The REALL News


The official newsletter of the Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land

Volume 3, Number 2 -- February 1995


*>*>*>*>*> SPECIAL 2ND ANNIVERSARY ISSUE <*<*<*<*<*


Electronic Version

If you like what you see, please help us continue by sending in a subscription. See the end of newsletter for details.

In This Issue

From the Editor -- Bob Ladendorf
From the Chairman -- David Bloomberg
Water E.B.E.s -- Martin Kottmeyer
Fortune-Telling Swindles -- Det. Bruce Walstad
Antioxidants -- Tim Gorski, M.D.
REALLity Check -- David Bloomberg
REALLity Checklist, 1994 In Review -- David Bloomberg


The Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land (REALL) is a non-profit educational and scientific organization. It is dedicated to the development of rational thinking and the application of the scientific method toward claims of the paranormal and fringe- science phenomena.

REALL shall conduct research, convene meetings, publish a newsletter, and disseminate information to its members and the general public. Its primary geographic region of coverage is central Illinois.

REALL subscribes to the premise that the scientific method is the most reliable and self-correcting system for obtaining knowledge about the world and universe. REALL not not reject paranormal claims on a priori grounds, but rather is committed to objective, though critical, inquiry.

The REALL News is its official newsletter.

Membership information is provided elsewhere in this newsletter.

Board of Directors: Chairman, David Bloomberg; Assistant Chairman, Prof. Ron Larkin; Secretary-Treasurer, Kevin Brown; Newsletter Editor, Bob Ladendorf; At-Large Members, Prof. Steve Egger, Frank Mazo, and Wally Hartshorn.

Editorial Board: Bob Ladendorf (Newsletter Editor), David Bloomberg (electronic version editor), (one vacancy).

P.O. Box 20302
Springfield, IL 62708

Unless stated otherwise, permission is granted to other skeptic organizations to reprint articles from The REALL News as long as proper credit is given. REALL also requests that you send copies of your newsletters that reprint our articles to the above address.

The views expressed in these articles are the views of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of REALL.

From The Editor

-- Bob Ladendorf

We hope that you, our members and readers, continue to enjoy the wide range of subjects covered in our monthly newsletter. That range can be seen in this special 2nd anniversary issue, from the obscure (water babies) to the familiar (fortune tellers). And, as always, Chairman David Bloomberg monitors the media, praising its courage and damning its fondness for uncritical stories about paranormal and pseudoscientific issues.

Don't miss in this issue David's annual "awards" for the best and worst in the media and other groups and individuals.

This month, we feature articles by two of our most frequent contributors -- Martin Kottmeyer and Det. Bruce Walstad. I hope you enjoy these thought-provoking pieces on our myth-making culture and fortune-telling scams.

As a final note, I urge you to come to our Feb. 20 meeting. You may see some sparks fly between one of our very own skeptics and a noted psychic in a special video presentation.

As a reminder, if you have any further comments or suggestions, please send them to me at REALL's address listed elsewhere on this page, or send us e-mail at the following addresses:

REALL E-mail Contacts:
Bob Ladendorf: robertcl49@aol.com (Note: 1st 8 are letters)
David Bloomberg: david.bloomberg@f2112.n2430.z1.fidonet.org

/s/ Bob Ladendorf

From the Chairman

-- David Bloomberg

Welcome to the beginning of the third year of REALL! We started in February of 1993, with a three-person Organizing Committee (myself, Bob Ladendorf, and Wally Hartshorn), and have grown to approximately 45 members.

In those short two years, we've been reaching out to the media, teachers, and the public to explain the "unexplainable," encourage critical thinking, and show the irrational for what it is. During this time, we've consistently published our monthly newsletter, which I happen to think is one of the best put out by local skeptics groups (others apparently think so, too, since our articles are widely reprinted in both local and national newsletters), and have had a number of interesting topics at our monthly meetings.

Speaking of meeting topics, last month, after watching the CSICOP video, those of us at the meeting got into a discussion about various things relating to the video and skepticism in general.

Patron member Bob Smet brought up the way skeptics, in general, debate proponents of pseudo-science. He thought that we needed to get more "in their face" about their claims, and several others agreed. Little did I know that the very next day I would be called by the Downey show (Morton Downey Jr.'s new Chicago talk show) to appear with Detective Bruce Walstad and some psychics.

I didn't go into the show planning to take the attitude suggested by Bob, but, well... I don't want to ruin the surprise by saying anything more. Think of this as a great reason to come to this month's meeting, which features that very episode of the show.

Remember that, because this is our anniversary, many of you (approximately half) have membership renewals due with this issue. Our next issue will feature my article describing the goings-on at the Downey show, and you won't want to miss it!

