|Volume 7 Number 1||www.ntskeptics.org||January 1993|
Editor's Note: We are pleased to present this detailed review of the 1992 CSICOP conference prepared by Jim Lippard of The Phoenix Skeptics and reprinted with his kind permission.
Gender Issues in Science
The afternoon session was on "Gender Issues in Science and Pseudoscience" and was moderated by York University psychologist and CSICOP Executive Council member James Alcock. Before the session began, Lee Nisbet, the conference chairman, gave what were supposed to have been his introductory remarks before the first session. They turned out to be as appropriate for this session as they would have been for the earlier one. He spoke briefly on "The Consequences of Inquiry" how the process of discovery can destroy old ideas, giving Darwin as an example. He stated that our prior likes and dislikes should not determine what we think is true.
Alcock began by briefly describing the role of women in spiritualism (e.g., the Fox sisters, Eusapia Palladino, and the girls involved in the Cottingley fairies hoax). He asked why women were so prominent in spiritualism, why they are more likely to follow horoscopes, why they are less represented at CSICOP conferences than men.
The first panelist, social psychologist and CSICOP Fellow Carol Tavris, the author of The Mismeasure of Woman, began with a word of annoyance about the title of the conference. "There are loony feminists, but they are not the whole of feminism," she said. She went on to discuss the role of gender biases in science. "Notice how easy it is to see the bias in `feminist science,' but not in the name of normal science?" she asked, suggesting that "chauvinist science" might be appropriate for science with a masculine bias. She discussed how research on sexual selection has assumed active males and passive females, and how women entering the field have made new discoveries by neglecting that assumption. Many bird species, for example, have now been found to have promiscuous females. When the male leader of a harem of birds was vasectomized, all of the females still conceived.
Tavris next discussed studies of sex differences in humans. She described two sources of bias in current opposition theories of bias: (1) normal (chauvinist) bias, or the "women as problem" view; and (2) feminist bias, or the "women as solution" view. The first view asks questions of the form "Why aren't women as _____ as men?," filling in the blank with such words as "moral," "rational," "intelligent," "aggressive," etc. The second view says that women are different from men they're better.
To illustrate the point, she described a series of hypothetical study results from the point of view of each. With a normal bias, studies might conclude that women have lower self-esteem, are more gullible, less self-confident, or have trouble developing autonomy. With a feminist bias, the same studies with the same results might conclude that men are more conceited, too inflexible about their beliefs, overvalue their work, and so forth.
Tavris gave as a specific example of these interpretive biases an experiment with babies who could pull a cord to reveal a (Halloween?) mask. After the mask was removed, boys would continue pulling the cord longer than girls would, which a male researcher concluded showed that they show more courage, fortitude, etc. than girls. A female researcher replied, "no, girls learn faster."
Tavris also pointed out that there is a psychiatric disorder in diagnostic manuals called self-defeating personality disorder which is based on "chauvinist bias." When some female psychologists suggested adding the male converse counterpart, "delusional domineering personality disorder," they were told that "there is no rich psychiatric tradition for such a disorder."
Tavris did maintain that there is one clear difference between males and females: that men are more violent. She did, however, qualify this by stating that women have been just as active in wartime as men, "to the extent culture permits," and that they are just as likely as men to regard enemies as beasts.
She also discussed one area where women are treated as the normal sex and men are treated as deficient studies of love. For women, according to Tavris, love is the "feeling of squichiness" when the object of love is present, while for men love is behavior, doing things for the loved one. Studies of intimacy assume that what is important is the ability to talk about feelings, while ignoring behavior. This faulty assumption leads to the conclusion that men are inferior in this area.
Tavris rejected studies of biological differences between the sexes, pointing out that an article in Science arguing for sex differences in the brain cited a paper on rat brains for evidence of differently sized corpus callosi in men and women. The Science paper meanwhile cited another study of 500 fetal brains for another purpose, overlooking the fact that that study found no sex differences. Tavris stated that not only did Science refuse to publish letters pointing this out, it has refused to publish any papers which argue that there are no sex differences in the brain. Many studies, she said, are not finding the results (indicating significant sex differences) reported in headlines of periodicals such as Time, Newsweek, and Elle.
