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Burning Man

Can burn patients really be healed from a distance by phone?

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting with television producers at a Pasadena, California hotel when I ran into a man named Richard Greene whom I had met last year at the debate that Leonard Mlodinow and I did with Deepak Chopra and others at Chapman University. With him was a woman named Dr. Marja Pronk, whom Greene introduced as someone who can heal burn patients from a distance by phone, and that she learned this skill under the tutelage of one Dr. Philippe Sauvage. Greene was interested in having me test Dr. Pronk while she was in town, but we ran out of time and the protocols and ethical considerations of intentionally burning either people or animals were prohibitive (in my view) and so at present we are still working on how this claim might be tested under controlled conditions. If you have any suggestions on how we might do this while also meeting the ethical requirements of an Institutional Review Board or Ethical Review Board that overseas the ethical treatment of human and animal subjects in experiments, please let me know.

First, I will provide you the background I was provided followed by my own thoughts on what it would take to test such a claim, along with my thoughts in between on Philippe Sauvage, which as you shall see is making extraordinary claims that go far beyond healing burn patients.

Richard Greene sent me this background material:

photo of burn patient

As we discussed, the claims made by Breton “healer” Dr. Philippe Sauvage and his co-workers, including medical Dr. