It’ll never happen

The pair of psychic frauds, James van Praagh and Allison DuBois, who were featured on Nightline, have been called out by the JREF:

The JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge Director, Banachek, also featured in the episode, said, “We’re issuing a challenge to these fakers: for once, show that you can get this supposedly supernatural knowledge without cheating. If one of you can demonstrate your ‘psychic’ abilities on randomly chosen strangers—not celebrities—under mutually-agreed conditions, without relying on known cold-reading techniques such as fishing around with vague questions, and without just using Google—we will donate our million dollars to you or to the charity of your choice.”

You know Van Praagh and DuBois will never, ever risk exposure of their profitable scams by subjecting themselves to tests.

(Also on FtB)

Quacks everywhere

David Colquhoun has posted an excellent series of posts on the Steiner Waldorf schools, 19th century crackpottery that persists even now, by hiding their fundamentally pseudoscientific basis under a fog of fancy invented terms. He discusses their goofy philosophy of anthroposophistry, their devious efforts to get state funding, and their unfortunate buy unsurprising history of racism. It’s wild and crazy stuff, and it’s been sidling under the radar for a while.

What initially drew me to DC’s site was his article on quackery in retreat: the University of Westminster has discarded some of their previous offerings in naturopathy. There is still a fair amount of junk in their curriculum, but there’s hope that those are waning too.

I needed that bit of solace, because my university’s official listserve sent me a wonderful offer earlier this week.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
As part of our ongoing commitment to provide quality, integrated wellness programs, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing is pleased to offer a telephone-based version of the highly successful Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (tMBSR). The tMBSR begins with an in-person, all-day workshop. The next six sessions are conducted via a web-based conference call. The tMBSR concludes with an in-person, all-day, mostly silent retreat.
tMBSR will teach participants how to intentionally cope with pain, illness, and the stress of modern life. Participants will learn mindfulness meditation skills, and build upon their own personal strengths to offset the adverse effects of stress by responding more effectively.

The program cost of $385 (*$350 for UPlan members) includes: • Guided instruction in mindfulness mediation practices • Web-based group discussions • Gentle stretching & yoga • Daily “homework” to improve skills • Individual, tailored instruction & support • Hand-outs, CDs & Yoga DVD • All-day workshop and all-day retreat.
*UPlan Members: The tMBSR program reimbursement is available to employees who are covered by the UPlan Medical Program. You must participate in both all-day events and 4 of the 6 conference calls to qualify to be reimbursed $200.00 of the registration fees.

All-Day Workshop & Retreat
September 17th, 2011, 9:00 am to 4:30 pm in Oyate
November 19th, 2011, 9:00 to 4:30 pm in Oyate

Oh, man. Our bogus magic medicine place, the Center for Spirituality and Healing, is sponsoring this garbage — oh, wait, “sponsoring”? No, milking the faculty. They want to charge us individually $385 for a day of “mindful meditation”, for which the university may give us partial reimbursement…which just means they’ve found a way to fleece the suckers and also to get our university to endorse it.

I was cranky. I fired back on the listserve.

I am stunned that the university is subsidizing this bunkum and quackery from the Center for Spirituality and Healing. I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, the university has this New Age crapfest called the CSH in the first place.

And then, of course, I was bombarded with rotten vegetables. People were upset: I was hurtful! I was contemptuous! How dare I question the university’s efforts to help us deal with stress? One person sent me this claim that Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) fixes a long laundry list of ailments, from anxiety to fibromyalgia to chronic pain, and that it caused “increased immune system functioning”, one of those common buzz phrases that the quacks often use. So I wrote back, for the last time.

I’ve read some of these studies, and am unimpressed. Most of them assess subjective phenomena (“chronic pain” is notoriously amenable to suggestion, for instance), involve very small subject numbers and small effects, and often seize upon random phenomena as significant — one study found that retention in their program was far greater than in the controls, for instance; their DBT program was offered for free to participants, while the control was paid psychotherapy. Surprise!