I'm still interested in hearing from anybody about a possible homepage site. Also, I only received a few responses for the E-Mail addresses of our members, which I'd like to have to put together a mailing list so we can send out information via E-Mail when we can. If you'd like to be included on the list, please let me know either by E-mail to: david.bloomberg@f2112.n2430.z1.fidonet.org

/s/ David Bloomberg

Water E.B.E.s

by Martin Kottmeyer

Summarizing the structure of alien abduction experiences in 1987, Budd Hopkins mentioned what now seems a puzzling lacuna in his understanding of what is now termed "the hybrid program." Some women have their ova removed from the Fallopian tubes, presumably fertilized, then "brought to term outside the womb, under circumstances one can barely guess at." (Intruders, p. 196) Nobody has to guess anymore. Several abductees have come forward to reveal what those circumstances are.

The earliest source of this information is one of the centerpieces of extraterrestrial biological entities (E.B.E.)-lore that sprung up in the Eighties: The Dulce Papers of Paul Bennewitz. These papers describe an underground facility the government gave to E.B.E.s in a secret agreement. Among the papers are drawings of "baby creatures" in an amber liquid seen by an abductee, Myrna Hansen, who claimed to be taken there in May 1980. The beings are submerged in the fluid with dozens per artificial womb and scores or hundreds of tanks with beings at different stages of development. One shows a gray laying in a clear rectangular incubator submerged in a clear liquid. Another, drawn in a different style, shows an older gray floating in an amber fluid in a five-foot glass tube.

I don't know when the Dulce papers were first drafted and circulated. He was showing them to ufologists and abductees long before general publication. A transcript of an 1984 interview with Bennewitz indicates they were around by then. By the late Eighties and early Nineties they had been reprinted in several publications. E.B.E.-lore was derided by many investigators and Hopkins very probably chose to ignore this source of information if he knew of it back in 1987.

The next to testify was Betty Andreasson Luca in her regression of 19 November 1987. She describes seeing the aliens removing a fetus from another woman in a scene clearly identical to that in Hopkins' book Intruders which had been in bookstores earlier that summer. Later she sees a baby lying in liquid in a glass case. The case sits before a wall of glass cases filled with plants and things. Symbols are visible. This seems like a specimen room in the style of a saucer room in Hangar 18 (1980). In a different drawing we see a different container, a clear cylinder with a fetus suspended upright in fluid and held in place by straight wires anchored in the ears and the top of the head. No umbilical cord is present and the mouth and nose were covered. How could it live? A professional biologist admitted the situation looked puzzling to him and Raymond Fowler is driven to speculate it is a temporary unit to house and transport the fetus in suspended animation till it reached an artificial womb. (The Watchers, 1990, pp. 20-30.) It may be relevant to note the Dulce papers indicated aliens could absorb nourishment like a sponge by placing their hands in blood. Though still odd biologically, such lore would lend a logic to the nature of her drawing.

By 1992's Secret Life, the circumstance of the ectogenesis of hybrids are known so well they are diagrammed into David Jacobs' "Common Abduction Scenario Matrix." He gives the testimony of three abductees - James Austino, Karen Morgan, and Anita Davis - as examples of what is being seen. The fetuses may be either upright in a liquid solution or lying down in dry or liquid conditions. As many as 50 to a 100 fetuses are seen in the incubatorium. Austino describes a wall of fish tanks with blue liquid and bubbling going on. The little alien is attached to wires. Anita Davis speaks of bubbling fish tanks filled with a viscous fluid. The little fetus is plugged into a cord that provides food or something. In May 1992 the Intruders TV mini-series aired and reflects the advance of lore. We are shown fetuses in a fish tank despite their absence in the Intruders book that inspired it.

John Mack's book Abduction (1994) also contains testimony about incubatoriums. "Jerry" sees a "real tiny, skinny" baby floating in a clear plastic cylinder. The aliens apparently want her to feel proud of their accomplishment with her baby. "Why would they do this?" she asked. Later she sees hundreds of rectangular incubators with fetuses. "Catherine" also sees an incubatorium stacked floor to ceiling with plastic cases of little deformed humanoids submerged in water. Her drawing of the scene is included in Mack's book. Mack expresses puzzlement over the hybrid program with respect to how the fetuses seem too frail. They are "hardly vital stock to perpetuate the human or any other race." In response, "Jerry," in a more recent abduction, describes "beautiful young adult hybrids with porcelain skin." Another abductee insists the hybrids don't look listless to him, but have a unique vitality.

