John Wilcock column header


The Column of Lasting Insignificance: July 23, 2011

John Wilcock


“You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God,
The British journalist
But seeing what the man will do, unbribed,
There is no reason to.”

— popular ditty from the 1940s


was a travesty that sent many innocent people to jail during its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And although it may well be that there are people who were molested by their relatives during their childhood, many others — sometimes coached by therapists, law enforcers, or trouble-makers — just made up their stories. It was years before honest investigators could get a grip on the nationwide “moral panic” to expose the fallacies, and much of the credit goes to a UC Irvine psychology and law professor, Elizabeth Loftus, 66, who was recently honored with a Scientific Freedom and Responsibility citation by the American Association for Advancement of Science.

Accepting the award, she recounted the “relentless vitriol and harassment” she had endured from a public culture “that alternates between hostility to science and irrational expectations of what science can provide.” Stressing the words freedom and responsibility, she modestly declared that she was “merely a scientist interested in the fallibility and malleability of memory.”


James Randi

Elizabeth Loftus

Joe Nickell


    Along with God-botherer Richard Dawkins and the magicians Penn and Teller, Professor Loftus will be in Las Vegas next week addressing James Randi’s annual “Amazing Meeting” which assembles most of the country’s naysayers, all doubtless fans of Randi’s Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, & Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. The late Martin Gardner, a brilliant polymath if ever there was one, will appear via video and Penn Jilette’s Private Rock & Roll Doughnut & Bacon Party will be a feature.

Although various associations of skeptics will collaborate in this event, much of the cynicism about so-called “magical” occurrences centers around the monthly magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer whose editor Kendrick Frazier writes: ”Our minds are a wonder. They have grand capacities for creativity. Sometimes, influenced by the pop culture all around us, they create things we then think are real.”

Virgin Mary Crying for No Reason Picture and comment from the Onion

      A potent example is the subject of “miracle oil” whose manifestation happens to be last month’s inquiry by SI’s chief paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, another of the scheduled speakers. Nickell, 66, whose earlier careers have included carnival pitchman, blackjack dealer, and private detective, visited a home in California’s Union City where a statue of the Virgin Mary was reported to weep real tears.

“I showed (the owner) how a trickle that is already on a statue could go unnoticed from one low-light vantage point, then as the viewer moved could catch light and glint as if it had suddenly appeared,” Nickell wrote. “I have been at sites where flickering candles placed before an oil icon could cause the trickles to seem to be moving, flowing.”

But there are also well-charted tricks such as mingling the oil with animal fat which melts and flows realistically with the rising heat of the room.

In the Union City case, the investigators sent a sample of the oil for analysis, finding it contained a synthetic compound used by the perfume industry to keep elements together. “Presumably a deity could use any substance it wished (to produce tears),” was Nickell’s summary, “but it was unlikely God would need to use a synthetic material.”

EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE unique is the reminder from the Journal of Consumer Research. They really dislike it when the copycat is someone similar to them. “Have you ever gone to a party only to learn upon arrival that another guest is wearing the same dress or shirt as you?” ask authors Katherine White (University of British Columbia) and Jennifer J. Argo (University of Alberta). The researchers looked at what happens when someone else copies a consumer’s product choice and they found that participants showed a surprising eagerness to change or get rid of products that had nothing wrong with them, simply because of the likeness. Is this simply a womanly thing? The report doesn’t say.

ONLY A FEW MORE months from now the world’s best-selling prescription drug Lipitor will go into the public domain. It has been yielding Pfizer around $12bn a year which will presumably end when other companies are allowed to manufacture generic versions of this statin whose actual name is atorvastatin, Federal rules will theoretically allow Pfizer’s designated successor, Ranbaxy, India’s largest pharmaceutical company to have exclusive rights for six months but there is a potential snag. “The Food and Drug Administration has accused Ranbaxy of ‘a pattern of systemic fraudulent conduct’ over the years,” reports Fortune. The Indian company has denied misconduct and claims it has cooperated fully with the government, but one of the other seven generic drugmakers has sued the FDA complaining about the agency’s continuing “indecision.”

Gregory Bull — AP

AFTER HIS SUCCESS dispensing deep-fried Girl Scout cookies, Twinkies, Klondike bars, two million Oreo cookies, and a Krispy Kreme chicken sandwich, Charlie Boghosian found new success at last month’s San Diego County Fair with fried Kool-Aid balls (he adds flour and water to the powder). The Associated Press reports that 42-year-old “Chicken Charlie” has spent two decades “testing the limits of what can be cooked in grease and still taste good.” The 300-lb Boghosian says his deep-fried $5.95 Kool-Aid treat has been a huge seller. “I just love how frying makes things crunchy on the outside and good on the inside. We leave all the calories in the oil.”

TOO SNOOTY to attract mass appeal is the rueful conclusion made by the moguls of yacht racing who have decided that beginning this year, World Cup events will be made more popular. “They hope to convert sailing from an obscure sport, associated with old school preppies and temperamental billionaires, to a commercially viable version of NASCAR or snowboarding,” explains Fortune in a story quoting Oracle CEO Larry Ellison’s view that the sport lacked “the right TV coverage.” The billionaire tycoon, whose Oracle Racing team won the Cup last year, is already planning a challenge for the 2013 races (whose finals will be held in San Francisco Bay) but with faster 72-ft catamarans, smaller crews, and shorter events.

THE RISE OF CHARITY RACES is the subject of Smart Money’s story “Cashathon” which claims that the events have become not only redundant but often give the charity less than they cost to produce. “These days,” says the mag, “the walkathon business boasts its own event producers, consultants, trade shows, and technology vendors (and) charities have assembled massive in-house staffs to support the strategy.”

But Barbara Jo Kirshbaum, a 73-year-old California therapist who has completed 123 long-distance breast cancer walks across the country, pleads, “It takes money to make money.” The high cost of staging these events — venue rental, sound system, rave gear, permits and security, fences and barricades, T-shirts, are just some expenses — often account for at least half of the money raised. The American Institute of Philanthropy estimates that the Avon Foundation for Women spends 52 cents on logistics and promotion for every dollar raised, compared with the nonprofit average of 15 to 20 cents.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Among the 163 people who have registered as candidates for the presidency in 2012, are Savannah Bush and Tanner Bush, both claiming to be legal children of former Florida governor Jeb Bush (who does not have children by either name). Other candidates include President Emperor Caesar Buonaparte of the Absolute Dictator Party and Jonathan “The Impaler” Sharkey. (Anybody can fill out a form to be a candidate)….If you’ve ever wondered why Supremo Clarence ‘Uncle Tom’ Thomas is such a jerk, the fact that Ayn Rand is his favorite author may help to explain it…“My whole life I was taught that it was okay to call a woman a bitch once you get in a position of power,” confesses Snoop Dogg. “But as I became a man, and seeing that wasn’t the right way, I changed direction.”….If U/S. consumers paid the same as Canadians (rather than 38% more) for the same brand-name meds, writes In These TimesTerry J. Allen they would save as much as $50-bn a year…. When I give to the poor,” says Brazilian bishop Dom Hélder Cãmara “they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.”…. There are still believers in that Mayan fantasy that the world will end next year and they have been flocking to the southern France hilltop village of Bugarach (pop: 189) which believers say will be spared…. …. If Fed Ex and UPS were to merge, would they call it Fed UP?…..Novelist Salman Rushdie is writing a one-hour sci-fi drama for Showtime, claiming (says The Week) that “highbrow television series have all but replaced the novel in the popular imagination”….. “The nice thing about being a celebrity,” says Henry Kissinger, “is that, if you bore people, they think it’s their fault”…..David Sedaris claims that “one in three Americans weigh as much as the other two”……The University of Pittsburg’s Dr. Eric Nofzinger invented a water-filled cap which, when worn on the head, reduces insomnia-causing metabolism and appears to promote sleep…. The U.S. has more prisons than China, despite having a billion fewer citizens, writes Peter Mokos in the Washington Post, blaming for the imbalance “idiotic war on drugs” and America’s vast “prison-industrial complex”…. “We don’t know what we want,” mused Will Rogers, “but we are ready to bite somebody to get it”….. Hackers managed to meddle with the online dating site (whose members have to vote on new applicants) resulting in 30,000 “ugly” new members which the site has just evicted…. “The wise and brave dares own that he was wrong.” —Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)