I think a university sponsored program to help employees deal with stress is a great idea. However, real programs that are effective are built upon evidence-based medicine, not the frivolous and fuzzy nonsense that we get from the Center for Spirituality and Healing. When our institution endorses “mindful meditation”, a procedure that is pretty much indistinguishable from the placebo response, they are literally doing the very least they can do for us.

Mindful meditation may be relatively innocuous fluff, but where do we draw the line? The CSH also endorses reiki, reflexology, aromatherapy, craniosacral therapy, traditional chinese medicine, and unbelievably, “healing touch” — this is tantamount to peddling magic. Here’s an example of how the CSH describes the mechanism behind ‘healing touch.’

Healing Touch blends the energetic techniques of a number of practices, both ancient and contemporary. It is based on the belief that human beings are composed of fields of energy that are in constant interaction with self, others, and the environment (also see the section on Theories and Principles for more information). The Healing Touch practitioner realigns the energy flow, which reactivates the patient’s mind/body/spirit connection in order to eliminate blockages to self-healing.

The goal of Healing Touch is to restore harmony to the energy system so that the patient is in an optimal state for healing to occur. In other words, the goals are to accelerate the recipient’s own healing process and to facilitate healing at all levels of the body, mind, and spirit.

Healing Touch integrates easily with other modalities a practitioner may already be using. These modalities may include conventional medical practice in hospitals, clinics and in home care, or other body-mind oriented therapies such as massage, guided imagery, music therapy, acupressure, biofeedback, and psychotherapy.

This is pure gobbledygook. None of this makes sense. None of this has been demonstrated empirically: it can’t be, because it’s all made up.

None of these ‘therapies’ work. Every time they’ve been tested using objective, clinical outcomes, they’ve been found to be completely ineffectual. Our university is selling us New Age snake oil, and I’m deeply embarrassed to see the credulity and the wastefulness demonstrated by an institution that ought to be dedicated to rigor and reason. Can we please use our health care dollars a little more wisely?

Man, I hate the center for spirituality and healing. I’m ashamed and embarrassed every time I get ads from that place — they are trading on the educational and scientific integrity of our institution of higher learning to make money for quacks and to elevate witch doctors and shamans to the status of medical professionals. I’m hurtful? I think frauds selling overpriced stress-reduction magic to our faculty and staff is what really hurts.

No, I’m not signing up for the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes. Just their existence has increased my stress, and it’s not worth $385 to show up and watch my blood pressure skyrocket.

(Also on FtB)

Wait, what if idiocy is blood-borne?

Larry Moran is proudly Canadian, so this must have hurt a little bit: Canadian Blood Services is advertising with a load of codswallop about your blood type. This is complete nonsense:

  1. Type A: So, you’re an A. You already know that having type A blood suggests that you are reliable, a team player and may benefit from a vegetarian diet*. Did you also know that anthropologists believe that type A blood originated in Asia or the middle east between 25,000 and 15,000 BC?

  2. Type B: So, you’re a B. You already know that having type B blood suggests that you are independent, a self-starter and may benefit from a wholesome well-balanced diet*. Did you also know that anthropologists believe that type B blood appeared between 15,000 and 10,000 BC in the Himalayas?

  3. Type AB: So, you’re an AB. You already know that having type AB blood suggests that you are organized, friendly and may enjoy a vegetarian or wholesome well-balanced diet*. Did you also know that anthropologists believe that type AB blood did not originate until 900-1000 years ago and came into existence when eastern Mongolian invaders overran the last of European civilization?

  4. Type O: So, you’re an O. You already know that having type O blood suggests that you might be competitive, goal oriented and a real meat eater*. Did you also know that anthropologists believe that type O is the oldest and most common blood type, originating in Southern Africa?

Notice the personality descriptions are vague and always positive: this is classic woo technique. Forget your blood type, just read the descriptions, and if you’re willing to go along, they’ll always fit you. This is the same trick astrologers use, formulating anemic, non-specific ‘predictions’ that the gullible reader can retrofit to their own situation.