The emergence of this testimony about incubatoriums is all suspiciously new. Thomas Bullard's meticulous analysis of 270 abduction and abduction-related cases up to 1985 shows no mention of incubatoriums. The closest seems to be "South Dakota Connection" who saw bins of cork-like chips and literally hundreds of "unfinished little people all over the room." Preparation for a grand deception? But why give us such a clue at all? There are also cases of abductees themselves encased in fluid, but they probably trace to the 1972 "Ordeal" episode of the TV series U.F.O. which in turn was probably inspired by Leland Clark's 1965 experiments on breathable fluids like FX-80 also known as perfluorocarbons. (Dr. Ron Holtz, "Perfluorocarbons and the Breathing Pool", The Ufologist, April-June 1994, pp. 5-7.) While some might suggest this testimony demonstrates a new openness on the part of aliens, the fact exists that there were plentiful instances of abductees being given tours of saucer interiors in the period studied by Bullard. Nor can we assume the incubatorium program is new. Betty Andreasson Luca backdates her experience to 1973. Shouldn't someone have testified before given how frequently it is seen now?

One notable precursor to these accounts of "real" alien incubatoria exist in the marvelously odd foreign film Humanoid Woman (1981). The film opens with astronauts entering a large circular spacecraft that had suffered an accident months earlier. Spindly humanoids with impressive eyes are drifting around lifeless. As the camera pans around we see a pair of glass cylinders which each contain an embryo floating in an upright attitude. Inside are a tangle of wires attached at places like the ears and the top of the head. Unlike the Betty Andreasson Luca drawing, these wires are not straight and clearly not being used as support. The explorers eventually conclude this spacecraft was a cloning laboratory because they found identical beings at different stages of development. They were "test-tube creatures" evidently grown in vitro.

Clones were an occasional item in the UFO lore of the Seventies such as the 1975 Sun Classic schlockumentary The Outer Space Connection and the Brian Scott case, not to mention certain crash-retrieval whisperings. It might be wondered if it could have been a natural development to weave material from this film into later cases. It's quite an obscure film however and I can't say the similarities compel the assumption of influence. The setting was unusual, but the image assuredly was not. Images of babies being grown outside the womb has been a common futuristic notion discussed in influential feminist tracts like The Dialectic of Sex and journalistic scribblings over the trends of reproductive technology represented by laporoscopy, in vitro fertilization, surrogate parenting, fertility drugs and so forth.

Susan Merrill Squier in her recently published book Babies in Bottles: Twentieth Century Visions of Reproductive Technology (Rutgers University Press, 1994) has assembled a history of this popular image or icon with its drifting ideological connotations. She traces the image all the way to 1863 and the Charles Kingsley children's story The Water Babies, a morality tale laced with themes from the embryology and zoology of that time. Squier documents Julian Huxley's interest in the story as a youth and his conscious use of it as a popularizer of science. The idea of babies growing outside the womb became termed "ectogenesis" and was a subject of debate by notable thinkers like J.B.S. Haldane, J.D. Bernal, Eden Paul, Norman Haire and Vera Brittain in the 1920's. Eugenics was ascendant with its hopes and fears about how man may shape his biological future. Some liked the idea of ectogenesis; others thought it abhorrent then, as now.

Ectogenesis was permanently established as a cultural icon when T.H. Huxley's brother, Aldous, opened his masterpiece Brave New World (1921) with a fictional visit, 600 years hence, to the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. Eggs are fertilized and subjected to "bokanovsky's process" yielding on average 96 identical embryos. Standardization of form contributes to the stability of this future society. The eggs are transferred from test tube to bottles, labeled, and transferred to the moist cellar where can be seen "bulging flanks of row upon receding row and tier above tier of bottles." The hum and rattle of machinery faintly stirs the air. The bottles move on slow conveyors, periodically injected with various extracts. The trauma of decanting proceeds and we are informed that the lower worker castes are given less oxygen to inhibit brain growth. "At 70% of normal oxygen you got dwarfs." After decanting the developed humans are conditioned for their future jobs, "their unescapable social destiny."

Brave New World is required in many colleges, an established member of the Westran Canon. Mentioning it is to invoke the horror of a future "dystopia" of regimentation, less nasty than 1984 to be sure but something that all understand should be avoided. Huxley considered making a movie out of it back in 1945, but RKO had tied up the rights to it and wanted too much money in the resale. While negotiating, Huxley mentioned to a friend that he feared the film might be censored in a key place. "One practical point worries me. What will the Hays office say about babies in bottles? We must have them, since no other symbol of the triumph of science over nature is anything like as effective as this. But will they allow it?" (Squier, p. 153.)

