk about our dreams. I listened to several of these stories. Two of the would-be recruits were retired and said that they hoped to find a way to supplement their social security incomes. A man in his early forties had recently lost the job he had had for over twenty years. A woman in her thirties told the recruiter that she had just gone through a devastating divorce and was working at two jobs. She desperately wanted to spend more time with her three children. Still another person said that he had recently dropped out of college after three years of mediocre grades. All of us were asked if we had a few hours a week to devote to making these dreams come true. And we were given stories of ordinary people, people like ourselves, who had become wealthy and made their dreams come true with this company. The would-be recruits in the house were also urged to talk to anybody in attendance that night to learn how incredibly easy it would be to become rich.
I spoke briefly to three people at the house who were already signed up with the company. While all three praised the company and its philosophy, none of the three would tell me exactly how much money they were making. Even Mr. Jones, who had lied to me to get me to attend, hedged about his profits. The most he would say is that "It's a wonderful company and they don't just sell soap. They're linked up with other companies. I can buy just about anything ??? even a Christmas tree, from them, and sell somebody that Christmas tree for less than they'd pay at a lot. We're like a big business family." He then told me that while this was a special meeting, he and a few others met twice a month as a way to review their business plans and stay focused on their goals. Fifteen people bought introductory sales kits from the speaker. And they bought them because they were tricked and manipulated into doing so. The speaker and those who had brought recruits to this meeting used several tools of influence and persuasion and those poor fifteen people never saw it coming.
First of all, to get me to attend the meeting, Mr. Jones used the information he had about me. He knew that I was a psychology graduate student and that I was dependent on my job with his company, and for those reasons, would be unlikely to refuse. He appealed to my vanity and willingness to help others and he tailored his message to tap into this knowledge. He told me that I had the ability to help an entire group of men by just talking to them for an evening. He made the undertaking attractive and attractiveness is a remarkably effective manipulative tool.
We tend to respond to a likable person in a positive way and the message that person transmits becomes linked with our attraction to that person. There was an interesting study carried out by a psychology professor who wanted to test the strength of social attractiveness. He divided his research assistants, all students, into two groups: those who dressed very conservatively and those who dressed in more casual, alternative lifestyle clothing. The professor then had his researchers approach students on campus and ask for change to make a phone call. The result of the study was that the students were much more likely to get money from students who looked like them. Those dressed casually got more money from students who also dressed casually than they did from students who dressed formally. Conversely, those who were dressed conservatively got more money from students dressed conservatively. By asking me to speak to a self-help men's group, Mr. Jones was letting me know that he was concerned about mental health, too ??? that we shared this in common.
The concept of likeability is widely known and used, and is particularly employed by recruiters to cults. Multiple studies have shown that cult recruiters tailor their initial message to fit/match as closely as possible the person they are trying to recruit. So, if a would-be recruit expresses interest in social justice, the recruiter will tell him that the purpose of their group is dedicated, for example, to racial equality. If the potential recruit expresses interest in art or music, then the recruiter might well tell him the group has a rock band or has amongst its members several artists, and that the group frequently puts on art shows.
Another point worth noting is that Mr. Jones had figuratively trapped me. This is a fairly common technique in spiritual abuse and cults, by the way, where the potential recruit is removed from his or her environment and spends a weekend or week at a rural retreat. From my perspective, I was in a stranger's house in an unfamiliar city. It's true that I could have insisted that Mr. Jones give me the address of the house where the recruiting was taking place and then used the telephone to have a taxi return me to my car, which was parked at Mr. Jones's home. Had I done that, though, I would almost certainly have lost my job with Mr. Jones and causing a scene would have defied a crowd of fifty people. I really was stuck and Mr. Jones knew I would be.Well, what about those fifteen people who spent a few hundred dollars on an introductory sales kit and believe that by working a few hours a week that they would become millionaires? Well, several extremely reliable tools of persuasion and manipulation had been used on them, and they are hard tools to resist.
Social proof means that we tend to see behavior as correct the more we see other people do it. For the most part, it's a good survival tool. If you're walking down a city street and see a hoard of people running towards you with terror in their eyes and constantly looking over their shoulders, you'll probably turn around and run with them, figuring that what ever they're running from is something you should be running from, too. If someone is in a social setting where she is not sure how to act, taking cues from those around her will probably be a big help in her acclimatizing to the environment. Although social proof can benefit us, it's a powerful concept and is too often used by persons who want to shape our behavior.
Think of those folks at the pyramid scheme recruitment rally. Had any of them been asked earlier in the day if they had any interest in selling soap for a living or of investing in a company that they had not personally looked into, it's likely that they all would have said no. But what happened? They were surrounded by people who swore this method would bring them wealth. They had heard a pleasant, thoroughly likeable man talk to them for two hours about how easy it was. Examples of people "just like them" had been repeatedly been given to demonstrate how easy making money with this company was. Total strangers had taken an interest in them and asked about their dreams. There was a roomful of people insisting that this method was easy and worked and would take little of their time. Logically we would think that these fifteen people should have said "No, I'm not going to make a financial and time commitment without thinking about it carefully and without checking out the company". But there was a lot of pressure not to do that. When one isn't sure how to act, or if one feels uneasy in a particular setting, when one feels awkward, the concept of social proof dictates that we conform to the group norm.
Social proof is an enormously powerful tool which can absolutely shape behavior and attitude. As an experiment, Dr. Solomon Asch had a group of people, ostensibly all volunteers, seated around a table. Unbeknownst to the one volunteer, all of the others at the table were colleagues of Dr. Asch. The group was shown a series of vertical lines of various lengths and each person in the group was asked individually to identify which lines were of the same length. Dr. Asch had instructed his associates to give an incorrect response and the volunteer was the second to last person to give his answer. Although the correct response was extremely obvious, 32% of the time, the volunteer gave the same incorrect response as the rest of the group members and 74% of the subjects conformed to the group answer one or more times, even though the correct answer was quite evident.
Group members are just as likely to stereotype themselves as to stereotype others. In cults, for instance, there is a pervasive pressure to conform to a "we versus them" mentality. Irving Janis pointed out in his book Victims of Groupthink that this type of thinking can and often does result in the group feeling that they are always right and that their cause is morally justified. Really, what the group members end up believing is that they are always the good guys. They may recognize that their policy (or theology or world view or business plan) can be painful to some, but the rationalization is that ultimately overall good will result in their policies.So you might think of those poor folks who signed up to sell household products as a way to reach their dreams. The chances of their actually realizing their dreams selling these soap products were remarkably slim. Only a very small percentage of Amway distributors even recoup their initial investment. And yet they committed to working for a company they really knew nothing about and their decision was based almost exclusively on the pressure exerted by the group.
Look at it from their standpoint. They were in a crowded house with dozens of people very much like themselves: working people, honest and presumably with similar moral and ethical values. Their aspirations were listened to with avid and serious attention. People they had no reason to suspect told them that their dreams were realizable and offered themselves as examples. There was no dissenting opinion. In a situation such as that, those fifteen made a decision, almost certainly a foolish one.
Most of the people attending the recruitment meeting who had already signed up with the company were suckers, too, and they were stuck in something called the Law of Commitment and Consistency. Commitment and Consistency holds that once we have made an important decision about something ??? and it can be anything from a business decision to a stand on a political issue ??? there are enormous psychological pressures exerted on us to adhere to that stand, even when faced with information that contradicts our commitment, and even when this contrary information is compelling and logical. Culturally, consistency is seen as a valuable character trait and most people want to be perceived as being consistent in their beliefs. This trait, though, is often used to our disadvantage by people less honorable than ourselves.
Mr. Jones, for example, used deceit to persuade me to attend the meeting but since so few people that sign up with this company even recover their initial investments, it is highly unlikely that Mr. Jones had made any money from the company himself. Despite tricking me into attending the meeting, he was reluctant to lie about his success with the company. Instead, he praised the company and talked about the bi-weekly meetings he and a few other soap salesmen attended as a way to keep focused on their goals. What these meetings really did is reaffirm their commitment to the company and strengthen their resolve to not let contrary information ??? in this case, lack of actual financial success ??? deter them from their resolve that they made a wise decision to invest in this company's business philosophy.
The authority exuded by the speaker at the soap product recruitment meeting also had an impact on the recruits. Probably the most powerful experiment on the power of authority was carried out by Dr. Stanley Millgram of Yale University. Dr. Millgram had long been disturbed by the compliance of ordinary people in the horrible atrocities carried out by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s against innocent people they did not know. Many of these crimes had been carried out by regular, seemingly normal people, and Dr. Millgram considered that one reason for this was authority. He decided to test this by setting up an ingenious but remarkably simple test.
Dr. Millgram advertised in a local newspaper for paid volunteers to participate in a scientific study on memory. He told the paid volunteers that he was particularly interested in how punishment can increase or decrease our ability to hold onto memories. His volunteers were paid not much more than the minimum wage. The volunteers worked in pairs. Seemingly randomly, he assigned one volunteer to be the teacher and the other volunteer to be the student. The student was strapped into a chair and electrodes were attached to his body. The teacher sat behind an impressive electronic control panel. The very officious doctor-scientist in a white lab coat stood next to the teacher and supervised the experiment. When the student volunteer, who was strapped securely in his chair, was asked a question and got the answer right, nothing happened. When he answered the question wrong, the teacher was instructed to give him an electric shock, which was done by controls on the control panel. Each time the student got a question wrong, the teacher volunteer was told to raise the electrical voltage of the shock by 15 volts. As the voltage of the shocks got higher and higher, the students began to beg the teachers to stop the experiment, saying that they'd had enough. However, the doctor-scientist in the lab coat assured the teacher that this was a very important scientific experiment and had to continue???and the teacher continued to raise the voltage.
You might think about this. These teachers weren't sadists. They were regular people. When the voltage got to 300 volts, the students strapped in the chairs screamed in agony and refused to answer questions at all. They insisted that they be unstrapped and let go. They said that they'd had enough. However, the doctor-scientist, always in his official looking white lab coat, insisted that the results of this experiment were important and that not answering a question was the same as getting the answer wrong. The teachers were instructed to continue with the shocks each time the student refused to answer a question, and the teachers did just that.Of course, the only real volunteers were the teachers. The poor students getting the electrical shocks were Dr. Millgram's research assistants and there were no shocks administered to anyone. The point of the experiment was to see how much pain the teacher was willing to give a total stranger just because an authority figure told him to. As it happened, almost none of the 40 teacher-volunteers stopped administering the shocks, even when they were begged to do so by the students, and not even when the student strapped in the chair was screaming in agony. When the person strapped in the chair begged to be released from the chair because he had a heart condition, 65% of the teachers continued giving the shocks when instructed to do so by the doctor-scientist in the white lab coat. In fact, some of the teachers pleaded with the doctor-scientist to let them stop but when the doctor-scientist said they had to continue with the shocks, they did. It was Dr. Millgram's conclusion that the teacher volunteers were willing to cause serious pain to another person because and authority figure told them that it was important.
In considering undue influence, one cannot minimize the importance of authority. All of us are prone to making important decisions based on the influence an authority figure exerts. The advice of a spiritual leader or political leader, for instance, or a financial or psychotherapeutic advisor, carries enormous weight in shaping most people's behaviors.
It is worthwhile pointing out, too, that while all people are susceptible to undue influence, those who are going through a major life change are particularly vulnerable. For decades, cults have recruited on college and university campuses because the recruiters know that many of the students are lonely and emotionally vulnerable because of being away from home for the first time. Divorce, a recent death in the family, the loss of a job, the recent death of a spouse, and a move to a new environment all place a person in a more emotionally fragile state than they would otherwise be in. They have lost a major stabling influence in their lives and are struggling to recover their emotional balance. So think again of those people being recruited into Amway. One of the fifteen who had bought the introductory sales kit had recently lost the only job he had had as an adult and a single mother of three was recently divorced. Neither of the two could likely afford the cost of the sales kits they'd purchased but both bought them anyway, and without bothering to investigate the company's claims. Why did they do that? Well, there were multiple reasons, as we have already discussed. Certainly, though, their traumatic life transition made them vulnerable.
On the face of it, the recruiting meeting seemed simple and straight forward. It was designed that way but truly it was remarkably complex and was arranged so that multiple cognitive and emotional forces were at play. The meeting was a setup for those poor recruits and very powerful forces were at play to get people to buy the introductory sales packages.
These same tools of influence and persuasion, though, are used for more nefarious purposes. Persons who end up losing several years of their lives in cults were coerced and manipulated by similar techniques. Scam artists bilk tens of thousands of victims a year using these methods. Thousands of people each year sign up for regional and national self-help programs for which there is no independent data showing that these self-help programs really work, and the recruiters for these self-help organizations absolutely know and use the tools of influence and persuasion. Unsuspecting people end up investing thousands of dollars, believing that the quick fixes promised to them will actually work. Lonely and vulnerable senior citizens continue to be victimized by unscrupulous care givers and family members, and spousal and partner abuse remains a serious and pervading problem. And how many times have all of us, at one time or another, been fooled into donating money to groups we really know nothing about? The fact is that the vast majority of us try very hard to live principled and honest lives. Because we do this, we are usually unprepared when someone uses tools of chicanery and undue influence to manipulate us into acting outside of our best interests. It is certainly worth knowing how to protect ourselves from them.
Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini. Longman Higher Education. 1988.
Victims of Groupthink by Irving Janis. Houghton, Mifflin. 1972
The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David W. Maurer. Anchor Books, Paper, (reprinted from the 1940 Bobs-Merrill Co. edition)
Cults in our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich, 2nd Edition, (Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Imprint: 1995, 2003)
About Dick DeVos, the son of the founder of Amway, his brush with the Federal Trade Commission, and his run for governor of Michigan in 2006 (he lost): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_DeVos.
What price happiness? Apparently $59.95 and up (plus S&H)
Imagine that if you could, for as little as about 60 dollars (or up to about 250 dollars), get something that would make you feel better all the time, improve your golf game, help you win international marathons and maybe even some Olympic medals. And that???s not all. For no additional cost, you would get something that you could use to accessorize your clothes, even in a variety of colors and styles ??? you would both feel good and be fashionable too!
It all sounds great, and this is what the Q-Ray company claims on its website www.qray.com. Its main product is the Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet?? line, bracelets made of metal (or mostly metal, plated or unplated) in the form of a "C" with two flattened spherical knobs at the ends. Available internationally and heavily promoted on cable television, the bracelets come in different price ranges (i.e., the Natural Series, the Standard Series, etc.) with different finishes. Pendants incorporating a "C"-type coil inside a polymeric protective casing and titanium rings, again in the shape of a "C" and with the inscription "Q-Ray", as well as "ionized" sunglasses (along with other Q-Ray products) are sold at the website www.naturesbracelets.com (which states that it is not affiliated with qray.com).
The term "Q-Ray" is used because of a purported connection with "qi gong" (pronounced as "chee gung", as well as other ways), the famous "chi" that is the vital energy ??? the "bio-energy" ??? that flows through all living things and is essential to keep in balance to maintain good health. Once your "chi" is out of balance (too much "yin" or negative energy and not enough "yang" or positive energy), you feel lousy and listless ??? definitely not at your best. You put the bracelet on ??? with due consideration, apparently, for the clothes that you are wearing ??? and, in just seconds (according to a testimonial), your "chi" is balanced and you feel great, apparently ready to run a marathon. Your "yinned" out state is history and you get "yanged" up, basking in vim and vigor. Q-Ray restores the natural balance of your "bio-energy" and you are ready to take on the world.
But apparently feeling great is just not good enough ??? you???ve got to color match too because it states on the site that "The streamlined styling and Q-Ray benefits make our Standard Series the most important addition to any wardrobe."
The key to all this is a special, secret "ionization" process that the Q-Ray selection of products undergoes, which then allows the wearer to rebalance his or her bio-energy and perform at the highest level, of course becoming happier all along.
