REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

First, weíll start with the overflow we couldnít fit into last monthís issue (I told you last month that there was a lot of stuff!).

"Er, Did We Say July?"

In case you didnít already know, Nostradamus predicted that horrible things would happen in July of 1999. In fact, it was, according to James Randi, "the only prophecy Nostradamus made that mentions an exact date."

The State Journal-Registerís "Beliefs" section had an article from the Religion News Service (7/4) which took a fairly good look at the Nostradamus claims. The author starts by noting that his supporters claim he successfully predicted all sorts of events and then further adds that his detractors "say he was a mediocre 16th century astrologer with no special gifts, whose vague writings have been wildly overinterpreted."

Some Nostradamus believers think that Russia will launch a nuclear attack on Europe this month; others believe a new comet will crash into Earth (even though astronomers have noted that this is impossible); still others think the Cassini space probe, carrying plutonium fuel, will collide with Earth as it flies by in August (which would be close enough to July for those believers).

Randi was quoted extensively, noting that "Nostradamus has a record of being very, very wrong" and that "He made 104 verifiable predictions, in which he actually named a place or a person or a time. Heís been wrong on 103 of the 104. Weíll have to wait to see if he has a perfect record."

One side note: Some Nostradamus believers have indicated that since nothing bad happened in July, he might have meant September because September was the seventh month in the old calendar system (sept = seven). So apparently this great psychic couldnít foresee the proper calendarÖ

I See Bars In Your FutureÖ

Police in New York City have been running Operation Crystal Ball to crack down on psychics and the con games they act as fronts for. According to the New York Times (6/30), "Pamela Miller" was arrested on June 24 for pulling the curse removal scam on at least one person.

The curse removal scam involves a fortune teller who claims her client/victim has been targeted by a curse, and she can cure it by drawing the evil out of the client. Then she does all sorts of things to show that she is drawing the evil out (such as rubbing an egg around the client and then breaking it open to show a reddish mass inside Ė that is the evil), all of which eventually culminates in the client handing over loads of cash that are supposed to be burned or buried (for money is the root of all evil, after all), but somehow tends to end up instead in the fortune tellerís pocket.

Miller was the 13th such arrest. According to Dateline NBC, who had pieces on these scams back in late 1994 and early 1995 (see "REALLity Check" columns in December 1994 and February 1995, Vol. 2, #12 and Vol. 3, #2), Miller has been accused of taking almost $750,000 from two victims in this type of scam. Yes, you read that right; no, I didnít misplace a decimal point.

When Dateline saw Millerís photo, they thought she looked familiar. Lo and behold, she had been one of the fortune tellers visited with a hidden camera for the earlier report, except she went by the name "Mrs. Grace" then. So they revisited the story (6/30), including again showing how the con women do the egg trick (pushing the reddish mass through the egg as theyíre breaking it, to make it appear the mass was inside the egg). What was somewhat funny in watching it again was that "Mrs. Grace" wasnít even really any good, in my opinion. She spoke in a monotone, acting like she was reading unemotionally from a script. Yet people bought this act!

Millerís lawyer, who spoke to Dateline, really didnít help his clientís cause. He claimed she is a spiritual advisor and the people gave her their money willingly. Dateline showed him the previously-made tape of his client, and he said it looked like the egg trick was "used for the purpose of making the individual feel a certain way," sort of like a therapist might try to help a patient feel a certain way. But he also admitted it was "an illusion," and further acknowledged that an illusion is a type of trick. So, the interviewer asked, what was the purpose. He said he didnít know, and theyíd have to ask somebody who did this type of thing.

Little did he know that Dateline had already done so for their first pieces. A former fortune teller said the purpose was to scare people out of their money! Hmmm, maybe Miller should consider getting new counsel before going to trialÖ

The New York City police said this operation has caused a noticeable decrease in New York fortune teller activity, but it is likely they just picked up shop and moved somewhere else until the heat is off. But hopefully this Dateline piece reached a few additional people and reminded others about the tricks of the trade.

Alien Nation or Alienation?

It was a good few days for Dateline NBC, as they also featured a piece on Joe Firmage, the "computer whiz kid" who made millions with his company, U.S. Web, and then left it so he could preach his belief that aliens are among us, and have been for millennia (6/27).

Firmage believes that aliens played essential roles in human religious history. For example, he attributes the appearances of angels, miracles, etc. all to aliens. You can read about his beliefs in his monster online book, The Word Is Truth. He says the evidence is "overwhelming" that aliens are here, and anybody who disagrees just hasnít done their homework.

Enter Frank Drake, a professor of astronomy and head of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project -- the project that looks for evidence of radio waves emanating from distant planets, which might be evidence of life there. Drake, who one might say has done his homework, noted that there is simply no evidence for Firmageís claims.

Why does Firmage take his beliefs so seriously? Because he had an alien visitation in which he chatted with the being, who then sent a blue glowing ball of energy into him.

Drake said heíd be the happiest guy in the world if aliens showed up, but the fact remains that it just hasnít happened. Try telling that to Firmage.

The looks on the Dateline interviewerís face when he was talking to Firmage were great. They ranged from mild interest to one that just screamed, "Man, youíre nuts!"

Shrouded in Mystery

Speaking of screaming, I was about ready to do so when new claims about the Shroud of Turin appeared all over the place (including an AP story in the State Journal-Register, 8/3). It doesnít matter how many scientific tests, including carbon dating, etc., show that this thing originated between 1290 and 1390; it doesnít matter that it didnít show up anywhere until 1355; it doesnít matter that there is a letter from Bishop Pierre d'Arcis to Pope Clement VII, in 1389, notes that the shroud is a "clever sleight of hand" and that the person who brought it forward is "falsely declaring and pretending that this was the actual shroud in which our Savior Jesus Christ was enfolded in the tomb" and that he did so "so that money might cunningly be wrung" from the people who would come to see it. I guess all of these dates are just a big coincidence, because somebody found pollen on the shroud. So that proves it!

Basically, the articles were based on a claim by botany professor Avinoam Danin of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He said that he studied pollen grains from the shroud, and they point to Jerusalem around the year 800.

Unfortunately, according to Joe Nickell of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), these claims were "based on earlier, scientifically discredited data."

According to the CSICOP release, the "source for the pollens was a freelance criminologist, Max Frei, who once pronounced the forged ĎHitler Diariesí genuine. Freiís tape-lifted samples from the Shroud were controversial from the outset since similar samples taken by the Shroud of Turin Research Project in 1978 had comparatively few pollens. As it turned out, after Freiís tapes were examined following his death in 1983, they also had very few pollens -- except for a particular one that bore a suspicious cluster on the Ďleadí (or end), rather than on the portion that had been applied to the shroud."

You can find the entire CSICOP release at their website: http://www.csicop.org/articles/19990806-shroud/ -- I also recommend taking a look at the Skepticís Dictionary entry on the shroud: http://skepdic.com/shroud.html.

Holy Window, Batman!

And now, for more miracles -- these a bit closer to home. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that a little boy in Joliet saw an outline of the Virgin Mary on the attic window of an empty house (8/3). Must be a miracle! At least, thatís what many visitors apparently think. In fact, they think it resembles "Our Lady of Guadalupe," who supposedly appeared to a Mexican peasant boy in 1531.

One visitor, Anne Egan, was quoted in the story as saying, "Nobody did this, it just appeared, it canít be explained." Ah, itís so nice when the media quotes skeptics who think critically instead of just jumping to conclusions.

The article did note that the image is only visible at certain angles, but thatís about it. No skeptics were interviewed, none of the many simple explanations given (itís a stain on a window, folks -- the rest is in your head, like a Rorschach test). In other words, par for the course.

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