E-Skeptic #21 For May 25, 2004
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http://www.skeptic.com/: Where Nothing is
Certain...But We're Not Sure About That...
Prayer Study Flawed
The Day After Tomorrow
Dawkins Did Not Endorse Astrology
New Astrology Theory Debunked
Astrology Star Sign Bunkum
The Day After
The environmental disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow"
opens this Friday. I have not seen it, but my friend Keay Davidson, the
science writer and journalist, asked me:
"Are filmmakers in general justified in manipulating the
laws of science any way they like for purposes of entertainment, even
if the film is related to a topic of urgent public and political
Here is my answer:
We live in the age of science,
and the age of mass communication. Wed these two and you've got a deadly
cocktail when the latter distorts the former, which happens all too
frequently. Television producers and film makers especially have an
obligation to try to get the science right. We cannot expect them to be
perfect. Gene Roddenberry, for example, hired scientists to consult his
Star Trek scripts; nevertheless, so many errors crept in that there is
now a minor literary genre of "Star Trek Science Bloopers." But at least
Gene tried. Most producers don't even bother trying, and here is where
mass media has contributed to the deadly cocktail of distorting one of
the most powerful institutes we have--science. To expect people in a
free society and liberal democracy to make rational decisions about
science and technology issues that could change their lives, not to
mention the course of history, and simultaneously feed them distorted
views of what science is, how it operates, and especially its
conclusions, is a recipe for disaster. Film makers and television
producers have a moral obligation to at least try to get the science
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Dawkins Did Not Endorse Astrology
In e-Skeptic 20, we reprinted an article from the
(London) Sunday Times on British Royal Astronomical Society astronomer
Dr. Percy Seymour, about his book presenting a new theory to explain
astrology. Richard Dawkins was referenced as if he endorsed the claims
"Richard Dawkins, professor for the public
understanding of science at Oxford University, who once suggested that
astrologers be prosecuted under the trades descriptions act, said that
although he had not read the book Seymour's ideas sounded interesting."
It will not surprise skeptics that the truth is something
different. Here is Dawkins' response to the Sunday Times
"What I actually said on the telephone was
something like this: 'Well, that's all very interesting, no doubt, but
what the hell does it have to do with astrology'' This was reported as
support from an unexpected quarter: I was said to find it “interesting”!
I am furious. Please publicize the truth of what happened."
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A Few Points about Astrology and 'Written in the
Astrology expert and long-time Skeptic and e-Skeptic reader Ivan W. Kelly, kelly52(at)shaw.ca,
to the Seymour's new theory of astrology, sent us the following
I read the article by Ian
Sample 'Written in the Stars' (The Guardian, UK) and there are
several points to be made.
1. Seymour argues that he does not believe in
Horoscopes, which means he does not believe in what the majority of
astrologers believe. They, unlike him, contend that the moment of one's
birth is related to all one does in the future. The next sentence in the
article by Sample says "Could it be that countless devotees ranging from
Charles de Gaulle to Ronald Reagan had it right when they kept one eye
on the stars?" But Reagan and the others were involved with
horoscopes, which Seymour criticizes!
2. All Seymour's theory would illustrate is that the
position of the moon and some planets are another factor to be taken
into account in explaining some human behavior. Note also,
unlike astrology, any influences or not would be open to refutation
and revision with new scientific discoveries. This is not the case with
astrology. Astrology is not based on causal relationships at all. It is
based on symbolic connections that are not amenable to
refutation. For example, when Chiron was discovered, how did astrologers
determine what it represented in the horoscope? They consulted mythology
and found that Chiron was a satyr associated with healing. So Chiron
symbolizes healing among other things (also not determined by scientific
research) in the horoscope.
3. The article mentions studies about season of effect
findings. But these have nothing to do with astrology. Once again these
are the result of scientific research and are (unlike astrological
claims) modifiable with future research. Talk of summer effects, etc is
different from talk of zodiac signs which have specific cut-offs not
alienable with the seasons. The reader might also remember that the
seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere but the zodiac signs of
people remain unchanged.
4. The article neglects to mention as well that there is
no one thing called astrology. There are many schools, each with very
different views about the relationships between the cosmos and human
behavior. So talk of 'proving' or supporting astrology leads to the
question: Which astrology? And no astrologers whose Seymour's results
are at variance with are going to drop their tenets on the basis of
scientific findings anyway.
—Ivan Kelly , University of Saskatchewan,
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More Astrology Bunkum:
The Rich List Star
From e-Skeptic reader Dick Jackson, dick(at)d-jackson.com:
year's Sunday Times Rich List included an analysis of the star signs of
Britain's 1,000 richest people--finding significant differences with 110
born under Gemini but only 73 under Pisces.
STAR SIGNS OF THE RICHEST
Source: The Sunday Times Rich List
This strikes me as a standard 'numeracy' issue. Someone
may say that their analysis finds "significant differences" since there
is a range of 73 to 110 in the star sign totals, but is there anything
out of the ordinary here' First, let's note that the numbers add up to
1,067, being "Star signs of Britain's richest 1,000 (where known)" (from
original source at http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2108-1067034,00.html, and note that
actually 1,100 people on the list in total)
If the birthdays of
rich people were in fact spread across the calendar completely at
random, what range of star signs would we see' This kind of simulation
is easily done in any programming language, but here are the minimum and
maximum star sign totals for a typical set of ten
Clearly, the range 73 to 110 as seen in the
Rich List is in no way remarkable, being typical of the distributions
seen when birthdays are picked entirely at random. These were found by a
one-line program in the IDL language (see http://www.rsinc.com/idl) as follows:
IDL> for i=1,10 do
Dick Jackson, dick(at)d-jackson.com
go to top
an interesting thread sent to me by a reader, regarding the "mysterious"
murders of microbiologists. Of course, we're not given any baseline data
on how many physicists died in the same time frame, or how many
accountants, or any other small cohort, so this is rather meaningless,
but interesting nonetheless, as an exercise in pattern-seeking. Of
course, I could be wrong...
The best summary of all this:
items on it:
go to top
Prayer Study Flawed and
University prayer study author pleads guilty to felony
This important report from Skeptic Bruce L. Flamm, MD, Clinical
Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of California, Irvine,
In the horrible days following
the destruction of the World Trade Center by Islamic zealots many Americans
prayed for a miracle or a sign from God. Such a miracle apparently
occurred and was widely documented in newspaper and magazine articles.
On October 2, 2001 the New York Times reported that researchers at prestigious
Columbia University in New York found that infertile women who were
prayed for became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have
people praying for them. The study's results were absolutely miraculous.
In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) is the most advanced form of infertility
treatment currently available and represents the last hope for women
with severe infertility. Therefore, any technique that could increase
the efficacy of IVF by even a few percent would be a medical breakthrough.
Yet the Columbia University study claimed to have demonstrated, in a
carefully designed randomized controlled trial, that distant prayer
by anonymous prayer groups increased the success rate of IVF by an astounding
100%. Days later an article published in newspapers around
the nation stated that Rogerio Lobo, chairman of the department of obstetrics
and gynecology at Columbia and the study's lead author, told Reuters
Health that, "Essentially, there was a doubling of the pregnancy rate
in the group that was prayed for." ABC News medical editor and
Good Morning America commentator Dr. Timothy Johnson reported
that, "A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising
results; but many physicians remain skeptical."
The following facts related to the Columbia University prayer study
confirm that those physicians who doubted the study's astounding results
had extremely good reasons to be skeptical. It will be interesting
to see if ABC's Dr. Johnson, a medical doctor who also serves as an
evangelical minister at the fundamentalist Community Covenant Church
in West Peabody, Massachusetts, will report or ignore the following
The study's three authors were Kwang Cha, Rogerio Lobo, and Daniel Wirth.
Dr. Cha, has left Columbia University and refuses to return phone calls
or letters about the report. Dr. Rogerio Lobo, identified by the
New York Times and ABC News as the report's lead author, now claims
to have not been involved with the study until after its completion
and to have provided only, "editorial assistance". Dr. Lobo also
refuses to return phone calls or letters about the study. If the
report's lead author did not conduct the international prayer study,
The remaining author is a mysterious individual known as Daniel Wirth.
Mr. Wirth has no medical degree but does have a long history of publishing
studies on mysterious supernatural or paranormal phenomena. Many
of these studies originated from an entity called, "Healing Sciences
Research International" an organization that Mr. Wirth supposedly headed.
This entity's only known address was apparently a Post Office Box in
Orinda California. Wirth holds an MS degree is in the dubious
field of "parapsychology" and also has a law degree.
In October 2002, Mr. Wirth, along with his former research associate
Joseph Horvath also known as Joseph Hessler, was indicted by a federal
grand jury. Both men were charged with bilking the troubled cable
television provider Adelphia Communications Corporation out of $2.1
million by infiltrating the company, then having it pay for unauthorized
consulting work. Police investigators discovered that Wirth is
also known as John Wayne Truelove. FBI investigators revealed
that Wirth first used the name of Truelove, a New York child who died
at age 5 in 1959, to obtain a passport in the mid-1980's. Wirth
and his accomplice were charged with 13 counts of mail fraud, 12 counts
of interstate transportation of stolen money, making false statements
on loan applications and five other counts of fraud. The federal
grand jury concluded that the relationship between Wirth and Horvath
extended back more than 20 years and involved more than $3.4 million
in income and property obtained by using the names of children who died
more than 40 years ago.
Incredibly, at the time of the indictment, Horvath was already in jail
charged with arson for burning down his Pennsylvania house to collect
insurance money. The FBI investigation revealed that Horvath had
previously gone to prison after being convicted in a 1990 embezzlement
and false identity case in California. Interestingly, the investigation
also revealed that he had also once been arrested for posing as a doctor
in California. It appears that the "doctor" who performed biopsies
on human research subjects in Wirth's paranormal healing studies may
have actually been Mr. Horvath impersonating a doctor. Horvath
was a co-author on another of Wirth's bizarre studies in which salamander
limbs were amputated and found to grow back more quickly when "healers"
waived their hands over the wounds.
Both Wirth and Horvath initially plead innocent to the felony charges
and over the next 18 months their trial was delayed six times.
However, on May 18, 2004, just as the criminal trial of the United States
v. Wirth & Horvath was finally about to begin, both men pled guilty
to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
Apparently a plea bargain had been made and many of the charges had
been dropped. Wirth and Horvath will be sentenced in September and they
each face a maximum of five years in federal prison.
In summary, one of the authors of the Columbia University prayer study
has left the University and refuses to comment, another now claims to
have not actually participated in the study and also refuses to comment,
and another is on his way to federal prison for fraud. Fraud is
the operative word here. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of
this entire sordid saga can be summed up in one question: How did a
bizarre study claiming supernatural results end up in a peer-reviewed
medical journal? We may never know because the editors of the
Journal of Reproductive Medicine also refuse to answer calls or respond
to letters about this study. Worse yet, the entire study remains
posted on their internet site and the public has been given no reason
to doubt its validity. It must be emphasized that, in the entire
history of modern science, no claim of any type of supernatural phenomena
has ever been replicated under controlled conditions. The importance
of this fact can not be over emphasized. One would think that
medical journal editors would be keenly aware of this fact and therefore
be highly skeptical of supernatural claims. In any case, the damage
has been done. The fact that a "miracle cure" study was deemed
to be suitable for publication in a scientific journal automatically
enhanced the study's credibility. Not surprisingly, the news media
quickly disseminated the miraculous results.
In reality, the Columbia University prayer study was based on a bewildering
study design and included many sources of error. I have already
summarized many of the study's potential flaws in two critiques published
in the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. But worse than
flaws, in light of all of the shocking information presented above,
one must consider the sad possibility that the Columbia prayer study
may never have been conducted at all. It remains to be seen if
the news media will find the above information to be newsworthy.
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