The following is an article from the August '94 (Vol. 2, #8) issue of The REALL News. It m

Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

The following is an article from the August '94 (Vol. 2, #8) issue of The REALL News. It may be reprinted by other skeptics organizations as long as proper credit is given. REALL also requests that you please send a copy of any publication that reprints one of our articles for our files. This article may also be cross-posted onto other appropriate conferences. This article represents the opinions of its author, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of REALL or its officers. ========================================================= A CHALLENGE TO FEDERAL & STATE AGENCIES by James Randi Animal Magnetism. Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a Viennese medical doctor who had written his dissertation on the effects of the planets on the health of the human body after seeing a healing demonstration by a priest named Hell, formed the belief that magnets could induce healing powers in those who held them. He displayed the procedure, which he called animal magnetism, during popular sessions that he held for French society, beginning in 1778. The phenomenon soon was dubbed Mesmerism. His soirees were theatrical rather than therapeutic, and the creme of French aristocracy elbowed one another aside for the privilege of seeing customers sitting around a huge vat of acid (called a baquet), holding on to iron devices immersed in the solution, while the master, dressed in a trailing lilac-colored robe of gold-flowered silk, gestured with his ivory wand at entranced socialites who gurgled, sighed, and moaned when they weren't screaming in ecstasy at this, their latest very expensive diversion. An investigation of Mesmer in 1784 by the French Academy of Sciences, in the company of U.S. ambassador Benjamin Franklin, brought the conclusion that Mesmer was merely using suggestion and that the clients were the usual silly segment of the populace who support such fads. The test of Mesmer's claims was simple, direct, inexpensive and effective. Rays from Nancy. Then in 1903, Professor Prosper Ren Blondlot, a distinguished physicist of the city of Nancy, France, announced his discovery of strange radiations that he said emanated from every substance _ except green wood and pieces of metal that had been "anesthetized" by dipping them into chloroform or ether. The apparent existence of these rays was soon confirmed by dozens of scientists around the world through scientific papers submitted to science journals. However, the majority of physicists declined to take Blondlot's claims seriously, and waited for the "discovery" to be revealed as a grave error of an otherwise competent scientist. A single physicist, American Robert Wood, was sent in to Blondlot's lab by the British Association of Scientists and after a simple procedure to test the claim without alerting the French scientists, reported his results to Nature magazine (then, as now, one of the leading science journals). Wood showed the French savants that not only were their experimental processes faulty, but their "rays" were totally imaginary. Mystery Rays from Germany. The disastrous affair of the "N-rays" thoroughly embarrassed the French -- and the scientific world. It provides us with the single most effective and important example of scientific error through experimenter bias and expectation, an example which might well be improved upon by the present German fascination with the equally imaginary E- rays in Germany, where the idea originated, as "Erdestrahlen" or "earth rays." They are said to be radiations that are emitted from unknown sources deep in the ground, giving rise to "hot spots," and causing cancer. These rays, say believers, cannot be detected by any sort of instruments, but are believed to exist because dowsers (those strange folks with forked sticks) -- and only dowsers -- can sense them. In Germany, these invisible rays and hot spots are accepted by almost everyone, even governmental agencies, who pay dowsers to indicate to them how to relocate the desks of federal employees away from the positions where E-rays can intercept them; hospital beds are similarly moved about to protect patients from cancer. Professors H. L. Konig and H. D. Betz of Munich, two German authors of a highly supportive 1989 book on the German government tests, refused to identify any of the dowsers they tested in preparing their book, or even to put the dowsers in touch with other researchers. Their reasons for this lack of cooperation are not clear. Magic Water. In the "alternate healing" modality known as homeopathy we find an excellent example of an attempt to make sympathetic magic work. Its founder, Samuel Hahnemann (1775- 1843), believed that all illnesses develop from only three sources: syphilis, venereal warts, and what he called "the itch." The motto of homeopathy is Similia similibus curantur ("Like cures like"). It claims that doses of substances that produce certain symptoms will relieve those symptoms; however, the "doses" are extremely attenuated solutions or mixtures, so attenuated that not a single molecule of the original substance remains. In fact, the homeopathic corrective is actually pure water, nothing more. The theory is that the vibrations or "effect" of the diluted-out substance are still present and work on the patient. Currently, researchers in homeopathy are examining a new notion that water can be magnetized and can transmit its medicinal powers by means of a copper wire. The royal family of England adopted homeopathy at its very beginning and have retained a homeopathic physician on staff ever since. The only concern of homeopaths is to treat the symptoms of disease, rather than the basic causes, which they do not recognize. Thus homeopathy correctly falls into the category of magic. In 1988, a team (including the author) organized by Nature magazine visited France to examine the claims of a scientist there who had carried out what appeared to be correctly implemented, properly designed tests of a basic homeopathic claim, with a sufficiently large data base from which to draw the conclusion that the claim was genuine. He also asserted that his results had been independently replicated by other labs. A simple three-day examination of his methods and results showed that there was much to be desired in them, and a subsequent attempted replication by another laboratory indicated that this claim of homeopathy was invalid. Hot Interest in Cold Fusion. We are currently still toying with the idea that the notion of "cold fusion," a system which is claimed to be able to produce massive amounts of atomic energy cleanly, cheaply and effectively endlessly, may be valid, largely because of the millions of dollars that various agencies and other sponsors have poured into it, in spite of the careful appraisal of the scientific world that has rejected it as poor science. Perpetual Emotion, Again. A Mississippi man named Joe W. Newman actually obtained signatures from 30 scientists who said his "free energy" machine -- which is in actuality a huge direct-current motor powered by a massive stack of batteries -- is a valid invention. The Mississippi Board of Energy & Transport invested several million dollars in Mr. Newman's device. Newman, who holds other valid patents for ideas that really do work -- one is a cigarette-making machine, thus showing another of his contributions to mankind -- refuses to accept the "perpetual motion" label for his design, insisting that it is a "free energy" idea. However, if the output of his machine is simply connected to the input, he should have an ever-running system. This he has apparently never managed -- or tried -- to do. *** The Burning Question *** These few examples, from many such available, give rise to this simple question: why is it such a difficult matter to convince any federal agencies in this country to perform simple, inexpensive tests of such matters as homeopathy, chiropractic, perpetual motion, dowsing, polygraphs, graphology, astrology, Christian Science healing and other easily tested notions that add to the public's confusion and distraction, as well as causing irreparable financial, physical and emotional damage? The National Institutes of Health, given $3,000,000 by an eager congressman, has frittered away that funding by doling out more than thirty grants to practitioners of various forms of quackery and very doubtful science -- not to test the basic claims of their specialties, but to examine various applications and parameters of totally unsubstantiated methodologies. What's needed are uncomplicated tests of the methodologies themselves, not their corollaries. One does not examine the Santa Claus myth by measuring chimneys to find out if a fat man in a red suit can squeeze down them. If Ben Franklin could do this simple task so effectively more than two centuries ago, surely we can do it today? And if we don't, what is the reason? [This article was transmitted over the Internet by Mr. Randi on June 27, 1994.]


E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank