A new magazine collaboration between Big Think and Templeton

November 1, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Reader Dave called my attention to this new online magazine called “The Well”. Click on the screenshot to go to the site.

And below that, the scary part (I’ve outlined it in red):

Templeton!  There they go again with the Big Questions, except some of them are answerable this time (“no, we don’t have free will,” and “no, evolution is not directional”).  What Templeton is doing, and is coopting a pretty reputable site to do so—though “Big Think” is sponsored by the Charles Koch Foundation—is to claim that there is Something Beyond Science, something numinous or ungraspable. Remember, the John Templeton Foundation was set up by the hedge fund billionaire to show people that the more we learn about science, the more we understand about God (now “spirituality”). As reader Dave wrote me:

Templeton’s continual attempts to usurp science is consistently repulsive — particularly by way of its other facade, Nautilus Magazine. So I couldn’t resist passing the aforementioned along.
Here’s something even sadder in the first issue, some self-help with Jon Haidt. The 11-minute video is okay, but I wouldn’t lend my name to Templeton. Now Haidt is one of the prize horses in Templeton’s stall:

And here’s an article saying that the “self” is real, and that buttresses the idea of free will:

As Vonnegut said, so it goes. . .

The World Health Organization buys into woo

October 23, 2023 • 12:40 pm

Or, if you want a rhyme, “WHO goes woo.”  This article comes from Jonathan Jarry, a science communicator at McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.  I was surprised to learn that the WHO, a highly respected organization run by the United Nations, has, on the sly, bought into a lot of woo, including homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, ayurvedic medicine, and naturopathy, as well as other dubious remedies. Apparently the motivation for this is that WHO, whose goal is to ensure that everyone in the world has medical care, realized that this is not possible if by “medical care” you mean “modern science-based medicine.” Many people just can’t get it, or perhaps don’t trust it.  Thus WHO buys into woo so that people without access to that care can use the local nostrums. Presto: they get medical help!

Click to read:

You can see the document from 2013, “Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023“, laying out how “traditional and complementary medicine” (“T&CM”) are to be used.  Here’s the rationale from the pamphlet. Look at the quackery that WHO wants to promulgate! (Bolding is mine.)

It is increasingly recognised that safe and effective T&CM could contribute to the health of our populations. One of the most significant questions raised about T&CM in recent years is how it might contribute to universal health coverage by improving service delivery in the health system, particularly PHC: patient accessibility to health services, and greater awareness of health promotion and disease prevention are key issues here. Insurance coverage of T&CM products, practices and practitioners varies widely from full inclusion within insurance plans to total exclusion, with consumers having to pay for all T&CM out of pocket. Simultaneously, there is emerging evidence that T&CM, when included in UHC plans, may reduce pressure on the system and diminish costs. This shows why it is important for Member States to consider how to integrate T&CM into their health systems and UHC plans more comprehensively/

Many countries have their own traditional or indigenous forms of healing which are firmly rooted in their culture and history. Some forms of TM such as Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and Unani medicine are popular nationally, as well as being used worldwide. At the same time, some forms of CM such as anthroposophic medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, naturopathy and osteopathy are also in extensive use. Health systems around the world are experiencing increased levels of chronic illness and escalating health care costs. Patients and health care providers alike are demanding that health care services be revitalized, with a stronger emphasis on individualized, person-centred care (9). This includes expanding access to T&CM products, practices and practitioners. Over 100 million Europeans are currently T&CM users, with one fifth regularly using T&CM and the same number preferring health care which includes T&CM (10). There are many more T&CM users in Africa, Asia, Australia and North America (11).

From Jarry’s article:

What the WHO sees in T&CM—interventions that include Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and naturopathy—is an easy way to fulfill a goal. Training enough medical doctors and building enough hospitals to cover the globe seems like an impossible task. Instead, let’s acknowledge the presence of healers of various stripes, with little attention given to the kind of care they provide.

The WHO wants the integration of these prescientific healing practices into national health systems as a way to contribute to universal health coverage, and the arguments it musters for this integration are sloppy and predictable. T&CM is affordable, we are told. This is debatable, as practices like chiropractic and acupuncture commonly depend on regular “maintenance” treatments for life, and affordability is of course no gauge of effectiveness. T&CM is popular, the WHO argues, which is a faulty argument. Bloodletting was widespread for centuries, not because it worked well but because there was little else to do. The WHO also carves out a niche for T&CM in addressing chronic health issues and providing individualized, holistic care, which is a copy-and-paste job from reams of marketing material aimed at glorifying so-called alternative medicine.

The WHO’s poorly argued strategy to convince Member States to integrate prescientific practices into their healthcare system has led them down a worrisome road paved with good intentions. After all, how do you distinguish a traditional healer using “best practices” (whatever that means) from a charlatan? The WHO’s answer has been to release benchmarks for training in the various T&CM interventions it supports.

More from Jarry:

The WHO’s Traditional Medicine Strategy is peppered with allusions to testing these interventions for their effectiveness. Indeed, the number one difficulty their Member States note regarding the regulation of T&CM is the lack of research data. These healing practices must be supported by evidence, the WHO agrees, but what kind of evidence? “While there is much to be learned from controlled clinical trials,” they note, “other evaluation methods are also valuable,” including “patterns of use.” This is a worrying way to promote popularity as an indication of validity.

“Patterns of use”? That means that the effectiveness of treatments can be judged by how widely they’re used?? Like bloodletting used to be, and ayurvedic medicine and chiropractic is now? I don’t even have to tell you how bogus that means of assessment is (see p. 27 of the pamphlet for verification). But according to Jarry, “Orac” (David Gorski), who runs the site Science-Based Medicine, has already been bashing WHO for this.

Dr. David Gorski, an oncologist and science blogger, has covered the WHO’s embrace of quackery many times in the past, pointing out how interesting it is that the people arguing for medical integration make no mention of European humoral therapy and our need to integrate it into common practice. While anthroposophy’s four classical elements and acupuncture’s rivers of qi are seen as conducive to good healthcare, the debunked idea that phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile determine our health has been ignored by the WHO. They are all antiquated notions, but the ones we buried are not being resurrected by the WHO. Strange.

Read the document for yourself to see the abnegation of WHO’s mission. You don’t get people well by using these species of quackery.

Has the Discovery Institute changed its mission?

July 23, 2023 • 12:15 pm

The Discovery Institute (DI) was founded in 1991 with the aim of spreading creationism in its “Intelligent Design” (ID) incarnation, its overarching goal being the replacement of materialism in science and life with the idea of God.  Its manifesto was the infamous 1998 “Wedge Document” (or “Wedge Strategy”), laying out its goals in terms of years. It’s proven to be a miserable failure. First, the main goals (from the original document at the NCSE) and the timetable for their implementation.

Governing Goals

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

Five Year Goals [JAC: 2003]

  • To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.
  • To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
  • To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Twenty Year Goals [JAC: 2018]

  • To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.
  • To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts.
  • To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.

Well, it’s been 25 years now, and none of those 20-year goals have been accomplished. That’s because Intelligent Design was rejected by the scientific community, with the final blow being the declaration that teaching ID along with evolution was illegal, a decision that was firm and loud in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District—a nice Christmas present for rationalists in 2005.

So what’s happened to the Discovery Institute? Well, you can see by clicking on the main site below and exploring its various initiatives.

DI Fellow Steven Meyer (l) with Joe Rogan

For sure pushing ID is still a big activity, and the main object of the Center for Science and Culture.  But now the tactics have changed: the goal is not to mandate the teaching of ID along with real evolution, but simply to highlight problems with evolution (the hope, of course, is that this will lead to the rejection of evolution and the embrace of ID). From its FAQ page:

Is Discovery Institute trying to eliminate, reduce or censor the coverage of evolution in textbooks?

No. Far from reducing the coverage of evolution, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. The true censors are those who want to stop any discussion of the scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory.

This is where creationism in America has gotten to. It started with mandating Biblical creationism in schools, and when that was rejected they tried to get “scientific creationism” taught, but that failed, too, as it was just Biblical creationism gussied up in scientific language. Then it became the “teach the alternatives” (evolution/Biblical creationism), which was declared unconstitutional since the Biblical alternative was just religion pushed into the public schools. Then the strategy became “teach intelligent design (which isn’t creationism),” something that federal judge John Jones deep-sixed in the Kitzmiller case. Now the pathetic institute is reduced to just pointing out problems with evolution, but nobody’s adopting that strategy either.

The DI still runs the Evolution News site, where you can hear deluded IDers like David Klinghoffer, Casey Luskin, Stephen Meyer, and Denyse O’Leary hold forth. As always, they allow no comments on their posts.

Face it: the Discovery Institute has failed miserably in its mission. Yet it’s still going strong, fueled by big donations from mysterious people and organizations (see their tax forms, which also show that in 2021 Meyer made nearly $200,000 a year in salary. and 28K in benefits:


Yet they have other activities, too. After all, their ten million dollars in savings (it’s fun to go through the tax forms) has to be used for something:


Clearly they’re getting into AI, and it looks as if it’s a way to confirm “human exceptionalism” (i.e., the existence of God). That’s still a fundamentally religious purpose, and they even have a Center on Human Exceptionalism.  Another “center,” the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence is also dedicated to pushing God:

The mission of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence at Discovery Institute is to explore the benefits as well as the challenges raised by artificial intelligence (AI) in light of the enduring truth of human exceptionalism. People know at a fundamental level that they are not machines. But faulty thinking can cause people to assent to views that in their heart of hearts they know to be untrue. The Bradley Center seeks to help individuals — and our society at large — to realize that we are not machines while at the same time helping to put machines (especially computers and AI) in proper perspective.

In terms of defending free enterprise, well, the religious connection isn’t that clear, but you can read about their activities here, which are clearly based on conservative principles.

Overall, the DI still seems to be an organization dedicated to affirming the truth of God and religion, but has changed its scientific mission to conform to court decisions.  The Wedge Strategy is a miserable failure, but the DI is still loaded with money. After all, remember that 40% of Americans are still young-earth creationists, and many of the conservative ones are rich.

Yes, the DI is still going, but it’s irrelevant, and hasn’t wrought any perceptible changes in either science teaching or American society in general. They’re just spending a lot of dosh preaching to the choir.

“Prebunking” the Times’ rehabilitation of Uri Geller

July 12, 2023 • 11:20 am

by Greg Mayer

When I wrote Jerry about the New York Times declaration of victory on behalf of the con artist Uri Geller, I predicted that there would be a response from the Center for Inquiry, and maybe Michael Shermer as well. And sure enough, former CFI vice president D.J. Grothe, as Jerry has already noted, has responded, as has the CFI itself, and, as anticipated, so has Michael Shermer. I’ll get to those, but by far the best response came from data scientist Mark Palko, who responded three years ago! Talk about clairvoyance!

How did Palko do this? The Times has been recycling the same story about Geller for years; Palko took apart a previous instance of it. In 2014, the Times published a piece by Adam Higginbotham with the same tale of how Geller rose to success and fame after Johnny Carson, aided by James Randi, failed to expose him as a fraud on the Tonight Show in 1973. Palko takes it apart this way:

It’s a great tale except that there’s little reason to believe it actually happened that way. Start with the fact that Geller seems to be the main source, which should have raised some red flags for Higginbotham.

For the latest Times article, Geller is again the main source.

The 2014 article claimed that Geller’s abject failure on Carson’s show led to a booking on the Merv Griffin Show; did it?


How about the appearance on the Merv Griffith [sic] Show? Wasn’t he invited shortly after the Carson debacle? Not exactly. He was invited back.

Geller was on Griffin about two weeks before he bombed on Carson; they invited him back to Griffin two weeks later.

And did Geller’s fame take off after his Carson failure? Palko checks the data:

If anything, it looks like Randi’s debunking of Geller starting with the Tonight Show and culminating with 1975’s The Magic of Uri Geller [a book by Randi] was what brought the charlatan down.

Palko caps off his remarkable “prebunking” thus:

Journalists love people-are-stupid narratives, but, while I believe cognitive dissonance is real, I think the lesson here is not “To an enthusiastically trusting public, his failure only made his gifts seem more real”, and is instead that we should all be more skeptical of simplistic and overused pop psychology.

I have shown the video of Geller’s appearance on Carson to nearly two decades of undergraduate students in a course on “Science and Pseudoscience”; I don’t think any of them were impressed by Geller’s psychic abilities. What it is is a master class in what is known as “escape from refutation”.

The CFI reports on the “Rehabbing of Uri Geller” in yesterday’s edition of its “Morning Heresy” newsletter.  It begins by saying “it’s officially time to start worrying about the New York Times“– something Jerry and I have been saying for years now!– and goes on, describing the Times piece as

… a lengthy – and progressively more maddening – hagiography of Uri Geller. If there is ever a museum dedicated to fawning, nonsensical historical revisionism, this article deserves its own wing.

It finishes with an excerpt from letter sent to the Times by James Underdown, CFI Investigations Group Founder:

And herein lies the downside to human deep-fakes like spoon benders and faith healers. They paint a picture of a world that doesn’t exist, then fill it with gullible followers. What results is a populace that scoffs at science, ignores medicine, and believes their own eyes at a magic show.”

And finally, Michael Shermer’s take.

Addendum: Greg asked me (he’s doing field work) to add this to the post:

Mark Palko just sent me this piece by Mark Evanier. 
Palko says that Evanier is well connected in the magic community. Note that he disagrees with Grothe’s acceptance that a lot of magicians now embrace Geller. He writes instead:
The sheer reaction to the piece suggests that the embrace is not as widespread as the reporter claims. The professional magicians I know have always kind of regarded the guy as someone who got very rich and famous duping people with the kind of magic most of them could do when they were thirteen — and probably do it better.

h/t Mark Palko, Andrew Gelman

Nature falls for one discredited aspect of autism: “facilitated communication”

May 17, 2023 • 10:30 am

As you know, autism runs the gamut between people who functional pretty normally to those who can barely function, require round-the-clock care, and cannot read, write, or speak.  It’s often assumed that this is a “spectrum”: that is, a disorder with a unitary developmental/genetic cause that has various degrees of expression.  Thus some groups that hope to ameliorate autism assume that the near-normal end of the spectrum require treatments similar in kind but not degree to those who show “profound” autism. Others think that the treatments needed are very different.  The high-functioning people with autism can express what they want or need, but what about those who can’t express themselves?

This is the subject of the new Nature article shown in the second screenshot below. It’s also the subject of a critique of one part of the Nature article—a critique that appeared in Skeptical Inquirer (SI). SI is the well known magazine from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), itself an offshoot of The Center for Inquiry.

SI and SCICOP have devoted themselves to debunking woo, and their SI piece, written by psychologist Stuart Vyse, takes issue with one brand of woo historically involved with autism research: facilitated communication.

Facilitated communication was a method that, people thought, could allow profoundly autistic people who couldn’t read, write, or talk to communicate with others. The assumption was that with some assistance, the hidden verbal and mental abilities of profoundly autistic people could be revealed.  This involved people helping the severely autistic people to “write” by using various devices.  And lo, a trove of hidden thoughts were revealed. Sadly, it was eventually found that the “helpers” were actually prompting the autistic to communicate, and it was pretty much a scam, although perhaps an unwitting one. (It’s the equivalent of a Ouija board, where people think that they are not guiding the pointer but really are.) Here, let Wikipedia describe the method:

Facilitated communication (FC), or supported typing, is a scientifically discredited technique that attempts to aid communication by people with autism or other communication disabilities who are non-verbal. The facilitator guides the disabled person’s arm or hand and attempts to help them type on a keyboard or other device.

There is widespread agreement within the scientific community and among disability advocacy organizations that FC is a pseudoscience. Research indicates that the facilitator is the source of the messages obtained through FC, rather than the disabled person. The facilitator may believe they are not the source of the messages due to the ideomotor effect, which is the same effect that guides a Ouija board.  Studies have consistently found that FC is unable to provide the correct response to even simple questions when the facilitator does not know the answers to the questions (e.g., showing the patient but not the facilitator an object).  In addition, in numerous cases disabled persons have been assumed by facilitators to be typing a coherent message while the patient’s eyes were closed or while they were looking away from or showing no particular interest in the letter board.

Facilitated communication has been called “the single most scientifically discredited intervention in all of developmental disabilities”.  Some promoters of the technique have claimed that FC cannot be clearly disproven because a testing environment might cause the subject to lose confidence.  However, there is a scientific consensus that facilitated communication is not a valid communication technique, and its use is strongly discouraged by most speech and language disability professional organizations.  There have been a large number of false abuse allegations made through facilitated communication.

The article is remarkably strong for Wikipedia, and has a long section on documenting the flaws of facilitated communication.

At present, though, the method is still used, and is an important part of the Nature paper. Now it’s often done with the “facilitator” holding up an alphabet board and having the autistic person point to letters that, they say, give a message. The thing is that the boards are always held up by a facilitator, who can move them around, and the autistic person can look at the “facilitator” for approval.  They never do it with the alphabet board flat on a table and the facilitator out of view of the subject. Look at this video using the kind of facilitated communication touted in the Nature article, and you’ll see the issues. The facilitator moves the board around, and the subject looks at times at the facilitator, seemingly seeking approval.  And it’s hardly credible that someone who cannot either write, read, or speak could nevertheless convey complex messages this way. But you don’t have to guess: experiments have debunked the whole method.

In the article below (click to read), psychologist Stuart Vyse calls out Nature not for its whole article (for parts of it are enlightening and reasonable), but for buying into facilitated communication. Here’s the premise of the Nature article involving facilitated communication, as stated by Vyse:

This renewed controversy over communication methods has emerged in the context of a larger political fight within the autism community. The Nature story was about efforts on the part of some autism advocates to have people with autism more involved in the planning and execution of autism research. In theory this sounds like a good idea, but this effort has been largely dominated by verbal advocates on the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum. As it is now defined, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has a remarkably wide range that can include both highly verbal Harvard graduates and nonspeaking people who engage in repetitive and self-injurious behaviors. It includes both people who will be fine and may even thrive living independently and people who will never be able to live independently without substantial support.

Parents of children on the severe end of the spectrum argue that the needs of their children are substantially different than those of the verbal self-advocates on the other end of the spectrum. Furthermore, if the research agenda is driven by people on the less severe end of the spectrum, the approximately thirty percent of children with autism who will never develop speech will be left behind.

That’s why Nature is touting facilitated communication as a way of finding out how the severely autistic want to give input into their worldviews, their problems, and their therapy.

SI article:

The quote given in the Nature piece below (click to read) is taken from a severely autistic person pointing at a letterboard. And the entire quote, from Rachel Kripke-Ludwig, “a non-speaking autistic advocate and student based in Menlo Park, California” is even more complex (I’ve put the “communication” in bold below):

In the conventional approach, several researchers “are mostly working off the wrong set of assumptions”, writes Rachel Kripke-Ludwig, a non-speaking autistic advocate and student based in Menlo Park, California. “The best way to get it right is to listen to us.” 

Here’s a photo of Kripke-Ludwig from Nature shown using the letter board:

(from Nature): Rachel Kripke-Ludwig helps to ensure that autism research is relevant to autistic people.

Why does somebody always hold the letter board? It would be dead easy to see if people like Rachel could communicate without the help of a facilitator, but they won’t let scientists test that hypothesis, which would be dead simple to do. As Vyse says,

The new variants of facilitated communication involve the nonspeaking person pointing at a letter board with a finger or a pencil; however, rather than simply placing the letter board on a table, a “communication partner” holds the letter board in the air. It is not clear why this is necessary, but it is clear that the involvement of another person muddies the question of who is authoring the communication. Does the finger touch the letter board, or does the letter board touch the finger? Publicly available videos often show the letter boards bobbing around in the air while the nonspeaking person looks somewhere else. Furthermore, perhaps having learned a lesson from the 1990s, the purveyors of these letter board techniques have assiduously avoided participating in research that would definitively show who the author of the messages is.

Now testing this hypothesis is not a James Randi “million-dollar-challenge” issue—a simple debunking of woo. It is vitally important to know if profoundly autistic people can really communicate on their own. If they can, then it would overturn both the theories and treatment of autism, and also enable us to take advantage of their own ideas of what they need, which is the point Nature is trying to make. That is why this ability to communicate needs to be tested.

Nature takes it for granted that this is real communication. Click to read.

Not only does the article neglect the decades of work showing that facilitated communication is bogus, but presents statements by people like Kripke-Ludwig as if they really come from the subject and not the facilitator, and endorses the method (my emphasis):

Many autistic people see that as a step back to labels that they have rejected. “I am profoundly gifted, not profoundly low-functioning,” writes Payam, a non-speaking autistic advocate who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. Payam is not an exception, says his mother, Parisa Khosravi. “We need to presume competence and listen to our non-speakers,” she explains, “rather than assume intellectual disability.”

Many other autistic people who are non-speaking or have intellectual disabilities have found ways to speak up for themselves, says Zoe Gross, director of advocacy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in Washington DC. “It is completely inaccurate to say that as a group, autistic people with intellectual disabilities, or nonspeaking autistic people, can’t advocate for themselves,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Not all autistic people have access to a communication method that works for them, and for some people, the currently available communication methods may just not work.”

If they could write for themselves, or even point at a static letterboard without guidance, we might accept these statements, which could lead to profound advances in treating autism. But, since the facilitated communicators won’t let their method be tested, we’ll never know. This is one example of what is likely to be woo, or a quasi-scam, impeding science. Nature is not behaving scientifically here, and in fact may be impeding the treatment of people with severe autism.  Will different “facilitators” give different answers? How do we know they’re not in cahoots, making stuff up? They might mean well, or even believe that they are bringing out hidden words to help people, but we won’t know that without scientific testing of the methodology. As I said, such tests are not rocket science, and, when used on other means of facilitated communication, invariably show it’s a sham.

As Vyse notes:

Finally, in an odd alliance, some parents of nonspeaking individuals who believe in facilitated communication or one of its variants have been recruited to this fight by the advocates on the higher functioning end of the spectrum. Thus, you have the peculiar situation of an article in the scientific journal Nature, whose title is drawn from a quote that the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association says “should not be assumed to be the communication of the person with a disability.” We have no evidence that the person being quoted said those words, and yet she is being put forth as the poster child for a highly politicized movement. In my view, this is the real travesty. This person has achieved remarkable visibility, including quotes and a photograph in a widely read science journal, yet the available scientific evidence suggests that rather than speaking out for herself she has been silenced and someone else has substituted their voice for hers. All of this may have happened with the best of intentions, but if I am right, it is a substantial injustice nonetheless. And the journal Nature, which ought to know better, is complicit in making it happen.

To learn more about the perils of facilitated communication, visit facilitatedcommunication.org.

Frankly, this is a serious misstep on the part of Nature. Even if facilitated communication eventually did prove to work in some cases, Nature should, at the least, point out the serious issues with it.

UPDATEThis Frontline Video, “Prisoners of Silence”, was noted by a reader in the comments; it shows how the method works (it’s always “facilitated”) and how it was debunked. The power of confirmation bias was strong; in fact, there was no evidence that facilitated communication worked. My one question is this: if the facilitators were sending the messages unconsciously through the subjects, why did so many of them produce messages that the subject was sexually abused?

Now the NYT presents ghost stories as serious assertions

May 15, 2023 • 9:30 am

Perhaps readers can help answer the question, “Why does the New York Times keep touting woo, publishing pieces about ghosts, dowsing, reincarnation, and, especially astrology?” Not only does it present stories of woo like this without ever questioning them, but it does so repeatedly. Is woo supposed to be a replacement of religion for the “nones” whom the paper is wooing (yes, that’s a double entendre)? Or is it simply sensationalism? Your guess is as good as mine, but one thing is striking: the country’s most serious and respected newspaper presents superstition and the supernatural over and over again, but never prints articles debunking it. For more examples, see the link in my first sentence.

Today’s story is by Rachel Louise Snyder, identified in the piece as “a professor at American University, is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Women We Buried, Women We Burned.’” She has an estimable background as a writer and traveler, so this piece defies me. At the very least it shows that an educated and aware person can believe in complete nonsense.

Click to read:

The background: Rachel’s mom died of breast cancer when the child was but 8. Her father remarried, giving her a stepmother and two stepsiblings, but they fought so violently that the evangelical parents kicked all three kids out of the house. Eventually, Snyder made her way to Cambodia, where she learned about spirits of ancestors and ghosts—and finally encountered one in the form of her mom:

My travels eventually took me to live in Cambodia. Many Khmer people believe that there is a world of spirits who live parallel to our human world. Spirits can inhabit the tops of tall trees, make trouble in the life of the living, inhabit the bodies of dogs. The spirits are not those of spooky monsters and creaky homes. They are often ancestors to which we the living must pay homage, to remember them and give them offerings so that they don’t suffer in their next life.

As an American, I rejected such beliefs. As the years went by, though, I began to hear more stories of ghosts, not just from Cambodians but also from expat friends. There was the ghost who’d shake my friend Wynne awake in the night and not stop until Wynne said soothing things out loud: “You’ll be OK. I mean you no harm.” There was the State Department friend who woke in a hotel room one night to see a man walk across the floor and disappear. In the morning, her husband told her he’d seen him, too.

And then one afternoon, 30 years after my mother’s death, her spirit came to me in my Phnom Penh apartment. It was monsoon season, the light in my living room a mustardy yellow, and I was alone. What do you say when the person you love most in the world returns? I told my mom how much of my life she’d missed. I told her of relatives who’d died. I spoke aloud, into the humid air.

And then I knew there was only one question I truly had for her. “I wish you were here,” I said, “to help me decide if I should have a child.”

Her mom’s ghost (a Cambodian-like spirit of an ancestor) replied that this was a decision Snyder had to make, so she went ahead and had a kid. She also decided to let her kid make annual visits to Snyder’s previously alienated dad and stepmother. When her stepmother also got cancer, the relationship with Rachel strengthened. The stepmother then told Rachel that her biological mother died of cancer, which Rachel hadn’t really gasped. As her stepmother approached death, she turned more and more to Jesus, and Rachel accepted the religious woo.

I asked my stepmother, “Are you afraid?” She had just returned home from yet another hospital visit.

“I was afraid,” she told me. But then a chaplain came and talked to her and my father, and finally, she told my father: no more. She told him he could still hope, and she would hope, too, for a miracle. But in the meantime, she said she felt ready and she needed him to be with her. She said her angel had been in her room all week; she could see him as clearly as she could see me now. I thought of how in Cambodia death is just the end of a cycle, making space to start all over again.

Well, I’m not going to disabuse a dying person of her false beliefs, but Rachel’s own belief that death is part of a cycle is dubious at best, and religious woo at worst. It goes on.

Then [Rachel’s stepmother] said, “Can I talk to you about the Lord? I just have to because he’s my life.”

I nodded.

Jesus was on her right side at that moment and her guardian angel was on her left. She could see them. They didn’t talk, except once to say that everything would be all right. She just wanted me to know she could see them, her angel and her Jesus, that they had come to help her on her journey to wherever and whatever came next.

I nodded, listening. I believed her. Of course I did. We travel with our ghosts. Who better to lead us to what comes next? Our next life, our heaven, the birth of a daughter, a new mother, an old one.

I understood then. She wasn’t telling me a story of Christianity or faith or spirituality. She wasn’t even telling me a story about God. She was just telling me a love story. And I was part of it.

Now I’m not sure what the love story is here—perhaps I lack the emotional perspicacity to be moved by this tale. But what bothers me is Snyder’s dogged belief in ghosts—not as metaphors but as real apparitions. Further, the return of her mother’s ghost implies that those who die live on in some form.

Is there no fact-checking in op-eds? I know that when Anna and I wrote our op-ed for the WSJ, we had to vouch for every claim that we made (notice the links in the online version) and answer a passel of editor’s questions.  Is there no fact checking about whether Rachel saw a ghost? Of course there couldn’t be, as there’s no documentation, but everything we know about such claims testifies to the fact that there is no evidence for either ghosts or an afterlife.

You may think I’m being too picky: calling out claims about ghosts and the afterlife in what is supposedly a “love story”.  But what this does is simply buttress other people’s faith in woo, and in the pages of a respectable newspaper, too. In other words, it enables faith: here faith in ghosts, Jesus, angels, and the afterlife.

When I finished the story, I thought, “Jeez, the credulity of the paper is just begging for a Sokal-type hoax. Somebody should make up a story with the wildest claims about woo, embellish it so it’s also a heart-tugging tale, and then submit it to the Times.”  I won’t be the one to do that, but the paper’s penchant for this kind of stuff is real and, ultimately, harmful. What would you think if the paper retold a story about someone who really went to Heaven and met Jesus. who was riding on a rainbow-colored horse?  Oh, I forgot: there was a book about this, and it was a bestseller, earning millions.

From Flickr and the National Archives.

h/t: Greg

NYT touts astrology AGAIN

April 26, 2023 • 8:15 am

Well, the benefits of woo may not be the paper’s editorial stand, but it sure appears a lot in the columns (viz., Tish Harrison Warren) and in the op-ed. This op-ed had the pride of place on the digital NYT front page today—the upper right-hand corner.  It’s a long piece, too: over 1800

It’s by writer Mya Guarnieri, a journalist who now writes for the Deseret News, owned by the Mormon Church and featuring stories about Utah. Well, that makes two forms of woo. In this latest piece, Guarnieri recounts an odyssey she took to Alaska on the advice of her astrologer.

Guarnieri’s life wasn’t going smoothly so, as rational folks do, she consulted an astrologer, who told her to make a “solar return”:

And then I ask myself: Why did I come all the way to Alaska on the advice of a total stranger, to chase something I’m not even sure I believe in — an astrological event called a solar return?

Tilting the Stars in Your Favor

A solar return takes place at the moment when the sun returns to exactly the same location in the sky where it was at the time of your birth, explained Julia Mihas, a San Francisco-based astrologer. This usually takes place every year on or near your birthday.

The thinking behind solar return trips is that just as the place where you’re born has an impact on your birth chart — which supposedly reveals major themes in your life story — so can the place where you spend your solar return affect the year ahead. In essence, an astrologer, using your yearly chart, searches for the place where the stars will be most auspicious at the moment of your solar return, and then you travel to that location. It’s like hacking your horoscope.

These trips, known as aimed solar returns, or A.S.R.s, are central to an approach called active astrology, which holds that you can intervene in your fate.

Let me confess that I’m a little woo-woo. I recently bought a small piece of Libyan desert glass — which is supposed to work with chakras or vibrations or whatever — and hung it over my desk. But solar return trips — which I’d heard about from a friend — seemed out there; I considered one only after my marriage fell apart. That friend connected me to Katia Novikova, a Ukrainian astrologer who lives in Rome.

A LITTLE woo-woo? Who with two neurons to rub together would think that returning to some place that corresponds to the Sun’s position at the moment you were born would help you accurately predict your next year? (If you’re puzzled by now, it’s all explained here.)  After paying 100 euros for a WhatsApp consultation, and chatting a bit with the astrologer in LA, (Safie Dirie_, she was told where she had to go to get the best outcome. (Yes, where you are at the moment of the “solar return” affects the next year.

After I contacted her via email — just a month after I’d filed for divorce — and paid 100 euros, about $110, she had me answer questions about my hopes for the coming year. Then she did her magic and we got on a Whatsapp video chat to discuss the results.

Ms. Novikova started with the chart for my previous birthday. “Miserable,” she said. It was all there — the rise in expenses, the unwanted move to a cramped apartment, the endless arguments with my husband.

My forecast for 2023 would be best, Ms. Novikova said, if I went to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, at 5:12 a.m. local time on Nov. 13. I Googled the place: Beautiful but remote; the logistics were daunting.

Second: Juneau, Alaska. My stomach turned. Far away. Cold. A dark, foreboding landscape that could swallow me up. There’s the Alaska triangle, a vast area of wilderness bounded by the cities of Juneau, Anchorage and Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), where many people have gone missing. The state is also surprisingly dangerous, with one of the highest violent crime rates in the country.

So off to Juneau went Guarnieri. She decided to join an 8K run on the day before her Big Solar Return, and, lagging behind the other runners, got lost. She thought she was gonna die! But a kindly stranger found her and guided her back to the highway.

What does this have to do with astrology?, you ask.  Well, apparently her journey made her luck turn and her dreams come true:

That night, at 4 a.m., I woke up — sans alarm — just a few minutes ahead of my solar return. Lying there in the dark, I listened for, then heard, the raven’s call, which I’d grown to love while in Juneau. I looked at the phone again, and the time had passed. My solar return was over.

After returning to Florida, I framed and hung the yellow race bib on the wall as a talisman, like the Libyan desert stone I’d bought before the trip, as a reminder of how far I’d traveled and how far I’d come. And three weeks later, just like that, my divorce was final. I had faced my fear of being alone.

Oh, and a couple of months after that, an editor — from a university press — made me an offer for my book.

None of this, of course, would have happened if she hadn’t gone to Juneau for her Solar Return. And if the efficacy of astrology isn’t the point of this article, what is?


God will save King Charles—with pieces of the True Cross

April 19, 2023 • 10:30 am

If all the wooden relics alleged to be parts of the “true cross”—the apparatus on which a supposed Jesus was said to have been crucified—were genuine, you could carve Mount Rushmore out of them. They are, one and all, phony.

Yet people treat them as real and revere them. In fact, when Charles and Camilla are crowned as the King and Queen of England on Saturday, May 6 (they’re already in effect King and Queen), the ceremony will receive God’s blessing—from a relic donated by the Vatican. Click on the BBC screenshot below to read.

From the article (bolding is the BBC’s):

Fragments said to be from the cross on which Jesus was crucified will be included in a newly made Cross of Wales used at the head of the coronation procession in Westminster Abbey.

The relics of what is known as the True Cross were given to King Charles by Pope Francis, as a coronation gift.

The cross uses Welsh materials such as slate, reclaimed wood, and silver from the Royal Mint in Llantrisant.

King Charles hammered the hallmark onto the silver used in the cross.

The announcement about the new cross is a reminder that, alongside the pomp and pageantry, the coronation on 6 May will be a religious ceremony.

Of course that’s why they cry, “God save the King/Queen”, for they assume that God will hear. But of course he doesn’t hear, and that was proved by SCIENCE.  In the first test of the efficacy of intercessory prayer, Francis Galton—a cousin of Charles Darwin—determined the longevity of Britain’s royals and compared it to the longevity of people in similar situations of well being. He figured that since millions of people pray each week for the health of the King or Queen, they should on average live longer than, say, landed gentry.

Nope. As this article notes,

Just for the record as examples of [Galton’s] data, the 97 cases of members of the Royal family were recorded as having an average life span of 64.04 years, the 945 members of the clergy in his sample having an average lifespan of 66.49 years and the 1,632 members of the gentry a life span average of 70.22 years. While we can detect a satirical flavour to Galton’s study and despite obvious individual exceptions such as Queen Victoria, or to bring the cases up to date, the Queen Mother and the present Queen, it is hard to avoid the inevitable conclusion that this form of stylised prayer of petition does not always get the desired result.

Since then there have been other studies of the power of intercessory prayer, including one on recovery of cardiac patients that was funded by the Templeton Foundation. The results of all of these? Nada, zip, zilch. Prayer doesn’t help kings live longer nor people recover from surgery or illness.

The conclusion? Petitionary, intercessory prayer doesn’t work, either because God isn’t listening, is listening but doesn’t care, or, most likely, doesn’t exist. (This must have severely disappointed the people at Templeton.)

Yet the charade goes on. From the BBC again:

The cross, made by silversmith Michael Lloyd, is inscribed with the words of St David, patron saint of Wales. It is a gift from the King to the Church in Wales.

The coronation will be an Anglican service, but the prominent inclusion of a gift from the head of the Roman Catholic church reflects how other denominations and faiths will be represented.

Set into the silver cross will be two small wooden shards, originating from what is claimed to be the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

Such relics of the True Cross have been venerated for centuries, with pilgrimages made to churches where they are held.

At least the BBC adds this caveat:

There has also been long-standing scepticism about the volume and authenticity of such relics and whether they could all come from a single cross.


Well, the first thing they should do is some carbon dating on tiny bits of the “true cross”.  It should be at least two millennia old, but that’s just a start, because we can get wood that old from several species of living trees, or from pieces of wood known to be ancient. But no, Charles plays along, even participating, as in the picture above, in the invasion of knavish Popery into the coronation.

The King will then be anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury (an Anglican), and that’s supposed to be the Holy Moment when the face of God smiles on Charles III:

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who is conducting the service on 6 May, has highlighted how the heart of the coronation is a religious ceremony, likening it to the ordination of a priest.

In a newly-published official souvenir programme, the archbishop says that in the middle of all the “magnificence and pomp” is a moment of “stillness and simplicity” when the King is anointed with holy oil.

The archbishop says the anointing will see the King in a simple white shirt, rather than “robes of status” and he says the King will be “in the full knowledge that the task is difficult and he needs help”.

This is a moment not previously seen by the public, and did not form part of the television coverage at the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

There has been speculation about whether or not it will be visible for next month’s ceremony, but current expectations suggests it will remain a private moment in the coronation proceedings.

In fact,  the British public appears to be against government funding of the coronation, which is indeed largely funded by the state:

Alongside some opposition to the coronation from anti-monarchy groups, a survey on Tuesday raised questions about the level of support for public funding of the occasion.

The coronation is a state event, but a YouGov poll of 4,000 adults found that 51% were against the government paying for it, compared with 32% who supported state-funding, with the rest saying they “didn’t know”.

Among 18-24 year olds, 62% thought the government should not fund the coronation.

And this:

The amount that it will cost the government will not be revealed until after the event.

Of course! We don’t want people grousing about how all that pomp is coming out of their pockets. We want them to think that faith is playing a substantial role in the ascendancy of Charles to Britain’s throne.