Finally, Tavris pointed out that when you look at actual behavior, gender is not a fixed category. People act in different ways in different contexts, and we do not need to attribute differences to static properties of persons. For example, people in the subordinate role in a relationship exhibit "female intuition," no matter what their sex.
CSICOP Executive Council member Susan Blackmore began her talk by asking the question, "Why are so few of us here women?" She examined and rejected a few possible explanations: (1) It's general to all of science. No, the situation is worse in CSICOP than in science in general. (2) Women are more likely to believe in the paranormal. Blackmore put up a slide with various quotes to this effect, including one from Zusne and Jones Anomalistic Psychology (1982, Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 189): believers are characterized as "female, unintelligent, misinformed, poorly educated, authoritarian, and emotionally unstable."4
She then reviewed the literature on paranormal experiences and belief, including some of her own studies. Only two studies found significant sex differences in paranormal experiences and only one study of sex differences in belief attempted to control for other factors. The latter study found no sex differences; the primary correlates of belief in the paranormal were "paranormal" experiences, belief in life after death, and practicing dream interpretation. So Blackmore rejected this explanation. (3) The kind of science that CSICOP is involved in is not attractive to women. This seemed to be Blackmore's favored explanation.
She next put up a slide contrasting features of masculine science with those of "feminine" science, according to feminist philosopher of science Sandra Harding.5 The contrasting terms were conquest/discovery, objective knowledge/subjective knowledge, control/participation, prediction/understanding, dichotomous/continuous, right-wrong/deeper understanding, fight and win/progress together. Blackmore did not come out and endorse this picture, but instead pointed out that it is itself a (false?) dichotomy.
She then shifted gears and described how, in 1982 at the 100th anniversary conference of the Society for Psychical Research, she criticized parapsychology for accomplishing nothing in a century. Parapsychology, she argued, makes no progress, does not build on past finding, has findings which disappear with better methods, does no prospective design of experiments, and has no repeatable experiments. She proposed doing psychical research without the psi hypothesis. Since asking the question "Does psi exist?" has not been successful, parapsychologists should try taking the experiences seriously and trying to understand them. Psi is only one possible explanation of these experiences.6
Blackmore discussed the Ray Hyman/Charles Honorton debate over the ganzfeld database of parapsychology experiments, Helmut Schmidt's psychokinesis studies, meta-analysis of random number generator experiments, and other recent studies in parapsychology which have had positive results, with the emphasis on Honorton's ganzfeld experiments. In response to Hyman's criticisms, Honorton developed an automated ganzfeld experiment which he repeated numerous times, reporting his results in "Psi Communication in the Ganzfeld," Journal of Parapsychology (54:2, 99-139).
Blackmore asked, "What has been the response from CSICOP? Where is the panel on meta-analysis? It's not here." She described how the Italian skeptics asked three of the best known skeptics and three of the best known parapsychologists to write about the future of parapsychology, with commentaries on all six contributions by Honorton and Blackmore. The result? The skeptics repeated the same old arguments from the past. None mentioned Honorton's 1990 paper. Two mentioned meta-analysis, only to dismiss it briefly (one rudely, according to Blackmore). In other words, the skeptics are now exhibiting the failings which she criticized the parapsychologists for in 1982.
The problem, according to Blackmore, is that the dichotomy psi or not puts enormous pressure on both sides not to change their views. The solution, according to Blackmore, is to get rid of our antipathy towards negative evidence, to stop setting ourselves up as "on one side" or another.
The third panelist, Steven Goldberg, chair of the sociology department at the City College of New York and author of the book, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, began by disagreeing sharply with Tavris. Goldberg stated that most of what she talked about was not about science per se, but about politics or social life. Bias, according to Goldberg, is only relevant when it leads to error.
Almost without exception, scientific results in studies of sex differences are statistical. "Men are taller" doesn't mean "all men are taller than all women." Heights of men and women are overlapping bell curves with close means, but to conclude that the difference is therefore not important is wrong. A small mean difference can be a big difference at the extremes. Almost everyone over 6'8" is male.
Goldberg noted (in response to Tavris) that the studies which don't find sex differences do not cancel out the studies that do. The experimenter might be using a different method and be looking at the wrong thing.
Goldberg described how he came to be involved in these issues. In 1971 he was writing a paper in which he stated that all sex differences are environmental, which he took to be common knowledge. He decided, however, to get a citation from the anthropological literature to support it, but was unable to find anything which held up under scrutiny. He found, on the contrary, that in every society males are stereotypically aggressive and females are stereotypically nurturing. You never hear a stereotype that's totally false, said Goldberg. You never hear anyone say that "those damn Jews are dominating the National Football League."
Hierarchies are dominated by males, everywhere in all societies at all times. Whatever is viewed in a society as having the highest status is more closely associated with males, whatever it happens to be. Men seek it out. Goldberg said he has offered a challenge to anyone to produce a single society that is a counterexample, but every suggested counterexample has proved not to be one when he examined the ethnography for that culture. Margaret Mead, he said, admitted that her studies do not show a reversal of sex roles, but 36 out of 38 recent sociology textbooks he has examined incorrectly represent her work as showing just that.
Social attitudes can sometimes be the crucial determinants of behavior, according to Goldberg, such as in the prevalence of premarital sex (maybe, he said). But for tendency to dominance, social attitudes are not the crucial determinant, he claimed. He appealed to hormonal sex differences that can be hormonally reversed as evidence of biological differences between the sexes. Feminists who have argued against him on this point, said Goldberg, typically refute a straw man (brain hemisphere studies) while ignoring the hormone studies.
Goldberg went on to claim that socialization cannot explain the tendency of male dominance, because it begs the question why are males socialized to be dominant, and not females? On the contrary, he argued, societies attempt to fit with the characteristics they observe in the sexes, and so, for instance, men tend to do the heavy lifting.
Goldberg concluded his talk by pointing out that he was not arguing that males should dominate, but only that they do. You can't derive what should be the case from what is the case. How things work is a scientific question, while how they should work is not.
The panelists were then given a chance to respond to each other, and Tavris stated that while there was a sense in which she agreed with virtually everything Goldberg had to say, there was another sense in which she disagreed with virtually everything he had to say. They both agreed that in all known cultures men are dominant in power hierarchies and women are the primary caretakers of children, but appeared to differ on the explanation.
Keynote Address: Viruses of the Mind
On Friday evening, after a fundraising dinner for the Center for Inquiry titled "The Price of Reason," Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins spoke on the subject of memes the cultural analog of genes. Children are programmed by evolution to absorb culture and language, but a side effect of this absorbency is a tendency to gullibility making children "easy prey to Moonies, Scientologists, and nuns." All of our genes are parasites of each other, said Dawkins, and the only differences between viral DNA and ordinary DNA is the way it's passed on.
He compared DNA and computer viruses. Both are "copy me" programs which, in order to be most effective, are not too virulent and don't wipe out everything immediately. Lethal genes for young organisms don't reproduce.
Are there any other "humming paradises of code replication?" Dawkins asked. "Minds," he answered. Information is exchanged between minds through language, body movement, etc. In human beings is a readiness to replicate ideas and a readiness to obey what has been replicated. As examples, he pointed to the fact that most people are religious and follow the religions of their parents, to crazes that sweep through schools with similar pattern to measles epidemics, and the worldwide epidemic of wearing baseball caps reversed.
"What would it feel like from the inside if one's mind were inflicted with a mental parasite, a mind virus?" Dawkins asked next. An effective mental virus in the "neurosphere," Dawkins asserted, would be good at coexisting with other viruses and disguising the fact that it had been picked up. A medical textbook diagnosis of such an infection might read that: (1) The patient is impelled by deep inner conviction that something is true, compelling, and convincing, without any evidence. (2) The patient makes virtue of beliefs not having evidence, and may even think that the less evidence, the more virtuous the belief. "Lack of evidence is a virtue" is itself a self-supporting mental virus." (3) The patient thinks that mystery is a good thing. We should enjoy mysteries, and revel in their insolubility. (As an example, Dawkins gave the Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation that wine literally becomes the blood of Christ; the appearance of wine that remains is "an accidental property that inheres in no substance." Dawkins repeated philosopher Anthony Kenny's observation that if this doctrine makes sense, then "for all I can tell, my typewriter might be Benjamin Disraeli" and referred to author Douglas Adams' "electric monk" who does your believing for you and is capable of believing "things they have trouble believing in Salt Lake City."7
Dawkins enumerated several additional symptoms, such as an eagerness to be deceived by religious leaders ("Send me your money so that I can use it to convince other suckers to send me their money, too."). He was particularly repelled by the view promulgated by some televangelists that the more difficult it is to give, the more God likes it.
He then addressed the question of whether science is itself a virus, answering it in the negative. While ideas become fashionable and spread, he refrained from using the virus analogy for all ideas because viruses are pointless they are good at spreading because they are good at spreading. Good programs, on the other hand, spread because they are good programs good at performing some function, not just at spreading. Faith, according to Dawkins, spreads despite the complete lack of any useful virtues. "Religion, Dawkins concluded, is an infectious disease of the mind."
In the question and answer session, Robert Sheaffer pointed out that religions seem to have some useful characteristics, such as working as a system to control mutual envy, give rules for behavior, and so on, and Dawkins answered that "you may be right."
4. The passage continues with "However, there are several reasons for exercising caution when interpreting these data" and offers many qualifications.
5. Harding is the author of a number of books, including Whose Science? Whose Knowledge (1991, Cornell University Press). In an August 31, 1992 message to the computer network BITNET SKEPTIC Discussion Group, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano pointed out that Harding in this book uncritically accepts bogus claims from Afrocentric pseudoscientist and "melanin scholar" Hunter H. Adams. Harding cites Adams as a reference for the claim that ancient Egyptians invented the telescope, based on alleged Russian discovery of an ancient Egyptian lens. Adams in turn cites Peter Tompkins' book, Secrets of the Great Pyramid (Harper & Row, 1971), which in turn cites Peter Kolosimo, Terra Senza Tempo, published in 1969 in Milan.
Tompkins points out in a footnote that "Several attempts to check these data with Soviet academicians have so far been without result." Ortiz de Montellano points out that Tompkins is also co-author of the 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants, about Cleve Backster's claims that plants feel pain, enjoy music, communicate with humans, and so forth.
6. Blackmore has taken her own advice, and some of the fruits of her research include non-paranormal explanations of out-of-body and near-death experiences and other "psychic" experiences. See her "Near-Death Experiences: In or Out of the Body," The Skeptical Inquirer, 16:34-45 and "Psychic Experiences: Psychic Illusions," The Skeptical Inquirer, 16:367-376.
7. See his book, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. A "holistic detective" investigates a case under the assumption that all things are connected, and therefore everything is evidence, reminiscent of Carl Hempel's raven paradox ("All ravens are black" is equivalent to "all non-black things are non-ravens," so whatever is evidence for one is evidence for the other).
In next month's issue of The Skeptic: Scientific Fraud and Crashed Saucers. Readers may contact The Arizona Skeptics at Box 62792, Phoenix, AZ 85082.
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Unlike homeopathy (discussed in the December issue), "naturopathy" is not so much a coherent medical pseudoscience but a label for an eclectic approach constrained by, as its name implies, "natural" methods, or methods that can be promoted as "natural."
But like homeopathy, naturopathy's roots also lie in the reaction by some physicians of 19th Century reaction against the bleedings and purgings of prescientific medicine. In this country, Benedict Lusk is credited as the father of naturopathy. A German physician who immigrated to the U.S. in 1892, Lusk was a believer in the therapeutic powers of water. Adherents of hydropathy, as it was known, made use of water almost as if it were a sacrament in soaks, showers, and the like. They often also advised other measures such "air baths," exercise, and dietary practices as a means to good health. Lusk opened his own water-cure facility in New York City and by 1902 was operating a school of massage, chiropractic, and naturopathy. In 1919 he founded the American Naturopathic Association.
With the coming of age of scientific medicine, and especially the introduction of effective antibiotic agents, naturopathy, as well as its other prescientific competitors, receded. But today, with the renewed interest in healthy living, the preoccupation of many with ideas about the effect of spirituality on health, and a lack of understanding and suspicion of science, naturopathy has found fertile ground for a comeback.
An N.D. (Doctor of Naturopathy) degree can be had today as a mail-order item. But there also exist two 4-year Naturopathic Schools. In an effort to earn some respectability, these institutions try to emulate to some extent the course of studies offered at reputable medical schools. These are the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, and the John Bastyr College of Naturopathic Medicine in Seattle, Washington. Eight states now permit naturopaths to practice medicine legally: Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Utah, Florida and Alaska. The last three require previous licensure in another state, however. There are said to be some 800 N.D.s doing business in the U.S. currently, a little more than half in Washington and Oregon.
Unfortunately, despite their emphasis on good health habits and preventive measures, naturopaths often are at odds with such practices. Because of their emphasis on "natural" healing methods, for example, they may oppose such public health measures as water supply fluoridation and the vaccination of children. Their knowledge of nutrition is, more often than not, nutrition pseudoscience, according to William Jarvis, Ph.D., a professor of health education at Loma Linda University and the President of the National Council Against Health Fraud.
Naturopaths denigrate the use of medication by practitioners of medical science, preferring instead to use herbal remedies of various kinds. N.D. Joe Pizzorno, president of the John Bastyr school, for example, says that strep throat is caused by a breakdown of the body's defenses since "if you do routine cultures of the population, 90% have strep in their throat, but it doesn't cause infection" (Medical Tribune, 10/13/88). He therefore treats strep throat with Vitamin C and the herb goldenseal, because berberine, an alkaloid found in the herb, is purported to kill strep. Such claims and practices are simply false, and can be exceedingly dangerous since untreated strep infections can cause heart and kidney damage. Parallel situations exist with respect to asymptomatic gonorrhea, syphilis, and even HIV (the virus which causes AIDS) infection. A naturopath would presumably be uninterested in the presence of these pathogens, whether eradicable by such simple measures as penicillin or not.
Naturopaths claim that herbal products are better because they're found in nature, whereas synthetic materials are "chemicals the body's never been exposed to before," and so are more dangerous according to Pizzorno. This assumes that every plant product on the planet was in the immediate environment of our African primate ancestors, of course. It's also a bit like saying that we should be restricting our building materials to grass, mud, and rocks since steel, glass and concrete weren't present during the course of human evolution.
William Bennett, M.D., a Cambridge, MA internist and editor of the Harvard Medical School Health Letter, puts it this way: "regarding herbs ... as somehow different from drugs strikes me as just nonsense. Either the herb has no effect, in which case why bother, or it has an effect, in which case it's a drug." Naturopaths claim that purifying a drug from a plant material makes it more toxic, which is why they prefer to use the whole herb in their treatments. Bennett says: "That's a piece of 19th Century romantic philosophy." The fact is that purification of something like digoxin from the foxglove plant makes dosages safer and more standardized. Purification also removes the therapeutically inert materials which can nonetheless have toxic effects of their own. Naturopath Pizzorno also claims that "many of the herbs have synergistic agents that work together to produce the effect you're looking for." But the fact is that no one has identified such "synergistic agents."