The Q-Ray site mentions "our exclusive Ionization??? Process". This is very curious ??? the process of ionization is the addition or removal of electrical charge from matter. Atoms are generally neutral, having the same number of negative and positive charges, electrons and protons respectively. The protons form a small nucleus, and the electrons are in shells around this nucleus. An atom from which an electron is removed is an ion ??? it has an excess of positive charge and is called a positive ion. Conversely, if an electron is added to an atom, it becomes a negative ion because it has an excess of negative charge.
Atoms in which all the electrons are tightly bound to the nucleus are called insulators, and atoms in which the outer electrons are only lightly bound are called metals. These outer electrons can be thought of as not belonging to any particular atom. When an electrical potential is applied, the electrons move readily and a current flows.
If electrons were added to a neutral metal (via static electricity, for example), then the electrical potential of the metal would change. Because people are usually electrically neutral and electrons are disposed to move to any region with a different potential, the electrons would move from the metal to the person who touched it. Since the Q-Ray?? bracelet is made mostly or completely of metal, any excess or deficiency of charge would immediately be neutralized upon contact with human skin. This effect is called neutralizing or discharging. Anyone who has touched a doorknob during the winter after walking over a wool carpet is very well aware of it. Any difference in potential between a bracelet that had an excess of electrons and a human would be quickly eliminated.
Even if a Q-Ray bracelet were not in contact with human skin, there is no way to permanently "ionize" metal that is exposed to air. Since there are naturally occurring free ions floating around everywhere, any metal with an excess of positive or negative charge ??? even isolated from other metal ??? would eventually discharge. Touching the metal would just accelerate the process. It therefore does not appear that the "exclusive Ionization??? Process" that is claimed is an ionization process that works according to any of the usual physical laws.
Just as for rays of light, focusing apparently is very important for rings and bracelets but it is not clear why. For example, it is stated on the Nature???s Bracelets site that "For maximum effect, ring should be work (sic) on the pinky or ring finger of your left hand". As to the bracelets, they are to be worn on the right wrist with the terminals facing up (palm down) or, if that doesn???t work, on the left wrist with the terminals facing down (and palm down). The pendants ??? which apparently do the same thing ??? can be worn any old way around the neck ??? it doesn???t appear to matter. From all of this, it does not appear that there is any focusing of "rays" going on in any particular direction because the rings, bracelets and pendants are claimed to have the same effects. It is also not clear what the "ionized" sunglasses are focusing, or where.
Nope - according to Q-Ray, magnetic bracelets and wraps can???t balance your body???s flow of "chi" ??? only "ionized" products can do that. Stated simply, magnets don???t work and copper just turns your wrist green. The Q-Ray products are different and are not to be confused with these other objects.
There are a number of things that you should not do, such as place your Q-Ray product on metal surfaces or allow the terminals to touch. What will happen should you do so is not stated. You should also consult with your doctor to see if it is safe to wear your Q-Ray product while you are pregnant. There is some very sensible advice however. For example, you are supposed to "???stay away from any high voltage electric areas while wearing a wet bracelet". Not much to argue about there.
If one bracelet does all that is claimed, then several should be even better. Although there are discounts available for buying more than a single bracelet, apparently you are supposed to give them to those you want to help out, not keep them yourself. It would seem that if a guy were decked out in a few bracelets, a few rings, a pendant or two and had all this topped off with a pair of "ionized" shades, he might even be able to even finally dispense with that Viagra.
It is extremely curious that the fashion elements of Q-Ray products are mentioned in the same breath as their beneficial effects. Perhaps I???m old fashioned, but if a product could make me feel good all the time and cost less than about 60 dollars (plus S&H), I don???t think I would very much care about how it looked. It could be the ugliest thing in the world ??? it could even clash with my tie! ??? but I would still likely wear it. Religiously. Day and night. Everywhere. Being out of fashion would not prevent me from having continuous feeling of well being. But maybe that???s just me.
Although Q-Ray and Nature???s Bracelets sell various products, neither offers the service of "ionizing" sunglasses, bracelets, etc. that people already own. It seems that there would be a great demand for this. After all, many of us have such items that we are fond of, and would be happy to pay to have them "ionized" so that we would have even better reasons to be fond of them. And since there is no magnetization going on (which wouldn???t work on gold or copper, for example), it appears that any piece of jewelry could be treated with the "ionization" process. This could then allow my old Ray-Bans to not only protect my eyes but to also make me feel great while doing so!
Perhaps the key to unlocking all the mysteries in regards to the Q-Ray product line can be found in the pendants that the Q-Ray company sells. On the Q-Ray site, it states "Pendants offer all the bio-energy and benefits of our Q-Ray Bracelets in an attractive pendant designs. ??? Pendants are infused with spiritual energy (italics added) specially designed to enhance concentration and focus." It appears that the "exclusive Ionization??? Process" is really a "spiritual energy" infusion process and not something that has anything to do with physics. That clarifies everything. I???m going to throw out my crummy copper bracelets, magnet wraps and crystals too, and get some of these Q-Ray products. They are obviously superior. After all, where else can you get "spiritual energy" that you can hang around your neck?
Note: In a case against the marketers of the Q-Ray ionized bracelet, a court ruled in favor of the Federal Trade Commission in September, 2006. The court stated that it would require the defendants to turn over $22.5 million in net profits and pay back up to $87 million to consumers (www.ftc.gov/opa/2006/09/qray.shtm). In 2002, the Mayo Clinic presented the results of a double-blind test on the bracelets that found them to be as effective as placebos (www.mayoclinicproceedings.com/inside.asp?AID=206).
The author is a Ph.D. Aerospace Engineer who has worked at NASA and says jewelry does nothing for him.
July 2007 news included the case of a cat named Oscar who allegedly predicted which patients in a hospice would soon die. As SF Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll noted (30 Jul 2007), this seems a bit of a stretch.
"... Oscar's 'uncanny knack of knowing when people are going to die' [looks fishy]. Apparently he walks aloofly around the halls of the Providence, R.I., nursing home where he lives, and then settles down with a person who, only a few hours later, dies. Oscar somehow intuits the imminence of death and provides succor in these last hours - or so the story goes.
"From the evidence, an equally viable theory is that Oscar kills people, but no one has mentioned that possibility.
"The staffers at the nursing home have suggested that perhaps Oscar 'notices telltale scents,' although if dying has its own distinctive odor, you'd think someone else would have noticed it by now. Cats don't have particularly sensitive noses; if a dog was cuddling with pre-croak patients, we might have something.
"Another theory floated is that Oscar notices telltale behavior, although - what might that telltale behavior be? Why haven't nurses noticed it? Shouldn't we be hiring nurses who are more perceptive than cats about health issues, particularly imminent death? 'We all think it's just a head cold, but that cat says it's cancer. You might want to get your affairs in order.' Talk about spooky.
"Besides, the whole story is fishy, you should pardon the expression. Empathy is not really a cat virtue. They rarely notice human quirks that do not directly relate to their own well-being. Horses, by contrast, are herd animals, and are thus exquisitely sensitive to the moods and habits of the beings around them. Maybe the nursing home should hire a horse. 'Here, Buttermilk, take a look at Mrs. Peterborough.'"
BAS Board Member Norm Sperling suggested, tongue cattily in cheek, that perhaps Oscar is just a cover story for a serial killer on a warped euthanasia mission. I wondered how many laps Oscar actually napped on; in a hospice he was certain to curl up with a dying patient fairly often. Could observers be ignoring "negative hits" and emphasizing positive results? Are weak and dying patients least likely to kick the cat off?
Yes, I suppose it is possible that Oscar can sense something about dying patients beyond immobility???rather like animals are said to sense earthquakes. Trouble is, every study so far of quake-sensing has come up negative???folklore or legend, not fact.
I am not anti-cat???one of my best friends is a cat. I think cats and other pets can seem gentle and concerned when "their humans" are ill. But I also know that there is no actual experimental evidence showing actual empathy in small-brained mammals (as opposed to apes and perhaps dolphins and even elephants). Cats and other pets can clearly show self-interest by being gentle with injured monsters such as the humans they live with. It is very easy to anthropomorphize this???to read too much human emotion and thought pattern into it. Pets are comforting to us, even though they may just be making nice with the weird creatures who open the Purina bag.
And Oscar? Couldn't he be doing his best to get along and keep the Purina flowing, curling up with humans least likely to kick him out and earning praise from other humans? Maybe showing some appreciation for a quiet snooze? And isn't a fair amount of human empathy a bit similar to this, as well?
Thanks are due to Jon Carroll for his skeptical take on a cuddly story and for his recognition that there are multiple explanations possible for things???even seemingly "aw, shucks" events.
Aromatherapy is only one of oodles of alternative medicines and holistic treatments that have currently captured part of the public's wild imagination. These holistic approaches, including acupuncture, therapeutic touch, and mall shopping, are part of a multi-billion dollar industry.
What exactly is aromatherapy? By dismantling the word, you'd think that it would be related to odors, but you'd only be partially correct. And since evidence of its therapeutic properties is wanting, it's not even really therapy. In other words, if we remove the two main words from the term, we end up with, well, nothing. So this could be an article about nothing. But since aromatherapy is part of the holistic hullabaloo, for arguments' sake, let's assume it exists.
Like all holistic treatments, aromatherapy purports to work on the whole body: the physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and wallet. Aroma does play a part, but therapeutic claims also include the application of oils on the skin and, to a lesser extent, ingestion. Like most other alternative medicines, aromatherapy relies solely on "natural" ingredients???no synthetics or preservatives are invited???to soothe the psyche and cure the cooties in an earthy sort of way. Aromatherapy's main ingredients are plant-derived essential oils, which can offer a magical band-aid for all physical and psychological disorders under Aquarius, from asthma to zirconium poisoning.
For some, alternative medicines complement the mainstream medicine and therapeutic practices that gained their dubious reputations by actually curing diseases and offering relief. To be fair, since holistic treatments are held in such high regard, there must be hundreds of peer-reviewed studies available, especially if it's on equal footing with quirky, unpredictable, pie-in-the-sky conventional medicine. So start your studies' scavenger hunt now and call me with your list in a few days. Not to worry; if you don't find any, just invent them.
One of aromatherapy's undisputed selling points is its historical roots. Practitioners of, and believers in, holistic medicine forever embrace the overly romantic idea that there's some cosmic connection among mind, body, spirit, and environment, a biopsychosocial sphere (say it fast five times) that somehow promotes a healthy life. In other words, simply stated, natural plants are good for you, such as tobacco.
It's apparently logical for some to think that if the "natural" substances distilled from plants, shrubs, flowers, trees, roots, bushes, or seeds worked for the advanced cultures from thousands of years ago, why not us? Hell, why can't our life expectancy be the mid-30's, too?
Of course, essential oils have a much more romantic image than some of the alternative treatments ancient Egyptian physicians might have recommended to their patients, such as magic potions, animal dung, fly droppings and cooked mice.(I'd mention magical amulets, but they're currently for sale on the internet.) To say the least, there must have been a colorful hodgepodge of merchandise in their pharmacies.
Unlike today, diseases then were thought to be caused by pissing off the gods, who would, in turn, give you such a pinch. Ah, the good old days, when pig entrails were sometimes used to predict the future. If there's one issue we can agree on it's that although we can admire much about the ancients' accomplishments, medical cures ain't one of them.
The roots, then, of aromatherapy, date back to more than 4,000 years ago. India and Egypt have been widely accepted as the countries where it originated. Both civilizations used these essential oils for bathing, massages, and cosmetics. Their curative properties, the ones in abundance today, weren't appreciated back then.
For illnesses, they relied on tried-and-true curatives, such as prayers, rituals, and sacrificing goats, which are still practiced the world over today, minus the goat sacrifice. For pain relief, herbs were preferred. Since diseases and deaths were acts of crabby, grouchy gods, magic was employed to please them, along with a lute-and-lyre rock concert now and then. Aromatic-type fumes were also a part of peoples' daily lives, to the point of being sacred.
Uses for essential oils were eventually passed down to the Greek and Romans, possibly for treating tunic and toga chafing. Greek and Roman physicians were the first to apply these oils to treat infections, although their success was dubious. Hippocrates' writings recommended aromatic baths and oily massages as practices for good health. Some Greek physicians treated wounded gladiators with botanical remedies. With all those gods hanging around creating mischief, you'd have thought that at least one would have introduced an antibiotic or something.
The Black Plague struck in the late 1340s. Theories about its origins included angry gods, planetary alignments, and evil stares. When it was finally over, by some estimates, up to two-thirds of the European population had died. Botanical remedies were tried, with no success. They had failed the ultimate test and temporarily fell out of favor. For some reason, prayers survived intact.
Finally during the 19th century, after millions of years of unnecessary human suffering, some gods or god finally decided to let scientists in on a little secret: diseases are caused by microbes. This discovery led to the introduction of a number of life-saving practices, such as sanitation, injections, disease prevention, antibiotics and modern medicine in general. As was to be expected, it dampened the enthusiasm for essential-oil remedies; they were placed in Museum for Questionable Cures, alongside bloodletting and animal urine.
As you'll see, however, it's hard to keep an attractive, persistent pseudoscience down. In 1928 French chemist and perfumist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse led a revival in aromatherapy. As the story goes, while working in the lab, probably on Chanel #1, a fire burnt Gattefosse's arm. Quickly, he dipped it into the nearest vat filled with what he assumed was H2O. As fate would have it, it was lavender oil. Luckily for the nutty professor, it wasn't hydrochloric acid. According to Gattefosse his pain immediately subsided and his burns healed quicker than expected, with very little scarring.
With this painstaking, meticulous, 30-second, Gattefosse-reviewed "experiment" completed, he wrote an article touting the benefits of essential oils and coined the term "aromatherapy" after rejecting the term "rene-mauricegattefossetherapy."
Was Gattefosse's burn checked by a physician? What degree burn did he have? Who confirmed the burns? Who knows? Apparently, history is relying on variations of this pleasant little tale. In any case, Gattefosse spent the rest of his life studying and promoting aromatherapy, including its anti-microbial effects, more commonly known as wishful thinking.
In 1937 he published the quintessential aromatherapy book with a lengthy French title, which was trimmed-down in the English version to Gattefosse's Aromatherapy (still available today). He's considered to be the father of aromatherapy.
Although Britain and France, along with other countries in the eastern hemisphere, embraced this new therapy over the next several years, it wasn't until the 1980's when New Age Americans were first snookered.
For the ancients, it made some sense that plants and shrubs might prove beneficial. After all, humans needed plants to live. Essential oils might have seemed logical to those who had no idea that diseases were caused by microbes or genetic disorders. What else made sense, "Here, take two rocks, pray to some invisible grump, and get plenty of rest"?
Since many of these essential oils have been available for at least 4000 years, one would think that by now there'd be universal agreement on their effectiveness based on scientific testing. You'd be wrong. In fact, no supposed "cure" from the ancients survives today, unless you believe prayer is going to clear up your genital warts.
Current practitioners of aromatherapy have concocted dozens of different oily products to relieve stress, invigorate the body, cure diseases, and lubricate a door hinge. Generally, the essential oil is mixed with a neutral oil (like vegetable oil) and massaged into the body (to be absorbed through the skin), added to bathwater, inhaled, or ingested (not generally recommended).
According to aromatherapists, purity is required for good therapeutic results; no synthetics or preservatives need apply. In other words, only the manufacturers have the proper equipment to extract the substances to produce the pure, high-quality oils. And, surprisingly, the best oils come from organic plants you can't ordinarily grow in your backyard. Otherwise, we'd simply be able to pick a bunch of geraniums from our gardens and cure just about anything after running them through our juicers.
The list of beneficial oils and their endless uses is confusing and, frankly, embarrassing. Depending on which aroma-therapist you reference ??? it's not an exact science (or exactly a science) ??? different oils will allegedly treat different maladies. As one aromatherapist claims, "There is a plant for every illness."
