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New Age Commentary

From the Rational Enquirer, Vol 3, No. 4, Apr 90.

The following letter was sent to the editor of Vancouver Magazine by me, December 12, 1989:

Dear sir:

What a pity that in your otherwise not too unreasonable article about the New Age (The New Age by Caroline Sutherland, November, 1989) you described a Lee Pulos workshop where "you can see on film a South American healer materializing coins, dollar bills and chickens at will. Spoons are bent using focused mind-power."

These "South American healers" are charlatans of the worst sort. The tricks described are simply conjuring, easily duplicated by any reasonably skilled magician. Spoons are bent, not by mind power, but by simple trickery.

The noted magician and skeptic James Randi has often caught these charlatans cheating, which is why the magician turned psychic Uri Geller will not perform when Randi is in the room. Randi has often performed, on television and close up, duplications of all of Geller's fraudulent tricks, as well as convincing "psychic surgery" of the sort done by Brazilian and Philippine quacks. The blood is from chickens and the "tumors" removed are animal parts and dye-soaked cotton; many such "surgeons" have been exposed as cheats.

Pulos, unfortunately, is a good example of what Randi means when he says highly educated scientists are the easiest people of all to fool. They just cannot believe that one good explanation for unexplained phenomena is cheating. Your author, Ms. Sutherland, has also been taken in by the worthless "therapy" of biokinesiology, or muscle-testing, which has repeatedly been shown to have no value whatever in diagnosing or treating anything; its results are about the same as chance, and are not replicable from day to day.

It's certainly true that a new age person is usually a frequent medicator who acts intuitively on the guidance received in meditation. Such an approach is clearly suitable for esthetic decisions about art, love and so forth. In matters of health, however, reason is to be preferred. When charlatans and quacks are left unexposed, gullible people waste time and money and may risk their health or lives before obtaining real treatment.

Why not follow up this article with a blurb for, say, Examining Holistic Medicine (edited by Douglas Stalker and Clark Glymour), Prometheus Books, 7000 E. Amherst St., Buffalo, New York NY 14215--9918 ($25.95 hardback, $15.95 paperback U.S.)? You would do your readers a service by showing them how to sort out the sensible from the worthless.

An edited version of this letter appeared in the next issue of Vancouver Magazine. The letter sparked a response from a reader in Burnaby; a copy sent to me says (wrongly) that every major scientific advance has met with opposition (ain't she heard tell of television?); that Harvey's theory of blood circulation was announced in the 1500's (wrong) and met with opposition for centuries (wrong); that local anesthesia was suggested in 1909 (wrong) and met with fierce opposition (wrong, it was in wide use by 1898); and so on. There was the usual talk of paradigm shifts and an exhortation that I should read the history of science.

Vancouver Magazine has not printed this response, and neither, I suspect, will they print my riposte, in which I corrected the Burnaby person's errors, finishing up with the remark that she doesn't seem to know much about medicine, and she doesn't know much about quackery, either.

Interested folks, however, may want to read over the following two reprints. Read my lips, New Agers: biokinesiology don't make it, and anyone with a mere moiety of his marbles ought to be able to see through psychic surgery.

Clinical Ecologist Guilty In Child's Near Death

(from the newsletter of the National Council Against Health Fraud, May/June 1989)

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario Discipline Committee accepted the guilty plea of Dr. Irvine Allen Korman following a near-fatal allergic reaction of a child who he failed to properly assess and wrongly advised.

A mother, herself a dentist, brought her two children to Dr. Korman for treatment of allergy problems both have had since birth. The boy had become worse since starting school. The children were tested, the boy more so than the girl, in two ways. First was the sublingual application of a solution followed by 10 minutes observation for unusual behavior (note: the sublingual provocative test is condemned by the American Academy of Allergy). The second test was "applied kinesiology" in which the patient holds a closed glass container of a solution of the substance to be tested in one hand while the examiner tests the strength of the opposite abducted arm ("muscle testing"). The mother did not understand the second test and questioned Dr. Korman about the reliability and predictability of this test for peanut sensitivity. Korman told her than he had absolute confidence in these tests and assured her that it was all right to give the children peanuts. The mother purchased some "organically grown" peanut butter and gave each child a tiny amount on a piece of bread.

"A dramatic scene followed. Both children collapsed. The girl was terribly white-faced, regained consciousness, was given medication, vomited, developed huge hives, but continued to breathe. The boy kept struggling, could not open his eyes, was gasping for breath, was blue and choking. An ambulance took the family to the hospital where the children were given adrenaline and within a few hours were fine again, but naturally somewhat shaken."

Korman was given a reprimand, had his license suspended for 60 days, and was ordered to take remedial training in allergy, immunology and nutrition.

No Guts

by William Bennetta, in the Bay Area Skeptics newsletter, BASIS, August 1989

In conventional psychic surgery, the practitioner pretends to withdraw unhealthy or abnormal tissue from his customer's body. The items of choice for this maneuver are chicken guts or similar offal, perhaps augmented by some chicken blood, the practitioner conceals before starting his act. (In some cases, the offal and blood are kept in a false finger that the practitioner wears).....

Now, however, the need to play with guts and blood seems to have been abolished, in a brilliant stroke, by a psychic surgeon in San Francisco.... Look at his advertisement in the May issue of the Psychic Reader:

The Reverend Joseph Martinez practices a unique variation of Philippine Psychic Surgery in which the removal process occurs beyond the usual range of the senses and can only be seen clairvoyantly. This is a more spiritual version of the process in which the healer removes from the body negative energies in a materialized form. This spiritual method removes psychic blockages and energies invisibly and in a finer manner, although the removal is clearly felt. Pulling and tuggings are commonly reported sensations. Healing is performed by Spirit Psychic Surgeons.

See Barnum, above. Avoid those messy bloodstains and tiresome arrests! Be a fake fake surgeon! A number of Vancouver entrepreneurs are advertising similar services in Common Ground.