But the claims about the origins of these blood types are simply lies! They aren’t even consistent: how can you claim A and B arose over 10,000 years ago, but that the heterozygote AB never occurred until 1000 years ago? Since the ABO blood types are present in other apes, like chimpanzees, it’s obvious that claims of recent origin are bogus. Also, as Larry points out, type O is the null allele — it’s caused by a non-functional transferase enzyme. It’s pretty damned unlikely that it is the oldest type.

The Canadian site does list their sources: they include a weird Japanese blood type cult and a pop diet book from a naturopathic quack. So here’s an organization that offers important medical services, and they are peddling woo of the rankest, stupidest kind. I know that blood from morons is just as good as blood from geniuses, but really…why would you want to miseducate your clients?

(Also on FtB)

Yes, but it’s royal and noble snake oil

Another reason to get rid of the silly monarchy: Prince Charles is a quack.

Professor Edzard Ernst criticised the heir to the throne for lending his support to homeopathic remedies and for promoting the Duchy Herbals detox tincture.

In a briefing with reporters at the Science Media Centre in London, Ernst warned that “snake oil salesmen are ubiquitous and dangerous”, and named the prince as “one of the most outspoken proponents of homeopathy”.

He later told the Guardian: “There are no official criteria for a snake oil salesman, but if they existed, I think Charles would fulfil them.”

What are these Duchy Herbals, you might ask?

Britain’s leading academic expert on complementary medicine has warned that the Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture – a food supplement, which combines artichoke and dandelion and promises to rid the body of toxins while aiding digestion – is based on notions which are “implausible, unproven and dangerous”.

It also doesn’t work.

So, you Brits, when are you going to get rid of these goofy parasites? They seem to get worse and worse every year.

A Skeptical Look at Aliens

OK, I’m feeling guilty: I’m off at The Amaz!ng Meeting enjoying myself, and totally neglecting the blog readers who aren’t lucky enough to be here too. And since I’ve been getting lots of requests to put the full content of my talk online, I figured…yeah, sure, I can do that. So here you go, all of the slides and what I said about them, mostly, below the fold. Criticize and argue and do your usual.

[Read more…]

I thought Iceland was more rational than this

The town of Bolungarvik, Iceland has been engaged in a lot of public works construction projects, like a new road and building a barrier to protect them from avalanches. Unfortunately, there have been delays and accidents, and they’ve decided what’s causing the problem: Elves. Pissed-off, cranky elves.

Some people pointed the finger of blame on angry elves who had finally snapped. The dynamiting for the town’s new avalanche defence barrier comes less than a year after a new road tunnel through the Oshlid hill was completed — neither of which with the prior blessing of the hidden people.

Seers requested the Bolungarvik municipal government make a full apology to the hidden people and elves for the disturbance the avalanche barrier and tunnel have caused them. The council failed to see the potential quirky PR value and refused to co-operate — saying that there must be logical explanations for the recent spate of accidents and breakdowns. Some locals then took matters into their own hands; making up their own peace offering.

This is crazy. Propitiating elves for random accidents? Madness.

I recommend a true New Atheist solution, using the practical tools at hand. Dynamite the elves. Let’s have none of this silly accommodationist nonsense with agents of superstition.

No comments here, please

I think we’ve reached the saturation point, so comments are closed on this article. However, I do think I need to link to Rebecca Watson’s summary of her recent absurdist travails. Or if you’d rather, try reading Schrödinger’s Rapist and be enlightened.

This time, though, really, go over there if you feel the need to comment.

It is interesting that it is the jerk chauvinist skeptics and atheists who have turned Ms Watson into an angry feminist. It’s all your fault, bozos.

I think we’ve been insulted by American book publishers

Richard Wiseman, the fabulously funny and enlightening skeptical psychologist, has written a book called Paranormality which is a fabulously funny and enlightening dissection of paranormal claims; I got an advance copy because I’m special and I recommend it highly, and so do Skepchicks. However, something strange happened. Wiseman is British, and he published in the UK, but when he tried to get it picked up in the US, publishers balked.

