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