Following is only a fraction of various disorders and their oily treatments: insomnia, congestion and colds (basil); antiseptic, toothaches, and respiratory infections (clove); skin infections (eucalyptus); ulcers, skin care, laryngitis (frankincense); kidney stones, calming effect on the nervous system (geraniums); stomach acidity (lemon); headaches, fevers, colds (mint); and sedative (orange). Lavender and geranium oils are also purported to be antimicrobial agents.
If you need some psychological aromatherapy, try these: easing of anger (chamomile); promoting alertness (eucalyptus); calming, relieving pain (lavender); insomnia (mandarin orange blossom); anxiety and stress (ylang-ylang...goes the trolley).
In addition, unsubstantiated biophysical actions include stimulation of cellular activity and activation of capillary circulation, elimination of toxins, and oxygenation of blood, helping the body to heal itself, relieving pain, reversing constipation, energizing the sympathetic nervous system, and improving your ability to play the harmonica.
One "study" even "proved" that penile blood flow is increased by the combined scents of lavender and pumpkin pie. Instead of only watching football, men would have something else to do on Thanksgiving Day.
Since New-Age adherents are generally insatiable "energy" junkies, they necessarily apply the concept to aromatherapy. Once again there's discussion of some vague, ubiquitous "energy field" emanating from the human body. However, it's not actually the oils' chemicals that are reacting with the human "energy field," but it's the plant oils' "life force" that will neutralize or shoo away the nagging, negative energy vibrations from our bodies. You see, essential oils have a "spiritual dimension." They restore "balance" and "harmony" to one's body and to one's life. The needle on the wacky meter is straining past the 180-degree mark.
It's also purported that some oils may influence our "chakras," seven vortexes and whirling balls of energy in the human body related to our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being; that is, if they're open and spinning at the same rate to each other. And I thought all that activity was just my stomach grumbling.
If the wacky meter hasn't shattered just yet, another "theory" floating around in the ether is that essential oils may involve some kind of bio-electrical frequency. How long will it be before we're not only tip-toeing through the tulips, but talking to them, too?
Let's see: energy fields...life forces...negative energy... positive energy...bio-electrical frequencies...chakras. Excuse the momentary digression but should we be paying teachers more? Maybe smaller class sizes? School dress codes?
One problem with aromatherapy as a feel-good, rediscovered substitute for, or complement to, standard medicine is that almost all available evidence is anecdotal, which is mostly pseudoscientific "proof." But for many people, stories are exciting, statistics suck. At best, other than the placebo effect, there's insufficient proof of the effectiveness of aromatherapy; that is, unless you discovered something on your scavenger hunt.
Can aromatherapy at least make a scientific claim that smells can relax us? Perhaps. Most can agree that pleasant smells can produce positive responses. Pine, for example, may remind someone of the joys of Christmas. On the other hand, it might remind someone else that grandma got run over by a reindeer.
Certain aromas may change the way we breathe; calm breathing calms the mind. Since some legitimate studies have connected stress to heart disease and even cancer, relaxing isn't a bad thing. Not many of us, however, can surround ourselves with pleasant-smelling oils 24/7. Even with a lemon hanging from your rearview mirror, the octogenarian who cuts you off in traffic is going to immediately send adrenaline coursing through your chakras.
The aroma in aromatherapy can also be part of a pleasant ritual. Go ahead, start up your bathtub, light a forest of scented candles, pour some pleasant-smelling essential oils in the warm water, lie back, and enjoy. Just don't expect the experience to resolve your restless-leg syndrome. But do consumers really need to be told and sold what smells swell? And is the previous question rhetorical?
Also, a massage with essential oils can be a relaxing experience; that is, unless it's the type of massage where law enforcement might raid the premises. But will the oils your skin absorbs actually help to kill bacteria and viruses and stimulate the body's immune system? Maybe on Atlantis.
So, what's the harm if people believe in aromatherapy's nonexistent health benefits? Besides another stick in the eye of critical thinking, they can be dangerous. Certain essential oils can produce serious allergic reactions in certain people. When combined with some legitimate prescriptions, the oils can prove harmful, even fatal. A number of people have refused curative traditional medicine and instead embraced alternative treatments, which killed them. Some essential oils are toxic if ingested. Looking on the sunny side of life, it may be nature's way of thinning the herd.
And how do you know if an aromatherapist is legitimate? Good freaking luck. No government-issued certification or license is required. Neither aromatherapy nor essential oils are regulated by the government. If you cut or style hair, however, you must be licensed. Not surprisingly, alternative medicine schools not only boast classes in oils, massage techniques, etc., but also on starting businesses and marketing.
Is aromatherapy considered a complementary or alternative medicine (CAM)? Both. The recent emphasis on the word "complementary" is obviously an attempt to give the movement more legitimacy. It's easier to expose a worthless, stand-alone treatment (alternative) than a worthless treatment that complements an authentic one. Was it the massage or morphine that relieved the pain? For some, the answer is obvious; for others, a good friend of mine is selling magical amulets.
Regardless, aromatherapy continues to be big business. Aromatherapy oils, bath gels, soaps, teas, dried flowers, and lotions are popping up everywhere, crying out for our maxed-out charge cards. Essential oils are found in homes, clinics, beauty salons and spas. Aromatherapists are flourishing. CAM books are selling like chakra candles. The list grows on and on.
Once in awhile, folks, take a deep breath and think. You don't need to be a Mensa member to understand that almost everything about the complementary and alternative medicine movement in general, and the aromatherapy movement more specifically, smells fishy.
Humorist Paul DesOrmeaux teaches writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Monroe Community College. His goal is to introduce skepticism to a broader audience by combining reason and science with humor/satire to expose myths, pseudoscience, fraudulent claims, and nonsensical ideas.
It was with great sadness that we at Bay Area Skeptics learned of the death of Dr. Barry L. Beyerstein. Barry was a long time friend to us and was unconditionally supportive of rationality and critical thinking and his lectures were brilliant in their clarity and humor. In 2006, Dr. Beyerstein spoke to a full house at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on the subject of Anomalistic Psychology and followed that talk up a day later with a dinner talk to Bay Area Skeptics on the subject of untested Far Eastern medical practices that have acquired common acceptance in North America. Always, he spoke in a language immediately accessible to all and he showed remarkable patience and kindness to detractors who questioned his scientific findings. Although patient and kind, he was also consistently well-prepared and he was more than a match for those in his audience who took offense at this conclusions.
We will miss Barry Beyerstein. He was a gentle man who shown a constant light of reason in the darkness of superstition and ignorance. Please see below another appreciation of his impact on science.
My wife Noirin and I heard last night of the tragic death of Barry Beyerstein. Words cannot express our shock and distress at the news. We have had the great pleasure of meeting Barry and his wife Suzi at a number of skeptics conferences across Europe. They were a charming and deeply commited couple, full of fun and enthusiasm. Barry was to present a paper at the ECSO congress in Dublin in September and we have been in regular e-mail contact lately. He and Suzi were due to arrive in Dublin a week or so prior to the congress and we had planned to spend some time together viewing the sites and enjoying the restaurants and pubs. He was very much looking forward to this visit.
Barry has written extensively on a wide range of topics. He was a staunch defender of the integrity of science and traveled the world promoting science and critical thinking. In Dublin he was to address the issue of science versus pseudoscience, a topic on which he has expressed strong and incisive views.
We have lost a great man at a tragically early age. He had so much more to contribute and we will miss his leadership and example.
On behalf of myself, Noirin and all the members of the Irish Skeptics Society I extend our deepest condolences and heartfelt sorrow to Suzi and the family and to their relatives and close friends who have been devastated by this awful event.
From the germ of an idea to realization took just slightly over one month. In today's red-tape-ridden world, that accomplishment borders on the fantastic.
Some of the skeptics in the Bay Area have kept in close contact with others of a similar persuasion. There had become an increasing awareness that we are building a cadre of people interested in critically examining claims of the paranormal.
If that last sentence sounds familiar, take heart. It is part of the Statement of Principles of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP).
Bay Area Skeptics has been approved as the first local chapter of CSICOP.
