August 1990 +quot;BASIS+quot;, newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics Bay Area Skeptics Infor
August 1990 "BASIS", newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics
Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet
Vol. 9, No. 8
Editor: Kent Harker
BOLLING FOR FACTS
by Wayne Bartz, Ph.D. and Richard Rason, Ed.D.
[What follows is an analysis of astrological claims of the
Sacramento area's hottest media psychic, Sherri Bolling. She has
appeared on all three local network stations and is frequently
quoted in print.
This article first appeared in the "Psientific American",
newsletter of the Sacramento Skeptics.]
Sherri Bolling's astrological readings and "prosperity recipes"
have been a staple of the "Noon News" of channel 13 (KOVR-TV,
Sacramento). To test the accuracy of her claims to special psychic
powers, we recorded her appearance on the 7 October 1988 show and
extracted 15 statements -- four applicable to Libras, nine for
other callers, and two for the spouses of callers. Then we deleted
all references to specific signs. For example, the statement, "All
Libras are kicking over old traces for a new image. . . ." became
"You are kicking over old traces for a new image."
These statements were then given to 232 Introductory Psychology
students in American River College. They were told only that we
were interested in their self-perception of their own life events,
and they were asked to rate each of the statements for how well it
fit their life, using a five-point scale, with "1" being "almost
dead wrong" and "5" being an "almost perfect fit."
Statistical test were then done to compare the scores from Libras
(on the four items supposedly applying specifically to them) with
scores from non-Libras. If Ms. Bolling's statements apply to Libras
and not others, Libras should show higher agreement than people
with other signs.
Tests also compared females to males and single females with
married females. Averages on each item were also determined, to
show how well or poorly each item tended to fit the entire group --
as a means of determining how universal or general each statement
LIBRA ITEMS: Three of the four statements supposedly applying to
Libras were rated by Libras more in the WRONG direction -- although
NONE OF THE FOUR WAS SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT FROM NON-LIBRAS.
Clearly, Ms. Bolling's statements specifically for Libras just
didn't apply to them more than anyone else.
SEX DIFFERENCES: Women showed a small but significantly higher
agreement with all statements than did men (3.20 vs. 3.05 at the
.01 level). This could be because most of Ms. Bollings's callers
were female, or because females may be more prone than males to
accept vague statements about themselves.
SPECIFIC STATEMENTS: Only four of the fifteen statements had a mean
overall rating below the middle of the scale. In other words, the
statements are so general they apply to a large number of people
asked if they "fit your life." This is the stock-in- trade of the
cold reader: make a number of vague and general statements, then
focus in on the "hits," knowing there will be a number of them, no
matter who is getting the reading.
The overall mean rating is 3.14, slightly above 50/50 toward "Good
Looking at specific items helps illustrate what types of statements
people are more likely to see as applicable to their lives:
=> The most agreed-upon statement was 13: "You have a
tendency to push yourself too much and/or you worry too
Is there anyone on earth to whom this would not apply? Women rated
notably higher than males on this one.
=> Number 11 was, "There are a lot of changes around your
entire life right now, and you sort of have to ride over
the top of it. You've got to have a lot of patience with
the next two months. . . ."
=> The third highest (#3) and fifth highest items are both
about finances, suggesting concern and possible change.
Again, who is NOT concerned about money?
=> The fourth-rated statement, #10, says, "You are probably
going to be having a move in the next 18 months to 2
years, and it's an up-grading in your living situation."
Not too hard to predict this; it would fit a lot of folks in the
Sacramento area. The lowest items, still rated between "Poor" and
"Fair," are the most specific or the most negative.
=> The bottom was #1: "In the mid-80s, your life was such a
mess that nothing could happen now that could equal that
period of time."
This supposedly described Libras, but THEY RATED IT NO DIFFERENTLY
THAN DID NON-LIBRAS.
=> Next came another "Libra" item, suggesting domestic
problems, followed by a specific statement of travel
within six weeks. The other item rated lower than 50/50
suggests changes in the work environment by next spring.
These items (#s 2, 6, and 12) are either negative or
fairly specific, making them less likely to be desirable
or widely applicable.
Ms. Bolling's claim that she can tell something about individuals
based upon their astrological sign -- in this case, Libra -- failed
to be supported in this test. Results suggest that subjects:
=> Simply respond to general statements fitting virtually
=> Tend to accept the more positive or general statements;
=> Tend to reject statements that are more negative or
There is nothing found in this study that would validate any
paranormal or clairvoyant powers -- but it does tend to support
what we already know about human suggestibility.
THE "LIFE THROUGH TIME" EXHIBIT
by John Taube
The California Academy of Science, in Golden Park, San Francisco,
has put together a most authentic, stimulating display entitled
"Life Through Time." It is a vivid explanation of evolution. Its
sixty-plus exhibits span three billion years of life on Earth.
Here are a few of its exhibits. Protoceratops, the horned dinosaur
(a relative of Triceratops) who lived 80 million years ago, is
depicted finding its way home to her clutch of eggs.
There is a lively exhibit of an 8-inch-long cockroach. Another
interesting exhibit is a millipede relative perfectly shaped for
plowing through leaf litter while it munches club-moss.
Among the beautiful exhibits is the "Age of Coal Forests." It
existed 300 million years ago when giant insects, spiders and their
relatives ruled. They lived in swampy forests that over time became
coal. Without this energy source it is questionable if our
technological age would be possible.
These are just a few of what one may see. They give one the feeling
of traveling back through a time warp.
Bay Area Skeptics is fortunate to have Dr. Eugenie (Genie) Scott,
whose expertise is biological anthropology, as one of its
directors. Genie has consented to act as our personal guide on a
tour through the "Life Through Time" exhibit. This will not only be
stimulating for you, so you must bring your children or
grandchildren. Don't forget a camera, either.
The date is Saturday, September 22nd at 1:30 p.m. at the Academy,
Golden Gate Park. Advance tickets reservations are $1.00 and
children under 5 are free. John Taube will be the coordinator of
this event, so please send your check for $1.00 per person, made
out to Bay Area Skeptics. John's address is: 55 Chumasero Drive 7E,
San Francisco, CA 94132. Phone John at (415) 334-3733 if you want
BROTHER AUSTIN MILES ADDRESSES BAY AREA SKEPTICS
by Bob Steiner
Brother Austin Miles addressed the June 1990 meeting of Bay Area
Skeptics. Nattily dressed in a white suit, white shirt, and a
bright blue tie, the reverend's matching bright blue silk
handkerchief in his jacket pocket topped off the ensemble.
Attended by tens of people, the turnout tested the limits of our
meeting area in the El Cerrito Public Library. While we are at it,
once more, much appreciation is hereby expressed to the El Cerrito
Public Library, and especially to Grace MacNeill, for enormous
cooperation with Bay Area Skeptics and for hosting our meetings
over the years.
"Brothers and Sisters," began Brother Miles. He told us about the
righteousness of evangelists. This was followed by a statement of
his own human worth, and his worthy goals. Then, guess what. He
pitched for money.
He protested the innocence of the televangelists. He assured us: "I
only want to serve you. I have never swindled anybody. All I'm
asking for is a chance."
He told a story about a good sister of the church who, in the
morning, kissed her husband goodbye at the front door. When the
story continued with her kissing her lover good morning at the back
door, a resounding "A-men, Brother!" was heard from the back of the
Let us take it from the top. Austin Miles is author of the book
"Don't Call Me Brother" (Prometheus Books, 1989. $19.95.). It tells
of Austin's life in the Assemblies of God Church. It is exciting,
and will rip at you. I highly recommend it.
Back to the talk. Austin had been one of the top clowns in the
circus world. He went on to become a world-famous ringmaster. Then
the church lured him into the world of the evangelists. He appeared
on the Jim Bakker show, as well as elsewhere around the world.
It was exciting to hear from a man who forthrightly and
courageously admits that he was taken in by the evangelists. He had
lived and breathed the world of lying in the name of God.
We learn of the savage, avaricious ways of some of the high profile
preachers -- and Miles names names! For example, he told us the
At an executive staff meeting at a leading university, a staff
member collapsed with a heart attack. A well-known minister
affiliated with the University, laid hands on him and prayed for
his healing. Then, when healing seemed to be delayed, they called
for an ambulance.
Later the minister instructed his staff: "If that ever happens to
me, you call the ambulance first. Then pray for me."
The university was Oral Roberts University, and the minister was
Oral Roberts. Austin Miles specifically confirmed this story -- for
We heard how Austin Miles had liked, admired, and trusted Jim and
Tammy Faye Bakker . . . and then how he learned, to his enormous
dismay, the truth.
As a successful ringmaster, Austin Miles had accumulated fame and
fortune. The church found those two attributes very appealing.
After luring Austin into their ranks, they traded on the fame, and
encouraged Austin to divest himself of the fortune . . . to be
given to the worthy causes of the church, of course.
With courage and wisdom, Austin Miles has managed to put all of
this into perspective. Angry -- yes; bitter at life -- absolutely
not. He is a nice, congenial man, who is able to retain a sense of
humor in the face of having undergone adversity which would have
done in a lesser person.
Thank you, Austin Miles, for sharing your experiences with us.
13 HAZARDS OF NEW AGE THINKING
by Pat Kehoe
Many people believe that the New Age is at worst an innocuous pest.
Most of those same people have not ever thought things through.
=> It lays the public open to fraud and exploitation by
failing to provide either the means or the encouragement
to evaluate paranormal and pseudoscientific claims.
=> It disseminates misinformation, stating as facts events
and phenomena that are unsupported or unsupportable.
=> It encourages the belief that intuition and subjective
experience are more valid avenues of knowledge than
public, specifiable, observable and repeatable ways of
verifying experience and inference.
=> It encourages the belief in arbitrary and sometimes
malevolent supernatural forces.
=> It reduces personal responsibility by attributing
behavior to powers and influences beyond direct human
experience and control.
=> It implies that knowledge can be gained without effort
and that events can be predicted and controlled through
powers that are supernaturally bestowed.
=> It rejects and even disparages critical thinking analysis
and skepticism, which are fundamental to scientific and
=> It encourages a belief in the equality of options,
regardless of the evidence for them.
=> Lacking any system of checks and balances, it permits
claims to be made without foundation, challenge or
=> It employs and therefore models explanatory devices
(e.g., the hypothesis that cannot be refuted) that are
counter-productive in the search for knowledge and
=> Some claims can be actively harmful, e.g., by encouraging
physically or psychologically dangerous practices. Others
can be passively harmful by discouraging an appropriate
action, e.g., by rejecting conventional medical
=> Social policies may be developed on the basis of
erroneous, pseudoscientific claims, Nazi racial theory
being a classic example.
=> It has special appeal to the naive and vulnerable
(adolescents, the poorly educated, or the emotionally
troubled), who are taken in by the claims of exotic,
mysterious and wonderful forces and powers, some of which
can be acquired or used, and other of which are to
feared, marveled at, or defended against.
[Pat Kehoe is the director of the Mental Health Clinic in
Whitehorse, Yukon. Her article first appeared in the "Western New
York Skeptics Newsletter".]
IT'S GOTTA BE YOU
by Prentiss Willson, M.D.
On March 20th, KCBS talk show (not likely in innocence) did an
expose, a Peeping Tom into the weird bedroom of astrology. A rare
delight it was. As the debate ensued, I hear your question: "Who
Considering the cooperative competency of those program headlines,
Art Finley, the talk show host, and BAS board member physicist
Shawn Carlson, Ph.D., who indeed? Besides competency, unlike the
hoodwinked astrology buffs, Art and Shawn had only to dispense
truth. No need for the contrived, the scheming, or the parading of
Believe me. It was a shoo-in.
Art's introduction set a meaty tone. He compared Joan Quigley,
newsworthy if nothing else (recall the Reagan administration's
brouhaha), with Rasputin, the debauched, semi-literate mad monk
whose astrological mumbo-jumbo mesmerized tsar Nicholas (mostly
through tsarina Alexandria) into backing him and his pernicious
ways. Result: in 19l6 down went Russia's last Tsar.
Following Art's bewitching moment in introductory history, now
enters Dr. Carlson, poised to contribute his long-into-fraud-
exposing expertise. And he did it without recourse to heavy-going,
esoteric physics. He was instead pledged to argue logically, in a
lucid, laid-back manner that stressed facts, not emotions or
frenzied polemics. One example: Shawn, replying to a fervidly
pro-astrology call-in participant's questions simply said that
innumerable times astrologers had tried for the $11,000 (local) or
$100,000 (national) standing offer for anyone successful
invalidating astrology as a science, but that not once had any
succeeded. Never a pay-out.
