A Challenge

James Randi --- Wizard ((no email))
Mon, 27 Jun 1994 01:53:26 -0400

[Here's a piece I thought you folks might find of
interest. I intend to do something with it as soon as
I figure out who might care.... JR]


Animal Magnetism

Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a Viennese medical doctor
who had written his dissertation on the effects of the planets on
the health of the human body after seeing a healing demonstration
by a priest named Hell, formed the belief that magnets could
induce healing powers in those who held them. He displayed the
procedure, which he called animal magnetism, during popular
sessions that he held for French society, beginning in 1778. The
phenomenon soon was dubbed Mesmerism.
His soirees were theatrical rather than therapeutic, and the
creme of French aristocracy elbowed one another aside for the
privilege of seeing customers sitting around a huge vat of acid
(called a baquet), holding on to iron devices immersed in the
solution, while the master, dressed in a trailing lilac-colored
robe of gold-flowered silk, gestured with his ivory wand at
entranced socialites who gurgled, sighed, and moaned when they
weren't screaming in ecstasy at this, their latest very expensive
An investigation of Mesmer in 1784 by the French Academy of
Sciences, in the company of U.S. ambassador Benjamin Franklin,
brought the conclusion that Mesmer was merely using suggestion
and that the clients were the usual silly segment of the populace
who support such fads. The test of Mesmer's claims was simple,
direct, inexpensive and effective.

Rays from Nancy

Then in 1903, Professor Prosper Ren Blondlot, a
distinguished physicist of the city of Nancy, France, announced
his discovery of strange radiations that he said emanated from
every substance -- except green wood and pieces of metal that had
been "anesthetized" by dipping them into chloroform or ether.
The apparent existence of these rays was soon confirmed by dozens
of scientists around the world through scientific papers
submitted to science journals. However, the majority of
physicists declined to take Blondlot's claims seriously, and
waited for the "discovery" to be revealed as a grave error of an
otherwise competent scientist.
A single physicist, American Robert Wood, was sent in to
Blondlot's lab by the British Association of Scientists and after
a simple procedure to test the claim without alerting the French
scientists, reported his results to Nature magazine (then, as
now, one of the leading science journals). Wood showed the
French savants that not only were their experimental processes
faulty, but their "rays" were totally imaginary.

Mystery Rays from Germany

The disastrous affair of the "N-rays" thoroughly embarrassed
the French -- and the scientific world. It provides us with the
single most effective and important example of scientific error
through experimenter bias and expectation, an example which might
well be improved upon by the present German fascination with the
equally imaginary E-rays in Germany, where the idea originated,
as "Erdestrahlen" or "earth rays." They are said to be
radiations that are emitted from unknown sources deep in the
ground, giving rise to "hot spots," and causing cancer. These
rays, say believers, cannot be detected by any sort of
instruments, but are believed to exist because dowsers (those
strange folks with forked sticks) -- and only dowsers -- can
sense them.
In Germany, these invisible rays and hot spots are accepted
by almost everyone, even governmental agencies, who pay dowsers
to indicate to them how to relocate the desks of federal
employees away from the positions where E-rays can intercept
them; hospital beds are similarly moved about to protect patients
from cancer.
Professors H. L. Konig and H. D. Betz of Munich, two German
authors of a highly supportive 1989 book on the German government
tests, refused to identify any of the dowsers they tested in
preparing their book, or even to put the dowsers in touch with
other researchers. Their reasons for this lack of cooperation
are not clear.

Magic Water

In the "alternate healing" modality known as homeopathy we
find an excellent example of an attempt to make sympathetic magic
work. Its founder, Samuel Hahnemann (1775-1843), believed that
all illnesses develop from only three sources: syphilis, venereal
warts, and what he called "the itch."
The motto of homeopathy is Similia similibus curantur ("Like
cures like"). It claims that doses of substances that produce
certain symptoms will relieve those symptoms; however, the
"doses" are extremely attenuated solutions or mixtures, so
attenuated that not a single molecule of the original substance
remains. In fact, the homeopathic corrective is actually pure
water, nothing more. The theory is that the vibrations or
"effect" of the diluted-out substance are still present and work
on the patient. Currently, researchers in homeopathy are
examining a new notion that water can be magnetized and can
transmit its medicinal powers by means of a copper wire.
The royal family of England adopted homeopathy at its very
beginning and have retained a homeopathic physician on staff ever
The only concern of homeopaths is to treat the symptoms of
disease, rather than the basic causes, which they do not
recognize. Thus homeopathy correctly falls into the category of
In 1988, a team (including the author) organized by Nature
magazine visited France to examine the claims of a scientist
there who had carried out what appeared to be correctly
implemented, properly designed tests of a basic homeopathic
claim, with a sufficiently large data base from which to draw the
conclusion that the claim was genuine. He also asserted that his
results had been independently replicated by other labs. A
simple three-day examination of his methods and results showed
that there was much to be desired in them, and a subsequent
attempted replication by another laboratory indicated that this
claim of homeopathy was invalid.

Hot Interest in Cold Fusion

We are currently still toying with the idea that the notion
of "cold fusion," a system which is claimed to be able to produce
massive amounts of atomic energy cleanly, cheaply and effectively
endlessly, may be valid, largely because of the millions of
dollars that various agencies and other sponsors have poured into
it, in spite of the careful appraisal of the scientific world
that has rejected it as poor science.

Perpetual Emotion, Again

A Mississippi man named Joe W. Newman actually obtained
signatures from thirty scientists who said his "free energy"
machine -- which is in actuality a huge direct-current motor
powered by a massive stack of batteries -- is a valid invention.
The Mississippi Board of Energy & Transport invested several
million dollars in Mr. Newman's device. Newman, who holds other
valid patents for ideas that really do work -- one is a
cigarette-making machine, thus showing another of his
contributions to mankind -- refuses to accept the "perpetual
motion" label for his design, insisting that it is a "free
energy" idea. However, if the output of his machine is simply
connected to the input, he should have an ever-running system.
This he has apparently never managed -- or tried -- to do.

The Burning Question

These few examples, from many such available, give rise to
this simple question: why is it such a difficult matter to
convince any federal agencies in this country to perform simple,
inexpensive tests of such matters as homeopathy, chiropractic,
perpetual motion, dowsing, polygraphs, graphology, astrology,
Christian Science healing and other easily tested notions that
add to the public's confusion and distraction, as well as causing
irreparable financial, physical and emotional damage?
The National Institutes of Health, given $3,000,000 by an
eager congressman, has frittered away that funding by doling out
more than thirty grants to practitioners of various forms of
quackery and very doubtful science -- not to test the basic
claims of their specialties, but to examine various applications
and parameters of totally unsubstantiated methodologies. What's
needed are uncomplicated tests of the methodologies themselves,
not their corollaries. One does not examine the Santa Claus myth
by measuring chimneys to find out if a fat man in a red suit can
squeeze down them.
If Ben Franklin could do this simple task so effectively more
than two centuries ago, surely we can do it today? And if we
don't, what is the reason?

-- James Randi.