This symbolic function of ectogenesis has not changed. Babies under glass would be a technological trophy showing how science has so mastered nature that the mystery of life itself will have been ripped from the womb. You can be assured inventors will continue to aim for this goal, if only under the excuse of circumventing the emotional ties of gestation connected to surrogate parenting. Some doubt it will ever be practical or affordable. I'm less doubtful on that point than what ectogenesis will look like. Transparent hard cylinders and aquariums with submerged embryos have been imaged so much they seem the obvious route. Harlow's experiments proving the need of tactile stimulation in growing primates provides at least one reason for thinking ectogenesis would require a more organically enveloping form. Even if there are ways around this problem with fancy neurochemistry, my intuition is that alien incubators are too close to expectations of the current imagination and unlike the compromises and surprises that tend to pop up in high tech projects. Compare the rocketry of SF pulps to the rich complexity of the vehicles in the Apollo moon landing enterprise to see what I'm getting at.

Mack's display of Catherine's drawing of the alien incubatorium is ironic in some ways. It bears a caption that begins "All beings in the tank were identical..." Mack speaks of the UFO abduction phenomenon striking at the heart of the Western paradigm, denying its sense of mastery and power and a material view of reality. Yet, as Huxley's comment indicated, what would more celebrate the hubris of materialism than showing future science will master the very secrets of life. What could be more Western than assembly-line embryos? Could anything less affirm Eastern life-connectedness and holism than saying ectogenesis-genesis is plausible and desired by higher beings in the universe? The alien abduction vision is far less a threat to Western thought than a carnival house reflection of its dreams and nightmares.

[Martin Kottmeyer, a frequent contributor to The REALL News, is a writer living in Carlyle, Illinois. His article, "The Eyes That Spoke," which was first published in this newsletter, recently was reprinted in Skeptical Briefs, the CSICOP newsletter.]

{Appearing with this article in the hardcopy version of the newsletter was an illustration from Kingsley's The Water Babies. If you don't want to miss future illustrations, be sure to fill out the membership form at the end of this file and send it in!}

Fortune-Telling Swindles -- Those Unreported Crimes

by Detective Bruce Walstad

Fortune-telling scams and swindles have been reported to law enforcement authorities for the past 150 years. What percentage of victims actually come forward is unknown. It is estimated, depending on varying sources, that anywhere from one in five to one in 100 incidents of fraud are ever reported to the authorities. I suspect that the victims of fortune- telling swindles rarely report their losses to law enforcement.

Why victims don't report these crimes is obvious: embarrassment. Imagine having to go into the local police station and explain to a police officer that you just gave a fortune teller $10,000 to have a curse removed that had been placed on you by your spouse's ex-fiancé many years ago. When questioned on the details, you would have to explain how you were told by the fortune teller that there is a curse on you.

For instance, as part of the ritual, at midnight on Tuesday you had to go to the local cemetery and pray over a particular grave, with 10 one hundred dollar bills taped to your chest in the shape of a cross. On Wednesday, the 10 one hundred dollars were burned by the fortune teller while your eyes were closed in prayer. The following day you had to spit and urinate in a jar and place it under your bed for three days. On the fourth day you brought the bottle of spit and urine to the fortune teller, who after various prayers and ceremonies discovered some small black hairy creature in the bottle, which you were told was the evil curse passing from your body. This ritual "only" cost you $5,000. Then there was the additional $5,000 you paid to the fortune teller for the disposal of the creature. I suspect the average person may have some reservations in telling this type of story to anyone, much less a police officer.

Not all fortune tellers partake in the type of crime described above, but many of the store-front psychics operate in this manner. The score may not be $10,000, but only be a few hundred dollars. However, in many reported cases, the losses are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is estimated by some in law enforcement that the average store front fortune teller is making about $200,000 annually, convincing victims they are cursed.

The question usually arises here: who would fall for this "You are cursed" routine. There is no actual profile on victims. They come from all walks of life, male and female, young and old. Education seems be no factor, nor does occupation, although it seems that the preferred victims are female, who are going through some sort of crisis in life. It also appears that all victims have a belief in the paranormal to some degree.

I have spoken with several fortune tellers and members of their families who will openly admit to perpetrating these types of crimes. I was told that fortune telling is all nonsense and that the fortune tellers have no psychic ability whatsoever. They even explained that they had no remorse for the victims, as the victims came to them_they did not go the victims_and most of the time, the victims left feeling better about themselves and life, even though they were broke. I have also learned from the fortune tellers and police intelligence reports that the fortune teller might go through several hundred clients looking for the right victim to work the "You are Cursed" routine on. Those clients who are passed over are given a quick "cold reading", and shoved out the door.

Law enforcement at this moment has its priorities and, unfortunately, con games, fraud and fortune-telling swindles are not at the top of the list. The Bunco Squad has been replaced by the Gang Strike Force or the Drug Enforcement Unit. The con men and women have figured this out, and, as a result, incidents of fraud are at an all-time high throughout our country.

