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sci.skeptic FAQ: The Frequently Questioned Answers

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Archive-name: skeptic-faq
Last-modified: 96/04/21
Version: @(#)skeptic-faq.text 1.27

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
          The Frequently Questioned Answers


This is the sci.skeptic FAQ.  It is intended to provide a factual base
for most of the commonly discussed topics on sci.skeptic.
Unfortunately I don't have much time to do this in, and anyway a FAQ
should be the Distilled Wisdom of the Net rather than just My Arrogant
Opinion, so I invite submissions and let all the net experts out there
fill in the details.  Submissions from any point of view and on any
sci.skeptic topic are welcomed, but please keep them short and to the
point.  The ideal submission is a short summary with one or two
references to other literature.  I have added comments in square
brackets where I think more information is particularly needed, but
don't let that stop you sending something else.

If you are reading this with a newsreader and want to follow up on
something, please copy the question to the subject line.  This is more
informative than a reference to the entire FAQ.

This is in no way an "official" FAQ.  I am a computer scientist by
profession and deeply skeptical of paranormal claims (although I may
include some pro-paranormal arguments here).  If anyone else with a
less skeptical point of view wants to start a FAQ list, please feel
free.  I certainly can't stop you.

How to Get It

This FAQ is posted once per month on the Usenet groups sci.skeptic and
news.answers.  Look for it around the 20th of the month.

Many FAQs, including this one, are available on the archive site in the directory pub/usenet/news.answers.  The name under
which a FAQ is archived appears in the Archive-name line at the top of
the article.  This FAQ is archived as skeptic-faq.

Various people have placed copies of this FAQ on their web servers, or 
on CD-ROMS or other places.  These copies may not be up to date.  Please
check the date at the top of this document to see when it was last
updated.  Something gets changed most months.  If you send a correction,
please make sure you are referring to the latest version, or at least
quote the version number in your message.

I AM NOT A MAILSERVER.  Requests to email the FAQ will be silently

Suggestions and Updates

I am always happy to accept corrections to this FAQ.

In general it is not very useful to criticise areas of the FAQ as "not
explaining it properly".  If you want to see something changed then
please write a submission which explains it better.  Grammar and
spelling corrections are always welcome though.

If you send me information related to the FAQ, please say whether I
can use your words in the next edition.  I have to be careful about
this, lest I be accused of publishing private email.


This document is Copyright 1993 Paul Johnson.  Permission is granted
to you the reader to copy this document onto any medium, including but
not limited to paper, electronic storage systems, CD-ROM and microfilm.

Seeking Information

Please send in contact addresses for local and national skeptics
organisations not listed in section 0.11.

I'm still looking for someone to tell me about gyroscopes and the
angular momentum of the Earth.

I'd like to start up a section of references to other on-line
information, skeptical and otherwise.  If you know of publicly
accessible collections then please let me know.

Does anyone have firm information about "Area 51", and what is supposed
to be going on there?


Thanks to all the people who have sent me submissions and comments.
There isn't enough room to thank everyone individually, but some of
the more major contributors are listed here:

York H. Dobyns <ydobyns@phoenix.Princeton.EDU> provided carbon 14
dating information, notes about current psi researchers and other
useful comments.

Dendrochronology information came from <>.

The questions "What are UFOs?" and "Are crop circles made by flying
saucers?" were answered by Chris Rutkowski <>

Ken Shirriff <shirriff@sprite.Berkeley.EDU> provided information on
perpetual motion machines, Leidenfrost reference and the AIDS section.

Robert Sheaffer <> sent information about Philip
Klass and UFO abductions.

The Ezekiel information comes from a posting by John Baskette

John Boyd <> provided skeptical references on acupuncture.

Eric Raymond <> contributed information on
acupuncture, the origin of life, and the CIA AIDS theory.

Kirlian photography information was paraphrased from an article by
Dave Palmer <>.

Cold reading information came from an article by Pope Charles

Todd Stark <> sent information on acupuncture
analgesia, and provided section 10.1: "What is False Memory Syndrome".

Geoff Lane <> provided
the article and references on Tunguska.

The skeptic organisation list came from Holger Stegemann

Roger Nelson <> provided section 0.7:
"Is there any scientific psi research?".

Information and references on 250 million year old footprints comes from
a posting by Darby South of Baton Rouge, LA.


A `*' indicates a new or rewritten entry.  A `+' indicates an altered

0.1: What is sci.skeptic for?
0.2: What is sci.skeptic not for?
0.3: What is CSICOP?  What's their address?
0.4: What is "Prometheus"?
0.5: Who are some prominent skeptics?
0.6: Aren't all skeptics just closed-minded bigots?
0.6.1: Why are skeptics so keen to rubbish fringe ideas?
0.6.2: How do we know Randi is honest?
0.6.3: Why don't skeptics challenge religions?
0.6.4: How can I persuade the other side?
0.7: Is there any scientific psi research?
0.8: What is a "conspiracy theory"?
0.9: What is "cold reading?"
0.10: Is there a list of logical fallacies?
0.11: What national and local skeptics organisations are there?
0.12: Where can I get books on paranormal phenomena?
0.13: Where can I find skeptical information on-line?
0.14: Where can I find paranormal information on-line?

The Scientific Method

1.1: What is the scientific method?
1.2: What is the difference between a fact, a theory and a hypothesis?
1.3: Can science ever really prove anything?
1.4: If scientific theories keep changing, where is the Truth?
1.5: "Extraordinary evidence is needed for an extraordinary claim."
1.6: What is Occam's Razor?
1.7: Galileo was persecuted, just like researchers into <X> today.
1.8: What is the "Experimenter effect".
1.9: How much fraud is there in science?
1.9.1: Did Mendel fudge his results?
1.10: Are scientists wearing blinkers?

Psychic Powers

2.1: Is Uri Geller for real? +
2.2: I have had a psychic experience.
2.3: What is "sensory leakage"?
2.4: Who are the main psi researchers?
2.5: Does dowsing work?
2.6: Could psi be inhibited by the presence of skeptics?
2.7: Why don't the skeptics test the *real* psychics?
2.8: What is the ganzfeld?

UFOs/Flying Saucers
3.1  What are UFOs?
3.1.1: Are UFOs alien spacecraft?
3.1.2: Are UFOs natural phenomena?
3.1.3: But isn't it possible that aliens are visiting Earth?
3.2: Is it true that the US government has a crashed flying saucer?
3.3: What is "channeling"?
3.4: How can we test a channeller? +
3.5: I am in telepathic contact with the aliens.
3.6: Some bozo has just posted a load of "teachings" from a UFO.  What
     should I do?
3.7: Are crop circles made by flying saucers?
3.7.1: Are crop circles made by "vortices"?
3.7.2: Are crop circles made by hoaxers?
3.7.3: Are crop circles radioactive?
3.7.4: What about cellular changes in plants within crop circles?
3.8: Have people been abducted by UFOs?
3.9: What is causing the strange cattle deaths?
3.10: What is the face on Mars?
3.11: Did Ezekiel See a Flying Saucer?
3.12: What happened at Tunguska?
3.13: How did the Dogon know about Sirius?

Faith Healing and Alternative Therapies

4.1: Isn't western medicine reductionistic and alternatives holistic?
4.2: What is a double-blind trial?  What is a placebo?
4.3: Why should scientific criteria apply to alternative therapies?
4.4: What is homeopathy?
4.5: What is aromatherapy?
4.6: What is reflexology?
4.7: Does acupuncture work?
4.8: What about psychic surgery?
4.9: What is Crystal Healing?
4.10: Does religious healing work?
4.11: What harm does it do anyway?

Creation versus Evolution

5.1: Is the Bible evidence of anything?
5.2: Could the Universe have been created old?
5.3: What about Carbon-14 dating?
5.4: What is "dendrochronology"?
5.5: What is evolution?  Where do I find out more?
5.6: "The second law of thermodynamics says...."
5.7: How could living organisms arise "by chance"?
5.8: But doesn't the human body seem to be well designed?
5.9: What about the thousands of scientists who have become Creationists?
5.10: Is the speed of light decreasing?
5.11: What about Velikovsky?
5.12: Are there human footprints from 250 million years ago?


6.1: Is fire-walking possible?
6.2: Can science explain fire-walking?

New Age

7.1: What do New Agers believe?
7.2: What is the Gaia hypothesis?
7.3: Was Nostradamus a prophet?
7.4: Does astrology work?
7.4.1: Could astrology work by gravity?
7.4.2: What is the `Mars Effect'?
7.4.3: But couldn't there be some undiscovered connection between
       people and planets?
7.5: What is Kirlian photography?

Strange Machines: Free Energy and Anti-Gravity

8.1: Why don't electrical perpetul motion machines work?
8.2: Why don't magnetic perpetual motion machines work?
8.3: Why don't mechanical perpetual motion machines work?
8.4: Magnets can levitate.  Where is the energy from?
8.5: But its been patented!
8.6: The oil companies are conspiring to suppress my invention!
8.7: My machine gets its free energy from <X>
8.8: Can gyroscopes neutralise gravity?
8.9: My prototype gets lighter when I turn it on.
8.10: Can magnets improve fuel efficiency or descale pipes?


9.1: What about these theories on AIDS?
9.1.1: The Mainstream Theory
9.1.2: Strecker's CIA Theory
9.1.3: Duesberg's Risk-Group Theory
9.2: What About the Sailor with AIDS in 1959?

You Must Remember This

10.1: What is "False Memory Syndrome"?
10.2: How Can I Contact the False Memory Syndrome Foundation?



0.1: What is sci.skeptic for?

Sci.skeptic is for those who are skeptical about claims of the
paranormal to meet with those who believe in the paranormal.  In this
way the paranormalists can expose their ideas to scientific scrutiny,
and if there is anything in these ideas then the skeptics might learn

However this is a very wide area, and some of the topics covered might
be better kept in their own newsgroups.  In particular the evolution
vs. creation debate is best kept in  General New Age
discussions belong in talk.religion.newage.  Strange "Heard it on the
grapevine" stories belong on alt.folklore.urban, which discusses such
things as vanishing hitchhikers and the Everlasting Lightbulb
conspiracy.  Serious conspiracy theories should be kept on
alt.conspiracy, and theories about the assassination of President
Kennedy should be kept on alt.conspiracy.jfk.  CROSS-POSTING from
these groups is NOT APPRECIATED by the majority of sci.skeptic

The discussion of a topic in this FAQ is not an attempt to have the
final word on the subject.  It is simply intended to answer a few
common questions and provide a basis for discussion of common topics.

Conversely, the omission of a topic from this FAQ does not indicate
that the topic is not suitable for sci.skeptic.  It just means that it
has not been discussed recently.  If you want to start a thread on it
then go ahead.

0.2: What is sci.skeptic not for?

The scope of sci.skeptic extends into any area where hard evidence can
be obtained, but does not extend into speculation.  So religious
arguments about the existence of God are out of place here (take them
to talk.atheism or talk.religion.*).  On the other hand discussion
about miracles is to be welcomed, since this is an issue where
evidence can be obtained.

Topics that have their own groups should be taken to the appropriate
group.  See the previous answer for a partial list.

Also out of place are channelled messages from aliens.  If your
channelled message contains testable facts then post those.  Otherwise
we are simply not interested.  Take it to alt.alien.visitors.

The posting of large articles (>200 lines) is not a way to persuade
people.  See the section on "closed minded skeptics" below for some
reasons for this.  I suggest you summarise the article and offer to
mail copies to anyone who is interested.

Sci.skeptic is not an abuse group.  There is a regrettable tendency
for polite discussion here to degenerate into ad-hominem flames about
who said what to whom and what they meant.  PLEASE DO NOT FLAME.  You
won't convince anyone.  Rather the opposite.

0.3: What is CSICOP?  What's their address?

CSICOP stands for the "Committee for the Scientific Investigation of
Claims Of the Paranormal".  They publish a quarterly magazine called
"The Skeptical Inquirer".  Their address is:

    Skeptical Inquirer,
    Box 703,
    Buffalo, NY 14226-9973.

Tel. 716-636-1425 voice, 716-636-1733 fax.
Email: (for information requests to CSICOP) (to send a letter to the editor
                           of _Skeptical Inquirer_ magazine)

Note that this is a new address.

Europeans should contact:

   Mike Hutchinson,
   10 Crescent View,
   Loughton, Essex IG10 4PZ

   Telephone:  +44 81 508 2989

CSICOP should not be confused with the Skeptics Society (2761
N. Marengo Ave.  Altadena, CA 91001).  They are separate
organisations, although there is some overlap with CSICOP.  The
Skeptics Society publishes _Skeptic_ four times a year, and it's
currently up to almost 100 pages/issue, full-size magazine format.
Circulation is up to around 8000, and climbing rapidly.  (It far
outsells _Skeptical Inquirer_ on the newsstands, but has a much
smaller base of subscribers.)

0.4: What is "Prometheus"?

Prometheus Books is a publisher specialising in skeptical books.
Their address is:

    Prometheus Books
    59 John Glenn Drive,
    Buffalo, NY 14215-9918

    Phone (800)-421-0351.
    Fax   (716)-691-0137.
    URL:  http://www/

Mike Hutchinson is also the European agent for Prometheus.  See 0.3
for contact details.

0.5: Who are some prominent skeptics?

James "The Amazing" Randi is a professional stage magician who spends
much time and money debunking paranormal claims.  He used to offer a
reward of $10,000 (briefly augmented to $100,000 by a TV company some
years ago) to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal powers under
controlled conditions.  Unfortunately he has had to exhaust that fund
to pay legal expenses in the series of lawsuits that have been brought
against him since 1988.  Anyone who wants to contribute to his defense
can do so via:

    The Randi Fund
    3555 West Reno Street
    Suite L
    Las Vegas, NV  89118
Checks should be made payable to The Randi Fund.

The lawsuit by Geller against Randi has now finished.  Geller was
ordered to pay costs of $150,000.  However he has not yet done so,
and Randi is still in debt for his legal costs.  There is a
mailing list for updates on the situation, which originates from the
account <>.  To subscribe, you should send mail
to <>.]  James Randi can also be
reached directly at <>, and has a Web page
at <>.

Martin Gardner is an author, mathematician and amateur stage magician
who has written several books dealing with paranormal phenomena,
including "Science: Good, Bad and Bogus" and "Fads and Fallacies in
the Name of Science".

Philip J.  Klass retired after thirty-five years as a Senior Editor of
"Aviation Week and Space Technology" magazine, specializing in
avionics. He is a founding fellow of CSICOP, and was named a Fellow of
the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). He has
won numerous awards for his technical journalism. His principal books

   UFO Abductions, A Dangerous Game   (Prometheus, 1988)

   UFOs, The Public Deceived  (Prometheus, 1983)

   UFOs Explained  (Random House, 1974)

Susan Blackmore holds a Ph.D in parapsychology, but in the course of her
Ph.D research she became increasingly disillusioned and is now highly
skeptical of paranormal claims.

Ray Hyman is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.
He is one of the major external, skeptical critics of parapsychology.
In 1986, he and parapsychologist Charles Honorton engaged in a
detailed exchange about Honorton's ganzfeld experiments and
statistical analysis of his results which was published in the Journal
of Parapsychology.  A collection of Hyman's work may be found in his
book The Elusive Quarry: A Scientific Appraisal of Psychical Research,
1989, Prometheus.  This includes "Proper Criticism", an influential
piece on how skeptics should engage in criticism, and "'Cold Reading':
How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them."

James Alcock is a professor of psychology at York University in
Toronto.  He is the author of the books Parapsychology: Science
or Magic?, 1981, Pergamon, and Science and Supernature: A Critical
Appraisal of Parapsychology, 1990, Prometheus.

Joe Nickell is a former private investigator, a magician, and
an English instructor at the University of Kentucky.  He is the
author of numerous books on paranormal subjects, including Inquest
on the Shroud of Turin, 1982, Prometheus.  He specializes in
investigating individual cases in great detail, but has recently
done some more general work, critiquing crop circles, spontaneous
human combustion, and psychic detectives.

Isaac Asimov wrote a great deal on skeptical issues.  He had a regular
column in _Fantasy and Science Fiction_, and collections of essays
from it have been published.  Some of these essays are on assorted
crackpottery, like UFO's, Velikovsky, creationism, and so forth. They
have titles like "Worlds in Confusion" (Velikovsky), "Look Long upon a
Monkey" (creationism), "Armies of the Night" (crackpottery in
general), "The Rocketing Dutchmen" (UFO's), and so forth.; these are
usually on a rather general sort of level.

Marcello Truzzi was one of the founders of CSICOP, but broke away from
the organisation when it became too "dry" for him (see section 0.6.1 on
wet vs. dry skeptics).  He now publishes the "Zetetic Scholar" on an
occasional basis.  He can be contacted at the Dept. of Sociology,
Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197, or at P.O. Box 1052,
Ann Arbor, MI 48106. [Does anyone know if this address is still good?

0.6: Aren't all skeptics just closed-minded bigots?

People who have failed to convince skeptics often say "Well all
skeptics are just closed-minded bigots who won't listen to me!".  This
is not true.  Skeptics pay close attention to the evidence.  If you
have no evidence then you will get nowhere.

Unfortunately life is short.  Most of us have better things to do than
investigate yet another bogus claim.  Some paranormal topics,
especially psi research and UFOlogy, produce vast quantities of low
grade evidence.  In the past people have investigated such evidence
carefully, but it always seems to evaporate when anyone looks at it
closely.  Hence skeptics should be forgiven for not bothering to
investigate yet another piece of low grade evidence before rejecting

Isaac Asimov has suggested a triage process which divides scientific
claims into three groups: mundane, unusual and bullshit [my terms].
As an example, a claim that "I have 10kg of salt in my lab" is pretty
mundane.  No-one would disbelieve me, but they wouldn't be very
interested.  A claim that "I have 10kg of gold in my lab" would
probably result in mild disbelief and requests to have a look.
Finally a claim that "I have 10kg of Einsteinium in my lab" would be
greeted with cries of "Bullshit!".

Of course there are some who substitute flaming and rhetoric for
logical argument.  We all lose our temper sometimes.

0.6.1: Why are skeptics so keen to rubbish fringe ideas?

Skeptics vary on the attitude they take towards a new fringe idea,
varying from the "wet" to the "dry".  The question of which attitude
is better is very much a live issue in the skeptical community.  Here
is a brief summary of the two extremes:

DRY: There is no reason to treat these people seriously.  Anyone with
     half an ounce of sense can see that their ideas are completely
     bogus.  Time spent trying to "understand their ideas" and
     "examine their evidence" beyond that necessary for debunking is
     wasted time, and life is short.  Furthermore, such behaviour
     lends them respectability.  If we take them seriously, so will
     other people.  We must ridicule their ideas so that others will
     see how silly they are.  "One belly laugh is worth a thousand
     syllogisms" (H.L. Mencken, quoted by Martin Gardner).
WET: If we lay into these people without giving them a fair hearing
     then we run two risks:
     1: We might miss someone who is actually right.  History contains
        many examples.
     2: We give them a weapon against us.  Ad-hominem attacks and
        sloppy logic bring us down to their level.  If we are truly
        the rational, scientific people we claim to be then we should
        ask for their evidence, and then pronounce our considered
        opinion of it.

The two extremes are perhaps personified by Martin Gardner (dry) and
Marcello Truzzi (wet).  Note that no particular judgement is attached
to these terms.  They are just handy labels.

People who read articles by dry skeptics often get the impression that
skeptics are as pig-headed as any fundamentalist or stage psychic.  I
think that this is a valid criticism of some skeptics on the dry end.
However, an article which ridicules fringe beliefs may also contain
sound logic based on careful investigation.  As always, you have to
read carefully, distinguish logic from rhetoric, and then make a

0.6.2: How do we know Randi is honest?

Randi has offered a large prize to anyone who can demonstrate
paranormal powers under controlled conditions.  He also has a lot of
professional prestige tied up in his self-appointed role of psychic
debunker.  This leads to allegations that if he ever did find a
genuine psychic then he would lie rather than lose so much money and

When Randi tests psychic claims, he is always very careful to agree
with the claimant before the test exactly what the conditions will be.
The test will proceed only if both he and the claimant agree that this
will be a fair test of the claim.  The conditions usually involve
video tapes and independent witnesses specifically to rule out
cheating by either side.

On one occasion Randi did agree that the claimed ability existed.
Arthur G. Lintgen claimed an ability to identify LP records without
labels.  Randi tested him on behalf of Time magazine, and found that 
Lintgen could in fact do this by reading the patterns of loud and
quiet in the groove.  Lintgen did not get Randi's reward because he 
had not demonstrated (or claimed) any paranormal ability.

0.6.3: Why don't skeptics debunk religions?

Skeptics aim to debunk false claims and silly theories by using the
*evidence*.  The question of whether God exists is not one for which
evidence is available, and so skeptics tend to treat it as a private
matter.  When someone claims to have evidence (such as a miraculous
healing) then skeptics are as ready to test this claim as they are any

Most skeptics agree that it is perfectly possible to be a skeptic
about paranormal claims but still honestly believe in God.  Martin
Gardner is a "dry" skeptic and one of the founders of CSICOP.  He also
believes in a personal god and describes himself as a "philosophical

Most skeptics tend to take an "agnostic-atheist" attitude, assuming
that God does not exist until evidence to the contrary turns up.

If you are interested in organisations that oppose religion in general
then see the talk.atheism FAQ "Atheist Resources" for a list of atheist
and humanist organisations.

0.6.4: How can I persuade the other side?

This isn't a FAQ, but it should be!  Originally this question referred
only to persuading skeptics, but of course the paranormalists are not
the only ones who need to learn how to argue.

* Be prepared to offer evidence.  Ideally evidence consists of an
  experiment I can reasonably do myself.  Failing that, list articles
  in peer-reviewed journals.

* Make predictions.  These predictions should be specific and
  surprising.  For example a prediction that "crime will cause
  concern" is not specific (it does not say who is going to be
  concerned about what aspect of crime when) and it is not surprising
  (someone, somewhere is going to be concerned about it).  On the
  other hand a prediction that "The British House of Commons will hold
  an Emergency Debate on Juvenile Crime next month" is both specific
  (it specifies an event which either will or will not happen) and
  surprising (emergency debates on this subject don't happen every

* Be prepared to look at the evidence presented by the other side.  On
  the other hand, if you claim as your evidence a paper that came out
  in some obscure journal in 1903, don't be too surprised if no-one
  goes to the expense of digging it out just to debunk it for you.

* Don't try argument by assertion.  A statement such as "The evidence
  for psi is overwhelming" will generate lots of queries asking where
  this evidence may be found.  Conversely the "extraordinary claims
  require extraordinary evidence" line should only be used when
  someone tries to shift the burden of proof.

* Don't try argument by authority unless the authority you are citing
  is generally acknowledged as an expert on the subject.  I might cite
  C.S. Lewis in a debate on the nature of Christianity.  I would not
  cite him on the age of the Universe because he is not an authority
  on that.

For more on how to construct a logical argument, see the
and talk.atheism FAQs, both of which have extensive sections on this

0.7: Is there any scientific psi research? 

[Contributed by Roger Nelson of PEAR]

In short, yes.  According to a recent National Research Council report,
there is a 130 year history of scientific research, albeit with no clear
conclusion that the classical psi effects, telepathy, clairvoyance,
psychokinesis, precognition, have been demonstrated.  Most knowledgeable
scholars would date the advent of controlled research later, to the early
1930's when J. B. Rhine began his work with McDougall in Duke University's 
psychology department.  Rhine's work has been much criticized, and is
widely discounted, but inappropriately for the most part.  

In any case, later workers built on these foundations of experimental
design and statistical analysis, and there has been a cumulative
increase in scientific rigor and sophistication.  Most of current psi
research is conducted by a small number of investigators in
universities and established institutes, and reports are presented at
conventions of professional organizations such as the
Parapsychological Association, and the Society for Scientific
Exploration, and published in professional journals of these groups
or, occasionally, in mainstream journals in physics, psychology, and
statistics.  Professionals familiar with the literature, including
recent meta-analyses, find persuasive evidence for small, replicable
anomalous effects correlated with human consciousness and intention.

There are currently perhaps a dozen active research laboratories,
worldwide, and on the order of 50 to 100 researchers actually doing
experiments.  It is a fact that their work is not well known to the
general public including most of the sci.skeptic readership.  Thus,
the frequently negative, and sometimes disdainful commentary on psi
research from "skeptics" tends to be ill-informed, or refers to
something other than scientific research.  Language usage is part of
the problem, as the terms psychic research, parapsychology, esp,
telepathy, etc., have been usurped by non-scientists and media people.
With suitable modifiers, the term anomalous is often used to describe
the subject of investigation in modern research, partly to avoid the
implied mechanisms and relationships attached to the older terms.

Much of current experimental psi research is not only scientific, but
adheres to more rigorous standards than are found in much contemporary
work in the social and physical sciences, largely because the
investigators understand the technical difficulties as well as the
implications of positive findings for our general scientific models.
It should be noted that constructive criticism from skeptics has made
important contributions to research quality.

0.8: What is a Conspiracy Theory?

There are two general categories of conspiracy theory: Grand and

A Grand conspiracy theory is a belief that there is a large-scale
conspiracy by those in power to mislead and/or control the rest of the
world.  Consider the following example:

    There is a conspiracy amongst the computer programmers to
    control the world.  They are only allowing the public to have
    simple machines, while they control the really powerful ones.
    There is a computer in <city> they call "The Beast".  It has
    records about everyone.  They use this information to
    manipulate the politicians and businessmen who ostensibly rule
    the world into doing their will.  The Beast was prophesied in
    the Book of Revelation.

Grand conspiracy theories divide the world into three groups.  The
Conspirators, the Investigators, and the Dupes.  Conspirators have a
vast secret.  The Investigators have revealed parts of the conspiracy,
but much is still secret.  Investigators are always in great danger of
being silenced by Conspirators.  Dupes are just the rest of us.  Often
the Conspirators show a mixture of incredible subtlety and stunning

Evidence produced by the Investigators is always either circumstantial
or evaporates when looked at carefully.  The theories can never be
disproved, since any evidence to the contrary can be dismissed as
having been planted by the Conspirators.  If you spend any time or
effort digging into the evidence produced by Investigators then you
will be labelled a Conspirator yourself.  Of course, nothing a
Conspirator says can be believed.

Petty conspiracy theories are smaller than the Grand variety, and
sometimes turn out to be true.  Watergate and "Arms for Hostages"
episodes both started life as Petty conspiracy theories.  Just because
a theory involves a conspiracy does not make that theory false.  The
main difference between Grand and Petty Conspiracy Theories is the
number of alleged conspirators.  Grand Conspiracy Theories require
thousands or even millions.

People sometimes use the word "conspiracy" about their opponents
without really thinking about what they are suggesting.  If you find
yourself tempted to refer to the "X conspiracy" where X is merely a
group of people who disagree with you, then pick another word.
Otherwise you will be asked for evidence that this conspiracy actually

[Since this FAQ was first posted I have heard that the Beast computer
is in Holland and that you can be saved by converting to a particular
cult.  In addition the cult claims that every product bar code
includes three 6 digits as frame markers, hence 666, the number of the
beast.  In fact this is not true, and even if it were it would not
fulfill the prophecy in Revelation.  Meanwhile the cult members were
*meant* to rise up to heaven on 29/10/92 but very embarrassingly
didn't. The Korean founder was also discovered to have bought millions
of $ worth of stocks and bonds which didn't mature until 1995, and was
convicted of fraud.]

0.9: What is "cold reading"?

[From a posting by Pope Charles <>]

Cold reading is the technique of saying little general things and
watching a persons reactions.  As one goes from very general to more
specific things, one notes the reaction and uses it as a guide to find
out what to say.  Also there are stock phrases that sound like
statements but are really questions.  If these subtle questions evoke
answers, these answers are used as a basis for the next round of

Many people get involved in various things like this because of their
interest in the usual things, health, love, sex, etc.  One can
develop a set of stock questions and statements that will elicit
positive responses from 90% of your 'clients'.

In the hands of an expert, these simple techniques can be frightening
almost.  But they are simple things.  Of course a paintbrush and a
canvass are simple things too.  It all depends on skill and talent for
these things.

One can learn these things coldbloodedly knowing them as the tricks
they are, or as probably most use them, learned at the feet of other
practitioners as it were by rote, and developed by practice and
adapted to the tastes of the reader and his or her sitters.  As
skeptics have pointed out, it is the best cold readers that make the
best Tarot Readers, Astrologers, Palm Readers, or what have you.

If your library is lucky enough to have it, Check The Zetetic, (later
renamed Skeptical Inquirer), Vol. 1, #2 Summer 1977 "Cold Reading: How
to convince strangers you know all about them" by Ray Hyman.  This was
later republished in _The Elusive Quarry_, which should be quite a bit
easier to find.

These techniques are not confined to the occult world by any means.
Religious workers, salesmen and the like use the principles to build
rapport with people.

0.10: Is there a list of logical fallacies?

A complete list of formal and informal logical fallacies is posted by
Mathew <> as part of his excellent talk.atheism FAQ
file series.  This should be read carefully by anyone wishing to
construct a logical argument to support their position on any group.

For those who want more information, "The Book of the Fallacy" by
Madsen Pirie covers the same ground in more detail.

Formal and informal statistical fallacies are dealt with in the book
"How To Lie With Statistics" by Darrell Huff.  I strongly recommend
this one.

0.11: What national and local skeptics organisations are there?

The following addresses are not guaranteed correct.  Please check the
addresses you know, and send in any updates and corrections.

Argentina: CAIRP, Director, Ladislao Enrique Maiquez, Jose Marti, 35
       dep C, 1406 Buenos Aires.  Email

Australia: Australian Skeptics Inc., P.O.Box E324, St. James NSW 2000,

Belgium: Committee Para, J. Dommanget, Observatoire Royal de Belgique,
     Avenue Circulaire 3, B-1180 Brussels

         SKEPP, W. Betz, Laarbeklaan 105, B-1090 Brussels

Canada: James E. Alcock, Chairman, Glendon College, York University,
    2275 Bayview Avenue, Toronto, Ontario

Finland: Skepsis, Lauri Groehn (o Umlaut!), Ojahaapolku 8 B 17,
     SF-01600 Vantaa

France: Comit'e Francais pour l'Etude des Ph'enom`enes Paranormaux,
    Dr. Claude Benski, General Secretary, Merlin Gerin, RGE/A2,
    F-38050 Grenoble Cedex

Germany: Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von
     Parawissenschaften e.V. (GWUP) Postfach 1222 64374 Rossdorf
     Germany.  Tel: +49-6154-8946, Fax: +49-6154-81912

Great Britain: British Committee, Michael J. Hutchinson, Secretary, 10
               Crescent View, Loughton, Essex IG10 4PZ

               "The Skeptic", P.O. Box 475, Manchester, M60 2TH, UK.

India: B. Premanand, Chairman, 10 Chettipalayam Road, Podanur, 641-023
       Coimbatur, Tamil Nadu

Ireland: Irish Skeptics, Peter O'Hara, Dept. of Psychiatry, Airedale
     General Hospital, Steeton, Keighly, West Yorkshire,
         UK BD20 6TD

Italy: Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sul
       Paranormale (CICAP), Lorenzo Montali, Via Ozanam 3, I-20129

Mexico: SOMIE, Mario Mendez-Acosta, Apartado Postal 19-546, Mexico
    03900, D.F.

New Zealand: Vicki Hyde, Chairperson, NZCSICOP, New Zealand Science
             Monthly, PO Box 19-760, Christchurch 5, New Zealand. Tel:
             (NZ)-3-384-5137, Fax: (NZ)-3-384-5138,

Netherlands: Stichting Skepsis, Rob Nanninga, Westerkade 20, NL-9718
         AS Groningen

Norway: K. Stenodegard, NIVFO, P.O.Box 2119, N-7001 Trondheim

        Skepsis, St Olavs gate 27 N-0166 OSLO (phone: + 47 22 20 35 33)

Russia: Science & Religion, Ulyanovskaya 43, kor. 4, 109004 Moscow,

South Africa: Assn. for the Rational Investigation of the Paranormal
              (ARIP), Marian Laserson, Secretary, 4 Wales Street,
              Sandringham 2192

Spain: Alternativa Racional a las Pseudosciencias (ARP), Mercedes
       Quintana, Apartado de Correos 17.026, E-28080 Madrid

Sweden: Vetenskap och folkbildning, Box 185, S-101 23 Stockholm,

USA: Skeptical Inquirer, Box 703, Buffalo, NY 14226-9973. Tel:
     716-636-1425, Fax: 716-636-1733

     Center for Scientific Anomalies Research, P.O. Box 1052, Ann
     Arbor, MI 48106

     Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Buffalo, NY 14215-9918

     Skeptics Society 2761 N. Marengo Ave. Altadena, CA 91001

0.12: Where can I get books on paranormal phenomena?

Skeptics who want to obtain books on paranormal allegations are faced
with a minor ethical dilemma, in that they want the books but do not
want to hand money to the purveyors of flummery and nonsense.  One
solution is to buy the books second hand.  In addition to your local
second hand bookshop, Richard Trott <> has
volunteered to provide a free referral service for sellers and seekers
of such second hand books.  This service is now on the Web.  Point
your browser at:

A huge annotated bibliography of books on paranormal and skeptical
issues is available by email or FTP.

1. Through mail: Send "get skeptic biblio" to

2. Anonymous ftp: connect to "", log on with
   "skeptic" and use any non-blank password, do "get skeptic.biblio".

0.13: Where can I find skeptical information on-line?

Web pages:

    CSICOP and "Skeptical Inquirer":

    James Randi:

        See the "Yahoo" Web directory at Stanford, under

Mailing Lists:

        Barry Karr <>.

0.14: Where can I find paranormal information on-line?

Web pages:

        See the "Yahoo" Web directory at Stanford, under

Mailing lists:

   Send a message to with no subject line and
   the command

      join paranormal {Your name}.

   Send messages to

The Scientific Method

1.1: What is the "scientific method"?

The scientific method is the best way yet discovered for winnowing
the truth from lies and delusion.  The simple version looks something
like this:

    1: Observe some aspect of the universe.
    2: Invent a theory that is consistent with what you have
    3: Use the theory to make predictions.
    4: Test those predictions by experiments or further
    5: Modify the theory in the light of your results.
    6: Go to step 3.

This leaves out the co-operation between scientists in building
theories, and the fact that it is impossible for every scientist to
independently do every experiment to confirm every theory.  Because
life is short, scientists have to trust other scientists.  So a
scientist who claims to have done an experiment and obtained certain
results will usually be believed, and most people will not bother to
repeat the experiment.

Experiments do get repeated as part of other experiments.  Most
scientific papers contain suggestions for other scientists to follow
up.  Usually the first step in doing this is to repeat the earlier
work.  So if a theory is the starting point for a significant amount
of work then the initial experiments will get replicated a number of

Some people talk about "Kuhnian paradigm shifts".  This refers to the
observed pattern of the slow extension of scientific knowledge with
occasional sudden revolutions.  This does happen, but it still follows
the steps above.

Many philosophers of science would argue that there is no such thing
as *the* scientific method.

1.2: What is the difference between a fact, a theory and a hypothesis?

In popular usage, a theory is just a vague and fuzzy sort of fact.
But to a scientist a theory is a conceptual framework that *explains*
existing facts and predicts new ones.  For instance, today I saw the
Sun rise.  This is a fact.  This fact is explained by the theory that
the Earth is round and spins on its axis while orbiting the sun.  This
theory also explains other facts, such as the seasons and the phases
of the moon, and allows me to make predictions about what will happen

This means that in some ways the words "fact" and "theory" are
interchangeable.  The organisation of the solar system, which I used as
a simple example of a theory, is normally considered to be a fact that
is explained by Newton's theory of gravity.  And so on.

A hypothesis is a tentative theory that has not yet been tested.
Typically, a scientist devises a hypothesis and then sees if it "holds
water" by testing it against available data.  If the hypothesis does
hold water, the scientist declares it to be a theory.

An important characteristic of a scientific theory or hypotheis is
that it be "falsifiable".  This means that there must be some
experiment or possible discovery that could prove the theory untrue.
For example, Einstein's theory of Relativity made predictions about
the results of experiments.  These experiments could have produced
results that contradicted Einstein, so the theory was (and still is)

On the other hand the theory that "there is an invisible snorg reading
this over your shoulder" is not falsifiable.  There is no experiment
or possible evidence that could prove that invisible snorgs do not
exist.  So the Snorg Hypothesis is not scientific.  On the other hand,
the "Negative Snorg Hypothesis" (that they do not exist) is
scientific.  You can disprove it by catching one.  Similar arguments
apply to yetis, UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster.  See also question 5.2
on the age of the Universe.

1.3: Can science ever really prove anything?

Yes and no.  It depends on what you mean by "prove".

For instance, there is little doubt that an object thrown into the air
will come back down (ignoring spacecraft for the moment).  One could
make a scientific observation that "Things fall down".  I am about to
throw a stone into the air.  I use my observation of past events to
predict that the stone will come back down.  Wow - it did!

But next time I throw a stone, it might not come down.  It might
hover, or go shooting off upwards.  So not even this simple fact has
been really proved.  But you would have to be very perverse to claim
that the next thrown stone will not come back down.  So for ordinary
everyday use, we can say that the theory is true.

You can think of facts and theories (not just scientific ones, but
ordinary everyday ones) as being on a scale of certainty, from
certainly false to certainly true.  Up at the top end we have facts
like "things fall down".  Down at the bottom we have "the Earth is
flat".  In the middle we have "I will die of heart disease".  Some
scientific theories are nearer the top than others, but none of them
ever actually reach it.  Skepticism is usually directed at claims that
contradict facts and theories that are very near the top of the scale.
If you want to discuss ideas nearer the middle of the scale (that is,
things about which there is real debate in the scientific community)
then you would be better off asking on the appropriate specialist

1.4: If scientific theories keep changing, where is the Truth?

In 1686 Isaac Newton proposed his theory of gravitation.  This was one
of the greatest intellectual feats of all time.  The theory explained
all the observed facts, and made predictions that were later tested
and found to be correct within the accuracy of the instruments being
used.  As far as anyone could see, Newton's theory was the Truth.

During the nineteenth century, more accurate instruments were used to
test Newton's theory, and found some slight discrepancies (for
instance, the orbit of Mercury wasn't quite right).  Albert Einstein
proposed his theories of Relativity, which explained the newly
observed facts and made more predictions.  Those predictions have now
been tested and found to be correct within the accuracy of the
instruments being used.  As far as anyone can see, Einstein's theory
is the Truth.

So how can the Truth change?  Well the answer is that it hasn't.  The
Universe is still the same as it ever was, and Newton's theory is as
true as it ever was.  If you take a course in physics today, you will
be taught Newton's Laws.  They can be used to make predictions, and
those predictions are still correct.  Only if you are dealing with
things that move close to the speed of light do you need to use
Einstein's theories.  If you are working at ordinary speeds outside of
very strong gravitational fields and use Einstein, you will get
(almost) exactly the same answer as you would with Newton.  It just
takes longer because using Einstein involves rather more maths.

One other note about truth: science does not make moral judgements.
Anyone who tries to draw moral lessons from the laws of nature is on
very dangerous ground.  Evolution in particular seems to suffer from
this.  At one time or another it seems to have been used to justify
Nazism, Communism, and every other -ism in between.  These
justifications are all completely bogus.  Similarly, anyone who says
"evolution theory is evil because it is used to support Communism" (or
any other -ism) has also strayed from the path of Logic.

1.5: "Extraordinary evidence is needed for an extraordinary claim"

An extraordinary claim is one that contradicts a fact that is close
to the top of the certainty scale discussed above.  So if you are
trying to contradict such a fact, you had better have facts available
that are even higher up the certainty scale.

1.6: What is Occam's Razor?

Ockham's Razor ("Occam" is a Latinised variant) is the principle
proposed by William of Ockham in the fifteenth century that
"Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate", which translates as
"entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily".  Various other
rephrasings have been incorrectly attributed to him.  In more modern
terms, if you have two theories which both explain the observed facts
then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along.  See
W.M. Thorburn, "The Myth of Occam's Razor," _Mind_ 27:345-353 (1918)
for a detailed study of what Ockham actually wrote and what others
wrote after him.

The reason behind the razor is that for any given set of facts there
are an infinite number of theories that could explain them.  For
instance, if you have a graph with four points in a line then the
simplest theory that explains them is a linear relationship, but you
can draw an infinite number of different curves that all pass through
the four points.  There is no evidence that the straight line is the
right one, but it is the simplest possible solution.  So you might as
well use it until someone comes along with a point off the straight

Also, if you have a few thousand points on the line and someone
suggests that there is a point that is off the line, it's a pretty
fair bet that they are wrong.

The following argument against Occam's Razor is sometime proposed:

   This simple hypothesis was shown to be false; the truth was more
   complicated.  So Occam's Razor doesn't work.

This is a strawman argument.  The Razor doesn't tell us anything about
the truth or otherwise of a hypothesis, but rather it tells us which
one to test first. The simpler the hypothesis, the easier it is to
shoot down.  

A related rule, which can be used to slice open conspiracy theories,
is Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which can be
adequately explained by stupidity".  This definition comes from "The
Jargon File" (edited by Eric Raymond), but one poster attributes it to
Robert Heinlein, in a 1941 story called "Logic of Empire".

1.7: Galileo was persecuted, just like researchers into <X> today.

People putting forward extraordinary claims often refer to Galileo as
an example of a great genius being persecuted by the establishment for
heretical theories.  They claim that the scientific establishment is
afraid of being proved wrong, and hence is trying to suppress the

This is a classic conspiracy theory.  The Conspirators are all those
scientists who have bothered to point out flaws in the claims put
forward by the researchers.

The usual rejoinder to someone who says "They laughed at Columbus,
they laughed at Galileo" is to say "But they also laughed at Bozo the
Clown".  (From Carl Sagan, "Broca's Brain", Coronet 1980, p79).

Incidentally, stories about the persecution of Galileo Galilei and the
ridicule Christopher Columbus had to endure should be taken with a
grain of salt.

During the early days of Galileo's theory church officials were
interested and sometimes supportive, even though they had yet to find
a way to incorporate it into theology. His main adversaries were
established scientists - since he was unable to provide HARD proofs
they didn't accept his model.  Galileo became more agitated, declared
them ignorant fools and publicly stated that his model was the correct
one, thus coming in conflict with the church.

When Columbus proposed to take the "Western Route" the spherical
nature of the Earth was common knowledge, even though the diameter was
still debatable.  Columbus simply believed that the Earth was a lot
smaller, while his adversaries claimed that the Western Route would be
too long. If America hadn't been in his way, he most likely would have
failed.  The myth that "he was laughed at for believing that the Earth
was a globe" stems from an American author who intentionally
adulterated history.

1.8: What is the "Experimenter effect"?

It is unconscious bias introduced into an experiment by the
experimenter.  It can occur in one of two ways:

 o Scientists doing experiments often have to look for small effects
   or differences between the things being experimented on.

 o Experiments require many samples to be treated in exactly the same
   way in order to get consistent results.

Note that neither of these sources of bias require deliberate fraud.

A classic example of the first kind of bias was the "N-ray",
discovered early this century.  Detecting them required the
investigator to look for very faint flashes of light on a
scintillator.  Many scientists reported detecting these rays.  They
were fooling themselves.  For more details, see "The Mutations of
Science" in "Science since Babylon" by Derek Price (Yale Univ. Press).

A classic example of the second kind of bias were the detailed
investigations into the relationship between race and brain capacity
in the last century.  Skull capacity was measured by filling the empty
skull with lead shot or mustard seed, and then measuring the volume of
filling.  A significant difference in the results could be obtained by
ensuring that the filling in some skulls was better settled than
others.  For more details on this story, read Stephen Jay Gould's "The
Mismeasure of Man".

For more detail see:

T.X. Barber, "Pitfalls of Human Research", 1976.
Robert Rosenthal, "Pygmalion in the Classroom".

[These were recommended by a correspondent.  Sorry I have no more

1.9: How much fraud is there in science?

In its simplest form this question is unanswerable, since undetected
fraud is by definition unmeasurable.  Of course there are many known
cases of fraud in science.  Some use this to argue that all scientific
findings (especially those they dislike) are worthless.

This ignores the replication of results which is routinely undertaken
by scientists.  Any important result will be replicated many times by
many different people.  So an assertion that (for instance) scientists
are lying about carbon-14 dating requires that a great many scientists
are engaging in a conspiracy.  See the previous question.

In fact the existence of known and documented fraud is a good
illustration of the self-correcting nature of science.  It does not
matter if a proportion of scientists are fraudsters because any
important work they do will not be taken seriously without independent
verification.  Hence they must confine themselves to pedestrian work
which no-one is much interested in, and obtain only the expected
results.  For anyone with the talent and ambition necessary to get a
Ph.D this is not going to be an enjoyable career.

Also, most scientists are idealists.  They perceive beauty in
scientific truth and see its discovery as their vocation.  Without
this most would have gone into something more lucrative.

These arguments suggest that undetected fraud in science is both rare
and unimportant.

The above arguments are weaker in medical research, where companies
frequently suppress or distort data in order to support their own
products.  Tobacco companies regularly produce reports "proving" that
smoking is harmless, and drug companies have both faked and suppressed
data related to the safety or effectiveness or major products.

For more detail on more scientific frauds than you ever knew existed,
see "False Prophets" by Alexander Koln.

The standard textbook used in North America is "Betrayers of the
Truth: Fraud and Deceit in Science" by William Broad and Nicholas Wade
(Oxford 1982).

There is a mailing list SCIFRAUD for the discussion of fraud and
questionable behaviour in science.  To subscribe, send
"sub scifraud <Your Name>" to "".

1.9.1: Did Mendel fudge his results?

Gregor Mendel was a 19th Century monk who discovered the laws of
inheritance (dominant and recessive genes etc.).  More recent analysis
of his results suggest that they are "too good to be true".  Mendelian
inheritance involves the random selection of possible traits from
parents, with particular probabilities of particular traits.  It seems
from Mendel's raw data that chance played a smaller part in his
experiments than it should.  This does not imply fraud on the part of

First, the experiments were not "blind" (see the questions about
double blind experiments and the experimenter effect).  Deciding
whether a particular pea is wrinkled or not needs judgement, and this
could bias Mendel's results towards the expected.  This is an example
of the "experimenter effect".

Second, Mendel's Laws are only approximations.  In fact it does turn
out that in some cases inheritance is less random than his Laws state.

Third, Mendel might have neglected to publish the results of `failed'
experiments.  It is interesting to note that all 7 of the
characteristics measured in his published work are controlled by
single genes.  He did not report any experiments with more complicated
characteristics.  Mendel later started experiments with a more complex
plant, hawkweed, could not interpret the results, got discouraged and
abandoned plant science.

See "The Human Blueprint" by Robert Shapiro (New York: St.  Martin's,
1991) p. 17.

1.10: Are scientists wearing blinkers?

One of the commonest allegations against mainstream science is that
its practitioners only see what they expect to see.  Scientists often
refuse to test fringe ideas because "science" tells them that this
will be a waste of time and effort.  Hence they miss ideas which could
be very valuable.

This is the "blinkers" argument, by analogy with the leather shields
placed over horses eyes so that they only see the road ahead.  It is
often put forward by proponents of new-age beliefs and alternative

It is certainly true that ideas from outside the mainstream of science
can have a hard time getting established.  But on the other hand the
opportunity to create a scientific revolution is a very tempting one:
wealth, fame and Nobel prizes tend to follow from such work.  So there
will always be one or two scientists who are willing to look at
anything new.

If you have such an idea, remember that the burden of proof is on you.
Posting an explanation of your idea to sci.skeptic is a good start.
Many readers of this group are professional scientists.  They will be
willing to provide constructive criticism and pointers to relevant
literature (along with the occasional rasberry).  Listen to them.
Then go away, read the articles, improve your theory in the light of
your new knowledge, and then ask again.  Starting a scientific
revolution is a long, hard slog.  Don't expect it to be easy.  If it
was, we would have them every week.

Psychic Powers

2.1: Is Uri Geller for real?

James "The Amazing" Randi has, through various demonstrations, cast
doubt on Geller's claims of psychic powers.  Geller has sued Randi.
This case has now been completed, and Geller has lost.  However
Skeptics are still advised to exercise extreme caution in addressing
this topic, given Geller's history of litigation.

One of Geller's more (in)famous claims is that he has made millions
by finding oil.  The following was posted by James Randi on this

: Geller SAYS that he has made fortunes with mining companies. When 
: CSICOP checked this out, it was found that only one mining company, 
: ZANEX, ever paid Geller, and that was far far less than the million
: dollars he says he got from 11 mining companies. Dont always 
: believe everything that he claims, or didn't you learn that already?

Geller's stage appearances feature a range of stage magic.  For more
details on how he does his tricks, read books by James Randi,
especially "The Truth About Uri Geller".  Here are some hilights:

* "Broken" watches are often just gummed up.  Warm it, shake it, and
  it will start ticking.  Whether it carries on ticking or keeps
  good time is another matter.
* Spoon bending is usually done by misdirection.  Get everyone to
  look away while you bend the spoon.  Geller has even been known
  to hold up a bent spoon and say "its bending, its bending" while
  gradually revealing more of the bend between his fingers.
In a global agreement to the law suits involving James Randi, CSICOP,
Prometheus Books, Victor Stenger, Prometheus Books UK and Eddington Hook
Ltd. Uri Geller agreed to pay CSICOP $120,000. (He had already paid
Prometheus Books around $20,000 in legal fees for a case in Florida.)
In 'The Skeptical Inquirer' for May/June 1995 it was reported that Uri
Geller had paid the first $40,000 of the $120,000. He will pay $10,000 a
year for three years plus the first $50,000 of any sums recovered by him
in a new action he was to bring against his former attorneys.

CSICOP settled for less than the $150,000 awarded to them by the court.
Executive Director Barry Karr said: "Prior to filing suit, Geller, an
Israeli citizen living in England, placed his assets in trust, rendering
uncertain our ability to collect."

2.2: I have had a psychic experience.

That is pretty remarkable.  But before you post to the Net, consider:-

 * Could it just be coincidence?  The human mind is good at
   remembering odd things but tends to forget ordinary things, such as
   premonitions that didn't happen.  If psychic experiences happen to
   you on a regular basis then try writing down the premonitions when
   you have them and then comparing your record to later events.

 * If you think you have a mental link with someone you know, try a
   few tests with playing cards.
Until 1996, I had suggested the following:

 * If you are receiving messages from elsewhere (e.g. UFOs), ask for
   specific information that you can then check.
   Previous versions of this FAQ suggested the complete prime
   factorisation of 2^1024+1.  However this has now been found.
However we now know the factors of this number.

If you want to make a formal registration of your predictions, send
mail to <>.

There is a book by Prof Robert Morris and Dr Richard Wiseman called
"Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants".
University of Hertfordshire Press, 1995, pp 72, stlg7 pbk

2.3: What is "Sensory Leakage"?

Sensory leakage is something that designers of tests for psi must be
careful to guard against.  Tests for psi use powerful statistical
tests to search for faint traces of communication.  Unfortunately the
fact that communication has taken place does not prove that it was
done by telepathy.  It could have been through some more mundane form
of signal.

For instance one experiment involved a "sender" in one room with a
stack of numbered cards (1-10) and a "receiver" in another room trying
to guess what the next card was.  The sender looked at a card and
pressed a button to signal to the receiver.  The receiver then tried
to guess the number on the card.  There was a definite correlation
between the card numbers and the guesses.  However the sender could
signal the receiver by varying the delays between buzzes.  When this
channel of communication was removed, the effect disappeared.

2.4: Who are the main psi researchers?

Targ and Puthoff spring to mind, but actually, Puthoff is no longer
doing psi research (I don't have any idea what Targ is up to these
days.) Granted, their SRI work is quite famous, but if we want to
review the historical (rather than currently active) figures, you
probably want to go back at least as far as the Rhines.

Helmut Schmidt, a physicist who has been looking at PK, is still
active at the Mind Science Foundation in Texas. (Sorry, I don't know a
more specific address than that.)

The Foundation for Research into the Nature of Man (FRNM), which is
what Rhine's work at Duke eventually developed into, is still active
near Duke. It is currently headed by K. Ramakrishna Rao.

The Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh
is still active. The current incumbent is named Robert Morris; his
main assistant is Deborah Delanoy.  He and Dr Richard Wiseman have
written a small book "Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants".
[Does anyone have publisher details?] 

Roger Nelson is active in the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research
center (PEAR) and occasionally posts to the net.

Active workers in the field that I can think of currently include Dean
Radin, who also posts to sci.skeptic as <>,
Jessica Utts, and Ed May. The Parapsychological Association has a much
larger roster than that, of course, but I'm not a member myself and
don't have access to their membership roll.

2.5: Does dowsing work?

Dowsing is the art of finding underground water by extra-sensory
perception.  Sometimes tools are used.  The traditional one is a
forked hazel stick.  When held in the correct way this will twitch in
response to small muscle movements in the back and shoulders.  Another
tool that has become popular in recent years is a pair of rods mounted
in tubes that are held in each hand just in front of the user.

        Rod bent into tube.
       ||                    ^
       ||                    |
       || <- Tube           Rod

When water (or something else) is dowsed, the rods turn towards each
other.  Like the forked hazel stick it amplifies small movements of
the arm and shoulder muscles.

Unfortunately careful tests of dowsers have revealed absolutely no
ability to find water or anything else by extra-sensory perception.
Dowsing success stories can be explained by noting that wherever you
dig you will find water.  You just have to dig deep enough.  It has
also been suggested that dowsers may unconsciously use clues in the

James Randi has tested more than 100 dowsers (I don't know the actual
count). He tells that only 2 tried to cheat.  This suggests that
dowsers are basically honest people.

The Skeptical Inquirer has published a number of articles on dowsing.
James Randi's "A Controlled Test of Dowsing" was in vol. 4, no. 1, pp.
16-20.  Michael Martin's "A New Controlled Dowsing Experiment" was in
vol. 8, pp. 138-140.  Dick Smith's "Two Tests of Divining in
Australia" was in vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 34-37.  Randi's book Flim-Flam!
has a section on dowsing.  The main skeptical book about dowsing is
Vogt, E.Z. and Hyman R. (1959, 2nd edition 1979) "Water witching USA".
The University of Chicago Press. 260 pages. Available as a paperback.

2.6: Could psi be inhibited by the presence of skeptics?

Psychic researchers have noted something they call the "shyness
effect" (or more grandly "psi-mediated experimenter effects").  This
is invoked to explain the way in which many subjects' psychic powers
seem to fade when exposed to careful scrutiny and proper controls.
Often it is alleged that having a skeptic in the audience can prevent
the delicate operation of psi.

In its most extreme form this hypothesis becomes a "catch-22" that
makes any results consistent with a psi hypothesis.  This renders the
hypothesis unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific.  Less extreme
forms might be testable.

2.7: Why don't the skeptics test the *real* psychics?

A claim is sometimes made that the Skeptics movement only tests those
psychics which it knows to be frauds.  The real psychics are supposedly
being ignored by skeptics who are afraid to be proved wrong.

There are three problems with this claim.

Firstly, it assumes that all the skeptics are engaged in a conspiracy
to persuade the world that psychic powers do not exist.  This is only
a Petty Conspiracy theory (see section 0), since it only requires the
involvement of a few dozen of the most prominent skeptics, but it is
still difficult to see any motive for such a deception.  "Fear of
being proved wrong" implies that they already know they are wrong,
which makes their continued activity rather puzzling.

Secondly, most skeptics are always ready to take part in any
reasonable test.  The "real" psychics are perfectly at liberty to
challenge the skeptics.

Thirdly, there are always more alleged psychics.  Hence this
argument presents the skeptics with an ever-receding target.  The
dialogue goes something like this:

Paranormalist: Yes, I concede that Mr. Adams is a fake, but what about
           Mr. Brown.  The things that he does could never be

[Some months later]

Skeptic: Here is how Brown did it....

P: OK, I concede that Adams and Brown are fakes, but Mrs Carver is the
   surely the real thing.

[Some months later]

S: Here is how Carver did it...

P: OK, maybe Adams, Brown and Carver were fakes, but what about Digby
   and Ender?

S: I give up.  There's no convincing some people.

P: [shouting] Digby and Ender are real psychics: the skeptics are
   afraid to test them.  They only test the fakes!

2.8: What is the ganzfeld?

A state of sensory deprivation which may enhance psychic abilities.
The subject lies on a soft bed, with a "white noise" hissing sound
played through headphones and half of a ping-pong ball placed over
each eye to give an empty field of view.  The subject then talks to a
tape recorder, describing any ideas which enter his or her mind.

To test whether psychic communication is occurring, a "sender"
concentrates on some image while the "receiver" is in the ganzfeld.
Then the image is shown to the receiver along with three other images.
The receiver must pick the image that was seen by the sender.

Dean Radin <> has been conducting some careful
ganzfeld experiments, which he describes as follows:

> ... our unit has recently conducted pilot replications of the
> ganzfeld telepathy studies reported by Bem & Honorton.  In 76
> sessions we obtained 25 direct hits, which is quite close to the 33%
> meta-analytic hit rate previously reported by Honorton et al..

> Our methodology was based on Honorton's auto-ganzfeld setup, which
> automated most aspects of the experiment, except we were even more
> obsessive: Our system uses a computer to randomly select the target,
> to automatically present the target clip to the sender, to
> automatically present the judging clips in a random order to the
> receiver, and to store the data.  The receiver and sender rooms are
> 25 meters apart, behind 4 doors, and sound-shielded to 100 dB.

> We only use volunteer subjects claiming no special abilities,
> typically for one or two sessions.  The methodology and preliminary
> study results will be reported in detail in August at the annual
> Parapsychological Association convention.  Some of our other plans
> are reported in the 15 May 93 New Scientist cover article on
> telepathy.

UFOs and Flying Saucers

3.1  What are UFOs?

UFOs are, simply, Unidentified Flying Objects, no more, no less.  The
word "object" is used in a very broad way, not to imply a physical
"object" but more an experienced phenomenon, e.g. something seen,
heard, "sensed" etc.  This means that if you are out one night and see
a light moving in the sky and cannot immediately identify it as a
certain star, planet or other object, then it is by definition a UFO.

A better question would be:

3.1.1  Are UFOs alien spacecraft?

Probably not.  The vast majority of UFO reports, when investigated by
competent researchers (and that is a problem all by itself), can be
easily explained as natural or manmade objects misidentified for one
reason or another.  The actual percentage is around 95%.  A very few
reports are provable hoaxes.  The remaining few percent (some skeptics
argue that there are no remaining reports) are not explained at this
time.  Again, this does not mean that they are observations of alien
spaceships.  All we can say is that, given the information presently
available, some cases don't appear to be stars, balloons, airplanes,
aurorae. etc.  Given a great deal more time and effort, many more
could likely be identified.  It's possible that the witness(es) were
in error, or are very good liars.  And the remaining few cases?  Well,
the best we can say, as true skeptics, is that we don't know what they
were, but there is NO proof that they were alien spacecraft.

3.1.2  Are UFOs natural phenomena?

Possibly.  A number of theories have been proposed, suggesting that
some UFOs are "plasmas" or variations of ball lightning or earthquake
lights.  Unfortunately, the theories seem to change to fit observed
data, rather than predict the observations.  Also, studies designed to
support the theories have used newspaper articles and raw, unsifted UFO
case lists for data, and therefore the studies do not appear to be
completely unbiased.  Perhaps time will tell.  Until then it is safe to
say that SOME UFOs are probably ball lightning or other rare natural

3.1.3  But isn't it possible that aliens are visiting Earth?

Yes.  But it is also possible that there is an invisible snorg reading
this over your shoulder right now.

Basically, some astronomers (e.g. Carl Sagan) are convinced that there
are other habitable planets in our galaxy, and that there may be some
form of life on them.  Assuming that parallel evolution occurred on
these other planets, there MIGHT be intelligent life forms there.  It
is possible that some of these life forms could have an advanced
civilization, and perhaps have achieved space travel.  BUT - there is
no proof that this is so.  SETI programs such as the High Resolution
Microwave Search now being conducted by NASA under the direction of
Jill Tartar are "listening" to other stars in the hope of detecting
radio signals that might indicate intelligent life - kind of
listening for the equivalent of "Watson, come here, I need you!", or
"I love Lucy" in the infancy of our early communications.  Such
searches have been fruitless, so far.

If there are aliens on distant planets, then it is possible that they
might have found a way to travel between stars in their lifetimes.
According to our present understanding of physics, this is not likely,
given the vast distances between stars.  Even travelling at the speed
of light (which cannot be done), a round trip to the nearest star would
take about ten years.  This does not rule out interstellar ships, but
it does make it seem unlikely that we are being visited.

If *even one* civilization has found a way to travel between stars in
the entire history of the Milky Way Galaxy (about ten billion years),
it ought to fill the entire Galaxy in only a hundred million years or
so.  The question, then, is why don't we observe evidence of alien
civilization everywhere?  This question is known as the Fermi Paradox,
and there is no really satisfactory answer.  If, however, we postulate
alien visits to Earth, we must also accept a Galaxy-wide civilization
and ask why we see no evidence of it.

3.2: Is it true that the US government has a crashed flying saucer (MJ-12)?

The MJ-12 documents purportedly established that the U.S. government
had established a secret organization of 12 people called MJ-12 or
Majestic-12 to deal with UFOs.  These 12 people were all conveniently
dead at the time the documents were discovered.  Klass proved that the
documents are fakes.

The "Roswell Incident" refers to an alleged UFO crash in Roswell, NM.
Philip Klass has also investigated this one and shown the reports to
be bogus.  One of the more notable items of "evidence" was a document
"signed by the president".  Klass showed that this signature was a
photocopy of an existing presidential signature.  See SI 14:2 (Winter
1990) pp 135-140.

All such allegations involve a conspiracy theory.  Sometimes these
conspiracy theories get very big indeed.  One common one involves a
treaty between the government and the saucer people whereby the
government stays in power and the saucer people get to abduct humans
for various gruesome purposes.

3.3: What is "channeling"?

"Channeling" is remarkably similar to Spiritualism.  The main
difference is that the relatives "on the other side" are replaced by a
wide variety of other beings.  This means that the channeler does not
have to worry about providing accurate information about people in the
audience.  The beings that channelers claim to speak for range from
enlightened aliens to humans who lived thousands of years ago to
discarnate intelligences who have never had bodies.

3.4: How can we test a channeler?

Some channelled entities are alleged to come from the distant past.
They can be asked about events, climate and language in ways that can
be checked.

Until the start of 1996, I had said the following:
   If the entity is from a technically advanced race, try asking for the
   complete factorisation of 2^1024+1.
This has now been factorised, so this is no longer a good question.

3.5: I am in telepathic contact with the aliens.

See the earlier section on psychic experiences and then try testing
your aliens to see if you get a specific answer.  If you can come up
with new facts that can be tested by scientists then you will be
listened to.  Otherwise you would do better on alt.alien.visitors.

3.6: Some bozo has just posted a load of "teachings" from a UFO.  What
     should I do?

You have several choices:

 * Ignore it.

 * Ask for evidence (see question 3.4 above).

 * Insult or flame the poster.  This is a bad idea.

3.7:  Are crop circles made by flying saucers?

There is no convincing evidence that crop circles or any other kind of
UGM (Unusual Ground Markings) were made by aliens.  There are some
reports of lights being seen in and around crop circle sites, and a few
videos showing objects flitting over fields.  The lights are hardly
proof, and the objects in the videos seem to be pieces of foil or paper
being tossed about by the wind.

In a deliberate attempt to test crop circle "experts", a crop circle
was faked under the watchful eyes of the media.  When cerealogists were
called in, they proclaimed it genuine.

3.7.1:   Are crop circles made by "vortices"?

Probably not.  There are a number of meteorologists who believe that
crop circle formations are created by rare natural forces such as
"ionised plasma vortices".  Basically, winds blowing across rolling
hills sometimes form eddies, which in some circumstances (that have
never been quantified) become strong, downward spiralling drafts that
lay down the crop.  Cerealogists claim to have over two dozen witnesses
to such events.  Unfortunately, many more have said they have seen
flying saucers do the same thing.

Scientific articles arguing for the reality of these vortices have
appeared regularly in the Journal of Meteorology.  But its editor is
the leading proponent of the theory, Dr. Terence Meaden.

Winds can lay down crop in patches known as lodging.  But geometric
patterns in fields can hardly be attributable to natural phenomena.
Meaden has changed his theory to first accommodate complex circles,
ovals and even triangles (!), but now admits that most circles are
hoaxes and the theory can only explain simpler patterns.

3.7.2:  Are crop circles made by hoaxers?

Of course.  Although most people have heard only of two, Doug Bower and
Dave Chorley of England, many others have been caught, not only in
Britain but in other countries such as Canada.  Their methods range
from inscribed circles with a pole and a length of rope to more complex
systems involving chains, rollers, planks and measuring devices.

And as a further note: just because you can't prove a crop circle was
made by a hoaxer, you should not assume aliens were involved.  Remember
Occam's Razor (Section 1.6).

3.7.3:   Are crop circles radioactive?

This is a claim that has received wide circulation in UFO/cerealogy
circles (pardon the pun).  It is also untrue.  Examination of the data
from spectral analyses of soil taken from crop circles has shown that
there were no readings above the normal background levels.  The
proponents of this claim are debating this, however.

3.7.4:   What about cellular changes in plants within crop circles?

Yes, what about the changes?  Although this is another claim that is
widely circulated among ufologists and cerealogists, the evidence is
simply not very good.  A few photographs of alleged changes in the
"crystalline structure" of wheat stems were published in some
magazines and UFO publications.  The method used was spagyrical
analysis.  This is a technique involving crystallization of the
residue of organic material after harsh processing, invented three
centuries ago and popularized by Sir Kenelm Digby. Digby is known for
other wonderful inventions like condensation of sunlight and the
development of sword salve (which you had to put on the weapon rather
than on the wound, in order to cure the wound).  The fact that this
technique was tried at all casts serious doubts on the "researchers"

3.8: Have people been abducted by UFOs?

While the number of people who believe themselves to have been
abducted by flying saucer aliens must number at least many thousands,
not one of them has produced any physical evidence to establish the
reality of their claim. On the contrary, a number of factors clearly
point to a subjective basis for the "UFO abduction" phenomenon.
Probably the strongest factor is that of the cultural dependence of
such claims.  Such claims were virtually unknown until the famous
abduction story of Betty and Barney Hill received widespread publicity
in the late 1960s.  Also, the appearance and behavior of supposed UFO
occupants varies greatly with location and year. UFO abduction claims
are made much less frequently outside North America, especially in
non-English-speaking countries, although foreign reports have started
to catch up since the publication of Whitley Strieber's "Communion".
Furthermore, the descriptions of supposed UFO aliens contain clear
cultural dependencies; in North America large-headed grey aliens
predominate, while in Britain abducting aliens are mostly tall, blond,
and Nordic. Aliens that are claimed to steal sperm, eggs, and fetuses,
or make scars or body implants on those supposedly abducted, were
practically unknown before the publication of Budd Hopkins's books.
This particularly alarming type of abduction seems to be quite rare
outside North America.

Clear "borrowings" from popular science fiction stories can be traced
in certain major "UFO abductions."  Barney Hill's description of his
supposed abductors' "wraparound eyes" (an extreme rarity in science
fiction films), first described and drawn during a hypnosis session on
Feb. 22, 1964, comes just twelve days after the first broadcast of an
episode of "The Outer Limits" featuring an alien of this quite unique
description. Many other elements of the Hill story can be traced to
the 1953 film "Invaders from Mars," including aliens having "Jimmy
Durante" noses, an alien medical examination, something done to her
eyes to relax her, being probed with a needle, a star map hanging on a
wall, a notebook offered as a remembrance, even the imagery of a
needle in the navel. Other "abductees" borrowed other ideas from
"Invaders From Mars," including brain implants, aliens drilling into a
human skull, and aliens seeking to revitalize a dying world.

Originally, stories of UFO abductions were obtainable solely by
hypnotic regression of the claimant, although in recent years the
subject of "UFO abductions" has become so generally known that some
subjects claim to remember their "abduction" without hypnosis.
Hypnosis is a NOT a reliable method for extracting so- called "hidden
memories", and its use in this manner is likely to lead to fabrication
and error. Moreover, if it is suggested to a hypnotized person that
fictitious events have occurred, the subject himself may come to
believe this (See the article "Hypnosis" in the 1974 "Encyclopaedia
Britannica" by Martin Orne, and section 10.1 on False Memory Syndrome).

3.9: What is causing the strange cattle deaths?

Cattle and other animals have been found dead with strange
mutilations.  Organs, especially genitals, have been removed "with
surgical precision" but no blood appears on the ground.  These events
are also sometimes associated with reports of alien encounters and


1) Cattle are very expensive.  Each "head" is worth several thousand

2) Insurance doesn't cover "range death" due to natural causes (e.g
   falling and killing themselves).

3) Insurance does cover vandalism (eg. a vandal shooting a cow).

4) A space alien killing a cow will be covered by the insurance -
   provided a cooperating policeman will write up the report that way.

5) Space aliens mutilating cows seem to respect county (police
   jurisdiction) lines.

6) Relatively little blood leaks out of a dead animal (compared to a
   live animal) when it is cut.  The heart just isn't pumping.

The best source of information on cattle mutilations is the
book Mute Evidence by Ian Summers and Daniel Kagan, a couple
of investigative journalists who started out believing that
something mysterious was happening, but ended up skeptics.
SI has published James Stewart's "Cattle Mutilations: An Episode
of Collective Delusion" (way back in vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 55-66).
Stewart is a sociologist who examined the pattern of reports and
found that new reports were inspired by previous media coverage.
It came in "waves" or "flaps".

3.10: What is the face on Mars?

One of the Mars orbiters took a photograph of a part of Mars (Cydonia)
when the sun was very low on the horizon.  The picture shows a "face"
and some nearby pyramids.  Both these structures are seen more by
their shadows than their actual shape.  The pyramid shadows appear
regular because their size is close to the limit of resolution of the
camera, and the "face" is just a chance arrangement of shadow over a
couple of hills.  The human brain is very good at picking out familiar
patterns in random noise, so it is not surprising that a couple of
Martian surface features (out of thousands photographed) vaguely
resemble a face when seen in the right light.

Many people find the "face" more reminiscent of a monkey than a human

Richard Hoagland has championed the idea that the Face is artificial,
intended to resemble a human, and erected by an extraterrestrial
civilization. Most other analysts concede that the resemblance is most
likely accidental. Other Viking images show a smiley-faced crater and
a lava flow resembling Kermit the Frog elsewhere on Mars. There exists
a Mars Anomalies Research Society (sorry, don't know the address) to
study the Face and related features.

The Mars Observer spacecraft had (and for all we know it still has) a
camera that could give 1.5m per pixel resolution.  Unfortunately NASA
scientists lost contact with the spacecraft just before it arrived at
Mars.  Among the theories proposed to explain this are:

1: The failure of a couple of transistors after spending years in

2: The presence of evil beings on Mars who wish to hide their
   existence from humanity (so why did they build the Face and let
   Viking see it?).

3: The existence of a conspiracy on the part of NASA and the US
   government to hide the existence of aliens from humanity (see
   section 0.8 on Conspiracy theories).

Anyone who wants to learn some more about this should look up "Image
Processing", volume 4 issue 3, which includes enhanced images of the
"face".  Hoagland has written "The Monuments of Mars: A City on the
Edge of Forever", North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, USA,

[Some of this is from the FAQs]

3.11: Did Ezekiel See a Flying Saucer?

The chapter in question is Ezekiel 1:4-28.  This vision is an example
of apocalyptic writing common in the centuries before and after
Christ.  (Good examples are chapters 2 and 7-12 of Daniel and the book
of Revelation.)  Apocalyptic literature is difficult to interpret
because the language is symbolic and figurative.  In some cases the
writer will reveal what is meant by the symbols.  Verse 28 identifies
Ezekiel's wheels within wheels vision as, "the appearance of the
likeness of the glory of the LORD."  This "glory" is the "Khabod", a
manifestation of brilliant light thought to be present in the temple.
The wheels are described as appearing in a *vision* which is more like
an hallucination than a physical event.  The wheels are seen again in
Ezekiel chap 10 leaving the temple in Jerusalem, but Ezekiel sees this
while sitting inside his house which is in Babylon (see Eze. 1:1-2 and
Eze. 8:1).  In other words this was a message from God (or a
hallucination) rather than a physical event.

3.12: What happened at Tunguska?

At 7:17 in the morning of June 30th 1908, close to the Stony Tunguska
River, on the Central Siberian Plateau, a huge air explosion occurred. 
The explosion was powerful enough to be heard hundreds of miles away. 
The area around the Stony Tunguska River is inaccessible and consists
mostly of bogs and pine forests.  The seismic shocks from the
explosion were detected around the Earth.  The London Times of July
4th, 1908 reported "The remarkable ruddy glows which have been seen on
many nights far as Berlin."

When an expedition eventually reached the epicentre of the explosion
they found that the pine trees had been pushed over, pointing away
from the centre.  The trees directly under the explosion remained
standing.  Some small craters *were* observed at the time but have
disappeared over the years due to the boggy land.  The pattern is now
recognised as being similar to that produced by an air-burst nuclear

Currently the event is usually explained as a small, unnoticed, comet
hitting the upper atmosphere somewhere over China and finally
exploding a few seconds later above Tunguska.  A number of other
explanations have been offered...

   * an atomic explosion.  Some reports collected some time after the
     event describe a typical mushroom cloud.  The problem here is
     that such clouds are typical of large explosions due to any cause
     - they are not peculiar to atomic explosions.  There is also the
     difficulty in explaining how the Russians first developed and
     then forgot the technology when it would have been very useful in
     two major wars!

   * a small black hole weighing a few million tons passed through the
     Earth.  The other entry/exit point was unnoticed as it was in the
     ocean.  Steven Hawking has now shown that black holes of such a
     size have very short lives in cosmic terms due to an
     `evaporation' effect.

   * a small anti-matter meteor.  This now seems very unlikely with
     the recent discovery of large amounts of inter-stellar matter in
     which, although still close to a vacuum, is quite sufficient to
     erode any small amount of anti-matter quite rapidly. In addition,
     the very existence of anti-matter in any sizable amounts in our
     universe is now thought to be very unlikely.

   * an alien spaceship, damaged and out of control, exploded during
     an emergency landing.  There is no supporting evidence for this
     apart from eye witness reports of the vapour trail caused during
     the objects passage through the atmosphere showing a distinct
     `bend', which is supposed to be due to a course change.  Such
     bends can also be found in the vapour trails of aircraft which
     can be seen to be flying straight and are caused by winds in the
     upper atmosphere.

The event is not such a mystery as some suppose.  In 1969 a Soviet
periodical published a bibliography of more than 1000 entries.  Though
these are mostly in Russian it is not difficult to find references in
western scientific publications.  `Nature' has published a number of
papers covering most of the above explanations.


John Baxter and Thomas Atkins, "The Fire Came By", Futura
Publications Ltd, 1977, ISBN 0 86000 7540 0

Oliver, Charles P. "The Great Siberian Meteorite," Scientific
American, Vol. 139, No. 1(1928), 42-44

Growther, J.G. "More About the Great Siberian Meteorite,"
Scientific American, Vol. 144, No. 5 (1931), 314-317

Zigel, Felix. "Nuclear Explosion over the Taiga: Study of the
Tunguska Meteorite," Znaniye-Sila, No. 12 (1961), 24-27 [English
translation available from Joint Publications Research Service,
Washington, DC., JPRS-13480 (April 1962)

Parry, Albert. "Russia's Rockets and Missiles" Macmillan 1962,
pp 248-267

Cowan,C.,C.R. Atluri and W.F. Libby. "Possible Anti-Matter
Content of the Tunguska Meteor of 1908," Nature, Vol. 206, No.
4987 (1965), 861-865

Jackson, A.A., and M.P. Ryan, "Was the Tungus Event Due to a
Black Hole?", Nature, Vol. 245, No. 5420 (1973), 88-89

3.13: How did the Dogon know about Sirius?

The story goes that when they were first contacted by Europeans, a
small stone-age tribe in Africa called the Dogon knew about a string
of astronomical phenomena, including Jovian satellites, the rings of
Saturn and the invisible companion star of Sirius ("The Pup").  Some
UFO enthusiasts have taken this as proof of visits to the Dogon by

In "Broca's Brain", Carl Sagan writes:

    The most striking aspects of Dogon astronomy have been recounted
    by Marcel Griaule, a French anthropologist working in the 1930s
    and 1940s.  While there is no reason to doubt Griaule's account,
    it is important to note that there is no earlier Western record of
    these remarkable Dogon folk beliefs [...]

The facts known to the Dogon were mostly discovered over a century
before Griaule discovered them.  It is most likely that the Dogon got
this knowledge from human visitors rather than extra-terrestrial ones.
In addition their astronomy included a number of facts which were
widely accepted in the 1920s but which are now known to be false.  It
seems odd that visiting aliens would have made the same mistakes.

Apparently a debunking of Dogon astronomy can be found in an
article by W. Van Beck in _Current Anthropology_, vol. 32, pp.
139-167, 1991.

Faith Healing and Alternative Therapies

Disclaimer: I am not medically qualified.  If you have a medical
        problem then I strongly recommend that you go to a
        qualified medical practitioner.  Asking the Net for
        specific medical advice is always a bad idea.

4.1: Isn't western medicine reductionistic and alternatives holistic?

Practitioners of alternative therapies often put forward the idea that
modern scientific medicine is reductionistic: it concentrates on those
parts of the body that are not working properly, and in so doing it
reduces the patient to a collection of organs.  Alternative therapies
try to consider the patient as a whole (a holistic approach).

This is a fine piece of rhetoric, but it's wrong.  It is true that
modern medicine looks at the details of diseases, trying to find out
exactly what is going wrong and what is causing it.  But it also looks
at the life of the patient, and tries to understand how the patient
interacts with his/her environment and how this interaction can be
improved.  For instance, smoking is known to cause a wide variety of
medical problems.  Hence doctors advise patients to give up smoking as
well as treating the individual illnesses that it causes.  When a
patient presents with an illness then the doctor will not only treat
the illness but also try to understand how this illness was caused in
order to avoid a recurrence.

4.2: What is a double-blind trial?  What is a placebo?

A double-blind trial is the standard method for deciding whether or
not a treatment has any "real" effect.

A placebo is a "treatment" that has no effect except through the mind
of the patient.  The usual form is a pill containing a little lactose
(milk-sugar), although a bitter-tasting liquid or injections of 1cc
saline can be used instead.

The "placebo effect" is the observed tendency for patients to display
the symptoms they are told to expect.

The problem is that the state of mind of a patient is often a
significant factor in the effect of a course of treatment.  All
doctors know this; it is why "bedside manner" is considered so
important.  In statistical tests of new treatments it is even more
important, since even a small effect from the state of mind of a small
fraction of the patients in the trial can have a significant effect
on the results.  Hence new medicines are tested against a placebo.
The patients in the trial are randomly divided into two groups.  One
of these groups is given the real medicine, the other is given the
placebo.  Neither group knows which they have been given.  Hence the
state of mind for both groups will be similar, and any difference
between the two groups must be due to the drug.  This is a blind trial.

It has been found that patients can be unconsciously affected by the
attitude and expectations of the doctor supplying the drug, even if
the doctor does not explicitly tell them what to expect.  Hence it is
usual for the doctor to be equally unaware which group is which.  This
is a "double blind" trial.  The job of remembering which group is
which is given to some administrative person who does not normally
come into contact with patients.

This causes problems for many alternative therapies because they do
something to the patient which is difficult to do in a placebo-like
manner.  For instance, a treatment involving the laying-on of hands
cannot be done in such a way that both patient and practitioner are
unaware as to whether a "real" laying on of hands has taken place.
There are partial solutions to this.  For instance one study employed
a three-way test of drug placebo, counseling and alternative therapy.

4.3: Why should scientific criteria apply to alternative therapies?

So that we can tell if they work or not.  If you take a patient
and give them treatment then one of three things will happen: the
patient will get better, will get worse, or will not change.  And this
is true whether the treatment is a course of drugs chosen by a doctor,
an alternative therapy, or just counting to ten.

Many alternative therapies depend on "anecdotal evidence" where
particular cases got better after the therapy was applied.  Almost any
therapy will have some such cases, even if it actually harms the
patients.  And so anecdotal evidence of Mrs. X who was cured of cancer
by this wonderful new treatment is not useful in deciding whether the
treatment is any good.

The only way to tell for sure whether or not an alternative treatment
works is to use a double-blind trial, or as near to it as you can get.
See the previous question.

4.4: What is homeopathy?

Homeopathy is sometimes confused with herbalism.  A herbalist
prescribes herbs with known medicinal effects.  Two well known
examples are foxglove flowers (which contain digitalin) and willow
bark (which contains aspirin).  Folk remedies are now being studied
extensively in order to winnow the wheat from the chaff.

Homeopathists believe that if a drug produces symptoms similar to
certain disease then a highly diluted form of the same drug will cure
the disease.  The greater the dilution, the stronger this curative
effect will be (this is known as the law of Arndt-Schulz).  Great
importance is also attached to the way in which the diluted solution
is shaken during the dilution.

People are skeptical about homeopathy because:

1: There is no known mechanism by which it can work.  Many homeopathic
   treatments are so diluted that not one molecule of the original
   substance is contained in the final dose.

2: The indicator symptoms are highly subjective.  Some substances have
   hundreds of trivial indicators.

3: Almost no clinical tests have been done.

4: It is not clear why trace impurities in the dilutants are not also
   fortified by the dilution mechanism.

Although homeopathy involves little more than doing nothing, it was
invented in the days when doing nothing was usually better for the
patient than conventional treatment.  It therefore represented a
significant advance in medical practice.  Since then conventional
medicine has improved beyond recognition, while homeopathy is still
equivalent to doing nothing.

Reports of one scientific trial that seemed to provide evidence for
homeopathy until a double-blind trial was set up can be found in
Nature vol 333, p.816 and further, and the few issues of Nature
following that, about until November of that year (1988).

SI ran a good article on the origins and claims of homeopathy:
Stephen Barrett, M.D., "Homeopathy: Is It Medicine?", SI,
vol. 12, no. 1, Fall 1987, pp. 56-62.

4.5: What is aromatherapy?

A belief that the essential oils of various flowers have therapeutic
effects.  These effects are psychological rather than physical, and so
its a bit difficult to define what we mean by a statement that "it
works".  After all, if people do it and feel better then that is a
real effect, whether it occurred because of suggestion or because the
flowers contain a powerful psychoactive drug.

4.6: What is reflexology?  What is iridology?

Reflexology is an alternative therapy based on massage of the feet.
The idea is that parts of the body can be mapped onto areas of the
feet.  There is no known mechanism by which massaging the feet can
affect other parts of the body (other than the simple soothing and
relaxing effect that any massage gives) and no evidence that it
actually works.

Iridology is a remarkably similar notion.  Diseases are detected and
diagnosed by examining the iris of the eye.  A good critique of
iridology: Russell S. Worrall, "Iridology: Diagnosis or Delusion?",
SI, vol. 7 no. 3, pp. 23-35.

4.7: Does acupuncture work?

There is evidence that acupuncture treatment has an analgesic ("pain
killing") effect.  The mechanism seems to involve the endogenous
opiate system (at least in part), but the exact mechanism by which
endogenous opiates are released by acupuncture skin stimulation is not
yet known.  It does not appear that the effect can be explained simply
by pain caused by the needles.  However it is possible to achieve
similar effects by suggestion alone, suggesting that acupuncture is no
more than a placebo.

There have been reports of measurable physiological effects,
apparently via local changes in the activity of the sympathetic and
parasympathetic nervous systems.  While much more detail remains to be
elucidated, this is at least a testable hypothesis which brings
acupuncture within the realm of science.

This suggests that acupuncture might be a useful tool in pain
management, but that it is unlikely to be of value in curing the
underlying cause of the pain.

The traditional theory of acupuncture involves balancing the yin and
yang (male and female principles) which flow in pathways through the
body.  Nothing bearing any resemblance to this has been found by
medical researchers.


Skrabanek, Petr: Acupuncture: Past, Present and Future. In: Examining
Holistic Medicine by Stalker D & Glymour G (eds), Prometheus Books, NY

Skrabanek, Petr: Acupuncture and Endorphins. Lancet 1984;i:220

Skrabanek, Petr: Acupuncture and the Age of Unreason. Lancet

Skrabanek, Petr: Acupuncture-Needless Needles. Irish Medical

A 1977 study, Stern, Brown, Ulett, and Sletten, 'A comparison of
hypnosis, acupuncture, morphine, Valium, aspirin, and placebo in the
management of experimentally induced pain,' Annals_of_the_New_York_
Academy_of_Sciences, 296, 175-193, found that acupuncture,
morphine, and hypnostic analgesia all produced significantly reduced
pain ratings for cold pressor and ischemic pain.
Mayer,Price, Raffi, 1977,
"Antagonism of acupuncture analgesia in man by the narcotic
antagonist naloxone," _Brain_Research_, 121, 368-372.

Sjolund, Terenius, Erikson, 1977,
"Increased cerebrospinal fluid levels of endorphins after electroacupuncture,"
Acta_Physiologica_Scandinavica, 100, 382-384.

"Practical application of acupuncture analgesia" and it's by Cheng, 
SB (1973 Apr 27), _Nature 242(5400)_: 559-60.  

"Electrophysiological measures during acupuncture-induced surgical 
analgesia" by Starr A (1989 Sep) _Arch Neurol 46(9)_: 1010-12.  

4.8: What about psychic surgery?

Psychic surgeons have claimed to be able to make magical incisions,
remove cancers and perform other miracles.  To date, no investigation
of a psychic surgeon has ever found real paranormal ability.  Instead
they have found one of two things:

 1: Simple conjuring tricks.  The "surgeons" in these cases are
    confidence tricksters who prey on the desperate and the foolish.

 2: Delusions of grandeur.  These people are even more dangerous than
    the first category, as their treatments may actually cause harm in
    addition to whatever was wrong with the patient in the first

4.9: What is Crystal Healing?

The belief that carrying a small quartz crystal will make you a
healthier person.  People selling these crystals use phrases like "the
body's natural energy fields" and "tuning into the right vibrational
frequencies".  All this sounds vaguely scientific but means absolutely
nothing.  Crystal Healing is mostly a New Age idea.  See the section
on the New Age below for more information.

4.10: Does religious healing work?

Miraculous healing is often put forward as a proof of the existence
and approval of God.  The Catholic and Christian Scientist churches in
particular often claim that believers have been healed, but none of
these healings have stood up to careful scrutiny.  However it should
be noted that the Catholic church does investigate alleged miracles.

One famous "healing" which has been carefully investigated is the case
of Mrs. Jean Neil.  Many people have seen the video of her getting out
of a wheel-chair and running around the stadium at meeting led by the
German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke.  This was investigated by Dr. Peter
May, a GP and member of the General Synod of the Church of England.
His findings were reported in the Skeptic (organ of the UK Skeptics).
Here is a summary of the report.  [Any errors are mine.  PAJ].

May found that Mrs. Neil was helpful and enthusiastic when he
contacted her, and there is little doubt that her quality of life has
improved greatly since the "healing".  However May was unable to find
any physical changes.  His report lists each of the illnesses claimed
by Mrs. Neil, and he found that they were either not recorded by
doctors previous to the healing or that no physical change had taken
place.  It seems that the only change in Mrs. Neil was in her mental
state.  Before the healing she was depressed and introverted.
Afterwards she became happy and outgoing.

A more sinister aspect of the story is the presentation of the Neil
case in a video promoted by CfaN Productions.  This represented Mrs.
Neil before the healing as a "hopeless case", implied that she had a
single serious illness rather than a series of less major ones, and
included the false statement that she had been confined to a
wheelchair for 25 years (in fact Mrs. Neil had used a wheelchair for
about 15 months and could still walk, although with great difficulty).
A report on her spine was carefully edited to include statements about
her new pain-free movement but to exclude the statement that there was
no evidence of physical changes.

For the full report, see "The Skeptic" p9, vol. 5, no. 5, Sept. 91.  Back
issues are available from "The Skeptic (Dept. B), P.O. Box 475,
Manchester, M60 2TH, U.K.  Price UKL 2.10 for UK, UKL 2.70 elsewhere.

The video is entitled "Something to Shout About --- The Documentation
of a Miracle".  Presumably "CfaN Productions" is part of Bonke's
organisation "Christ for all Nations" [does anyone have an address?]

Of course, this does not disprove the existence of miraculous healing.
Even Mrs. Neil's improvement could have been due to divine
intervention rather than a sub-conscious decision to get better (as
most skeptics would conclude, although the May report carefully
refrains from doing so).  I include this summary here because the Neil
case is often cited by evangelical Christians as an undeniable
miracle.  In fact the case demonstrates that even such dramatic events
as a cripple getting up and running may not be so very inexplicable.

For more general coverage of this topic, see James Randi's book "The
Faith Healers".  Free Inquiry magazine has also run exposes on
fraudulent faith healers like Peter Popoff and W.V. Grant.

4.11: What harm does it do anyway?

People have died when alternative practitioners told them to stop
taking conventional treatment.  Children have died when their parents
refused to give them conventional treatment.  These issues matter.

Most alternative treatments are harmless, so the "complementary
medicine" approach where conventional and alternative therapies
proceed in parallel will not hurt anyone physically (although it is a
waste of time and money).

Creation versus Evolution

5.1: Is the Bible evidence of anything?

Apart from the beliefs of those who wrote it, no.  It is true that
most Christians take the truth of at least some parts of the bible as
an article of faith, but non-Christians are not so constrained.
Quoting the bible to such a person as "evidence" will simply cause
them to question the accuracy of the bible.  See the talk.atheism FAQ
lists for more details.

Some things in the bible are demonstrably true, but this does not make
the bible evidence, since there are also things in the bible that are
demonstrably false.

5.2: Could the Universe have been created old?

An argument is sometimes put forward along the following lines:

    We know from biblical evidence (see above) that the Universe
    is about 6,000 years old.  Therefore God created it 6,000
    years ago with fossils in the ground and light on its way from
    distant stars, so that there is no way of telling the real age
    of the Universe simply by looking at it.

This is the "Omphalos" (Navel) theory of Edmund Gosse.  Adam had no
mother so did not need a navel, but was created by God with one, i.e.
physical proof of connection with a nonexistent mother.  Similarly, at
the moment of Creation the world was chock-full of things that must
have happened yesterday, when yesterday did not exist.

The hypothesis is unfalsifiable, and therefore not a scientific one
(see the section on the scientific method).  It could also be made for
any date in the past (like last Tuesday).  Finally it requires that
God, who is alleged to speak to us through His Works, should be lying
to us by setting up a misleading Creation.  This seems to be rather
inconsistent with Biblical claims of God being the source of all

One might also argue that in creating the universe "old", God also
created the past of the universe.  This "fake" past must be a perfect
match with the "real" past (otherwise we could spot the join).  Hence
the events from before the moment of "creation" are just as real as
the events which have happened since.  Since God is supposed to exist
independently of time and space, this makes the whole idea

Note that this argument is not put forward by creation scientists.
They hold that modern science has misinterpreted the evidence about
the age of the universe.

5.3: What about Carbon-14 dating?

Isotope dating takes advantage of the fact that radioactive materials
break down at a rate independent of their environment. Any solid
object that formed containing radioactive materials therefore steadily
loses them to decay. If it is possible to compare the amount of
radioactive material currently present with the amount originally
present, one can deduce how long ago the object was formed. The amount
originally present cannot, of course, be observed directly, but can be
determined by indirect means, such as identifying the decay products.

C-14 dating uses an unstable isotope of carbon that is constantly
being produced in the upper atmosphere by cosmic rays. This process is
assumed to be in equilibrium with the decay of C-14 throughout the
biosphere, so the proportion of carbon that is C-14 as opposed to the
stable C-12 and C-13 isotopes is essentially constant in any living
organism.  When an organism dies, it stops taking up new carbon from
its environment, but the C-14 in its body continues to decay. By
measuring the amount of C-14 left in organic remains, one can
establish how long ago the organism they came from died. Because C-14
has a half-life of only a few thousand years, C-14 dating can only be
used for remains less than a few tens of thousands of years old--
after that, the C-14 is entirely gone, to all practical purposes.
Other isotopic dating techniques, such as potassium-argon dating, use
much longer-lived radionuclides and can reliably measure dates
billions of years in the past.

Actually the production rate isn't all that constant, so the amount of
C-14 in the biosphere varies somewhat with time.  You also need to be
sure that the only source of carbon for the organism was atmospheric
carbon (via plants).  The nominal date from a C-14 reading, based on
the present concentration, therefore has to be corrected to get the
real date --- but once the correction has been calculated using an
independent dating tool like dendrochronology (see below), it can be
applied to almost any sample.

There are some known anomalies in C14 dating, such as molluscs that
get their carbon from water.  Creationists seem to make a habit of
taking samples that are known to be useless for C14 dating, presenting
them to scientists for examination, representing them as other than
they are, and then claiming the anomalous dates they get for them as
evidence that C14 dating is all a sham.

While it is true that there *may* be unknown errors in some dating
methods (see the note in section 0 about science "proving" things)
this assertion cannot be used to write off isotope dating as evidence
of an ancient Earth.  This is because:

o There are several independent ways of dating objects, including
  radio-isotopes, dendrochronology, position in rock strata etc.
  These all give a consistent picture.

o Dating methods all point to an *old* Earth, about *half a million*
  times older than the Creationists claim.  This requires dating
  methods which are accurate up to 6,000 years ago and then suddenly
  start to give completely wrong (but still consistent) answers.  Even
  if our dating methods are out by a factor of 10 or 100, the earth is
  still thousands of times older than Creationists claim.

5.4: What is dendrochronology?

The science of dating wood by a study of annual rings.

[These figures and references come from a longer summary e-mailed to me
by <>.  Any mistakes are mine.  PAJ]

Everyone knows that when you cut down a tree the cut surface shows a
series of concentric rings, and that one of these rings is added each
year as the tree grows.  The lighter part of the ring is the summer
growth and the darker part is the winter growth.  Hence you can date a
tree by counting the rings.

But the rings are not evenly spaced.  Some rings are wider than
others.  These correspond to good and poor growing seasons.  So if you
have a piece of wood cut down a few thousand years ago, you can date
it by comparing the pattern of rings in your sample to known patterns
in recently cut trees (Bristlecone pines exist which are over 4600
years old, and core samples allow ring counting without killing the

Now for the clever bit.  The tree from which your sample came may have
been old before any trees now alive were even saplings.  So you can
extend the known pattern of rings back even further, and hence date
samples of wood which are even older.  By lining up samples of wood in
this way, dendrochronologists have been able to produce a continuous
pattern of rings going back around 9,900 years.  This easily refutes
the chronology of Bishop Usher, who calculated from dates and ages
given in the Bible that the Earth was created in 4004 BC.

Dendrochronology is also valuable in providing calibration data for
C14 and other isotope dating methods.  See the previous question for
more details.


    "Dendrochronology of the Bristlecone Pine....."
    by C. W. Ferguson, 1970.  Published in a book called
    "Radiocarbon Variations and Absolute Chronology"

This takes the record back 7484 years.  More recently there is

    Bernd Becker, Bernd Kromer & Peter Timborn
    "A stable-isotope tree-ring timescale of the Late 
    Glacial/Holocene boundary"
    Nature 353 (1991) pp. 647-649

The authors have "established a 9,928 year absolute dated
dendrochronological record of Holocene oak." Actually, their timescale goes
even further back, because by overlap with a pine tree sequence they date
the end of the Late Glacial at a minimum age op 10,970 BP.

5.5: What is evolution?  Where can I find out more?

Many creationist "refutations" of evolution are based on a straw-man
argument.  The technique is to misrepresent the theory of evolution,
putting forward an absurd theory as "what scientists claim".  The
absurdity of this pseudo-evolution theory is then ridiculed.

* Debunking all these refutations would take a lot of space.  Instead I
  suggest that anyone interested should go and read the FAQ lists over
  on  These contain good explanations of what evolution is
  (and isn't).  The Welcome FAQ is posted every 14 days to
  news.answers and talk.answers.  It contains instructions for FTPing
  the other FAQs.

* Books and essays on the subject by Stephen Jay Gould are good, and
  "The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins is the sort of book that
  makes you want to find a creationist to argue with.

  Also see "Darwinism Defended: a guide to the Evolution Controversies"
  by Michael Ruse (Addison-Wesley, 1982).

* A. Strahler, _Science and Earth History_ (1987, Prometheus Books,
  ISBN 0-87975-414-1, 552 pp).

  Strahler's book is heavily referenced, thoroughly indexed, and covers
  most of the common creationist arguments.  There are only a handful
  of books explicitly aimed at addressing creationist claims, and this
  one is the best of the lot.  NCSE sells Strahler's book for $47.95
  ($38.55 for members).

* The NCSE is the only national (American) anti-creationism organization.
  NCSE is affiliated with the AAAS (American Association for the
  Advancement of Science -- publishers of the journal _Science_) and
  NSTA (National Science Teacher's Association).  The organization is
  mainly aimed at negating creationists' efforts to get into public
  school science classes.

  There are no membership requirements.  Membership costs $25 per year
  ($32 foreign, $39 foreign air delivery).  All members receive the
  quarterly newsletter _NCSE Reports_ and the semi-annual _Creation/
  Evolution Journal_, as well as discounts from their book ordering
  service.  NCSE sells a decent selection of books, taped speeches and
  debates, and other relevant material.

        NCSE (National Center for Science Education)
                P.O. Box 9477 / Berkeley, CA 94709
                (510) 526-1674

5.6: "The second law of thermodynamics says....

...that entropy is always increasing.  Entropy is a measure of the
randomness in a system.  So the universe is getting more and more
disordered.  But if this is so, how can life happen, since
evolutionists claim essentially that life is a system that becomes
more ordered with time?"

[ The following answer was kindly contributed by 
  Dr. Roydon A. Fraser, Associate Professor,
  University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, CANADA.
  email <>. ]

This line of reasoning would be valid if it were not for the simple
fact that the above is a misstatement of the second law of
thermodynamics.  A correct statement reads,

     "The second law of thermodynamics states that the net entropy
      within an ISOLATED system is always increasing or remains

An isolated system is one that does not undergo a change of state due to
external work or heat transfer.  The entropy in an isolated system in
equilibrium is constant at its maximum value.

The major key here to demonstrating that life on earth does not
violate the second law is to realize that the earth is a NON-isolated
system.  The earth is continuously absorbing radiative heat transfer
energy from the sun and continuously transferring thermal energy to
outer-space through thermal emissions.  Because the earth participates
in these heat transfer processes it is non-isolated.

For instance, when you freeze water the molecules of H2O line up in
beautifully organised crystals.  This organisation does not violate
the second law of thermodynamics because the work done by the freezer
in extracting the heat from the water has caused the total entropy of
the *universe* to rise, even though the entropy of the *water* has

Similarly the existence of life on earth has not decreased the entropy
of the universe, so the second law has not been violated.
From a classical thermodynamics perspective the universe as a whole is
isolated, and hence, the net entropy (disorder) of the universe
continues to increase (the situation where the universe's entropy
remains constant does not exist because we live in a universe with

The second law states that the entropy of the sun plus the earth's
entropy plus the entropy of outer-space (i.e, the net entropy) cannot
decrease.  It is completely acceptable for the entropy of the earth to
decrease provided the net entropy of the sun and outer-space
increases.  As an analogy consider the freezing of water into ice.
The entropy of ice is less than that of water because ice molecules
are more organized (they are in a crystal lattice) than water
molecules (which move about randomly).  That is, the water's entropy
has decreased, but only at the expense of increasing the
entropy in the room and at the expense of a net increase in the
universe's entropy (i.e., by the second law the entropy increase in
the room must be equal to or be greater than the entropy decrease
experienced by the water).

It is interesting to observe that an enormous amount of entropy
production is actually associated with the formation of life on earth.
According to Plank (father of quantum mechanics) the entropy flow from
the sun is proportional to the reciprocal of the sun's temperature.
More precisely it is four thirds times the heat transfer from the sun
all divided by the temperature of the sun (about 6000 kelvin).  By the
law of conservation of energy (and ignoring global warming) the heat
flow from the sun to the earth is equal to the thermal radiative heat
transfer from the earth to outer-space.  The entropy flow from the
earth is therefore four thirds times the heat transfer from the sun
all divided by the temperature of the earth as seen from outer-space
(about 300 kelvin = 27 celsius).  Therefore, the entropy flow from the
earth is greater than the entropy flow to the earth which means that
entropy has been produced on earth (via friction, etc.).

In conclusion the existence of life on earth does not violate the
second law of thermodynamics.

5.7: How could living organisms arise "by chance"?

This is actually a less sophisticated version of the question above.
Consider freezing water as an example.  The wonderful arrangement
in crystals arises from the random movement of water molecules.  But
ice crystals do not require divine intervention as an explanation, and
neither does the evolution of life.

Also, consider a casino.  An honest casino makes a profit from
roulette wheels.  The result of a spin of a particular wheel is purely
random, but casinos make very predictable profits.  So in evolutionary
theory, even though the occurrence of a particular mutation is random,
the overall effect of improved adaptation to the environment over time
is not.

The actual origin of life is more problematical.  If you stick some
ammonia, methane and a few other simple chemicals into a jar and
subject them to ultraviolet light then after a week or two you get a
mixture of organic molecules, including amino acids (the building
blocks of protein).  So current theories propose a "primordial soup"
of dilute organic chemicals.  Somewhere a molecule happened to form
which could make copies of itself out of other molecules floating
around in the soup, and the rest is history.

Ilya Prigogine's work in non-equilibrium thermodynamics (for which he
received a Nobel prize) shows that thermodynamic systems far out of
equilibrium tend to produce spontaneous order through what he calls
"dissipative structures".  Dissipative structures trade a *local*
increase in orderliness for faster overall increase in entropy.  Life
can be viewed as a dissipative structure in exactly this sense --- not
a wildly improbable freak of combinations but as a natural, indeed
inevitable result of the laws of thermodynamics.

For more on this, see the relevant chapter in "Paradigms Lost" by John
L. Casti (Avon paperback, 1989).

5.8: But doesn't the human body seem to be well designed?

Not to me.  Consider a few pieces of the human body for a moment.  The
back for instance.  The reason we poor humans suffer so much from back
problems is that the back is actually not well designed.  And what
about human reproduction.  Can you imagine any engineer being proud of
having designed *that*?

5.9: What about the thousands of scientists who have become Creationists?

This outrageous claim is frequently made by creationists, but somehow
these mystery scientists are never identified.  It is claimed that
these conversions have been caused by "the evidence", but this
evidence never seems to be forthcoming either.

To test this claim, try looking up "creation" and "bible" in any
biology or paleontology journal index.

Even if this claim were true, it would not be a reason to become a
creationist.  The only reason for adopting creationism as a scientific
theory would be the production of convincing evidence.

5.10: Is the Speed of Light Decreasing?

