11 August 2008

Open source woo

Congratulations go this week to Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, who has accepted the post of the president of JREF. A more worthy person would be hard to name, considering that the outgoing president is James Randi himself. Randi will stay on as founder and chairman.

I've been staying right out of the whole ridiculousness surrounding "The One", a talent show screening on Australian TV which aims to further the career of the most convincing bullshit artists psychics that go up in front of the cameras. Personally, I found the whole discussion around this show rather refreshing, in an Australian kind of way: The standard joke seemed to be, "Won't they already know the winner if they're truly psychic?"

Never mind that this kinda misrepresents what psychics actually claim to do. For example, a clairaudient doesn't normally claim to be able to see into the future, unless they're Sylvia Browne.

Plus it also removes part of the fun. Watching these con artists psychics going at each other in the hope of winning has been, at least in the snippets that I've seen, hilarious.

I haven't actually been watching it, mostly because it's on on Monday nights when I've been out of the house.

However, I have been reading the week by week updates in SWIFT, and I can tell you that it's actually quite impressive the attention that the JREF have been giving it, although to be honest, Richard Saunders, the token skeptic on the judging panel is quite well known around skeptical circles, both within Australia and abroad. And you know, from what I've seen, Saunders is both erudite and charismatic, has a sense of humour and appears to be approachable. If perhaps a little too quiet to nail a regular spot on TV as a "celeb".

The other judge is a lady by the name of Stacey Demarco who from what I can tell is a stereotypical, credulous, shoot-ones-mouth-off, cliché-spouting, doggerel-delivering, card-carrying woo merchant and certifiable loon. Demarco is smack bang on course to get her fifteen minutes of fame, and calls herself a 'metaphysician'.

You know, before I saw this festering pustule of a TV show, I'd never heard of such occupations as 'medical intuitives'. Nor had I head the term 'psychometry' used outside of recruitment. But now, I'm convinced.

Convinced that people will believe absolutely anything.

After this week's SWIFT, I somehow found myself directed to a site where Saunders was interviewed by someone for a podcast named Lia Ramses where she attempts the Galileo Gambit, invokes Dean Radin's work, and comes out with this:

Soon, the topic of conversation turns to "The One" and after some banter, in which Richard reminds the listeners that the failure rate of contestants exceeded 90%, Ramses asks Richard how he thinks She found the "lost boy" in episode one, given that he doesn't believe she used remote viewing. Richard gives the only logical answer "she went in the right direction and there the little boy was". It's got to be hard to dispute that kind of logic given that no other "psychic" contestant went in that direction and only one other found the boy, after covering most of the available area within the time limit.

(Thanks to Thinking is Real)

After having a bit of a read, I found myself looking around the Ghost Radio site and found a seething wasp's nest of woo. I'm not sure what was more frightening - that fact that the owners of this site believe anything, or that I now have evidence that suggests that there are simply no bounds to human gullibility.

Crop circles, crystal skulls, homeopathy, reiki, there really isn't anything that won't sell. Gullibility is way hip, and there doesn't appear to be anything that you or I can do about it. Particularly in light of the (frankly frightening) revelation that while Richard Saunders will continue to be known as the "the skeptic", Stacey Demarco is guaranteed a spot on the celebrity C-list for the rest of her life.

In order to test my new hypothesis, I dreamed up a great test: Why not build a mill to create the silliest woo imaginable, and then see if it sells?

I think that those of us who are only even slightly creative could come up with some absolute whoppers.

I see this project as having three parts:

  1. A wiki or an online forum where the most insane woo ideas can be kicked around until they're ready to be sold to the general public.

  2. A website where the "phony" woo (OK, you come up with a better adjective) can then be sold to paying punters.

  3. After selling the woo, and covering expenses, any profits left over (and I'm fairly convinced there will be) can be donated to a charity to be nominated. I vote JREF, myself.

In order to preserve the element of surprise, the wiki/online forum should ideally be password protected and users should join by invitation only. Although I do like the open source thing where absolutely anyone can modify an idea, but this kinda kills off the surprise thing.

The wiki/online forum should be able to cover stuff like design and feedback right through to production and logistics.

The website, on the other hand, should be littered with all sorts of disclaimers, so that if a potential buyer goes deaf, dumb and blind, they should still be able to know that "this product has not been scientifically tested" and "we cannot vouch for the accuracy of our claims" etc. After all, we shouldn't be leaving ourselves open to claims of hypocrisy or unethical behaviour.

(I may be a hypocrite, but I sure as hell don't speak for anyone else who may wish to join this worthy cause.)

The products should be kinda cool, though. I know more people who buy decks of tarot cards for the pretty pictures than because they're into tarot readings.

They would also have to be funny.

Lastly, the website should have a clever name - one that if you think about a little, makes it crystal clear that there is mischief afoot.

Oh, and there should be an awards night where the most ludicrous idea gets presented with something like a golden dowsing rod. Or something.

I think that this is a sensational idea. Who's in, and how do we get this underway?


Greg said...

Sounds good, Dikki! I'd like to get on board.

While raising funds and tricking the gullible are all worthy goals, I think we should explicitly force the hand of government to apply the rigours of the Trade Practices Act to woo merchants. It's happened in the UK and has put the cat amongst the pigeons over there:


We need something like that here, triggered by a product or claim so egregiously wooful that even the woo-buying public is clamouring for the protection afforded by a heavy-handed regulator.

I'm not sure what could be, but I'm prepared to give it some thought.

Dikkii said...

Greg, that is indeed good news.

As you know, I support any initiative designed to protect consumers, even if those consuming the good or service in question are of questionable mental competence.

And the UK is going through a sensational skeptical renaissance which I strongly applaud. Witness the UK media’s current attention on homeopathy and acupuncture: It’s something that our media could learn from here.

The interesting thing here is that even though there is this sound of crickets where evidence for these types of claims should be, our existing trade practices legislation can and should lead to prosecutions where woosters are concerned.

The cold, hard reality is that the ACCC are totally unwilling to act on woo claims. I recall once (not sure where I read this) that a spokesman for the ACCC reversed the burden of proof on to the complainant (unreasonable) and another spokesman in a different article who suggested that altie woo lay outside their jurisdiction and should have been referred to the Therapeutic Goods Administration instead.

Greg said...

It's true that the ACCC may be reluctant to pursue such claims. However, there are various state bodies and, under the Act, individuals can make claims too.

I, for one, would like to see a disgruntled woo consumer going to court to test a failed psychic prediction/healing pill/fortune spell etc.

Perhaps I'm just not getting it. Maybe woo consumer never, ever take their suppliers to court because they Want To Believe, even if it means getting ripped off!

Anonymous said...

It's a nice idea, but I have a sneaking suspicion that you're going to run into the woo equivalent of Poe's Law. I consider myself pretty imaginative, and I've believed a lot of strange stuff in the past, but there is no way I could come up with anything more obviously ridiculous than most of the crap sold by Life Technology - at least, not without designing a product that causes actual harm.

Dikkii said...


However, there are various state bodies and, under the Act, individuals can make claims too.

You're quite right, although doing it alone without the assistance of a body like the ACCC would be a fair ask. The onus of proof is usually on the plaintiff in a civil action under the act.

State consumer affairs bodies are useful too, although I'm not sure how effective they are.

I, for one, would like to see a disgruntled woo consumer going to court to test a failed psychic prediction/healing pill/fortune spell etc.

I for another.

Perhaps I'm just not getting it. Maybe woo consumer never, ever take their suppliers to court because they Want To Believe, even if it means getting ripped off!

I think also that there would be some terrible embarrassment in resorting to this type of action. Remember, one of the reasons that con artists don't get reported is still one of people being embarrassed by their own gullibility.

Dikkii said...


Maybe I'm terminally optimistic, but I like to think that there are bounds to human gullibility, thus I'm a disbeliever in Poe's Law as it relates to woo generally.

Although the crap peddled by Life Technology does make me wonder. I'd forgotten about the tampon applicator aka the Tesla Shield.

...not without designing a product that causes actual harm.

I think that there's still stuff that can be milked here without designing something that is actually harmful. After all, wasn't the Ouidja Board invented as a joke? It can be that simple.

Anonymous said...

I like to think that there are bounds to human gullibility

Yeah, I would like to think that too... Unfortunately, I'm becoming ever more convinced that, as Einstein apparently said "only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe."

After all, wasn't the Ouidja Board invented as a joke?

I have no idea. However, I'm pretty damn sure that both Aleister Crowley and Osho (aka Chandra Mohan Jain / Acharya Rajneesh / Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) were not merely taking the piss, but flamboyantly pushing the theoretical boundaries of piss-taking, and rubbing their followers faces in it at every opportunity, and look how they turned out...

If there are limits to human gullibility, they're so far out as to be practically meaningless.

Dikkii said...

Oh the Bhagwan. I'd forgotten about him.

How come we don't hear much about sex cults these days?

Anonymous said...

Good question. My guess would be something to do with Rev. Moon buying his own newspaper and getting crowned King of the World in the US Congress, but then I'm bitter like that...

The really funny thing about Osho is that if you read his own words, rather than those of his followers, he's pretty clear that anyone dumb and needy enough to follow a guru deserves everything they get, until they learn not to. I wish I had the brass neck...

(I stayed for a while on a farm up near Lismore with some folks who were into Osho - had the Osho tarot deck, got the newsletters and everything. Really nice people, but not too perceptive...)

Dikkii said...

I checked out the Bhagwan's entry in Wikipedia last night. It's remarkably sympathetic towards him and portrays him as a naive puppet of his personal assistant.

I don't recall much of their move to Oregon, but I bet the locals thought it was another potential Jonestown.

Anonymous said...

Ha! That's Wikipedia for you...

Speaking of which, have you seen this? Looks like a few other folks are thinking along the same lines as you...

Dikkii said...

Altie woo is just too easy. I am impressed, thanks Dunc.