At a Mensa Gathering in Napa, California, in April, 1982, many of us were on the program. We had the opportunity to increase our acquaintance with other skeptics.
And then it burst forth: In a telephone conversation with Robert Sheaffer, the inspiration hit. Robert came up with the founding words: "LET'S FORM AN ORGANIZATION OF BAY AREA SKEPTICS!"
The idea met with instant acceptance with me, with the Executive Council of CSICOP, and with several skeptics in this area to whom we've spoken. And so we're on our way.
How does one thank Paul Kurtz, Phil Klass, and James Randi for the swift and considerable support given to this new idea and chapter, without risking slighting the other members of CSICOP's Executive Council who also, obviously, supported this effort? Thank you all for your backing ??? we fully intend to justify your trust.
We are you, if you are interested. Come on aboard!
The founding members are:
=> Lawrence Jerome, Fellow of CSICOP, science writer, engineer.
=> Wallace I. Sampson, M.D., Member of the Paranormal Health Claims
Subcommittee of CSICOP, and outspoken critic of health fraud.
=> Terence J. Sandbek, Member of the Education Subcommittee of
CSICOP, Clinical Psychologist, Professor of Psychology - American
=> Robert Sheaffer, Fellow of CSICOP, science writer, designer of
micro-processor software, and an alert idea man.
=> Robert A. Steiner, Consultant to CSICOP, Member of the Education
Subcommittee, CPA, magician, writer, lecturer.
Have you grown weary of having a new acquaintance at a party inquire about your sign, rather than being interested in what you think?
Happily, there are many skeptics in the Bay Area. Come on out so that we can meet one another.
Saturday, June 26, 1982, 7:30 P.M. will be the founding party of the Bay Area Skeptics, at the home of Bob Steiner.
There will be snacks, conversation (REAL conversation), magic, planning, challenges, intellectual stimulation, and more.
One can just look around the Bay Area and realize that we seem to have more than our share of mystics. Come hither and see that there are a goodly number of real skeptics who dwell hereabouts: some are silent skeptics, and others are not so silent about it.
This party is the launch pad for the future ventures of Bay Area Skeptics. COME ON OUT!
Bring a spouse or date. And please feel free to invite other sincere skeptics.
BYOB. Smoking will be outside on the patio.
6000 Avila Avenue, Apt. D
El Cerrito, CA 94530
Directions: Heading North of South on Routes 80 or 17, exit at Central Avenue, El Cerrito, heading towards the mountains. Somewhere between .3 and .7 miles (depending which route you come off of), you will arrive at Carlson Blvd., go one block, turn right onto Avila Ave. Park immediately. You are here.
We look forward to greeting you. Please remember: There will be only one Founding Party for the Bay Area Skeptics.
There are those in the Bay Area who "earn" their daily bread from the pain, suffering, guilt, fear, and hate of others.
Rev. B. Woods Mattingley, Founder-Director of The Seeker's Quest, entitled the lead article in his current newsletter: "Why Do We Suffer Pain?"
His answer: "Most serious illness can be attributed to one of several reasons: karmic, in which current life pain results from the excesses or 'sins' of a past life.... Physical pain is also a telling statement that the person has some past-life reason which is creating his present-life pain."
Those who are unfortunate enough to suffer pain do not need guilt piled on top of it!
The first organizational meeting and social bash of the Bay Area Skeptics was held in Bob Steiner's home on the evening of June 26 (as announced in the first "BASIS"). Before the partying started, the Directors held a brief meeting. No permanent editor for "BASIS" stepped forward. Bob Steiner will continue to edit the newsletter on a temporary basis (pun intended). The Directors were also informed that $135 had been contributed thus far. (The money will be used for stationery, copying, mailing, etc.) The Charter of BAS was discussed. After discussion, the Board voted to adopt the Charter as is. (Anyone wishing to receive a copy of the Charter, send a SASE to me.) The business meeting was then adjourned, and the partying started!
At the party was good food, good fun, and best of all, stimulating conversation of a very intelligent kind. Among those in attendance were Board members Jerome, Sampson, Sandbek, Sheaffer, and Steiner; psychologist Ray Hyman, one of the founding Fellows of CSICOP; Jack Patterson, Professor of Engineering at Iowa State University; inventor Ridgway Banks, authority on nitinol; chemist Kenneth Bomben; astronomer Donald Goldsmith; psychologist William McConnell; writer Michael McCarthy; magician Charles Nyquist; "Chronicle" reporter Michael Robertson; and many others too numerous to mention (or whose names disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle after the first few drinks). My apologies to anyone who might feel slighted.
Bob Steiner demonstrated his amazing psychic abilities to all assembled by doing such paranormal feats as psychically determining the identity of several freely-chosen cards, precognitively identifying a sentence from a newspaper article that had not yet been selected, and psychokinetically transporting a silk handkerchief into a parallel universe. The audience was vastly amused, but still not convinced that any of it was real. Then Terry Sandbek performed psychic feats, including telepathically discovering the identity of a card selected by Lawrence Jerome. My turn came, and I telepathically transmitted to my wife, who was in another room, the identity of a card known only to the people in this room. By this time, the audience was QUITE sure that it was all just a trick ??? but what do you expect from a bunch of skeptics?
[Ed. note. The above was all in fun and was all tricks. No one has permission to quote any of the above without also quoting this Editor's note.]
Although Sacramento may not have the emotional appeal of San Francisco or Los Angeles in the minds of people when they think of California, it has symbolic significance by virtue of being the state capitol. Nevertheless, it shares with its bigger sisters the dubious distinction of being a hotbed of distorted thinking on paranormal events. This strange attraction to the irrational is best seen from the vantage of the city's talk shows. With two local radio stations competing for people's attention, audience response can vary from apathetic to frenetic. Many of the state's political leaders appear on the programs with interesting and timely topics. The hosts and hostesses of the talk shows also talk with famous people across the United States by way of radio conversations.
Yet, there is no greater response from the local populace than when a self-proclaimed psychic comes on. Generally, the switchboards light up as soon as their presence is announced. With this kind of response, is it any wonder that the media (need we be reminded that these stations are profit-making ventures?) so whole-heartedly promote their appearance before the public? The point here is not to attack the media, but to point out the tremendous acceptance of psychics and their ilk in this area.
In our next column, we will share with you an experience that Bob Steiner and I had posing as psychics on several of these Sacramento talk shows.
On Dec. 31, 1981, Channel 7 (KGO) had psychic Jeanne Borger on "AM San Francisco" to make predictions of events for 1982. Among other predictions (which cannot be evaluated until the end of 1982), she made two predictions for times early in 1982: (1) there would be a Reagan assassination attempt in April, and (2) the stock market would hit 700 in April.
Neither of these occurred. The stock market went below 800 in March, but it did not "hit 700". If there was an assassination attempt, the media WEREN'T invited. Of particular interest, however, are the major events that were missed, namely (1) the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the role of the US as arms supplier, (2) the Falklands War and the US role in it, and (3) the resignation of Alexander Haig. These three events should have had a significant impact on any "view" of 1982.
For completeness, other predictions were (4) Reagan would have heart and kidney problems, (5) the government would force people to keep their money in the country; no foreign bank accounts, no ownership of foreign money, (6) two earthquakes would occur, with the one in Los Angeles being much, much worse than the one in San Francisco (no dates specified), (7) unemployment would get much worse, then level off by the end of the year, (8) Barbara Walters will have a dispute with and possibly leave ABC, and (9) Egypt and Libya will have a conflict and the United States will be implicated by foreign concerns.
While the final chapter has not been written on these predictions, it should be noted that the US dollar has strengthened against foreign currency, making (5) unlikely, and that the only earthquake reported so far this year in Los Angeles caused no damage.
[Ed. Note: Both Ken Bomben and Mike McCarthy did excellent analyses of Jeanne Borger's predictions. Although J.B. is not strictly Bay Area, she is widely known enough that an analysis seems instructive. Since we published Ken on the specifics, let's see the fine job Mike did on the methods.]
It must be borne in mind that a large number of Ms. Borger's "predictions" are not easily checked, due to her careful phrasing, not to mention her choice of topics. One of her stylistic marks is the "either/or" prediction, of which this is an example: "The threat of a Soviet invasion of Poland still casts a somber shadow across the whole of Europe. IF THAT HAPPENS, it is LIKELY TO OCCUR in March or early April. IF IT DOES NOT HAPPEN, the Soviet Union will later in 1982 call in its loans to the Polish government" (emphasis added). In other contexts, this appears as "if the invasion has not occurred by (period), then it will not occur at all." Note her use of "likely to occur"; even if the Soviets invaded in July (now a moot issue), her "likely" is an out. "Probably" and "likely" are commonly scattered in her predictions.
Secondly, many of her predictions are vague, or involve personal issues in the lives of pop figures, much of which cannot be confirmed or denied in any event. For example: "Jeanne Kirkpatrick (UN ambassador) is in serious danger from the middle of June through mid-July. During this period, diplomats around the world will be in danger and at least one will die, PROBABLY in July" (emphasis added). Even if Mrs. Kirkpatrick is not in the papers for a life threat, the nature of the serious danger and the likelihood that a threat might go unreported makes a denial of this prediction difficult. Added to this is the problem of defining a "diplomat".
"Psychic" Maria McKensie revealed in an interview with "The Examiner" (the national supermarket tabloid, not the local paper) that space aliens disguised as humans are roaming the streets of San Francisco! "I discovered them two years ago", she says, "but I didn't reveal their presence then because I was afraid it would start a panic." Looking out her office window in San Francisco's financial district, she reportedly became aware of people walking strangely -- as if they weren't fully adjusted to earth's gravity. (In some circles, people like that are known as junkies.) "And even more strange, they always stayed in the same small area."
It was two months before McKensie got up the courage to follow them. "They went into a Chinese restaurant, and disappeared into its back room." She somehow found the courage to barge into that room, and discovered to her horror that "they all had six fingers of exactly the same length, and their skin was shiny and moist." McKensie hit them "with a strong barrage of psychic energy", but they fought back with their tremendous will. Soon afterward, the aliens' skins "began to dissolve into powder", and in a few minutes, all that was left was their clothing. Ms. McKensie laments that "I haven't been able to locate them since."
We are the Bay Area Skeptics (BAS), a group of people who support the testing of paranormal claims, but are unconvinced by any of the supposed proofs of psychic powers that have been presented so far. We are committed only to finding out the truth about so-called psychic powers, whatever that truth may be. Nothing would be more exciting than to discover the existence of a genuine psychic power, if such a thing exists. However, experience has sadly shown that the field of psychic research is so filled with self-delusion, evasion, and fraud, that we are frankly skeptical that any genuine paranormal powers exist at all.
We hereby issue the following challenge to any and all psychics and psychic researchers in the Bay Area: Show us just one psychic power, of any kind, that can be demonstrated to be real under controlled conditions. Claims of psychic powers are abundant -- but we want to see somebody who can DEMONSTRATE a genuine ability at prediction, clairvoyance, telekinesis, paranormal healing, or any other alleged psychic power.
If you are a psychic, why is it to your advantage to accept this challenge? First, because of the monetary reward being offered, and second, because of the recognition and prestige you will achieve as the first person to successfully demonstrate such powers to a group of knowledgeable skeptics.
Robert A. Steiner, director of Bay Area Skeptics, is a professional magician of many years' experience. He is personally offering a reward of $1,000.00 to any person who can demonstrate ANY psychic power under controlled conditions, provided that Steiner is unable to duplicate or explain it by normal means. Furthermore, James Randi of New Jersey, a famous stage magician known as "The Amazing Randi," has for years offered $10,000.00 for proof of any psychic power performed under properly controlled conditions. Bay Area Skeptics will promptly report to Randi anyone whose powers seem worthy of testing. (In both cases, the conditions of the test will be arranged in advance with the would-be psychic, and the test will not begin until both parties are satisfied that the arrangement is fair.) Thus, anyone with genuine psychic powers can easily collect $11,000.00 from these two men.
The Bay Area Skeptics is a local chapter of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), a worldwide organization of scientists and researchers who are skeptical of paranormal claims. CSICOP is the largest and best-known group of its kind in the world. Anyone who appears to possess genuine psychic powers will be reported to CSICOP's Executive Council, which will arrange further testing.
Think of the enormous recognition that would be given to the first person to convince the world's most outspoken skeptics of the reality of psychic powers! Think also of the tremendous benefit to science and humanity if the existence of miraculous powers for healing and for obtaining knowledge could at long last be proven!
There is probably no other place in the United States where the number of alleged psychics, and the degree of belief in psychic powers, is as high as here in the Bay Area. Psychic readers, healers, etc., abound in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose, and throughout the Bay Area. Purportedly scientific investigations of psychic powers are frequently carried out at SRI in Menlo Park, as well as at many other organizations in the Bay Area. Many of the area's colleges offer credit or extension courses in astrology, astral projection, aura reading, etc. We at BAS are proclaiming that "The Emperor Has No Clothes", and we challenge anyone to prove us wrong.
We are not difficult to reach. We all live in the immediate area. If you believe you have genuine psychic powers, the advantages of accepting this challenge are considerable.
Gullibility knows no boundaries: It infects young and old, rich and poor, male and female, educated and uneducated. What happens in Sacramento happens in San Francisco and Chico. People who fall for psychic foolishness here are no different from people all over the world. As we report happenings in our area, remember that we in metropolitan Sacramento are neither more nor less gullible than people elsewhere.
Several months ago, Bob Steiner and I appeared on a local radio talk show. The hostess introduced us as "two gentlemen who claim to be psychics". She went on to say that "if anyone wants to call in and talk, feel free to do so." Almost instantly, the telephone lines were full. This is interesting in itself. Since I had been on that particular show several times concerning other issues, I was familiar with the trickle of responses common to most talk shows. At other times, I have listened, and it appeared that the host or hostess was trying desperately to get people to call in.
This day, that was not a problem. The first caller, of course, wanted information about her life in terms of how something was going to turn out in the future. Bob did a standard "cold reading", which lasted several minutes, and the caller's response was one of satisfaction. After twenty minutes and six cold readings, the hostess asked Bob if he would mind giving his credentials as a psychic. His response was: "Sure, I'll be glad to. I'm a fake! I'm no psychic. I can't read people's minds." Bob went on to explain that what he had been doing was something almost anyone can learn to do.
After some more questioning by the hostess, it was quite obvious that Bob had fooled everybody into thinking he was really a psychic by using the age-old trick of cold readings. The difference was that Bob claimed nothing supernatural, merely a skill capable of being learned by almost anyone.
No sooner was this explained than the phone rang and a man asked Bob to tell him how his job was going to go next year. Incredulous, the show hostess asked the caller if he had been listening to the show. When he said "yes", Bob inquired whether the man had understood the explanation of what had occurred. The incredible response from the caller was:
"Yes, I understand fully what you are doing, but do it anyway."
In response to a lot of feedback, BAS has commenced to sponsor meetings open to the public. On Dec. 1, at 7:30 PM, there will be an open meeting at the Campbell Public Library, 70 North Central Avenue, Campbell, CA.
In addition to welcoming the public and meeting one another, the topic for the evening will be "Psychics and Police Work".
There is no admission charge.
How do you judge the strength and health of this new organization known as the Bay Area Skeptics? Let me count the ways:
Public reaction has been enthusiastic. People come forward wanting information, wanting to participate, wanting to meet other people interested in our organization and in our ideas, and wanting to do something -- anything -- to further the interests of the organization.
This enthusiastic reaction has been supported by words, deeds, and money. And it includes people in the Bay Area, throughout the country, and around the world.
Organizations have contacted us for information and for speakers.
The media have reacted warmly and are much interested in covering the views and progress of Bay Area Skeptics. When mystics come along, the media have shown a considerable inclination to contact us: for appearances, for confrontations with the mystics, and for information regarding mystical claims.
People contribute both letters and articles to "BASIS".
Many people have come forward volunteering their time, skill, and information in examining the claims of mystics. We have been able to build a cadre of skilled scientific consultants and investigators in a wide variety of fields.
When the founders found ourselves inundated with paper and short of money, a cry for help went out. It is a healthy organization when that cry is answered. Mike McCarthy has agreed to be Editor of "BASIS". I've known Mike for some time now. He has participated in presentations to the public, on skepticism as well as on other topics.
Mike is a Scientific Consultant for BAS, and is a skeptic by any definition of the word. Speaking of words, Mike has considerable skill and experience in their use, both spoken and written, and in the editing of them. With the increased contacts with the media and the public demanding my time, and with the increased correspondence that crosses my desk concerning Bay Area Skeptics, it is indeed a comfort to find such an able person willing to do the editing of "BASIS". Mike's considerable knowledge of and access to a computer/word processor is the icing on the cake.
Earl Hautala, a skeptic, subscriber, and alert thinker, has stepped forward to share some of the burden and joys of handling much of the paper that comes our way. Earl has been instrumental in bringing Bay Area Skeptics to the attention of many, including having it and me introduced at a meeting in San Francisco where a "clairvoyant" was the speaker.
Others have also volunteered their help. Hang in there -- we'll find a use for your talents.
The Board members and others continue to contact the media with ideas and reactions about the possible existence of mystical powers, and about the positive existence of Bay Area Skeptics.
And, happily, people have replied to the request for money. With the time made available by the volunteers, we will shortly embark upon finalizing our recognition as a tax-exempt subsidiary of THE COMMITTEE FOR THE SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION OF CLAIMS OF THE PARANORMAL (CSICOP). When this finally comes through, contributions to Bay Area Skeptics FROM INCEPTION will be recognized as a tax-deductible charitable contribution.
CSICOP, and its excellent magazine, "The Skeptical Inquirer", have been supportive to Bay Area Skeptics, its first local chapter.
The word of our organization and reactions to it have produced such good, uh, vibes that we will shortly be seeing other local groups springing up, and subsequently affiliating with CSICOP.
All of the above, with the considerable contribution of time, effort, and money of you folks who are reading this right now, have enabled us to make the inroads on behalf of reason that we have made in the past several months.
And that, friends, is how you can judge the strength and health of this new organization, Bay Area Skeptics. Thank you all for that!
We have all seen the sensationalized treatment that UFOs have received on TV, even from "responsible" news organizations, with their exciting but unsubstantiated claims of dramatic UFO encounters. A refreshing change was the season opener for NOVA (actually a production of the BBC) telecast on PBS stations October 12 and 13.
This past February, John Groom, writer and producer of the show, was at my house to discuss approaches to the subject and sources of information, and at that time I became aware that he would not dish up just another piece of journalistic trash. I was not disappointed.
Not only were many of the most famous UFO incidents on record discussed and recreated, but, significantly, a special effort was made to seek out natural explanations wherever possible to account for the alleged UFOs sighted. Both UFO believers and skeptics appeared on the program, although the balance seemed to weigh in favor of skepticism, as I think must necessarily be the case when we faithfully adhere to the scientific method.
I would say that the show's greatest weakness was not in excess belief of skepticism, but in a failure to be able to discern APPROPRIATE skeptical explanations. Not ALL prosaic explanations have equal merit. In my view, far too much time was spent on Dr. Persinger's hypothesis that UFOs are somehow the result of "earthquake lights", or balls of light supposedly caused by strains in the earth's crust.
Persinger says that the many weak earthquakes in the U.K. cause luminous displays. Rubbish, I say; here in California we have weak earthquakes every few days, and in the Bay Area we would see UFOs nightly. If Persinger's theory were true, UFOs would correlate with fault lines; we could go up in the Santa Cruz mountains, and photograph UFOs aplenty. Yet in fact, California does not lead the country in UFOs. Sorry, folks, but UFOs correlate with population, not with earthquakes.
Persinger even attributes the Travis Walton "UFO abduction" to the effects of these geological fuzzballs on poor Travis's brain! Far more convincing was the finding of polygraph operator Jack McCarthy about Travis: "gross deception" -- a finding that the "National Enquirer" and APRO tried to cover up, but that was brought to light by Philip J. Klass of CSICOP.
If you missed the show, try to catch it when it is rerun. We will also try to have a showing of it at a future BAS social gathering.
We finish 1982 on a distinctly upbeat note for an organization less than six months old. Bay Area Skeptics has already had a good impact in our area and is expanding with all due speed.
We have over 150 subscribers at the moment, and pass out another few hundred copies of the newsletter each month, both to the interested and the hostile. The Skeptic's Challenge is making the rounds, and may yield interesting results in the future. The Bay Area journalist community is now aware of our existence and has already found several occasions to turn to BAS for skeptical counterbalance to credulous claims. This is a remarkable record for such a young group.
Best of all, people like me have somewhere to turn for confirmation that, yes indeed, there IS good reason to be skeptical when faced with dazzlingly fatuous tales of modern wonders.
Last year, I attended a psychic demonstration, and found to my surprise that fully a third of the audience were not true believers. Apparently, they were dragged along by believing friends. As the show progressed, they grew more and more uncomfortable, both at the ludicrous tricks of the psychic and at the credulous enthusiasm of their friends. When the psychic revealed himself as simply a stage magician, the sense of relief from these skeptics was palpable. Unaware that others like themselves in the audience felt the same way, they had begun to fear that the world was turning upside down; that it was they who were unreasonable for being rational, while their friends were quite reasonable in insisting that nonsensical card tricks
constituted evidence of otherworldly powers.
When the wildly improbable is marketed on every supermarket counter as the conventional wisdom, reasonable men and women can start feeling pretty lonely. BAS has been formed, in part, to counter that feeling.
There is certainly a combative element to our charter, for we do have our subscribers who enjoy a good tussle with the forces of unreason. But there is also for many of us the social element.
It is a relief to spend a little time among people who will agree when you say that rationality is not a cruel weapon devised by conspirators to put shackles on the minds of men; that the "National Enquirer" is not, in fact, a reliable source of information about spacemen, talking plants, or magical medical breakthroughs; that it is not unreasonable to believe that Las Vegas survives not merely because true psychics are unwilling to use their powers for monetary gain; and that a few clever card tricks do not necessarily constitute evidence of mystical powers beyond the ken of science simply because the trickster says so.
Our plans for 1983 consist of continuing and multiplying our present activities: challenging gullible media reports of paranormal occurrences; persuading journalists that BAS is a valuable resource for information about and experts on paranormal claims; further persuading journalists that it is irresponsible to treat claims of paranormal events as harmless "fun" stories not subject to the normal rules of journalistic ethics.
We are trying to collect information on the careers, predictions, and flaws of local "psychics", in hopes that at least some people will be impressed by a record of failure. And we continue to seek opportunities to speak and debate on the side of reason and common sense in the media, and before schools and community groups.
To accomplish our goals, we are fortunate to have many subscribers who are experts in various fields of the paranormal, who are familiar with the personalities and literature of everything from UFOs to psychic surgery, and who can handle themselves ably in a public forum.
But let us not neglect our many subscribers who may not be experts on UFOs or the Bermuda Triangle, but who would like to learn more, and who would like to make a contribution to our efforts against the tidal wave of irrationality.
Many of us are eager to support the purposes of this group, and there is much we can do, even though we are not experts or technical specialists. We can perform and assist in research; we can give moral support as members of the audience at speeches and debates to counterweigh heavy representation from true believers; we can watch for opportunities for action. We can, in other words, serve as a valuable resource for BAY AREA SKEPTICS.
That is one reason why the December 1st BAS meeting was scheduled to include expert information on a common object of our attentions: the use of psychics in police work. Future meetings will likewise include expert discussions.
This kind of theme meeting will help bring the subscribers up to date on an area of study; let us know what BAS has done and decide what to do in the future in this area; and to suggest ways in which the general subscribership can offer support.
I want to urge you to try to make it out to at least one BAS event in the near future. You will find your fellow subscribers, board members, consultants to be bright, convivial, rational, mildly anarchic, and definitely stimulating.
-- The Editor