With these attributes working for them -- competency and truth --
Finley and Carlson proceeded not merely to discredit astrology, not
just to discombobulate it, but rather to dismember that trumped-up
tarradiddle know as astrology. For the audience that night it
translated as pure cat-purr-pleasuring captivation.
For all? All except some doubting Thomas mutterings from the graves
of two famous skeptics. Both scoffed at Art and Shawn even having
a chance at persuading that audience. H. L. Mencken muttered that
no one ever grew poor overestimating the stupidity of the American
And Jacques Monod, the French biologist, once again asked when
would people ever realize that the true story of human origins is
so incredibly more unbelievable or fanciful than any man-made-in-
But for once those two worthies were wrong. That night, those
people were persuaded and will persuade others. Hopefully, more
bordering skeptics will be persuaded to speak out for the cause.
Whether they will or not, Shawn please oblige me. Stay close by, an
emergency looms, one for which you particularly, will be needed.
It's this: an AP press release recently flashed this headline, "Man
Stabs Wife, Lightning Bolt Then Stabs Him."
Count on it -- to all pie-in-the-sky pipers, all slime-mold
evangelist healers and salvation sellers, that will mean sky
balloons thundering out: "WE told you so. He sees all, watches over
all, rules with thunder bolts."
Shawn, it's true that yesterday's newspaper does wrap today's
garbage, but only you can while wrapping, rebut this particular
kind of garbage.
So indulge us, as we now all clasp hands and sing out, Shawn "It's
Gotta Be You."
[Ramparts is a regular feature of "BASIS", and your participation
is urged. Clip, snip and tear bits of irrationality from your local
scene and send them to the EDITOR. If you want to add some comment
with the submission, please do so.]
The New Age has fostered a colony of cottage industry that fetches
the furthest reaches of credulity in search of the Inner Self. From
the august pages of the "Wall Street Journal", we learn how mantras
and chakras are ceding to high-tech gizmos that go whizz and pop.
The come-on never loses its luster, despite its time-worn failure:
you get something for nothing. (The multi-billion dollar diet
industry applies the formula very well, promising ways to "melt off
the fat" while you eat anything you want.)
Wouldn't it be nice to possess the facile pen of Shakespeare, or
the gliding wit of Thoreau? Without any sweat in English Lit. 305?
You can do it in the comfort of a chaise longue as you don your ski
goggles and headphones. Through the headphones is piped static.
Yes, STATIC. What the goggles are supposed to accomplish is not
exactly clear, but they aid in "synchronizing your energies" with
those of Mother Earth.
One patron, 24-year-old Jerome Edwards, said after a brain massage,
"I feel mentally relaxed but not mentally energized."
Well gollee, Jerry, ask Maryellen Visconti (owner of the "Mind
Gym") for a refund. She will tell you that you cannot expect
miracles on the first session. At $20 per half-hour, Einstein can
only be about 400 bucks away. Mensa massages here are evidently as
good as pectoral pulling in the weight room, according to those who
have had their creative juices squeezed out.
Naturally, some stick-in-the mud psychologists pooh-pooh this
contraption with predictable prose: "I think you can get smarter
through a little device called hard work," said Dr. Jim McGaugh, a
brain researcher at UCD.
Aarg! Perish the thought. Visconti has written several cook books,
so she knows as much about brain function as any fool Ph.D. brain
The redoubtable Stanton Friedman, UFOlogist extraordinaire, is
never at a loss for ways to milk UFOdom. The author of many books
and innumerable articles, Friedman has decided that the way of Jose
Canseco (Jose made over $800,000 in three months on his 1-900 line)
is the way of the future: He has teamed with Ryan Wood, a Menlo
Park business partner in a 1-900 hotline to report UFO sightings.
They want to build a data base, you see.
If the popular press is correct, polls show that more than 50
percent of us believe in UFOs. That translates into megabucks if
only a small fraction of them were to call the hotline. It is
difficult to imagine how any kind of quality database could be
assembled by uncontrolled calls of the kind Friedman proposes.
Friedman "denounced news professionals and doubting scientists like
astronomer Carl Sagan as `noisy negativists' ["Peninsula Times
Tribune", courtesy Jim Wheeler]. Stanton said that there will be
information given out on the line: the "Cosmic Watergate" coverup
of what the U.S. government knows about crashed UFOs.
Friedman brushed aside the suspicion of a money-making scheme with
a simple, "So what? Five percent of the American public thinks we
haven't sent a man to the moon."
As a side issue to Friedman's latest antics, UFOlogy itself is in
the worst condition since its inception in the late 1940s.
Membership has swelled in the major UFO groups around the country,
but many -- too many -- of the new faces are simply loony tunes.
This, coupled with some of the savage turf and inside fighting, has
seriously damaged whatever credibility UFOlogy may have ever had.
CSICOP IS COMING
by Mark Hodes
The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
Paranormal (CSICOP) has chosen Bay Area Skeptics to host the 1991
conference. It will be held in the San Francisco Bay area in 1991.
The preliminary indication from CSICOP is that the conference will
occur the first weekend in May on the campus of UC Berkeley. BAS
will provide liaison services for CSICOP including registration of
attendees. "BASIS" will publish a registration form and the exact
conference schedule when it becomes available. The "Skeptical
Inquirer" also will publish the latest information. "SI" is issued
quarterly, and available by subscription.
The CSICOP Conference is a major event that generates considerable
publicity for the work of the Committee. It is an opportunity for
public discussion of skeptical issues with the distinguished
scholars who present their work to the conference. Past conference
speakers have included Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann and Harvard
biologist Stephen Jay Gould. The recent 1990 CSICOP Conference in
Washington, D.C., featured keynote speaker Gerard Piel, chairman
emeritus of "Scientific American" and past president of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In past years the Conference has attracted 500-1000 participants.
An undertaking of this magnitude requires much work, which can be
supplied only by volunteers. To coordinate their efforts, Bay Area
Skeptics has formed a steering committee chaired by Yves Barbero,
vice-chair of BAS. The steering committee includes representatives
from Berkeley Skeptics, the East Bay Skeptics Society, and
Sacramento Skeptics. If you wish to help ensure the success of the
1991 Conference, please telephone (415) LA TRUTH or send Yves a
message on the BAS BBS: (415) 648-8944. We will need your help!
COURTS VS. RELIGION
by John Taube
The subject of the "New York Times" article, April 24, 1990,
"Supreme Court Sends Amish Dispute Back to State Court" is of
interest because it illustrates the harm that can come by relying
on fate when technology demands a more practical approach.
BAS's position on religious matters is that religion is the private
property of individuals, and the State must not interfere with ones
right to believe as he/she chooses.
However, if the result of religious belief infringes upon the
community's welfare, then for it's benefit laws must be enacted to
curtail those religious activities.
The article discusses a law passed in Minnesota requiring all
slow-moving vehicles on the highway to have reflecting triangles on
the rear of the vehicle. The Amish, who eschew all the trappings of
modern society, travel by horse-drawn carriage. They refused to
comply stating that obedience to civil law would be putting trust
in man instead of God.
While it is difficult to tolerate such thinking, unfortunately we
have to contend with those whose religion distorts their judgment.
The safety of Minnesota motorists may be in jeopardy by this group
of people who refuse to obey the law. The "Times" article commented
on the Supreme Court's decision which, unfortunately, did not rule
on the matter, but sent it back to the Minnesota Supreme Court for
reconsideration. The only reason one may surmise why no firm stand
was taken is that the courts (and politicians more so) are loathe
to place themselves in the position of what may appear as
There is no more sacred cow than religion itself. Austin Miles's
talk to Bay Area Skeptics emphasized that the judiciary is well
aware of the fraud extant in the name of religion, but it feels its
hands are tied.
by Kent Harker
It's been a great three years for me . . . and now it's time to
move on. Editing our newsletter has been a wonderful privilege for
me. It has put me right in the thick of things in BAS as they
happen. That is exciting. I have always felt a deep sense of
responsibility with this job -- we have such a select group of
people in the readership. The weight of that responsibility has
sometimes been troublesome: you out there can be an intimidating
bunch of people because of your accomplishments and the confidence
you have expressed in the organization. So, with all this, it is
not without some conflicting emotions that I leave the position. I
will miss having the continual contact with some of the marvelous
people who are working very hard to have some influence in the Bay
Area. The opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the very
talented people in BAS is a thrilling one.
Leaving a position like this, I suppose it is normal to turn
nostalgic and reflect upon the highlights of the experience. Then
one thinks of the special people and the help, insight and
encouragement they have offered. Now it becomes difficult because
when one pulls out the list of people one wants very much to thank
one risks offense by omission. So I'll keep it short and probably
slight many; I hope those omitted may therefore find comfort in the
most excellent company.
Thank you Bob Steiner. I can't say anything but a heartfelt "thank
you" for everything.
We all owe special gratitude to Bruce LaCentra, the president of
LaCentra Graphics. Bruce has given his professional services for
some of the most significant changes in layout and format of
"BASIS". I have received complements from all over the country for
our layout, and all the credit is due to our readers who send in
their suggestions, Bruce being the most important single source.
Now thanks to John Taube. John has been a human calendar, calling
to alert me about events of importance to BAS. He has kept a
constant pipeline of tapes (audio and video), newspaper and
magazine articles, books and information for my perusal and
consideration, never complaining about my judgment in using or
discarding the material.
Finally, thank you, the readers. There is nothing that can come of
all this effort but for your interest, concern and support.
Yves Barbero has not had enough to do, it seems, so he has been
chosen to take over the editorship. He has (reluctantly) agreed to
relinquish some of his other responsibilities to give him the time
he will need to devote to the newsletter. We still don't know if he
realizes that he is a mere mortal. Kate Talbot has been doing
yeoman (yeowoman?) work with the newsletter distribution, and she
will take the responsibility of Meeting Coordinator from Yves.
Good luck, Yves.
The long-awaited BAS annual picnic is here! Start your annual
three-day healing and purging fast on Wednesday, August 15, so
you'll be ready for Saturday, August 18, the day of the Feast. Fast
to feast, indeed. The hard-core fastbreaking will begin around noon
on Saturday, so boogie in and binge.
The shindig will be held at Greer Park on Amarillo Ave. in Palo
Alto. Take the Oregon Xway west from 101. At the very first stop
light (it comes quickly, so be ready) turn left (south); this is
Old Bayshore Road. (Ben said he will have his truck out by the stop
light with a sign for BAS.) Go about two blocks and you will see
the park on your right.
You will salivate to the succulent delights of chicken, seafood and
beef entrees, veggies, salads, desserts and hors d'oeuvres. As if
this were not enough, we are providing a few moments of
entertainment and enlightenment for your pleasure: Bob Steiner will
do a live demonstration of psychic surgery, without anesthesia (Bob
usually takes gas before he does the stuff); Don Henvick,
peripatetic troublemaker, will perform some of his best slight-of-
hand routines; and astronomer Norm Sperling will give us a 10-
minute recap of the Hubble Telescope project (he'll try to help us
overcome our sense of discouragement).
If you don't send in your reservation today you are likely to
forget, and when you realize slash your wrists, so mail your check
for $5 per person ($2.50 for children under 12 and seniors). Make
them payable to Ben Baumgartner, 2467 Betlo Ave., Mountain View
There is a great need for some help with this considerable effort.
Ben and Carol have done everything in the past, and we can't have
them do it again this year. Please don't assume they have enough
hands. Call Ben or Carol to offer help or to make late reservations
at (415) 968-1535.
by Ian Bryce and Harry Edwards
The dowsing tests by the Australian Skeptics (AS) began with the
braggadocio of mayor Dan Gleeson: He boasted, in writing, that he
could find "a dot on the back of a beer coaster, nominate the value
of a coin eight weeks after it had been removed from its hiding
place, decide the value of hidden banknotes," and, of course,
"dowse minerals and water." He claimed he could dowse from an
aircraft flying at 9,500 feet. He expressed "100% certainty" when
asked to appraise his chances at winning the skeptic's $20,000
challenge. He even urged spectators at the interview to back him
with odds so that everyone would stand to make a fortune.
The protocol for the test was relatively simple. The test site, in
a city west of Sydney, was a field of natural grass over
undisturbed soil -- a typical area in which diviners were
accustomed to working. For the sake of simplicity and cost, it was
decided that targets would be buried in rows and then covered by a
strip of carpet 6x24 feet. Each row had five staked locations about
4 feet apart at which holes would be dug for the targets. Diviners
were offered a choice of objects: water (fresh or saline) in
translucent plastic containers, gold ingots or coins, or an
electric cable with or without current. The pre-dug holes were
prepared for each object, and glass disks covered the holes to make
a flat surface. Each row was separated by about 10 feet.
AS constructed a cloth-covered portable wooden frame to conceal the
placement of the targets. Two "concealers" would enter this "tent"
and use a random number generator (a die in a bottle) to determine
which location was to receive a target object. The carpet would be
rolled over the location before moving the tent to the next
position. When each location was prepared, the concealers left the
area entirely so they could not even unconsciously cue someone. The
dowsers were held under supervision away from the site while the
samples were placed. To their credit, none tried to gain any
advantage by peeking. Since no one involved in the test knew which
holes contained something, the procedure was truly double blind.
Both the organizers and the diviners agreed that the procedure for
concealment was fair and equitable.
Each of the nine entrants was to make two trials (rows) in which 9
of 10 correct targets would result in a success. It was agreed
beforehand that high scorers (70% plus) would be retested. AS
decided that they would roll back the carpets as a dowser made each
attempt for the advantage of an immediate reaction -- it would be
good for television, with close-ups of the dowser's reactions to
the results. All agreed that the testing would stop any time the
results fell below 50%. The dowsers waiting for their turn at
testing were kept out of the test area until their turn came, and
those who had finished were not allowed to return to talk with
This was perhaps the most important phase of the test. Each diviner
was asked to confirm that conditions "here today" were satisfactory
and that there were no people, objects or conditions that might
interfere with his abilities. Each was allowed to go over the test
area with the carpet in place -- with targets absent -- to test for
any kind of "interference," such as natural water, cables, or
minerals. Eight gave a clear indication; one said there was a
disturbance at a particular location and it was agreed that he
would not be tested in that area. Only one diviner objected that
the carpet blocked signals, so other fabric was used for that
The case of mayor Gleeson was particularly interesting. He was to
demonstrate how his rod worked during a pre-test session. (Gleeson
was the one who objected to the carpet, so some curtain material
was substituted to his satisfaction.) While he watched, the referee
placed one of the 2-liter blue plastic bottles in a hole and
covered it with the curtain. The committee had been openly filling
bottles a few minutes before. Gleeson's forked stick violently
jerked down when he placed it over the bottle. "Yes," he loudly
proclaimed, "everything is working fine. My stick sees the water
and I am happy to use these materials for the test." The bottle was
placed in a hole which was then covered with a glass plate and the
curtain material. The mayor's rod again worked just fine again, to
his great pleasure.
The bottle was in fact empty. But this was not revealed to Gleeson
at that time.
As another uncontrolled test of his powers, specifically to see if
the Force would pass through paper, he was presented with a clear
glass bottle with a paper label on it. The clear liquid was plainly
visible, and, again, his fork quivered as he triumphantly
demonstrated the water in the bottle.
The bottle, in fact, contained two liters of pure (laboratory-
tested) ethanol. Again, this was not revealed at the time.
THE TESTING BEGINS
The moment of truth arrives. The dowsers take their turns, going up
and down the rows. As the carpet is rolled back, most of the pegged
locations are empty that were called positive, or the positions
declared empty were not. The reactions ranged from disappointment,
through consternation, to utter disbelief. After the test some
witchers went back over the exposed locations and found that their
wands curiously worked properly when they could see what was in the
The highest rate of success was 4/10 (40%) for one dowser. Another
scored 3/8 (37%), another 2/6 (33%), three scored 1/4 (25%), and
three scored 0/4 (0%). The average of all the dowsers was 12/48
(25%), just about the expected 1 out of 5 (20%). In other words,
the group of diviners could have gotten together and just guessed
at which holes contained something and done about as well. As a
matter of interest, a newspaper reporter at the event was asked to
make 48 guesses and he correctly identified 11/48 (23%).
Although the sample is not large enough to draw hard statistical
conclusions, this test, coupled with hundreds of others worldwide
demonstrate that professional dowsers cannot perform any better
than someone off the street can do throwing dice. It is easy to
conclude that the force moving the dowsers' sticks is their own
muscles and fanciful imaginations.
When the tests were all finished, the excuses began to pour in.
There were now all kinds of distractions in the test area. The
carpet was the worst villain. The excuse-of-the-day prize goes to
the diviner who complained that the influence from one hole was
traveling along the carpet to emerge at a different spot! Other
diviners with similar excuses were given unofficial chances like
the case above with the same results. When they didn't know where
the object was they could not find it. Before the test the dowsers
all signed statements that they had found no distractions, that the
conditions were fair and impartial, and that they could perform to
at least 80%.One diviner, to his credit, admitted that he would
have to seriously reconsider his views on witching.
A chap who claimed he could find gold (his test consisted in
putting small gold ingots in assigned holes) got 0/4, and he could
not understand why his powers had deserted him. He produced a piece
of insulation tape with a minute piece of copper stuck to it. "Bury
this anywhere you like," he said, waiving his arms in the direction
of the open paddocks, "and I'll find it." When he was engaged in
conversation the copper was secreted under a convenient pile of
horse manure. The dowser was then called back to begin his search.
To an astonished group he asked, "Where is it?"
"You're the dowser, you find it!" came the unwelcome response. He
was obviously not overjoyed with the prospect of searching the
surrounding 500 hectares, so he asked for a little narrower area.
The area was cut down to a swath about 3x30 feet. He walked about
three feet into the area and his whalebone wand twisted toward the
ground. "There it is," he declared. It wasn't. It was a good 10
The pre-test trials in which Gleeson had selected an empty bottle
as full and a bottle of alcohol as water were then revealed to the
consternation of all the dowsers. The concern AS had for a "crisis
of confidence" and subsequent psychological damage the dowsers
might suffer did not happen. They all left with their faith
slightly tweaked but still intact. There is nothing that changed
their perception of their own abilities.
[This article, edited and adapted for "BASIS", was published in
"The Skeptic", (volume 9, No. 4, 1989) newsletter of the Australian
BAS BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Chair: Larry Loebig
Vice Chair: Yves Barbero
Secretary: Rick Moen
Treasurer: Kent Harker
Kent Harker, editor; Sharon Crawford, assoc. editor;
Kate Talbot, distribution; Rick Moen, circulation
William J. Bennetta, Scientific Consultant
Dean Edell, M.D., ABC Medical Reporter
Donald Goldsmith, Ph.D., Astronomer and Attorney
Earl Hautala, Research Chemist
Alexander Jason, Investigative Consultant
Thomas H. Jukes, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
John E. McCosker, Ph.D., Director, Steinhart Aquarium
Diane Moser, Science writer
Richard J. Ofshe, Ph.D.,U. C. Berkeley
Bernard Oliver, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center
Kevin Padian, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
James Randi, Magician, Author, Lecturer
Francis Rigney, M.D., Pacific Presbyterian Med. Center
Wallace I. Sampson, M.D., Stanford University
Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D., Anthropologist
Robert Sheaffer, Technical Writer, UFO expert
Robert A. Steiner, CPA, Magician, Lecturer, Writer
Ray Spangenburg, Science writer
Jill C. Tarter, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
by the Baumgartners
Saturday, August 18th, noon - ?
Greer Park is in Palo Alto. Take 101 Bayshore to Palo Alto to the
Oregon Expressway exit and get off going west. At the very first
light turn left (south) to get to Old Bayshore Road (a frontage
road). There should be a truck parked near the stoplight
intersection pointing directions to the turn. The park is about two
blocks down. It will be on your right; there should be ample
Watch for coming events in the BAS CALENDAR, or call 415-LA-TRUTH
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Opinions expressed in "BASIS" are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect those of BAS, its board or its advisors.
The above are selected articles from the August, 1990 issue of
"BASIS", the monthly publication of Bay Area Skeptics. You can
obtain a free sample copy by sending your name and address to BAY
AREA SKEPTICS, 4030 Moraga, San Francisco, CA 94122-3928 or by
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Copyright (C) 1990 BAY AREA SKEPTICS. Reprints must credit "BASIS,
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E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank