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In This Issue
From the Editor -- Bob Ladendorf
From the Chairman -- David Bloomberg
Legends in Their Own Time -- David Bloomberg
REALLity Check -- David Bloomberg
Organizations of Interest to Skeptics
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, Wally Hartshorn, and Frank Mazo.
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.
I think it was Shakespeare who once wrote in "The Tempest" that "Hell is open, and all the devils are here." In light of the gassing attacks in Japan and the murder of more than a hundred people, including children, in the Oklahoma City bombing, that certainly would seem to be the case. Irrational, inhumane actions by a few individuals crazed for whatever cause they espouse certainly endanger the practice of everyday living for the rest of us.
Our hearts go out to the survivors and to the families of those killed or injured. Their intense sufferings make our outrages over irrational thinking in the areas of the paranormal and pseudo-scientific phenomena much less important. Then again, a bit more rational thinking and empathy for human beings among those guilty of these heinous crimes may have prevented them from carrying out those actions. Whatever the case, we should continue to work on a day-to-day basis to encourage more critical thinking in all areas of human endeavors.
In this issue, David Bloomberg deals with urban matters on a less deadly scale -- urban legends. I hope you enjoy his book review and the other information we have for you.
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:
email@example.com (Note: 1st 8 are letters)
David Bloomberg: firstname.lastname@example.org
/s/ Bob Ladendorf
Well, the article I wrote last issue about my appearance on the Downey show received more feedback than any other piece we've ever done. Ok, so, considering the lack of letters to the editor we get, that's not saying much, but I did receive several notes about the piece. One renewing member said, "Your story about the encounter with the talk show psychics was great!" Another told me, "Awright!! I quite enjoyed the 'Don't Push Me, Lady!' piece. I think Allison must be watching too much Jerry Springer -- that, or I haven't read the latest talk show etiquette manual. They seem to do a lot of stand-up confrontation these days."
If you ever want to comment on an article, meeting, or anything you feel is relevant to REALL, please feel free to send a letter to the editor, but also please address it in a way that we'll know you want it published.
Now, speaking of talk shows, I was invited a couple weeks ago to appear on the Oprah show. On Good Friday, they covered the topic of "miracles" and wanted a skeptic (they apparently got my name from the Capital Area Skeptics in Washington, D.C.). Unfortunately, miracles are not my specialty (so to speak), so I referred them to Joe Nickell, author of Looking for a Miracle, which I have bought but not yet read. I told them that I would be happy to appear with Nickell, but they only had room for one of us, and I told them to choose him (they likely would have anyway, once I referred them to him).
Some people I know were astounded that I would turn down an offer to appear on the number-one rated talk show in the country. But would it have been any good for me to appear on the show? Sure, I'd like to be on a show seen coast-to-coast -- it would be a kick. But it wouldn't have helped advance our ideas.
REALL Board Member Wally Hartshorn wrote in the first issue of The REALL News (when he was the Editor), "Avoid the temptation to act as an 'instant expert' on everything. If you flit scamper about explaining every new claim that comes along without taking the time to actually investigate them, you will be marked (rightly so) as a dogmatic disbeliever, which is precisely the image that skeptics are trying to fight against."
I consider myself to be well-read on many topics, such as psychics, UFOs, and recovered memories. When it comes to miracles, however, I don't think I could stand up to many questions. Sure, I know the basics. I know that no crying statue has ever been proven to be anything other than a hoax. I know that people who have silver prayer chains apparently turn to gold forget that they are merely silver plated, with brass underneath. I know that there has never been a documented case of faith healing.
But does that mean I am qualified to discuss these matters on a talk show? I don't think so_at least not without an expert like Nickell to counter those claims. I would have gone on the show to discuss skepticism in general, if Nickell had been there to discuss the specific cases he investigated. However, that isn't what the show was looking for. If I had gone alone and just one person had asked, "What about this case?" I would have been stymied. The only answer I could have given was, "I haven't investigated it." The natural follow-up question returned to me would have been, "How many claims of miracles have you investigated?" My answer of "None" would have been somewhat less than a decisive blow for skepticism.
The folks at the Oprah show did take my name and phone number, and other information, and said they'd put it in their "Skeptic" file. Perhaps I'll get another call and another chance to appear. Hopefully, this time it will be on a subject I can talk intelligently about. If I'm really lucky, they'll put me on with Dorothy Allison.
We all know that albino alligators roam the sewers of New York City, that there is a poor kid dying of brain cancer who needs our postcards to get in the Guinness Book of World Records, and that the library at Northwestern (or was it University of Illinois?) is sinking because the architect forgot to take into account the weight of the books, right? Well...
These are just three examples of well-known urban legends. What is an urban legend? It can be described as a story told as if it were a true account, but which is actually a piece of modern folklore. Why is it of interest to us? First, many of these legends describe events which are paranormal in nature. Indeed, the first popular book on the subject, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, takes its name from a legend many of us have heard as a ghost story, but is often told as truth. Briefly, this legend generally tells of a man who picks up a teenage girl as a hitchhiker and drops her off at a house. After she leaves, he realizes that he had leant her his jacket, and goes back to get it. When he gets there, he is told that the girl was the young daughter of those living there, but she died tragically a number of years earlier, on this very night. The missing jacket is usually found on the headstone of the girl's grave.
Spooky, and a good ghost story for campfires, but what about when it's told as truth? Even when the subject of the story doesn't deal with ghosts (which most do not), I still think they are of interest to skeptics. I don't abandon my skepticism outside the realm of the paranormal. So when somebody tells me that their friend's father once bought a car that got 100 miles to the gallon, but that car was recalled by the company and the father was paid off not to talk about it, I start to ask questions. Yes, this is also a rather common urban legend, and one that was related to me by a friend of mine several years ago.
There are other legends which simply don't make any sense scientifically. A final note to many of the scarier urban legends is that the girl in the story had her hair turn white overnight. Possible? No, but it still makes the rounds, being told as "true."
In case you can't tell, I find urban legends quite fascinating.
So where is one to go to find out information on this subject? The most well-known author in the field is Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor of English and folklore at the University of Utah. He has written five popular books on the subject (including the one mentioned above), in addition to several other more scholarly ones. His latest is The Baby Train, which came out in 1993.
Brunvand's first two books not only told tales but explained them in terms of story type and history, which was very interesting, but not nearly as much fun as the stories themselves. His latter ones are collections of stories he has gathered through his newspaper column, trips, computer mail, and other various means. In some cases, he is able to track a "new" legend as it begins. (An example of a "new" legend is one that I saw in recent months, which goes something like this: Don't flash your brights at cars without headlights on at night. Police have verified that gangs are now using a new initiation by which they go out in cars without lights and chase down and kill the first person who flashes their brights. (Since this is an article about urban legends, you already know this isn't true, but it certainly got a great deal of computer play, and in some cases media attention, before many people realized it was only an urban legend. In fact, Brunvand wrote an article about this legend in the most recent Skeptical Inquirer.)) In his latest book, Brunvand also discusses some legends from other countries, several of which are remarkably similar to those here in the U.S.
I decided to write this article because I happen to have been involved in two urban legend tellings lately. Springfield's Channel 20 reported a legend known as "Blue Star Acid" on March 2, including a quote from an apparently believing Sangamon County Sheriff Neil Williamson. This legend claims that drug peddlers are using lick-and-stick tattoos laced with LSD. The most common form of tattoo, dutifully sketched by Sheriff Williamson for the TV camera, is a simple five-pointed blue star. However, we are also warned of tattoos in the form of well-known cartoons such as Mickey Mouse or Bart Simpson. Often, as with similar legends, the (mis)information is distributed through Xerox copies of "WARNING NOTICES," generally filled with words in all-capital letters and lots of exclamation points!!! Channel 20 even showed one of these, which they found at a local dentist's office (I know that's where I'd go as a good source for news). The story tends to grab and scare us as being evidence of the drug dealers trying to hook our children. However, the truth is that it's just not so, at least not in the form it's being told.
According to Brunvand's Curses! Broiled Again!, it is "tricky" to completely disprove this legend, because some "blotter acid" (paper impregnated with LSD) was used in the '60s and '70s. However, this was seldom, if ever, given out to children, and there has never been a lick-and-stick tattoo like the ones mentioned in the "Warning" used to transfer LSD.
Since REALL exists in part to distribute information to the media, I immediately sent E-mail to Channel 20, informing them that they had reported a well-known urban legend as truth, and sending them a 1992 article from the L.A. Times, which showed the story to be an urban legend.
Their response? A week later, I received E-mail back which said:
"Thank you for calling NewsChannel 20 Feedback. We appreciate your comments on our story and thank you for the article."
That was it. I followed up by asking if they ever retracted the story, and received no response. Nobody I know ever saw such a retraction.
This is exactly how urban legends continue to spread. The next person from Springfield who tells this legend as truth will likely add on, "It must be true; I saw it on the news!"
The second of the legends involves the boy I mentioned at the beginning of this article. According to the story, Craig Shergold (or, as this one mistakenly told it, "Sherwood") has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Before he dies, he wants to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most postcards (or, again as this one mistakenly told it, business cards) sent to him. It sounds like a worthy cause, and a co-worker was diligently gathering cards to send to the poor boy. In fact, this story was true...at one time. At the age of 7, he wanted all those cards in order to get the record. Now, however, the boy is 15, he has the record (and the Guinness people will not endorse or support any attempt to break it), the tumor turned out to be benign, and neither he nor the Make A Wish Foundation, often named in the legend, want any more cards. In fact, the family has publicly appealed numerous times for people to stop sending the cards, but they just keep pouring in.
I put a stop to this one as soon as I heard about it, by giving several articles about it to the person asking for cards (these articles can be found on my computer bulletin board and the Usenet alt.folklore.urban archives). He even FAXed those articles back to the person from whom he got the information, so hopefully it will have some sort of backlash effect.
Unfortunately, these stories spread far faster than they can be debunked. For the one that I stopped here, it probably spread in several other directions. People thinking they are doing a good deed will likely continue to send cards to Craig Shergold well into the next century. Likewise, people thinking they will stop a drug epidemic will continue to circulate "WARNING" notices about lick-and-stick tattoos embedded with LSD.
However, I think skeptics should still do what we can to stop these stories when possible. Even though the Blue Star LSD story was apparently not retracted, it did die quickly soon after I sent the information to Channel 20. And while others may send postcards to Craig Shergold, I can assure you that nobody at my office will be doing it again anytime soon. As with other topics, we do what we can and help out by providing information wherever possible.
There has been a great deal of interesting media activity lately. Here are some of the high (or low) points.
As many of you already know, PBS had a special four-hour Frontline investigation, "Divided Memories," into repressed memories. I have only had a chance to skim it so far, but between what I've seen, what I've talked to people about, and the over 20 reviews I've read, I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that it will appear in my "REALLity Checklist -- 1995 in Review" as the best investigation.
Every one of those reviews I read have discussed how unbiased the piece was. Similarly, every person I've seen discussing it on the "repressed memory survivor"-type computer conferences has attacked the show as completely biased against them. Since much of the documentary simply allowed the therapists to talk or show their methods, I find it difficult to understand how this is biased -- their own words and deeds did them in.
I think TV Guide said it best in their review: "Although the presentation is evenhanded, with equal time going to accusers and accused as well as to mental health professionals on both sides of the issue, the result is a devastating indictment of the repressed-memory crusade."
At almost the same time as the Frontline piece, George Franlin's repressed-memory-based murder conviction was overturned by an appeals court. Briefly, Franklin's daughter claims to have suddenly recalled witnessing him kill a friend of hers when she was a young girl (the girl's body was found, bludgeoned to death, but the case was never solved). As it turns out, the "memories" did not return suddenly, but under therapy in a "relaxed" state close to hypnosis. She revised her tale to fit in any discrepancies (for example, she originally "recovered" a memory of being raped by a black man, but changed it to her white godfather).
Both Dateline NBC and Joan Beck, in a Chicago Tribune Op-Ed piece, discussed whether the "memories" were repressed or therapy-induced. Now that his case has been overturned, we can hope that either the state will realize that they have no actual evidence to retry the case, or that the court will recognize the unsound nature of Franklin's daughter's "memories."
And in the "It Was Bound to Happen" department, claims of repressed memories entered into the OJ trial in March. Max Cordoba, a black man who the defense claimed was threatened and racially insulted by Detective Mark Fuhrman, originally did numerous interviews in which he denied that it ever happened. Now, however, he claims to have recovered the memory of it happening.
This former Marine sergeant says he was so scared when Fuhrman supposedly pulled back his jacket and displayed his gun to Cordoba (without ever touching it), that he repressed all memory of it. Need I say more?
On April 3, the State Journal-Register published their finest article ever. Ok, so maybe I'm a little biased. In case you haven't guessed, the article was about REALL.
Doug Pokorski, who wrote an article about us before our first meeting and who has followed our progress since then, wrote a two-year update on our activities. He especially focused on my recent appearance on the Downey show, getting pushed by Dorothy Allison, but expanded on many of our other activities and topics.
It's this type of media exposure which helps us to reach others in the community who may not know about REALL. Thanks, Doug!
Incidentally, Dorothy Allison's predicted date for a major break in the murder case she was supposed to solve has long since passed. Several weeks after that date, the police found a skull and a hand which belonged to the same woman - Allison didn't predict that. But they appear to be no closer to actually figuring out who committed the crime. With clues such as "he has bad knees" and "he drives on this road" coming from Allison, the famed psychic detective, I just can't understand why they haven't solved it yet...
Miracles, miracles, everywhere -- but especially in Italy, where there are supposedly at least a dozen statues crying bloody tears.
Some of these cases have already been debunked, according to a Chicago Tribune story (4/9/95), such as one in which the "blood" was tinted olive oil and another in which it was red paint. One is particularly intriguing, though, because a test has shown that the tears are, in fact, real male human blood. A judge has ordered that the blood be DNA tested to see if it matches anybody in the family who owns it. No word yet on the results.
Time magazine had a special issue on miracles, but there was nothing in it that was new. As you may know (if you already read the Chairman's column), I was invited to appear on Oprah to discuss miracles, but instead put them in contact with Joe Nickell, who did appear.
Once a week, Channel 49 (in Springfield, 3 in Champaign/Urbana) has short pieces by Dr. Dean Edell. On March 16, he talked about homeopathy and some disturbing news from Britain.
As he pointed out, while homeopathy is based on ideas that are completely contradicted by everything we know about physics, it is still gaining popularity. He pointed out that taking homeopathic drugs won't harm you, but they won't cure you either.
However, a recent study in England shows that those who believe in homeopathy may be causing harm to their children due to those beliefs. This study showed that more than 20% of parents who refused to vaccinate their children did so because of their beliefs in homeopathy. Some of the parents were quoted saying homeopathy is "the best way to protect my child." One said homeopathy, and not vaccinating, allows "the body to experience normal illness." As Dr. Edell pointed out, we hope the "normal illness" the child experiences isn't polio or whooping cough.
So while homeopathy, itself, won't hurt these children, their parents ignorance may.
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
P.O. Box 703
Buffalo, NY 14226-9973
Ph.: (800) 634-1610
False Memory Syndrome Foundation
3401 Market St., Suite 130
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Ph.: (800) 568-8882
National Center for Science Education (NCSE)
P.O. Box 9477
Berkeley, CA 94709-0744
Ph.: (510) 843-3393
National Council Against Health Fraud
P.O. Box 1276
Loma Linda, CA 92354
Ph.: (909) 824-4690
St. Louis Association for Teaching and Education (SLATE)
P.O. Box 462
O'Fallon, IL 62269-0462
2761 N. Marengo Ave.
Altadena, CA 91001
Ph.: (818) 794-3119
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|
It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. [Sherlock Holmes]-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia"
There is no belief, however foolish, that will not gather its faithful adherents who will defend it to the death.-- Isaac Asimov
We at REALL encourage letters to the editor about any article or topic covered in The REALL News. We want to make this a forum for all our members. (Letters may be edited if too long. Name, address and phone number must be included with the letter.)
If you have a computer and a modem, you owe it to yourself to participate in the skeptic message areas on the computer BBS networks. Here in Springfield, call The Temples of Syrinx at (217) 522-4707. David Bloomberg operates this BBS, which carries the FidoNet SKEPTIC, EVOLUTION, UFO, and FMS conferences, internationally distributed message areas for discussing topics of interest to skeptics. He is also carrying ParaNet conferences, all dedicated to UFO and paranormal topics. In addition, he has recently added several Usenet conferences, including Sci.Skeptic, the Skeptic Listserver, Talk.Origins, and various Alt.Folklore groups. You can also find a wide variety of skeptic, scientific, UFO, FMS, evolution/creation, and urban legend text files there.
The Temples of Syrinx -- (217) 522-4707
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