How can these types crimes be stopped? It is my opinion that it will take a committed, combined effort between law enforcement and the media. We are seeing some steps in the right direction. Many local, county and state jurisdictions have passed laws forbidding fortune telling completely. Occasionally, I see law enforcement, when given the time and resources, investigate fortune tellers by sending in female officers as victims and making arrests when the "You are Cursed" routine is performed on them. Law enforcement training on fraud is becoming more prevalent. Network news magazine type shows, such as 48 Hours and Dateline NBC have recently exposed the "You are Cursed" routine. On the other hand though, I often speak with other police officers who have fortune-telling establishments in their jurisdiction. When I question them about the criminal activity that may be occurring there, the usual response is, "We have never had a complaint in the 10 years they have been there." Then there is the recent rash of television shows that promote and almost endorse the paranormal as being real.

What the future holds for these types of crimes is unknown. Let us hope law enforcement will soon realize that fraud is costing our country losses probably in the billions of dollars annually, and it will take a real effort to combat it. The media also need to realize that they have some sort of commitment to reality and stop airing all those programs on the paranormal.

In a short time, I have an appointment with a fortune teller. Maybe she can predict the future of fortune telling. I'll let you know what she says. . .

[Detective Bruce Walstad is a Chicago investigator, magician, and President of Professionals Against Confidence Crime. He has previously written for The REALL News.]

Healthy Skepticism: Antioxidant "Nutritional Supplements"

by Tim Gorski, M.D.

According to one of several speculative hypotheses about the cause of aging and senescence, cumulative damage to cell structure leads to progressive degradation and impairment of function, as well as disorders which are disproportionately prevalent in old age such as cancer. It has been further postulated that the proximate causes of cell damage at the molecular level are free radicals and oxidizing substances. These, for the most part, are extremely reactive bits and pieces of ordinary moleculeswhich can become disrupted by any number of means.

Although these ideas remain somewhat speculative, there are very good reasons for taking them seriously. There is excellent evidence, for example, that many cancers arise through the cumulative acquisition of cellular mutations. And it appears that the tendency to develop certain cancers consists of the prior possession of such genetic defects, which can be passed along to one's descendants. It also happens that diets high in fruits and vegetables, which contain a variety of antioxidants and other naturally- occurring substances that are capable of quenching free radicals, reduce the risk of some cancers.

These are the facts that have led many to advocate the use of "nutritional supplements" of Beta-Carotene and Vitamins C and E (alpha-tocopherol). Others rely on such ideas to claim that these substances can be depended on to prevent cancer and lengthen one's life span. But, apparently, as is the case so often, things are more complicated than the supplement promoters would like to believe.

Earlier this year, for example, the Alpha-Tocopherol, Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study published the results of its 5- to 8-year follow up study of 29,133 male smokers in Finland. These subjects were chosen because, if there are any anti-cancer benefits to be had from taking such supplements, they ought to be most easily discernible among those at highest risk. Surprisingly, no reduction in the incidence of lung cancer was found. Instead, there was a statistically significant 8% excess mortality among those who took the beta-carotene supplement. [The New England Journal of Medicine, 330:1029, 1994.]

A case-control study was also published some years ago which found an increased risk of cervical dysplasia (the abnormality for which pap smears screen) among women with a high intake of beta-carotene. [International Journal of Epidemiology, 20:603, 1991.]

And just last month, the results of a multi-center trial of the same supplements were published in which the incidence of colorectal was studied. Among four groups of 751 individuals taking either placebo, beta-carotene, vitamins C, E, or all three supplements, this research showed no reduction in the occurrence of these precursors of invasive cancer over four years. [The New England Journal of Medicine, 331:141, 1994.]

Now it is possible, of course, to pick apart virtually any research study, and the proponents of "nutritional supplements" have been doing exactly that with both of these published reports. Concerning the Finnish study, for example, it's been argued that the study subjects who developed cancer had already progressed through the earliest stages of carcinogenesis during which antioxidant supplements exert their effects. And, with all such studies, it's possible that the dosages were either too high or, as the most vociferous critics allege, too low. It's also possible that the results in any or all of the studies were due to chance.

None of these are unreasonable criticisms, but it seems that they're seldom made when research results could be construed as supportive of the "nutritional supplement" pushers' claims. Skepticism itself is suspect when it's so selectively employed. For what is more often the case is that the flimsiest connection to what is merely suggested by the most preliminary of scientific studies is seized upon as if it were divinely-inspired scripture by many of the self- proclaimed health and longevity "experts."

But even a far less free-wheeling approach to reporting on scientific research is decried in a Journal editorial accompanying the third of the above-referenced articles. The editors cite the apparent flip-flops over the health benefits of oat bran and margarine, of sugar versus saccharin, and even exercise, in addition to the new findings concerning beta-carotene and vitamins C and E. They quote from a New York Times editorial opining "no wonder health-conscious Americans often feel they just can't win," and paraphrase the general question being asked as: "Why can't researchers get it straight the first time?"

The answer offered by the Journal editors is that "what medical journals publish is not received wisdom but rather working papers. Each of these is meant to communicate to other researchers and to doctors the results of one study. Each study becomes a piece of a puzzle that, when assembled, will help either to confirm or refute a hypothesis. Although a study may add to the evidence about a connection between diet or exercise and health, rarely can a single study stand alone as definitive proof." They then go on to cite a number of confounding factors that can distort the puzzle pieces and remind their readers that even "the now overwhelming evidence that cigarette smoking is extremely dangerous was accumulated bit by bit over many years."

"For this reason," they point out, "the practice of medicine, as well as clinical research, is inherently conservative. ... But because of the public's keen interest in new medical findings, the media may be less conservative. They are serving a public that believes passionately that the more we can learn about what to eat or how to live, the longer we will live." As a result, "the media reports are exaggerated or oversimplified." The Journal editors recommend that the media "pay closer attention" to these four caveats:

They also urge the public at large to "become much more sophisticated about clinical research" but acknowledge that this "is unlikely to happen as long as science education in the United States is so poor."

"Although we would all like to believe that changes in diet or lifestyle can greatly improve our health," the editors note in conclusion, "the likelihood is that, with a few exception such as smoking cessation, many if not most such changes will produce only small effects [which] may not be consistent [and] will almost inevitably involve some sort of trade-off."

An attitude of "moderation," not just towards diet and exercise, but "in our response to news of clinical research" is called for, suggest the Journal editors. "People who feel betrayed when they learn of a new study showing that vitamin E and carotene do not protect against cancer should ask themselves why they so readily believed that antioxidants had this effect in the first place and why they now believe that there is no such effect."

Finally, to muddy the waters just a bit more on the subject of antioxidants, there is the work of researchers at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. There, Mark Gurney and colleagues appear to have found an animal model for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, the same crippling neurological disorder from which cosmologist Stephen Hawking suffers. According to a report in Science [264:1663, 1994], the animal model is a mouse into which a gene for a mutant Cu,Zn superoxide dismutase (SOD) has been introduced. SOD is an enzyme which eliminates superoxide radicals by converting them into hydrogen peroxide, which is, in turn, converted to water and oxygen by another enzyme, catalase.

But, so far, the indications are that the mutant SOD is not simply disabled. Gurney himself has declared that "We now have genetic proof for the mechanism. It's a dominant gain of function." Just what that "gain of function" is remains to be discovered, but there is some evidence already that SOD does more than break down superoxide radicals. Compare that to the recently-discovered fact that nitric oxide, a highly reactive chemical species, actually serves as an important neurotransmitter which is involved in, of all things, penile erection.

All these considerations should serve to remind us that there is still a great deal still to be learned about the metabolism of free radicals and other highly reactive molecules. Anyone who knows anything about chemistry, moreover, should know that many chemical reactions are freely reversible. Thus, although vitamins C, E, and beta- carotene can act as antioxidants, they can also produce free radicals. Thus, there are very good reasons to question the simple-minded supposition that, where these and similar substances are concerned, if a little is good, then a lot must be better.

[ -- Provided by the D/FW Council Against Health Fraud. Dr. Gorski is a practicing physician, chairman of the D/FW Council Against Health Fraud and a North Texas Skeptics Technical Advisor. Reprinted with permission by the North Texas Skeptics.]

REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

REALL on Downey

The biggest news (as far as I'm concerned, anyway) these past two months has been that Detective Bruce Walstad and I appeared on the Downey Show to debate some "psychics." A showing of this video is the feature of our meeting this month, and I'll be writing it up for our next issue, with all the amusing backstage details, so I won't say much more about it here. But for those of you at our last meeting, you'll recall that we were talking about how some skeptics just sit quietly and try to calmly explain the facts while the pseudo-science proponents get the camera time. Well, that didn't happen this time...

Misfortune Hunters, Part II

Dateline NBC has apparently made a several-part series out of its investigation into fortune teller cons. As described last month, Dateline sent a producer to find cons in the fortune-telling business. In this most recent report (1/3), they interviewed a former Gypsy fortune teller, who explained several of the cons.

The main con explained was a trick with an egg. The fortune teller instructs a person to bring an egg from home. Then she goes through a ritual in which she rubs the egg all over the person and then breaks the egg open, showing a dark mass within it -- supposedly representing the evil curse that was taken into the egg. In fact, as shown by the ex-fortune teller, the dark mass can be brown bread, ham, or any similar material, which the fortune teller slips into their palm via sleight-of-hand and then pushes up through the egg when breaking it. Meanwhile, the fortune teller does this several times over different sessions, and eventually starts bringing money into the equation. Another sleight-of- hand trick involves getting the client to bring a stack of money to "sacrifice." But before the money gets burned, the fortune teller switches it for a fake packet and keeps the money herself.

To sum it all up, a police expert said that these people "prey on the fears and superstitions of believers."

Alternative to Cancer Treatments

Also on Dateline NBC (1/20) was a feature on children with cancer who were using alternative medicine to treat it. Now, I didn't see the whole thing, so I'm not sure just what was said before I turned it on, but it appeared that Dateline, which has in the past taken a very skeptical attitude with respect to such claims, may have softened a bit on this one.

The portion I saw discussed a child who had cancer and whose parents took him off chemotherapy as soon as the cancer went into remission, against the advice of doctors who said he should finish the whole series. They put him on some herbal treatment, and the cancer came back. So, back he went to the chemotherapy until, again, it was in remission. Once again, they ignored the doctors' advice to continue to the end of the series and went back to the herbal mix. The child died. The mother still believes in the healing herbs. I'm not sure what more there is to say.

The other case I saw was similar, with a child on chemotherapy. He hated the treatment (which is not surprising, since it is rather debilitating), and convinced his parents to take him off (unlike the previous case, his cancer had not gone into remission). As of the date of the story, he had started an herbal treatment to "cleanse" his body, which promised to cure the cancer in 21 days. By the time you get this newsletter, that 21 days should be almost up, so I'll be on the lookout for an update. However, the parents have already admitted that, even if this treatment doesn't work, they will still believe in alternative medicine and will not go back to conventional medicine to save their son.

(If anybody saw this entire piece, please let me know if I missed anything here.)

Anti-Oxidant, Anti-Health

Speaking of alternative medicine, all we seem to hear about alternative medicine in the general media is how great it is and how the horrible medical establishment is for saying it should be tested like any other form of treatment. As we see above, even when the alternative fails horribly, the believers still believe. Well, the Chicago Tribune, "Discoveries" section (2/12) discusses yet another case of spectacular failure.

Chaparral, an herbal compound supposed to be a potent antioxidant, has been linked to a woman's case of liver failure. Indeed, there have been a number of cases of toxicity related to this compound, and the FDA has warned against taking it. Unfortunately, many of the alternative medicine proponents have little use for anything the FDA says. After all, if the death of their own son didn't convince the couple discussed above that perhaps alternative medicine isn't so great, I doubt if a mere liver failure linked to this particular mixture will cause any true believers to think twice before taking it.

FMS Reconciliation

Cardinal Bernardin and his former accuser, Steven Cook, have reconciled. Cook apologized for previously accusing him of sexual abuse -- a charge he withdrew when he declared that his own memories, recovered through hypnosis, were unreliable (see "REALLity Check", Vol. 2, #3).

At this meeting, described by the Chicago Tribune (1/5), Cook told Bernardin that he was now 95% sure that Bernardin had never abused him and needed only Bernardin's reassurance to be 100% certain, which Bernardin gave to him.

I hope the publicity received by this reconciliation encourages more people to think critically about the claims of "recovered memories." It is only too bad that it took an accusation against such a well-known person to bring this problem more out into the open.

Springfield's Very Own UFO Flap

Yes, that's right! We had our very own UFO flap right here in Springfield, Illinois, this past month.

On Friday and Saturday, January 27 and 28, the Springfield Police, Illinois State Police, and Sangamon County Sheriff's office received numerous calls from people in town reporting UFOs over the town.

The State Journal-Register's "Police Beat" reports that the lights which produced all those calls were not alien visitors but actually were caused by Blockbuster Video's grand opening, at which they had an advertising truck which can "beam the flashing lights in the air."

Springfield Police Cmdr. David Searcy was quoted as saying, "No one has been kidnapped or raised into a spaceship, yet."

Sure, that's what They want us to believe...

Psychic Cold-Line

Wired, a magazine focusing on the "information superhighway," had an article in its February issue discussing those bastions of great information, psychic hotlines.

The author, Rogier van Bakel, points out that these hotlines, typically running at $3.99 per minute, are the most expensive sources of "information" available by phone. So, he decided to give on a call and see what they could tell him. To put it mildly, he was not impressed.

When he called, the woman on the other end did everything in her power to keep him on as long as possible. She would ask questions which one of us might think she'd know, as a "truly certified" psychic, and then she'd take her own sweet time writing down the answers while the clock ticked away and his bill ticked upwards. These questions started with the mundane, such as his birthday, name, and location. They moved to his favorite color, animal, and then questions about sex. Finally, she got around to using her tarot cards, which she duly shuffled for him over the phone (for 30 seconds, or roughly $2). She told him he'd soon be meeting a woman very soon and he'd ask her to marry him (this would probably come as a shock to his wife). He asked if he could get his money back if it didn't happen, but the "truly certified" psychic told him that they couldn't do that, or else people might call up and lie to them after the psychics told them the "true facts."

Is this result really surprising? Not to most of us who get this newsletter. But the more we see such articles in other periodicals, the better chance there is that somebody who might have called and wasted their money will see through the baloney.

REALLity Checklist -- 1994 in Review

by David Bloomberg

Like any other year, 1994 had its ups and downs. Sometimes the media did a great job, sometimes they needed to go back to the basics, and sometimes it was the same paper or even author! Here are some of the highlights and the lowlights.

* Worst Research Award

The Chicago Tribune "wins" this award for their horrible story about Dr. Bennett Braun (V2, #12). The story is typical of many which appear in the Tribune's "Tempo" section -- long on anecdotes, short on facts. However, when I first wrote it up here, I didn't realize how short on facts they were.

Dr. Braun is one of the biggest proponents of the idea that people can undergo massive abuse and then completely forget about it (repressed memories). However, he takes it a giant step forward and claims that many of his patients have been abused as part of a giant satanic conspiracy, in which all sorts of horrible crimes are perpetrated, but no evidence is ever found.

The author of this article mentioned that Dr. Richard Ofshe devoted a good portion of his book to Braun, but apparently he didn't bother to examine it very well. If he had, I don't see how he could have put together such an unskeptical story about Braun, while only tossing skeptics a bone here and there with statements like, "such claims [of Braun's] draw sharp criticism."

Like I said, since reading this article, I have seen Braun pop up in several other books, most notably Victims of Memory, by Mark Pendergrast, and have learned more about him from researchers and "retractors" (people who recover memories, but then realize the memories were untrue). Frankly, I am disgusted that the Tribune has printed this nonsense.

* Best Expos‚ Award

Dateline NBC wins this award again for their two stories on fortune teller cons (V2, #12 & V3, #2). Last year, they won this award for their investigations into claims of alternative medicine. This time, they used similar methods in a four-month investigation to catch fortune tellers conning victims out of hundreds of dollars while claiming to remove a curse. (See also Bruce Walstad's article in this issue.)

* Worst Political Move Award

Mike Curran made the first pseudo-scientific claim of the election season (V2, #2), when he visited Medjugorje and supposedly was in the same room while a miraculous healing occurred (not that he saw anything, mind you, but why would that change his mind?). However, this award has to go to Ellen Schanzle-Haskins, in her race for state senate. As regular readers know, Schanzle-Haskins didn't just lose to Karen Hasara, but was beaten so badly that Hasara was drafted to run in Springfield's mayoral election (coincidentally running against Curran, among others).

You will also remember that Schanzle-Haskins sent out an invitation to a fund-raiser featuring local "psychic" Greta Alexander (V2, #10 & V2, #11). Would she have lost even without Alexander? Almost certainly yes. But I know of several people who saw this support of nonsense as being indicative of somebody they sure didn't want representing them. Too bad her psychic friend didn't foresee that.

* Best Local Story Award

Matt Keenan (who happens to be our featured speaker at the March meeting) wins this award for his story printed by the Illinois Times about parents accused of being part of a huge satanic conspiracy. The article showed how devastating the false memory phenomenon can be and how far some will reach to find an evil conspiracy hiding everywhere.

* Best Turnaround Award

This award also goes to the Illinois Times, for almost the same topic. In June (V2, #6), I wrote about a Times article which only gave one side of the story regarding claims of recovered memories, specifically relating to an attempt to change the statute of limitations. Since then, the Times published the Keenan article, mentioned above, an article about my FMS talk (V2, #7), and another article about a DCFS investigator who allegedly saw satanic abuse where none occurred (V2, #9).

* Most Confusing Expos‚ Award

This past year, we were told that the most famous photo of the Loch Ness Monster was actually a hoax (V2, #4). What makes this confusing, however, is that we really can't be sure the hoax claim isn't, itself, a hoax. As Robert McGrath discussed at our September meeting, there are a number of factors which come down on both sides of the hoax claim. So, the only thing that seems certain is that a hoax of some sort definitely occurred. The question is, was it back in the 1930's when the photo was taken, or just this past year?

A Nod to Our Patrons

REALL would like to thank our patron members. Through their extra generosity, REALL is able to continue to grow as a force for critical thinking in Central Illinois. Patron members are those giving $50 or more. To become a patron of REALL, please see the membership form below. Patron members are:

David Bloomberg, Springfield John Lockard, Jr., Urbana
David Brown, Danville Robert Smet, Ph.D., Springfield
Alan Burge, D.D.S., Morton Edward Staehlin, Park Forest
Wally Hartshorn, Springfield Ranse Traxler, O'Fallon
Bob Ladendorf, Springfield

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Last modified Sun Jul 07 02:06:06 1996. Comments to whartsho@mail.fgi.net