The origin of this claim is a paper by Norman & Setterfield which
plots various historical measurements of the speed of light and claims
to show a steady decrease.  Extrapolating backwards, they conclude
that the Universe is only about 6,000 years old.  This also
conveniently explains how we can see stars more than 6,000 light-years

The first point about their paper is that it was originally
distributed in Stanford Research Institute covers, and is sometimes
described as an SRI report.  However SRI did not have anything to do
with the report and are tired of answering queries about it.

Norman & Setterfield appear to have selected their data in order to
support their hypothesis: graphs include only those points which are
close to the "theoretical" curve while omitting points which are not
close to the curve.  This curve gives an inverse cosecant relationship
between time and the speed of light.  There is no justification for
such a curve: the usual curve for a decaying value is exponential and
this would have fitted the plotted data just as well as the inverse
cosecant chosen by Norman and Setterfield.

5.11: What about Velikovsky?

In the 1950s a Russian psychologist named Immanuel Velikovsky wrote
"Worlds in Collision".  This book and its successors are remarkable
for the density of scientific, archeological and mythological howlers.
There are far too many to list here, but most are sufficient to cast
serious doubt on his knowledge of any of these fields, and many are so
large that even one is enough to refute the entire theory.

Much of Velilovsky's proof lies in statements of the form "The reason
for <X> is not known.  My theory explains it as follows:".  Many of
these reasons were in fact known when Velikovsky wrote, and many
others have been discovered since.  None of these reasons bear any
relationship to Velikovksy's theory.  The predictive value of the
theory appears to be nil.

The books lack any mathematical analysis at all, which is strange
considering that mathematics is the language of science, especially
physics and astronomy.

Some of the more noticeable howlers are:

1: Strange orbits which cannot be explained in terms of Newtonian
   mechanics (or indeed anything less than an angel sitting on a
   planet and steering it like a starship!).

2: The Earth's spin being altered suddenly by a close encounter with
   Venus, and then restored.  Where to begin?  Planets just don't do

3: A confusion between hydrocarbons (e.g petrol, mineral oil, tar) and
   carbohydrates (e.g sugar, starch, glucose).

4: World-shaking events (literally) which Velikovsky assumes were
   accurately recorded by the Israelites but not even noticed anywhere
   else, even quite close by.

5: Ancient records (e.g Mayan, Sumerian and Chinese astronomical
   observations) which contradict Velikovsky's theory.

Velikovsy's supporters often cite a conspiracy theory to explain why
the world of science refuses to take these ideas seriously.  See
section 0 of this FAQ.

For more information, see:

Worlds in Collision
        Immanuel Velikovsky

Earth in Upheaval
        Immanuel Velikovsky

Velikovsky Reconsidered
        The Editors of Pensee
        (has a lot of his papers in it, along with other papers pro-V.)

Scientists Confront Velikovsky
        Donald Goldsmith

Beyond Velikovsky:  The History of a Public Controversy
        Henry H. Bauer

Broca's Brain
    Carl Sagan

Jim Meritt <> has posted a long article on which systematically demolishes Velikovsky's ideas.  I
don't know if it is archived anywhere.  This section attempts to
summarise it.  Most discussion of Velikovsky occurs on

5.12: Are there human footprints from 250 million years ago?

Claims that human footprints have been found mixed in with dinosaur
tracks have been made since the 1960s.  These fall into three groups:

a: Carvings by ancient native americans.

b: Modern carvings.

c: Mis-identified dinosaur footprints.

No credible evidence exists for human footprints in strata older
than a few million years.


Ingalis, A. G., 1940, The Carboniferous mystery.
Scientific American, v. 162, p. 14.

Jochmans, W., 1979, Strange Relicts from the depths of
the Earth. Forgotten Ages Research Society, Lincoln, NB.

Monroe, J. S., 1987, Creationism, Human Footprints, and
Flood Geology. Journal of Geological Education. v. 35, p. 93.

Owen, D. D., 1842, Regarding human foot-prints in solid
limestone. Journal of Science, v. 43, p. 14-32.

Sloan, R. E., 1983, The association of "human" and fossil
footprints. in Evolution Versus Creationism: The Public
Education Controversy, J. P. Zetterberg, ed., pp. 354-357,
Oryx Press.

Strahler, A. N., 1989, Chapter 48 Out of Order Fossils. in
Science and Earth History - The Evolution/Creation
Controversy, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York.

Von Fange, E. A., 1981, Time Upside Down. Offset
House Printing, Indianapolis, Indiana, 41 p.

Weber, C. G., 1981, Paluxy man - the creationist Piltdown:
Creation/Evolution, v. 6, pp. 16-22.


WARNING: Whatever the truth about firewalking may be, it is a
     potentially dangerous activity.  Do not attempt it without
     expert guidance.

[Please could one of the firewalkers on the net contribute a paragraph
or two for this section. PAJ]

6.1: Is fire-walking possible?

Yes.  It is possible to walk on a bed of burning wood without being

6.2: Can science explain fire-walking?

There are a number of theories which have been put forward to explain
firewalking.  Any or all may be the explanation for a particular

o The dry wood coals used by firewalkers conduct heat very poorly.
  The coal itself may be very hot but it will not transfer that heat
  to something touching it.

o The coals are a very uneven surface, and the actual surface area of
  foot touching the coals is very small.  Hence the conduction of heat
  is even slower.

o Wood coals have a very low heat capacity, so although they are very
  hot there is actually not much heat energy to be transferred to the

o Firewalkers do not spend very much time on the coals, and they keep
  moving.  Jan Willem Nienhuys <> adds that about 1
  second total contact time per foot seems on the safe side.

o Blood is a good conductor of heat.  What heat does get through is
  quickly conducted away from the soles of the feet.

o The "Leidenfrost" effect may play a part.  This occurs when a cold,
  wet object (like a foot) touches a hot, dry object (like a burning
  coal).  The water vaporises, creating a barrier of steam between the
  hot and cold objects.  Hence the two objects do not actually touch
  and evaporation from the cold object is much slower than might
  otherwise be expected.  Since steam is a relatively poor conductor
  of heat the foot does not get burned.  Jearl Walker, of Scientific
  American's "The Amateur Scientist" column, explains the Leidenfrost
  effect in the August 1977 issue; he walked across coals unharmed and
  attributes this to the Leidenfrost effect.  Other scientists believe
  that the Leidenfrost effect is unimportant in firewalking.

Pain perception is not as simple as everyday experience suggests.
Some people experience great pain without any apparent cause.
Others experience little or no pain despite great injury.  Cognitive
and emotional factors seem to be important.  A belief that one has
control over the pain seems to reduce the level of pain experienced.
Fear seems to increase it.

Firewalking is usually done in a religious or spiritual context.  This
would tend to reduce the level of pain experienced by firewalkers
without affecting the amount of physical damage done to the feet.

Some firewalkers put forward mystical explanations of why firewalking
is possible without serious physical harm.  A few skeptics have
challenged these firewalkers to stand on hot metal plates instead of
coals.  Others have pointed out that making such a challenge in the
belief that the firewalker would be seriously hurt is of dubious

Jay Mann from New Zealand writes:

> The NZ CSICOP had a mass firewalk at its annual meeting in
> Christchurch about 5 years ago.  We had a lengthy afternoon talk by a
> professor of physics, complete with demonstrations of tossing hot
> bread loaves back and forth. The fire was built in mid-afternoon, and
> the firewalk took place after the society banquet, that is, about 10
> p.m.
> One *never* walks on live coals.  The fire is lit hours before the
> actual walk. Large burning coals are removed. The firebed is carefully
> raked to provide a continuous smooth layer of ashes over all burning
> embers. By this time, it is dark and the firebed is seen to glow
> ominously.  It is still hot, and potatoes can be cooked in the ashes. On
> the other hand, the rate of heat transfer through the ash is
> time-limited.  If participants take steady strides, even city-folk with
> soft soles can manage at least five steps.  In the Christchurch version,
> we stepped in a small puddle of water at the end of the firewalk; I have
> seen at least one description of a "commercial" firewalk where cooling
> water was also provided.
> In Christchurch, dozens of people went across.  Some went back for two
> or three passages.  The bed was re-raked periodically to restore the ash
> layer. There were two or three minor burns and blisters the next day,
> mostly people who had kicked embers up between their toes.  Having done
> a firewalk is a wonderful conversational topic, and most people will not
> believe that you didn't have some sort of mystic faith and determination
> to "protect" your body.
> Denis Dutton, then president of the NZSCICOP, later went to New Guinea
> on a professional trip.  There he trained one local tribe in firewalking
> as way to attract the tourist dollar.  The first few firewalkers, in a
> private test, were cautious, but eventually the whole tribe-- man,
> woman, and child -- gleefully ran through the "fire".  For public
> performance, the tribe added a lot of magical incantations and rituals.
> Denis asked them how they would explain their knowledge of the trick.
> They replied that they would say "an alien from the skies came and
> taught us".  You can imagine that people with tough soles from barefoot
> walking could tolerate more exposure soft-soled city people.

New Age

7.1: What do New Agers believe?

An awful lot, it would seem.  New Age is not a "religion" in the
traditional sense of a defined set of spiritual beliefs.  Instead it
seems to be a label applied to a loose collection of religious cults,
organisations and pseudo-sciences.  Some of the more common themes

o Belief that conscious thought molds reality to some extent.

o Belief that religions are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
  Eastern religions, especially "cult" religions, seem popular.
  Mainstream eastern religions such as Hinduism and Sihkism don't seem
  to attract New Age believers.  Most New Agers are actively against
  organised Christianity, but some favour heretical variants such as
  Gnosticism.  Almost any pre-Christian religious tradition has
  followers in the New Age camp.

o Divination, especially Tarot, I-Ching, and Western and Chinese

o Green politics, especially the more extreme and mystical "deep
  green" movements.  

o Flying saucers.

o "Alternative" health (see the earlier section).

o Vegetarianism.

o Pacifism.

o Conspiracy theories to explain why the rest of the world does not
  follow the same beliefs.

o Rejection of science and logic as tools for understanding the
  universe.  A reliance on feelings and intuition as guides to action.

o Pseudo-scientific jargon.  New Agers talk about "rebalancing energy
  fields" and "vibrational frequencies".  These sound vaguely
  scientific but in fact have no meaning at all.

Bear in mind that not all of these are bad just because New Age people
follow them.  And by the same token, a person who follows one strand
of New Age belief may not follow any others.

Many people are of the belief that Satanism and New Age are
synonymous. This is incorrect.  Many (probably most) people involved
in New Age religions *do not* believe in Heaven, Hell, the Christian
God, the Christian Devil or any other purely Christian construct.

The equation Paganism = Satanism comes from the history of
Christianity.  As the Church spread through Europe it asserted its
authority by banning any competing religions.  Since the Catholic
Church was the exclusive holder of the Truth, it followed that any
competing religion was False, and must therefore be an attempt by
Satan to mislead humanity.  Hence anyone following another religion
was doing the work of Satan.

For more information on these ideas, check out the alt.pagan FAQ.

7.2: What is the Gaia hypothesis?

There are several versions.  The following taxonomy was suggested by
James Kirchner in "Scientists on Gaia":

* Influential Gaia: the biota has a substantial influence over certain
  aspects of the abiotic world

* Coevolutionary Gaia: the biota influences the abiotic environment, and
  the latter influences the evolution of the biota by Darwinian processes.

* Homeostatic Gaia: the interplay between biota and environment is 
  characterized by stabilizing negative feedback loops.

* Teleological Gaia: the atmosphere is kept in homeostasis not just by
  the biosphere, but in some sense _for_ the biosphere.

* Optimizing Gaia: the biota manipulates its environment for the purpose
  of creating biologically favorable conditions for itself.

I'd say no one disputes Influential Gaia, and no serious scientist
supports Optimizing Gaia (though some of Lovelock's earlier remarks
tend in that direction).  Most of the scientific debate surrounds
Coevolutionary and Homeostatic Gaia.  Some point to Le Chatelier's
principle (a system in equilibrium, when disturbed, reacts to as to
tend to restore the original equilibrium).  However the ice ages
suggest that the Earth is not in long-term equilibrium.


For a range of interesting perspectives on the Gaia hypothesis, see
the SF novel "Earth" by David Brin.

James Lovelock, "Ages of Gaia", W. W. Norton, 1988. 

"Scientists on Gaia", ed. by Stephen Schneider and Penelope Boston,
MIT Press 1991.

   The latter book is a collection of papers presented at an American
   Geophysical Union Symposium in 1988. Most are technical, but the 
   introductory papers are eminently readable. The whole range of
   scientific opinion is displayed, from Lovelock and Margulis to
   critics such as James Kirchner.

7.3: Was Nostradamus a prophet?

No.  His supporters are very good at predicting events after the fact,
often relying on doubtful translations of the original French to
bolster their case.  But they have had absolutely no success at
predicting the future.  Up until a few years ago most Nostradamus
books were predicting a nuclear war between America and the USSR.
None of them predicted the breakup of the Soviet block.

Nostradamus was a Protestant in a time and place when the Inquisition
was torturing and burning heretics.  To avoid their attention,
Nostradamus couched his political letters to other Protestants in
obscure symbolism.  It is these writings that are now being
reinterpreted as prophecy, despite straightforward interpretations
which link them to the time Nostradamus wrote them.  If you try hard
enough, you can find connections between the symbols and numbers used
by Nostradamus and almost anything else, particularly if you allow
multi-lingual puns and rhymes.

A good general reference on Nostradamus is:

    The Mask of Nostradamus
    James Randi
    Charles Scribner's Sons
    ISBN 0-684-19056-7
    BF1815.N8R35  1990

This is now available from Prometheus in paperback.

7.4: Does astrology work?

No.  A number of studies have been done which have failed to find any
predictive power in astrology.  Psychologists have also done studies
showing that people will agree with almost any statement made about
them provided that it is a mild compliment.  Hence testimonials and
personal impressions about how accurate a horoscope is are not
evidence that astrology works.  See also section 0.9 on cold reading.

One report about research into astrology is:
    Carlson, Shawn. (1985) "A double-blind test of astrology",
    Nature, 318 (Dec. 5), 419-425.

Arguments against this position can be found in the alt.astrology FAQ.

7.4.1: Could astrology work by gravity?

Some people argue that we are affected by the gravity of the planets
(just as tides are caused by the gravity of the Moon and Sun), and
that this is the connection between the motion of the planets and
mundane events on Earth.

Leaving aside the fact that astrology doesn't work (see above),
gravity is simply too weak to do this.  Gravitational force on a mass
(such as a human being) decreases with the square of the distance to
the other mass.  But the Earth is affected just as strongly by the
other mass, and accelerates slightly towards it.  So the net effect on
us is nil.  What is important is the difference in gravity between the
two sides of the mass.  This decreases with the *third* power of the
distance (i.e. very fast) but increases with the distance between the
near and far sides.  Hence the Moon and Sun cause tides because the
Earth is very large.  But the difference in gravity between one end of
a human and the other is absolutely minuscule.

Also, if this were the mechanism behind astrology then the most
significant thing in astrology would be the position of the Moon, with
the time of day coming second (as it is for tides).  The position of
the planets would be completely irrelevant because they are so much
further away than the Moon and so much smaller than the Sun.

7.4.2: What is the `Mars Effect'?

French scientist Michael Gauquelin has discovered an apparent
correlation between the position of some planets at the time of birth
and the career followed as an adult.  The strongest correlation is
between the time when Mars rises on the day of birth and athletic
prowess.  However:

o The Effect seems to come and go depending on exactly what the sample
  population is.  Most of the controversy seems to revolve around who
  did what to which sample populations.

o Nothing found by Gauqelin bears any resemblance to classical
  astrology, so claims that Gauqelin has somehow "validated" astrology
  are bogus.

One of CSICOPs earliest investigations was the Mars Effect.
Unfortunately there is evidence that CSICOP failed to play by the

For more information, see

Michel Gauquelin, _Neoastrology: A Copernican Revolution_, 1991,
   N.Y.: Viking Arkana, was, I believe, his last book.

Patrick Curry, "Research on the Mars Effect," _Zetetic Scholar_ #9,
   pp. 34-53.  This is followed by a number of critical commentaries,
   which continue in _Zetetic Scholar_ #s 10 and 11.

Curry's article and Richard Kammann's article in _ZS_ #10 are the
most detailed and reliable sources of information on CSICOP's
examination of Gauquelin.  You should, of course, also read the
U.S. test reports in the Winter 1979 _Skeptical Inquirer_--pay closest
attention to Dennis Rawlins' report, which correctly criticizes both
the main CSICOP report and Gauquelin's report.  Also of great
importance is Abell, Kurtz, and Zelen's "Reappraisal" of the Mars
effect study in the Spring 1983 _Skeptical Inquirer_, and Suitbert
Ertel's "Update on the 'Mars Effect'" in the Winter 1992 _SI_.

You can obtain back issues of the _Zetetic Scholar_ from Marcello
Truzzi, Dept. of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI
48197.  I suspect that issues 9, 10, and 11 are now available only
in photocopied form.  In 1987 they were $8 each.

7.4.3: But couldn't there be some undiscovered connection between
       people and planets?

Well of course there *could* be.  There *could* be an invisible snorg
reading this over your shoulder right now (don't look round).  If
there was repeatable evidence that astrology worked then scientists
would look into it.

7.5: What is Kirlian Photography?

[Information from a posting by Dave Palmer <>]

The technique involves applying a high-frequency, high-voltage
electrical source (such as from a Tesla coil) to a subject. The source
is also very low-current, so the subject does not get electrocuted
(it's the current in electricity that does the harm, not the voltage).
When this is done, an "aura" of lightning-like electrical discharges
forms around the subject.  This field is visible to the naked eye (in
a dark room, anyway), and may be photographed. Adherents of Kirlian
photography claim that this field is some sort of "life energy" which
may indicate things about the subject, such as health, psychic
ability, and so forth. They claim that Kirlian photography sometimes
shows the "phantom effect." That is, if a limb is amputated from the
subject (or, less gruesomely, if a piece is torn off a leaf), that the
field will still show the missing piece for a time, because its "life
energy" is still there.

There is no truth to the claims that it shows any sort of "aura" or
"life energy." It is merely a coronal discharge, complete with ozone
production. The most damaging argument against the "life energy" claim
is that Kirlian photography works on ANY subject that conducts
electricity, even completely lifeless metal, or synthetic sponges
soaked in salt water.

The field produced jumps around quite a bit. Because the shape of the
field changes, it can occasionally appear to outline non-existent
areas of the subject, hence the phantom effect.  Dave Palmer reports
producing the phantom effect with tin foil about as often with leaves.
Far more often, he got false phantom effects, that is, pictures of
pieces of the subject that had never existed.

Strange Machines: Free Energy and Anti-Gravity

8.1: Why don't electrical perpetual motion machines work?

Electrical perpetual motion machinists usually present a machine that
causes a small battery to generate a huge amount of power.  The most
common problem here is that the "huge amount of power" was incorrectly
measured.  AC power measurements are tricky; you can't just multiply
the voltage and current, because they may be out of phase.  Thus,
measuring 10 Volts and 10 Amps could indicate anything from 0 to 100
Watts, depending on the power factor.  In addition, most AC meters
expect a sinusoidal wave; if they are given some other wave they may
be totally wrong.  A simple argument against these machines is; "If
they can provide so much energy, why do they need the battery to keep

8.2: Why don't mechanical perpetual motion machines work?

Mechanical perpetual motion machines depend on rising and descending
weights.  The problem is that the amount of energy that you get out of
a descending weight is exactly the same amount that it took to raise
the weight in the first place: gravity is said to be a "conservative"
force.  So no matter what the weights do, you can't get energy out.

8.3: Why don't magnetic perpetual motion machines work?

Magnetic motors have a clever arrangement of magnets which keeps the
motor rotating forever.  Not surprisingly, whenever someone tries to
build one, the motor rotates for a while and then stops -- this is
usually attributed to the magnets "wearing out".  These motors usually
rely on using magnets as low-friction bearings, meaning the "motor"
can coast for a long time, but it doesn't supply any power.  Magnetism
is like gravity; you can store potential energy and get it back, but
you can't get more energy no matter what you try.

8.4: Magnets can levitate.  Where is the energy from?

Levitating magnets do not require energy, any more than something
resting on a table requires energy.  Energy is the capacity for doing
work.  Work can be measured by force times distance.  Although the
magnets are exerting a force the levitated object is stationary, so
the magnets aren't supplying any energy.

8.5: But its been patented!

So what?  Patent offices will not grant a patent on a "perpetual
motion machine" (some just require a working model) but if you call it
a "vacuum energy device" and claim that it gets its energy from some
previously unknown source then you can probably get a patent.  Patent
offices are there to judge whether something has been invented before,
not whether it will work.  The ban on devices labelled "perpetual
motion" is a special case because the patent officers dislike being
cited as some sort of approval by con-men.

8.6: The oil companies are conspiring to suppress my invention

This is a conspiracy theory.  See the entry on these in section 0.

In most of the US the utility companies are *required by law* to buy
your excess electricity if you produce your own.  If you've got an
energy machine, build it in your basement, phase match it to the line,
and enjoy.

8.7: My machine gets its free energy from <X>

A number of machines have been proposed which are not "perpetual
motion" machines in the sense of violating the law of conservation of
energy.  Mostly these are based on bogus science.  One inventor claims
that atoms of copper wire are being converted to energy in accordance
with Einstein's "e=mc^2".  However he fails to explain what causes
this transformation and how this energy is converted into electrical
energy rather than gamma rays or heat.

8.8: Can gyroscopes neutralise gravity?

Gyroscopes (or gyros) are a favorite of "lift" machine inventors
because many people have come across them and they behave rather
oddly.  However there is nothing all that mysterious about the
behaviour of gyros.  You can use Newtonian physics to explain them.
Briefly, if you imagine a bit of metal on the edge of a spinning gyro,
then to turn the gyro you have to stop the bit of metal moving in its
current direction and start it moving in another direction.  To do
this when it is moving fast you have to push it rather hard.  Nothing
about this makes the thing get any lighter (in fact to be pedantic,
the gyro gets very slightly heavier when it spins, in accordance with
Einstein's theory of relativity.)

8.9: My prototype gets lighter when I turn it on

Weighing something which is vibrating on ordinary scales is a sure way
of getting a wrong answer.  The vibration from the machine combines
with "stiction" in the scales to give a false reading.  As a result
the weight reductions reported for such machines are always close to
the limits of accuracy of the scales used.

8.10: Can magnets improve fuel efficiency or descale pipes?

Both of these questions come around fairly regularly.  Some companies
sell magnets which clip around pipes.  Sometimes they are sold for use
in hard water areas, where they are supposed to prevent the buildup of
limescale.  On other occasions they are sold for cars, where they are
supposed to increase fuel efficiency.

Neither of these claims has ever been substantiated by careful
testing, and there is no theoretical explanation for the supposed
effects.  The advertisers try to make it sound like there is, but its
actually just pseudo-scientific eyewash.

Note that in some cases installing the fuel magnets according to the
instructions *will* give increased fuel efficiency.  This is because
the instructions tell you to adjust the carburettor.  The result is
that the engine runs leaner than it was designed to, causing higher
production of nitrous oxides and a shorter life.  The magnet has
nothing to do with it.

If this worked then car companies would install it themselves and
hence sell more cars.


9.1: What about these theories on AIDS?

There are two AIDS theories that often appear in sci.skeptic.  The
first is Strecker's theory that the CIA invented HIV by genetic
engineering; the second is Duesberg's theory that HIV has nothing to
do with AIDS.

The FAQ has more information about all these theories.

9.1.1: The Mainstream Theory

The generally accepted theory is that AIDS is caused by the Human
Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  There are two different versions of
HIV: HIV-1 and HIV-2.  These viruses are believed, on the basis of
their genetic sequences, to have evolved from the Simian
Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), with HIV-2 being much more similar to
SIV.  Several years after the initial HIV infection, the immune system
is weakened to the point where opportunistic infections occur,
resulting in the syndrome of AIDS.  A good reference for more
information on the "mainstream" view of AIDS is:

    The Science of AIDS : readings from Scientific American magazine.
    New York : W.H. Freeman, c1989.

9.1.2: Strecker's CIA Theory

Strecker's theory is that the CIA made HIV in the 1970's by combining
bovine leukemia virus (BLV) and sheep visna virus (OLV).  The evidence for
this theory is that the government was looking at biological warfare around
then, and that there are some structural similarities between HIV and BLV
and visna.  The evidence against this theory is:

a: We didn't have the biotechnology back then for the necessary gene
   splicing.  (But maybe the CIA has secret advanced technology?)

b: The genetic sequences for HIV, SIV, BLV, and OLV are freely
   available (e.g. from genbank).  You can look at them and compare
   them yourself.  The HIV sequence is totally different from BLV and
   OLV, but is fairly similar to SIV, just as the scientists say.
There used to be a third point here: that the earliest documented
AIDS case dated back to 1959.  See question 9.2.

One school of thought holds that the "AIDS was a U.S. biological
warfare experiment" myth was extensively spread as part of a
dezinformatsiya campaign by Department V of the Soviet KGB (their
`active measures' group).  They may not have invented the premise
(Soviet disinformation doctrine favored legends originated by third
parties), but they added a number of signature details such as the
name of the supposed development site (usually Fort Meade in Maryland)
which still show up in most retellings.

According to a defector who was once the KGB chief rezident in Great
Britain, the KGB promulgated this legend through controlled sources in
Europe and the Third World.  The Third World version (only) included
the claim that HIV was the result of an attempt to build a "race
bomb", a plague that would kill only non-whites.

Also see the question in section 0 about Conspiracy Theories.

9.1.3: Duesberg's Risk-Group Theory

Duesberg's theory is: HIV is a harmless retrovirus that may serve as a
marker for people in AIDS high-risk groups.  AIDS is not a contagious
syndrome caused by one conventional virus or microbe.  AIDS is
probably caused by conventional pathogenic factors: administration of
blood transfusions or drugs, promiscuous male homosexual activity
associated with drugs, acute parasitic infections, and malnutrition.
Drugs such as AZT promote AIDS, rather than fight it.  His theory is
explained in detail in "Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired
Immunodeficiency Syndrome: Correlation but not Causation", Proc. Natl.
Acad. Sci. USA V86 pp.755-764, (Feb. 1989).

Virtually the entire scientific community considers Duesberg's AIDS
theory to be unsupportable, although he was a respected researcher
before he proposed it.  There is no suggestion that his theories are
the result of a political agenda or homophobia.

Details of the debate can be found in published rebuttals to Duesberg, such
as in Nature V345 pp.659-660 (June 21, 1990), and in Duesberg's debate
with Blattner, Gallo, Temin, Science V241 pp.514-517 (1988).

Also see the FAQ.

9.2: What About the Sailor with AIDS in 1959?

(The following information is from The Independent, 24 March 1995)

There is now good reason to think that the evidence for this case 
was fraudulent.  The patient was David Carr, a 25 year old man. 
Most reports describe him as a sailor, but in fact his only known
trip abroad was during his national service, when he visted Gibralter
aboard HMS Whitby for two weeks.  It is possible he visited Tangier
at this time, but there is no evidence either way.  There is also
no evidence that he was gay (although firm evidence would have led
to his arrest).

Carr died on 31 August 1959 in Manchester Royal Infirmary, almost
certainly of an immune deficiency.  His case was written up in The 
Lancet of 29 October 1960 by Trevor Stretton, John Leonard (his 
doctors) and George Williams (the pathologist).  It was just a 
minor medical mystery.  Then in the late eighties, Williams sent 
samples of tissue from Carr's body to his hospital's virology unit 
to be tested for AIDS.  They tested positive.  The test was repeated 
with a blind control.  Still positive.  The doctors went public with
a short letter in the Lancet on 7 July 1990.

In 1992 Professor David Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Centre
in New York asked for tissue samples from Carr in order to sequence
the viral DNA.  He succeeded, but found that the sequence was
identical to strains circulating in 1990.  Further checks revealed
that the tissue sample was from a recently deceased person, and that
other samples, alledgedly also from Carr but with no sign of the
virus, were actually from a different person.

At the very least these facts cast serious doubt on the accuracy
of the diagnosis of AIDS in David Carr.  They also give strong
reason to suspect a case of scientific fraud.

You Must Remember This

10.1  What is "False Memory Syndrome ?"

[Contributed by Todd Stark <>.  Todd
describes this text as a "first pass" at this section.  If anyone has
any more authoritative information then please send it to me.]

There is currently no such standard medical diagnosis in the U.S. as
"False Memory Syndrome."  "False Memory Syndrome" is a term coined by
a support and advocacy group based in Philadelphia, Pa. in the U.S.,
the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Inc., to publicize and dramatize
the plight of parents, alleged pedophiles, and other adults who feel
they have been unjustly accused of child abuse.  The initial
membership of the FMS consisted of 202 families who had contacted
psychologist Ralph Underwager, a frequent advocate for accused sex
offenders.  The current executive director is Pamela Freyd, PhD..

The basic premise of the FMS idea is that :

    under conditions of therapy, 

    a child's (person's) recollection of past events may be
    distorted, even radically,

    and that convincing evidence of psychological trauma and
    detailed false testimony against an innocent person may be
    _manufactured_ by the (unwitting) facilitation of a therapist,

    who is motivated to find abuse.

Underwager's work has been criticized on the same basis as criticism
of the FMS itself, that he appears biased against children alleging
sexual abuse (Salter).  This is of course met by the symmetric claim
from FMS advocates and others, that some percentage of therapists seem
to specialize in finding abuse, and are unfairly biased against the
accused adults.  Various examples of popular psychology literature are
often quoted to support (and sometimes symbolize) this contention.
_The_Courage_to_Heal_ is an example of this genre, suggesting that
forgotten abuse is so likely that any woman who has any suspicion at
all of having been abused probably was.

The issue around "False Memory" is then the degree to which the
therapist may have (unwittingly or deliberately) contributed to a
remembrance of serious abuse which did not occur, or may have
exaggerated the incidence or severity of the abusive behavior.

There seems to be sufficient evidence, both from clinical tradition
and from experimental data on human memory, to establish that there is
a possibility for the client of a strongly motivated therapist to be
influenced by the expectations of the therapist, even to the point of
forgetting or distorting important life events, or manufacturing them.
(See examples in Goldstein, 1992; general comments by Loftus, 1993;
and descriptions by Ofshe and Tavris cited in the references).

There is also evidence that people do forget unpleasant incidents
which they could not integrate with the rest of their lives.  There is
no context in which to place the experience, and thinking about it is
unpleasant, so it gets "walled off" and forgotten.

The use of hypnosis has been particularly controversial since it
involves an unusually intimate form of both verbal and non-verbal
communication.  In hypnosis, the client is highly motivated to respond
with historical reconstructions at the request of the therapist, even
if they do not have sufficient details to reconstruct past events
accurately.  This is related to what is called the 'response criterion
problem' in experimental hypnosis research.  (Klatzky and Erdely,
1985).  Vividly imagined events under hypnosis can be difficult or
impossible to distinguish from real life.  It is worth noting that
other memories "recovered" under hypnosis have included past lives and
UFO abductions.  While this does not prove that all such memories are
false, it does suggest that they cannot be relied upon.

Some experimental research also appears to confirm the potential for
hypnotic suggestion to radically alter even the ongoing sensory
perception of good hypnotic subjects (Spiegel, 1989).  Canadian
Psychiatrist William Sargant (see his work on political and religious
conversion, Sargant, 1959) also did some classic work in which he
demonstrated the therapeutic value of "abreaction," or in this case,
vividly imagined 'false' events, with the help of hypnosis or
sometimes ethyl ether.

It is sometimes claimed that distortions introduced with the help of
hypnotic suggestion can be picked up with standardized tests.  A test
for whether cult members had been "brainwashed" was used with some
claimed success (Verdier, 1977).  More recently, research into picking
up stable dissociative tendencies has shown some promise.

There is no known reliable way at this time to verify whether a
particular recollection was actually introduced as a so-called "false
memory."  The most promising research in this area seems to point to
the possibility that we may someday be able to more reliably pick out
the 'fantasy prone,' at least as a relative number on a scale, but
this still leaves the question open as to cause and effect.  Did a
severe early trauma provoke the need for escape into a rich inner
fantasy world, or was the remembrance of a traumatic past solely the
result of a therapist taking advantage of "fantasy proneness ?"

So, one of the more useful functions of an advocacy group such as the
FMS is to educate the public to the possibility that even the most
real seeming and vivid memories could possibly have been fabricated or
exaggerated by interaction with a therapist.

One of the less useful results of a group like the FMS is to cast
aspersions and additional frustrating doubt on the claims of an
already desperate child who is having a difficult time understanding
and recovering from a traumatic experience.

References :

Klatzky and Erdely, 1985, "The response criterion problem in tests of
hypnosis and memory," International Journal of Clinical and
Experimental Hypnosis , 33, 246-257. 

Ofshe, Richard, 1992, "Inadvertent Hypnosis During Interrogation,"
International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis ,

Goldstein, Eleanor, 1992, Confabulations , Boca Raton, Fla:Social
Issues Research Series  

Loftus, Elizabeth, June 27,1993, "You Must Remember This ...  ... or
do you ? How Real are Repressed Memories ?"    Washington Post . 

Ofshe, Richard and Ethan Watters, (March, 1993), "Making Monsters,"
Society .

Tavris, Carole, (Jan 3,1993), "Beware the Incest-Survivor Machine,"
N.Y. Times Book Review.

Persinger MA. "Neuropsychological profiles of adults who report
'sudden remembering' of early childhood memories: implications for
claims of sex abuse and alien visitation/abduction experiences."
Perceptual & Motor Skills.  75(1):259-66, 1992 Aug.

Wilson and Barber, "The Fantasy Prone Personality : Implications for
understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena," in
Imagery ,Current Theory, Research , and Application , from Wiley
Press, 1983.

Paul A. Verdier, "Brainwashing and the Cults, an expose on capturing
the human mind," 1977, Wilshire Books.

William Sargant, "Battle for the Mind, a physiology of conversion and
brainwashing," 1959, N.Y.: Harper and Row

John Marks, "The Search for the 'Manchurian Candidate,' The CIA and
Mind Control," 1979, N.Y.: New York Times Book Co.  pp. 190

D. Spiegel et al, 1989, "Hypnotic alteration of somatosensory
perception," American Journal of Psychiatry

"A conversation with Pamela Freyd, Ph.D. Co-founder and executive
director, False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Inc" by David Calof in
Treating Abuse Today, Vol 3(3), 25-39

10.2: How Can I Contact the False Memory Syndrome Foundation?

There is a web page at:

You may also wish to read the relevant newsgroups, especially 

Paul Johnson                    | You are lost in a maze of twisty
Email: | little standards, all different.    |

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