The book has done well in the UK and has been bought by publishers in lots of other countries. However, the major American publishers were reluctant to support a skeptical book, with some suggesting that I re-write it to suggest that ghosts were real and psychic powers actually existed! We didn’t get any serious offers and so it looked like the American public (around 75% of whom believe in the paranormal) wouldn’t get the opportunity to read about skepticism.

Bizarre. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, isn’t it? Since so many of us are gullible cretins, books and TV are tailored to pander to error rather than to challenge and criticize, so the population becomes increasingly more gullible. I guess that makes sense if your goal is to educate a public to buy more soap and toasters.

Anyway, you’re still in luck: Wiseman has decided to bypass the American publishers, and is shipping boatloads (I hope) of his books over here to our benighted shores, so the wiser members of our populace can get wiser still. So next time you turn on the TV and see another of those odious and silly ‘ghosthunter’ shows, just turn it off and pick up a copy of Paranormality. It’s not just good for you, it’s tasty.


I just got word that the physical copies are all sold out. Until they buy a gigantic freighter to haul over a mountain of new copies, you’ll have to settle for the Kindle edition.

Always name names!

There is an odd attitude in our culture that it’s acceptable for men to proposition women in curious ways — Rebecca Watson recently experienced this in an elevator in Dublin, and I think this encounter Ophelia Benson had reflects the same attitude: women are lower status persons, and we men, as superior beings, get to ask things of them. Also as liberal, enlightened people, of course, we will graciously accede to their desires, and if they ask us to stop hassling them, we will back off, politely. Isn’t that nice of us?

It’s not enough. Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior. Maybe we should recognize that when we interact with equals there are different, expected patterns of behavior that many men casually disregard when meeting with women, and it is those subtle signs that let them know what you think of them that really righteously pisses feminist women off.

But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to mention one thing that annoys me. Rebecca Watson talked about this experience at a CFI conference, and one thing she did was to directly address, by name, criticisms of her reaction to being importuned in an elevator late at night. She specifically discussed a criticism by one of the attendees, Stef McGraw, quoting her and saying where the argument was found, and a few people were angry at her for that, and demanded that she apologize to McGraw. Which is, frankly, bizarre.

The demands for an apology were very interesting. None of my critics at any point offered any counterargument concerning my points on objectification or feminism . . . all their criticism was entirely about tone. At first they were angry because I had criticized a student. For instance, Trevor Boeckmann, a CFI intern, Tweeted, “It’s one thing to call out a public figure, it’s another to spend your keynote calling out a student.” (Boeckmann must have actually missed my talk, since I spoke about McGraw’s post for about two minutes out of sixty. Despite this and the fact that he did not mention my name, I saw the Tweet on the #CFICON feed and correctly guessed it was about me, anyway. See below for more on that topic. )

As Watson says, she loathes passive-aggressive behavior. So do I, and this is a fine example of it. Name names, always name names, and always do your best to be specific. It is right and proper as good skeptics to confront and provoke and challenge, and you have to be direct about it. Would it have been better if Rebecca had talked vaguely about broad-stroke disagreements, fuzzily mentioning some unnamed persons with some unrecognizably blurred wording of disagreement, and then taken that blank-faced effigy to task? I don’t think so. It also would have been a tactic to blunt subsequent rebuttals.

The skeptics movement has a surfeit of that passive aggressive attitude right now. As exhibit #1, I’ll mention the infamous “Don’t be a dick” speech by Phil Plait, which, while representing a good goal of asking for more tolerance, was turned into a flopping issue of disagreement specifically because it was all about tone, not substance, and because Phil could not found any of his arguments in specifics, keeping everything vague, and often cartoonish.

And now, of course, Watson is getting all this heat because she was willing to stand and deliver the goods. Disagree with her all you want, but apparently, you’re not supposed to be confronted over your differences, ever. You can name Rebecca Watson as a villain, but she can’t take you to task over your characterization. When did skepticism become a one way street?