Monthly Archives: October 2012

James Randi is coming to Sceptic School!

Ok, just give me a minute to calm myself down.

Breathe in… breathe out…

You know James Randi? World’s #1 sceptic? Founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, Exposer of Uri Gellar, Peter Popoff and James Hydrick?

Also known for appearing on the first episode of Sesame Street, guest starring on Happy Days and getting kicked off the Don Lane Show. Plus he was on some show called Oprah.

Also also, he toured with Alice Cooper which is more than most of us can say.

Well, on the 29th of November James Randi will be making a personal visit to Sceptic School! Randi of course will be in Australia for the Australian Skeptics National Convention but has very kindly agreed to make a guest appearance at my school, McKinnon Secondary College.

Thanks to the support from our principal, Pitsa Binnion, he will be speaking to close to 300 year 7 students for around an hour and a half.

Needless to say, this is exciting. Very, very exciting.

I’d like to personally thank everybody in the Vic Skeptics who was involved in organising this and will be writing a (probably very long) report on how his visit went.

Stay tuned!



Filed under McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society

Cheltenham Psychic Expo – The bad, the ugly and the really ugly.

On the weekend I was unexpectedly driving up the Nepean Highway in Cheltenham due to a surprise invitation to lunch by some friends. At a very specific moment of my journey I happened by chance alone to turn my head to the right and noticed a sign proudly claiming “Psychic Expo”.

Clearly, this was no coincidence.

In fact, one of the vendors inside told me that to my face.

At $5 entry I figured, why not? It should be a good way to kill a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon and possibly learn a little bit more about what these chaps were up to.

The event was held in the Kingston City Hall and was not particularly busy. There were around 15 vendors inside and possibly 30 visitors. More came in over the two hours I spent there but I don’t think they would have had more than a hundred or so altogether.

I have ranked them from what I think were the least to most harmful. A couple were fairly innocent, just a bit silly. Others angered me to the point of contacting the city council and asking them why they allowed such people to sell their wares in an official city building.

The Bad

A very nice lady was selling some very nice children’s books full of positive messages such as “I love family” and “I love breathing.” She told me how thinking “I love my body” could really help, and I asked her if she meant that I could stop going to the gym. She said no, just that being positive about it meant I would be more likely to take care of it. She was definitely the least kooky of the bunch.

Only slightly more kooky was the lady selling the Himalayan salt lamps. Apparently they emit negative ions which counteract the harmful positive ions produced by electronic devices in your home.

I asked how a big a lamp I would need to balance my 48-inch TV and I was told to go by feeling, not size. She suggested at least one in each room, especially children’s bedrooms. I commented on the irony of the fact that the lamps contained positive ion emitting light bulbs but she said they don’t, they just heat the salt which is what makes them work.

More bizarre were the heart shaped salt rocks labelled “angel poo”. Apparently angels defecate in the shape of a heart. Who knew? Ultimately I didn’t find these terribly bad. The science behind her claims is non-existent but at least she wasn’t making any real health claims.

Also, the lamps were quite pretty so I can’t fault her aesthetics.

The Ugly

Most of the tables were for the fortune tellers. All of them had Tarot cards but a couple also claimed to be able to communicate with the spirits.

“What are spirits?” I asked.

“They’re just dead people, basically. Yeah, they’re dead people.”


One said she might be able to contact my father (alive and well in Healesville) but couldn’t make any guarantees. They’re still people so who knows what they’re up to!

Prices varied from $20-$30 for 15 minutes up to $45 for a half hour. I decided to give the cheapest tarot reader a go and this is where I learned my first lesson: you get what you pay for.

I spent the reading looking for cold-reading techniques and trying my best to not give away any information through my body language. I needn’t have bothered as she didn’t look up from the cards once.

She had me shuffle and deal out eleven cards onto her green velvet draped table, which were then arranged in some kind of pattern. I got told that I am very organised (I’m not) and that there will be a lot of retrenchments at my business (I’m a teacher) and I would rise to a leadership within the next six months (no chance in hell). My three-year old daughter (I have no children) was very wise for her age and that my wife and I don’t see each other as much as we’d like to (we’re both teachers and see each other too much, according to my wife).

I did notice a couple of cold-reading techniques coming out. I’m fairly convinced that she wasn’t aware she was using them, or least wasn’t doing anything deceitful. She clearly seemed to believe in what she was doing.

Psychic: You are very organised.

Me: No I’m not.

Psychic: Well you could learn.

See what she did there? She turned her miss into a hit. Of course I could learn to be more organised, pretty much anybody could!

“You’re a ballerina!” “No I’m not!” “Well you could take lessons!”

I asked her to tell me about my family and she dealt out some cards, one of which was the two of pentacles.

Psychic: “Do you have two children?”

Me: “No, I have one daughter.”

Psychic: “Well it must mean your wife and daughter.”

Another miss turned into a hit! The third time I noticed it was when she turned a miss into a hit by telling me that I was wrong and she was right.

Psychic: “Is your daughter an Earth sign?”

Me: “No, she’s a Sagittarius.”

Psychic: “Well she has a lot of Earth sign characteristics.”

One of my students pointed out that she was essentially saying that I couldn’t trust astrology, anybody could be anything.

$20 later I looked around for something else to do.

The Really Ugly

More disturbing than most was the representative from a cult known as Eckankar who taught me a magic word that could be used to communicate with God and reveal my past lives. The word is HU (pronounced hew). This will open your body (or your soul, they’re essentially the same thing) and then you chant MANA (pronounced marna).

He spent a lot of time trying to give me free books and pamphlets and encouraging me to attend their fortnightly chanting sessions. Of course, he was very friendly and open but cult recruiters generally tend to be.

Not so encouraging was the Scientology man. I spent around twenty minutes with him, learning about them and what they do. He showed me a booklet containing an emotional scale known as a “tone scale”. 1.5 is anger, 2.5 is boredom, 3.5 is cheerful and so on. Apparently everybody has a base level which they will revert to. A person whose base level is 1.5 will generally be angry all the time. They may feel more positive emotions from time to time but will eventually default back to anger.

I took an E-meter stress test to see how I was doing and apparently I am a 3.45, quite cheerful! This pleased me no end.  The fact that I could make the little needle on the machine jump around by moving the handles was irrelevant, I suppose.

What hurt my feelings was that he made absolutely no attempt to recruit me. He didn’t tell me where they met, he didn’t try to sell me a book or DVD, he didn’t tell me how much better my life would be if I joined them. Am I not special enough? Could he sense my lack of riches? Was my slack-jawed yokel impression not good enough to mask my cunning intellect? I felt like writing Tom Cruise a letter to complain.

It was actually a lot of fun pretending to be completely ignorant because these people were falling over themselves to get their message out there. No question was too stupid for them to answer. I did feel very welcomed there and I see that as a real danger. It would be a very tempting place for somebody who was feeling lost or alone.

Even worse than the cults (in my opinion, anyway) were the alternative medicine pedlars. One lady told me that she could reverse type-2 diabetes through diet and twice-yearly detoxes. She couldn’t use the word “cure” due to legal reasons but had cleverly discovered that saying “reverse” meant the same thing and didn’t incur the wrath of the diabetes foundation.

The stall that really upset me was run by a lady who sold magical rocks. No wait, they weren’t magical. Actually nothing at the entire expo was magical. They were all 100% scientific. These scientific rocks grew in the earth and contain minerals. We contain minerals. Therefore these rocks can help us by giving out powerful emotions. She had bowls full of beautiful little stones, all shiny and polished and in varied hues and colours. Each one has a different effect, such as tektite which is as follows:

  • Is a meteorite and is believed to enhance connection to other worlds
  • Delves deep into the heart of a situation, so you see the cause and effect
  • Bio-magnetic energy around the body
  • Signify spiritual change & development
  • Bury near your front door to guard against fire, storm, hostility & to attract abundance
  • Too powerful to use on children & animals
  • Reduces fevers, aids circulation and prevents transmission of diseases, skin disorders, illnesses that drain strength

Worried about the spread of HIV in Africa and the fact that the Catholic church tells them that condoms are evil? No problem! Just give them a small piece of tektite. Sick of replacing your smoke detector batteries? Just bury one by your front door and you’ll be fine.

That’s not even the bad part. She mentioned using one for her son who suffers from migraines. One placed under his pillow at night fixes them right up. I asked her what else her rocks could cure and she dropped the big C right on me.


Cancer is nothing more than repressed emotion, apparently. And what is the cure for repressed emotion? Amethyst. Carried with you, worn as jewellery or placed under your pillow at night time won’t just prevent cancer but completely cure it. I agree that repressing your emotions isn’t healthy but it sure doesn’t cause cancer.

As funny as I found some of the exhibitors ($80 for a badly drawn picture of a guardian angel) I can’t find a single thing to laugh about here. Even one person taking her advice over a doctor’s would be one too many. How would you feel if somebody close to you abandoned their medical treatment for a magic rock?

I do understand that desire, cancer treatment is no picnic and I don’t think we can blame people for wanting an easier, less scary option. What we can do is blame the people pushing these decisions. They are taking advantage of people’s fear and weakness and turning it into a profit.

I’m not going to call this person a con artist because I think they believe in what they are doing. That still does not excuse the fact that an untrained individual is giving out very serious, very flawed and very dangerous medical advice.

Given that this event was held in the Kingston City Hall I have written to the council expressing my anger and concern. Finding people making unsupported medical claims and two cults operating out of an official city building is not the type of thing I expect. I have no doubt they will respond with something along the lines of “It is not up to us to monitor every stall holder and people have the right to express their opinions yada yada yada.”

I hope I am wrong.


Filed under General

SkepticZone interview

Of course you all know about The Skeptic Zone, The Podcast from Australia for Science and Reason. It’s hosted by Richard Saunders plus several regular guests including Dr. Rachie and Maynard. It focuses on scepticism in Australia but also has a lot of international guests including most recently, the great Ben Radford.

At the end of this latest episode Richard interviewed me briefly about our recent staring experiment. It was a fun little chat only occasionally interrupted by overhead planes.

It’s free to download and well worth subscribing too. It beats listening to breakfast radio on the way to work.

Download here (I’m at 47:20)

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Filed under McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society, Media