Some activities of our skeptical club „Sisyfos“


A throughout analysis of irrational, pseudoscientific and occult ideas and of its spreading throughout Europe has been presented in many contributions on skeptic meetings and in printed books and papers (see e. g. Sisyfos web sites, archive). So our skeptics’ clubs and organizations have got very good theoretical equipment for fighting against these pathological phenomena. Practical application of irrational claims in healing, in selling ineffective products and in enforcing their acceptance by official institutions has been evaluated and its detrimental consequences have been shown, too.

On the other hand, effort to eliminate or, at least, to diminish influence of irrational ideas on the everyday life has given exiguous results. Still worse, holders of irrational ideas penetrate into state institutions, first of all into bodies making decisions about medical procedures and medication – official admission of homeopathy is only one of many cases demonstrating this situation.

Number of people publishing irrational, misleading and flustering texts and claims is enormous. It is impossible for members of our clubs to deal with products of all of them. Problem, on which of the faulty claims and practices we should react in the first place, is certainly an important part of the strategy of combating irrational ideas.

The following text, showing some activities of our Sisyfos, is intended to contribute to the discussion about choosing the most effective ways of combating irrational thinking.

I. Lectures and printed matter

During the past five years, three rather comprehensive booklets were published with articles written by our members and dealing with “alternative medicine”, water-dowsing, homeopathy, geopathogenic zones and with other allegedly observed phenomena or capabilities which have got popularity but do not exist.

We also regularly arranged lectures on what we call controversial phenomena. People interested in scientific explanation of improbable claims regularly visit our lectures and further propagate the scientific position on unsubstantiated claims. The publicity of these activities is limited.

II. Media

With few exceptions, our members only rarely manage to appear in media. And if such a case takes place and member of Sisyfos is invited to present the scientific point of view on the chosen topics, another problem is often encountered: the popular approach of the TV reporters is to arrange a live discussion between a respectful scientist on one side, and, say, a water-dowser on the other. They call it the well-balanced performance. The scientific knowledge, presented modestly and sometimes admitting uncertainties and incompleteness, is confronted with babble of a cocksure boaster presenting his claims firmly and with absolute certainty. The educational value of such discussion is almost always negative. Such “well-balanced” scenes are especially regretful if a prestigious physician has to discuss serious health problems with an ignorant healer, who explains that for helping ill people he need not use any treatment practiced by fusty “official medicine”, and does away with any health troubles via harmonizing energetic vibrations within the poor patient’s body or by pouring into it his own energy.

Nevertheless, the situation now seems to slightly improve after several TV programs decided to warn people not to buy products that do not work. Our members are now more frequently invited to gauge whether the product is indeed able to use cosmic energy for drying wet buildings or to remove the pernicious influence of (non-existing) geopathogenic zones by putting a piece of colored metallic foil under the pillow or bed. It happens, then, that after having seen the TV program, the deceived customers try to return the bought product and get back the money. Unfortunately, they are usually not successful due to imperfection of laws, incompetence of the state institutions and perfect barristers defending the producers of products which do not work. Selling such a product for, say 50000 Czech crowns (approximately 2000 euro), while expenses for its fabrication are 30 euro or less, the manufacturer picks up enough money to hire best lawyers in the country and to win the cause.

III. Violating fundamental laws of nature

For showing indefensibility of irrational claims, physics is more advantageous than any other branch of science. Unlike biological creatures, physical objects are simple and obey well defined, firmly proven and clearly formulated fundamental laws such as conservation of energy or limit of velocity of motion. The atomic structure of matter has been recognized and described to outright details. Four fundamental types of interaction – gravitational, electromagnetic, strong and weak (four physical forces in less exact formulation) appeared to be sufficient for quantitative description of all phenomena on earth and in the universe discovered so far. This situation stays unchanged since about thirties of the past century. Babbles of healers about affecting ill people by an unknown form of energy, or smug claims of deceivers that they discovered the way how to use cosmic energy for drying wet walls, can unequivocally be rejected on basis of fundamental laws of nature.

In the age of high specialization and collective work, it is reasonable to have physicists also in the teams which look on the declared effectiveness of procedures used in the so called alternative medicine. The tolerance to irrational ideas or even acceptance of them is very often caused by insufficient knowledge of elementary physics. Homeopathy is an old but still actual example: not a single molecule of the allegedly curative drug remains in the solvent after the prescribed procedure of repeated dilution, while the free thermal motion of molecules in a liquid immediately beats the renewed version of homeopathy’s effectiveness caused allegedly by offprint of the active stuff left in the solution.

Seeking more effective ways of persuading people about the credibility of science and, at the same time, helping to protect them against charlatans and cheaters, we also began to look for less serious or even funny presentations criticizing fictitious ideas. One way, which, however, ended without expected result, was to publish articles in newspapers where we would name producers, who sell products allegedly exploiting phenomena which in fact do not exist. To give the campaign a little funny ting, we formulated our activity as looking for companies and manufacturers who violated the fundamental laws of nature (though they usually violated also the laws of the state). We firstly found five producers of things which certainly could not work. We then published our intention to publish more detailed articles about the products soon. Revealing our future plan was not very clever, because the mentioned producers raised racket, exerted strong pressure on the redactor in chief, asked for apology and threatened with legal action. The redactor in chief then decided not to continue with the campaign. The central slogan, that people who do not recognize fundamental laws of nature would easily lose lots of money, could not be exploited. Brave newspaper men, who did not hesitate to scold highest politicians giving them worst possible names and accusing them of criminal deeds, surrendered being threatened by charlatans, and decided to keep silence.

IV. Erratic boulder award

Another action – awarding the most stupid claims and unreasonable ideas – has been more successful. We used the well known fact, that TV, newspapers and popular magazines are seldom interested in serious programs propagating scientific achievements. In addition, the reporters – similarly as most people – are convinced that scientists are dull persons without sense of humor. To show that this is not true, we decided to arrange once a year a pompous show, in which we make fun of people and companies propagating absurd ideas and deluding people. Humorous scenes appeared to be attractive for TV and other media. So once a year, millions of people can see on the screen shots of the ceremony, during which authors of the most absurd ideas are awarded by medals – erratic boulders – in gold, silver and bronze. In Czech the name of the price - bludný balvan – has the acronym “BLB” which in Czech means idiot or cretin. In addition, in Russian balvan (written “ bolvan”) means idiot directly, without the need to shorten the word, so the name of the price has proper meaning even in Russian.

The procedure of nomination is formally held in the same way as that of Nobel prices, and in the ceremonial speech, substantiating the awarding, the essence of the absurdity of the issue is explained in full, using scientific terms and festive form. Of course, most of the awarded persons do not attend the ceremony. Only few come and unsuccessfully try to defend their ideas. Others try to reject the critics in one of the many pseudoscientific or occult journals. The ceremony has already been repeated for eight years, and the wording “he (or she or they) got the Sisyfos price bludný balvan” became now quite common and is still more often used as an argument that the awarded person fabricated something quite wrong. It is certainly superfluous to emphasize, that the awarded persons and groups represent only a fraction of those, who propagate or exploit absurd ideas. It is not an easy task for members of Sisyfos to play this humoristic role. Fortunately, some of them are not only outstanding scientists, but also good actors. So when they read, clad in ancient clothes and with serious expression in their face, the festive speech about the absurd ideas selected for the Sisyfos prices, the comical effect is guaranteed. Very aggressive and often furious reactions published by the awarded persons or by their backers in parapsychological, occult and similar journals prove that the comic presentation of their nonsense is effective.

Selecting persons or groups for the “ bludný balvan” price we sometimes encounter following problem: there is a sort of persons, who claim irrational things but in fact they think very rationally and make money via persuading credulous people about miraculous features of their products or cures. It is usually not easy to prove, that the producer in question is aware of the absurdity of the declared principle on which the product purportedly works, i.e. that he is a conman and not a jackass. The medal “ bludný balvan” is intended for irrational claims and ideas. Question arises, whether the price should be given to persons or groups, who can be suspected to know well that their claims are not true and, in fact, commit criminal offence of deception. They should rather be awarded by spending some time in jail. That, unfortunately, our Sisyfos cannot contrive.

V. Shocking cases

We are often encountered with scandalous cases. Collections of stories based on personal contacts with deceitful healers and written in an attractive belletristic form describe terrible cases of hopelessly ill people deprived of their last money by charlatans who, after the patient has died, explained the relatives that he or she came to him too late. There are well known writers of short stories among our members. Stories written by them about real events are very impressive. No fun or humor can be applied in such cases.

VI. Two faces of superstition

The name of our league – Sisyfos – explicitly acknowledges that irrationality and stupidity cannot be defeated. (After Albert Einstein, stupidity and the Universe are infinite, although about Universe Einstein admitted he was not quite sure. After our great humoristic writer and actor Jan Werich, stupidity cannot be defeated, but we must still fight against it.) Looking on TV screen or surfing on Internet, we may conclude that irrationality and stupidity is growing. It is impossible to react on all stupidities spread by media and Internet. For the largest possible effectiveness of fighting against the stupidity it is therefore important to correctly judge which of so many nonsense should be selected for defeating in first place. In other words, where to put priority when showing inconsistencies in propagated false ideas. It is perhaps important to keep in mind it this case, that humans are prone to accept irrational ideas. Giving lectures about scientific methods to students, our outstanding surgeon, late professor Josef Charvát, usually began his talk with the words: from the moment when the species homo sapiens discovered causal connections between events, he began to seek causality in everything he observed, and often believed to have found it where it really did not exist. False ideas developed in this way, supported by illusion that there is always a possibility to manage natural forces and to forestall fatal events. This can be traced through the whole evolution of mankind. Illusion about existence of causal connection between some absolutely unrelated phenomena may help to get self-confidence, encourage a shy person to overcome his indecisiveness, produce the well-known effect of placebo in curing illness and hence act in a positive way. In most cases, however, the irrational, superstitious thinking does much harm, leading to inadequate reaction on the encountered situation. It is perhaps the most important task of promoting science to show, that irrationality, in the end, brings disaster to the believer and offers a powerful tool for manipulation of people by imposing them faulty ideas. In the latter case, disaster for whole nations and even for the whole mankind threatens from irrational ideologies, if they are accepted by a nation or even only by some organized group of people prepared to fulfill any task given them in name of the false ideology.

VII. Scientific proof

Methods, how to distinguish between a superstitious idea, based on faulty interpretation of an observed time sequence, and the true causality, have relatively recently been elaborated by science. The criteria did not enter into consciousness of all people, even of people with university diploma. Many persons are very rational in one aspect, but irrational in another.

It is difficult to find priorities for fighting irrationality. Intuitively, it can be expected that the most dangerous support of irrationality comes from people, who are good specialists, but believe in non existing things and have the ability – charisma – to persuade people about correctness of their ideas. They have many attributes of true scientists, may be respected specialists and often work in universities and other scientific institutions. In our country we find many such people. There exists a group of geophysicists possessing all possible titles who are convinced that a fork-like rod which they hold in their hands shows them the place where water or other underground object they wish to find is located. This false idea, propagated for centuries, is now more often applied for seeking places which allegedly hurt health (geopathogenic zones), than for water dowsing. It offers a good job for making money by frightening people. In fact, the motion of the “dowsing rod” held in hands was fully explained more than a century ago using Newton’s mechanics: Influence of very small unwitting changes of position of hands causes swift tipping over of the rod held in a position which is very close to the threshold of stability. Nothing can be found by this method, but the illusion of having extraordinary ability to detect underground objects is so strong in so afflicted people, that they construct wild theories to support their persuasion. A controversy between the scientific explanation given by members of Sisyfos on one side and the illusion defended by mentioned members of the university staff on the other side, ends, in the better case, by a statement of an invited reporter, that scientists cannot find common point of view and that the question whether water dowsing is a useful method or not is still open. More often, the reporter supports the irrational, incorrect point of view. In such a situation, it is very difficult to help people deceived by charlatans with dowsing rods to get back money they paid for “finding” the detrimental pathogenic zones and for “shielding” of their influence. Awarding the mistaken members of university staff by the Sisyfos price for flustering public opinion can be used as warning the university officials that something is wrong with their school. To convince the mistaken people that their “theory” is wrong appeared so far in all cases impossible.

VIII. Occult practices

Intentional exploiting people’s ignorance by imposing irrational ideas about miraculous properties of different products being able to cure all diseases and to keep customers in good mood is another topic, which has been in focus of our Sisyfos. As an example, we mention sending special “holograms” by hidden transmitters radiating occult (“odic”) field and influencing people who bought special “receivers” for the field. This is, of course, in contradiction with fundamental physical laws. Nevertheless, the producer of this field and of “cards of good mood and health” – a piece of colored plastic card, which the customer wears attached to his body or cloth – sold surprisingly great number of these products not only to people prepared to believe in any nonsense, but also to successful managers and top sportsmen. Any attempt to ban trading with these deceptive products has been unsuccessful till now. The case is interesting for assessment of people ready to accept even occult gimmicks as really existing thing. Besides of wasting money, customers buying this nonsense and trusting to its effectiveness are at great risk of disregarding serious illness or of undergoing a dangerous activity. To finish this sad description, we must ad, that even an occult nonsense with radiation of holograms on odic field has found support in one member of our technical university.

Looking beyond the borders of our country, we see a picture which evidently is no better than at home. The homeopathy, which has been shown as absolutely contradicting to fundamental laws of physics, has been admitted or even supported by such respectful international organization as is WHO, and the so called alternative medicine has been acknowledged by the European Parliament as an acceptable tool for curing diseases.

IX. Less evident cases of irrationality

Finally, I mention two another, less evident cases of irrationality. The first is the essentially irrational approach in research aimed to explain health troubles experienced by some persons exposed to electromagnetic fields. One quarter of century ago, health troubles as headache or skin rashes appeared with some people who worked with computers. Swedish professor working for WHO, interpreted the troubles as a consequence of exposure to electromagnetic field emitted by the monitor. Afterwards, many other people working with computers reported health troubles - nausea, fatigue, sleep disorder, pain in muscles and similar unpleasant health impairment, and attributed them to the exposure to electromagnetic field. Other electric appliances as transformers, local transmitters, power lines etc. soon became alleged sources of the same troubles. As only a small fraction of people working with computers reported the mentioned health troubles, hypersensitivity of the afflicted people to electromagnetic fields was declared to be the cause of the symptoms. Expensive research followed, but during all twenty five years no causal link has been found between the reported health troubles and exposure to the electromagnetic field. Nevertheless, the interpretation, that the exposure of the afflicted persons to electromagnetic field of minute intensity is the cause of their troubles, has not been abandoned. Only recently, WHO reluctantly admitted that no causal link has (“so far”) been established between the symptoms attributed to “electrical hypersensitivity” and exposure to electromagnetic field. However, a clear WHO statement, that the phenomenon has a psychosomatic origin, is still lacking. An interesting and not yet explicitly stated conflict of interest is evidently working in the case: Researches, paid for research on the electrical hypersensitivity, are not interested to interrupt their work and to acknowledge that the problem has been solved, the more, that the explanation is substantially different than the presupposed. The irrationality of the case has been here not in the hypothesis suggested after the first cases of health impairment were reported, but in keeping the wrong explanation for twenty five years in spite of the fact, that the cause of the health impairment has been elsewhere and was even ten years ago explained by other authors.

A second case of less obvious irrationality is younger. It can be demonstrated as an example of solving extremely important problems by principles which are not based on science. The case is related to electromagnetic fields and health, too. As a factor, created almost exclusively by technical progress, the electromagnetic field was from beginning under vigilance of institutions the mission of which is to care for human health. After sound and rather expensive research supported by many countries and world institutions, respectful international bodies assessed the obtained scientific results and in the years 1995-1998 recommended limits for human exposure to electromagnetic fields. The limits have been based on two established factors which are harmful if the exposure exceeds a well established threshold, but are harmless if the exposure remains below the set limits. The first factor is heating of the tissue by high-frequency field, the other - stimulation of the neural tissue by electric currents induced in the body by low frequency electric and magnetic field. Till now, no other process in the body has been found which could be evoked or changed by the exposure to electromagnetic field and could cause adverse health effect. So no additional measures to those recommended in the year 1998 have been suggested. Nevertheless, precautionary measures going beyond those based on science have suddenly been recommended by European politicians. Being laymen and unable to withstand irrational, quite unsubstantiated, demands of small but active groups of ignorant people, they decided to introduce further restrictions on the exposure to electromagnetic fields, absolutely unnecessary from the rational point of view. Quite considerable consequences of this irrational step can be expected in the near future. They will cause not only unnecessary expenses, but also will impair well being of many people, who could then develop psychosomatic syndrome due to fear of electromagnetic fields.

X. Conclusion

The most important in fighting against irrational thinking evidently is to engage top scientists by offering them to give lectures and to write articles for skeptical and similar journals. On the other hand, scientists, who support or tolerate irrational claims, should be openly criticized and discredited. Demonstration of cases where a citizen believing in the irrational claims was deprived of a huge amount of money also appears effective in showing the harmful influence of irrational thinking and of ignoring scientific knowledge. Scientists occupying high posts should be asked to use their authority and to dedicate some time to stop irrational ideas to appear in their branch of science and to leak into the state institutions designated to make decisions. Ways how to make fun of the irrational thinking should be further followed and exploited. Presenting, in interesting and readable form, skeptical information on internet web sites can also be expected to persuade still more people about the advantages of rational thinking and of accepting knowledge provided by science.

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