Despite their antipathy to drugs, naturopaths have fought for and won the right to prescribe in the states of Washington and Oregon. Some also practice obstetrics and perform minor surgery. And while they claim to be an "alternative" to high-priced conventional medicine, they have also actively pursued the right to bill insurance companies and other third-party payers for their services.
It's also difficult to see just what the significance of naturopathy's efforts to appear more mainstream really amount to in practical terms. For other than their general preference for "natural" methods, N.D.s may make use of just about any "alternative" medical approaches. These include colored light therapy, homeopathy, iridology, "zone pressure" (pressing with a finger, hand, or toe near the area of concern), acupuncture, massage therapy, and colonic irrigation (enema therapy). If the 4-year colleges teach any science, it doesn't seem to have an effect. Many naturopaths are little more than jacks of all quackeries.
In defense of naturopathy, proponents point to their frequent "success" in handling minor illnesses, infections that are less than life-threatening, and chronic medical problems for which medical science can offer no cures either. Undoubtedly, lavishing attention and "natural healing" therapies of some kind on people suffering from disorders with a psychosomatic component is likely to benefit some of them. But it's hardly an honest business to mislead people in this way, or for those interested in alleviating disease to delude themselves into believing in pseudoscience as a means of accounting for their successes.
It probably happens frequently that practitioners of medical science attribute a success to their methods of treatment that would have occurred without them. But at least the methods themselves are to a greater or lesser degree connected with a body of facts and reasoning that support them. The ideas and practices of naturopaths are not, which makes them a threat to the unwary public. This information is provided by the D/FW Council Against Health Fraud. For more information, or to report suspected health fraud, please contact the Council at Box 202577, Arlington, TX 76007, or call metro 214-263-8989. Dr. Gorski is a practicing physician, chairman of the D/FW Council Against Health Fraud and an NTS Technical Advisor.
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Gonzo skeptics Penn Jillette and Teller (P&T) have spent nearly 20 years on the road together, performing their unique brand of satirical magic and impossible stunts on Broadway, TV and in a feature film, Penn & Teller Get Killed. Their new book, Penn & Teller's How To Play With Your Food from Villard follows their first book, 1989's Penn & Teller's Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends, with several dozen tricks, stunts and stories having to do, at least in some small way, with food.
The two will go to any length to carry off a trick, and this book describes some of their most astonishing effects in fully illustrated detail. Some are quite simple and demand nothing more of the performer than an iron will (eating live ants, for instance: "Just do it," Teller writes), and some require elaborate preparation which then makes the trick nearly self-working.
Take the case of David Letterman's watch, for instance. The pair persuaded the host of NBC's Late Night show to surrender his wristwatch, which they promptly smashed to bits with a hammer. The two then led Letterman over to a table of dead fish, displayed deli-style on a table of crushed ice, where Letterman freely chose his favorite from the six specimens offered. Penn then slit the fish open, and Letterman's perfectly restored watch came spilling out of the guts of the chosen fish. The entire trick is explained and illustrated with hilarious photos of the preparations and shots from the TV broadcast.
Thankfully, most of the tricks explained in Penn & Teller's How To Play With Your Food do not require that you get yourself booked on a late-night television show. In fact, most of the effects can be done with little or no preparation during your next visit to your favorite restaurant with friends, or in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Want to rig a banana so that when your friend peels it, it's already sliced? Want to use your microwave to make the face of Satan appear on a tortilla? Want to learn to stab yourself in the eye with a fork? Want to turn a Kosher dill into a nifty night light? Want to use your hidden powers of psychokinesis to break a spoon in two while both ends are being held by your dinner companion? Want to triumphantly extract a chosen card from beneath your date's Blackened Orange Roughy? Want to tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue? Penn and Teller are only too glad to show you exactly how to do it.
For the most part, the tricks described in Penn & Teller's How To Play With Your Foodcan be found in Chapter One of any beginning book on amateur magic. What P&T bring to the table, so to speak, are the elaborate setups and suggested patters that make the simplest trick-shop gag appear to be nothing short of miraculous. Sparing no expense, the book comes complete with a "Gimmicks Envelope" containing several props that make performing the associated trick easier than getting a free drink refill at Taco Bell.
As in their live shows, P&T take pains to educate their audience that all of the effects they present, no matter how astonishing, are nothing more than "cheesy magic tricks," and do not involve any ESP, telekinesis or other psychic flim-flam. Describing one trick, Penn writes that the term "fake psychokinesis" is redundant, since no one has ever demonstrated a PK effect that wasn't shown to be a hoax. A special section at the end of the book tells readers to use the tricks to help the uncritical discover that there is no such thing as "Magic," and to make them use their brains to figure out how each trick could have been done.
One trick in particular is useful in showing the credulous how the old psychic's scam of "one-behind" envelope reading can be employed to correctly predict exactly what each of your companions will order for dinner. P&T are careful to advise the reader that after they have performed this simple but seemingly impossible trick, they give their friends a few moments to consider how it could have been performed without any need for psychic powers. Implore them to buy the book, Penn says, but at a minimum, let them know that what they have seen is just a trick and nothing more.
James "The Amazing" Randi makes a cameo appearance in the section of the book devoted to dining utensil deformation. P&T detail the spoon-bending trick made famous by ex-stage magician Uri Geller, then show how to pull off a much more astonishing effect. Randi performed this spook-breaking demonstration live for Paula Zahn on CBS's This Morning show, in which a perfectly good spoon is "melted" into two halves while being held by the mark, er..., subject.
P&T give prominent credit to Randi, without whom they say "there wouldn't be a Penn and Teller." Close-up magic innovator Jamy Swiss is also credited by the duo as one of the luminaries of clever tricksterism, while an equal measure of scorn is reserved for "big magic" pretty boys David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy.
Skeptics everywhere who are not trained in magic can use the simple tricks in Penn & Teller's How To Play With Your Food to help illuminate their less critical friends. Clever trickery can entertain and amaze when performed as a trick, or deceive and defraud when presented as the result of special powers. The former is fun and interesting, P&T conclude, the latter is evil.
Penn & Teller's How To Play With Your Food from Villard Books is $20 at bookstores everywhere.
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In the world of politics, I predicted that Washington would not provide national health insurance, nor any other major national health care programs in 1992. I predicted that despite sincere pledges from both parties to keep the campaign high-minded, it would degenerate into a "mud-slinging free-for-all" of misleading, attack-style TV ads (I sure nailed that one). I predicted that the Democratic candidate would be accused of personal misconduct and economic incompetence (Gennifer Flowers, Arkansas tax increases), while the Republican would be accused of racism and a lack of compassion (the L.A. riots, Hurricane Andrew relief). I did predict that Bush would win in a squeaker, but overall, I'd say that's the only thing I got wrong. And if you changed just 3,800 popular votes in various states, Bush could have won the Electoral College ... so you can hardly blame me for missing that one. Could any psychic have foreseen how hard Bush would work to lose this election?
Internationally, my predictions included ethnic violence and food riots in the former Soviet republics, and stalled peace efforts between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I missed my prediction that Japan would buy land from Russia, tow it to Tokyo on barges, and build golf courses on it. But I wasn't serious about that one anyway; I was just trying to get attention and sell some magazines. So sue me.
And from the world of showbiz: I predicted that Oliver Stone would make a movie about some subject connected to the Vietnam War. Although it has not yet been released, Stone has spent much of 1992 shooting an epic about the life of a Vietnamese woman during that very war. I predicted that violence would mar a concert by a big name rap group (take your pick). I predicted that Liz Taylor would get divorced again (admittedly a miss, but then I didn't count on Liz slowing down so much in her autumn years and hanging onto the same husband for more than twelve consecutive months). Finally, I predicted that Madonna would display her breasts in public somewhere. This prediction came SO spectacularly true that I feel it completely sweeps away any misses I might have had in any other category.
Professional psychics always take any predictions that come true and trumpet them as proof of their powers, while conveniently burying all the guesses that were incorrect. I have admitted to my incorrect guesses, and still got more than half my predictions right. Therefore, I have decided to stop being a sucker by giving my predictions away free in this column. From now on, if anyone wishes me to tell him what the future holds, it will cost $50 per sitting. Cash and major credit cards only.
Sorry, no checks. A psychic never knows who he can trust these days.
Skeptics who have read James Randi's excellent book The Faith Healers will appreciate the detailed exposé the movie provides of the methods used to separate believers from their money. We see demonstrations of cold readings, audience shills who help stir up the crowd, the offering of free wheelchairs to elderly people who can walk (so they can later be pulled out of those wheelchairs as proof of a "miracle healing") and more.
We even see the evangelist's ushers eavesdropping on the crowd before the revival, then passing notes to his accomplice (Debra Winger), who relays them to Jonas by way of a tiny radio transmitter in his ear. This enables Jonas to pick people out of the crowd and tell them that God has revealed their problems to him. Readers of Randi's book will recognize this as the system used by Peter Popoff and exposed by Randi on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Kudos to master card manipulator Ricky Jay, who is listed as "con game consultant" in the film's credits, for giving us such an accurate glimpse behind the scenes of one of America's most successful scams.
Robert Tilton reportedly dropped by the set during filming to "say hello," and some speculated that perhaps he was checking to see if they were planning to put anything in the film about him. There are no specific references to Tilton, but those overproduced sermons certainly sound familiar ... and there is a reference to visiting Dallas, where "we can earn seven figures in a week!" This shows how well the filmmakers researched their subject.
The film is also notable on other levels, including a superb performance by Steve Martin, and those who hold religious beliefs will be intrigued by the central theme: what happens to a con man who sees religious faith as a weakness to be exploited when he is confronted by a genuinely strong religious faith ... and perhaps even a genuine miracle? How does a phony preacher react to a sign that perhaps God is real ... and therefore may be watching him?
Leap Of Faith has received criticism for its ambiguous ending. True, nothing is neatly tied up, but there is more to think about and talk about in this film than in any dozen of the typical products of Hollywood. Maybe the point is that you have to decide the ending yourself, when you discuss it with your friends after watching it. I could think of worse ways to spend an evening.
On December 21, a front page article in The Dallas Morning News informed us that Wesley Nunley, 73, has fulfilled a longtime dream by building a UFO landing pad in his sand and gravel quarry in Pleasant Grove, Texas. The 100-foot wide concrete slab cost Nunley $10,000 to build and is stenciled with the greeting, "UFO Landing Base 1 Welcome Lord Jesus!" And you thought YOU had a lot of strange drop-in visitors over the holidays! He may not be as crazy as you think, since he stands to earn a considerable profit renting it out as a campsite for MUFON members.
Finally, the New York Daily News brings us info on one of Manhattan's fastest growing singles magazines, the Conscious Singles Connection. It's a bi-weekly publication, filled with personal ads for single New Age adherents searching for same of opposite sex. Here are two examples ...
"John (M 558): Metaphysical experimenter and nice guy needs assistant/collaborator/co-conspirator in navigating the space-time continuum. Experience helpful. Sense of humor a must. Extraterrestrials welcomed." Could "John" be a pseudonym for "James T. Kirk?"
"Diane (F 621): Transformational psychologist, organizational consultant, and founder of peacetime business development organization, highly attractive, intelligent, flexible and centered, seeks attractive man of integrated energies. Must be intelligent, wise, warm, energetic, caring, grounded, spiritual warrior of peace."
Too bad Norman Schwartzkopf is already married.
Many of the folks who place these ads fancy themselves to be psychics, and are seeking same. This gives rise to several questions, such as: If you are both psychic, why do you need to run personal ads to find each other? If you think that the people who are reading your ad are psychic, then what is the point of trying to hide behind a code number instead of giving your real name? Why isn't this magazine called the SEMI-Conscious Singles Connection?
And finally, is it really a good idea to encourage these people to breed?
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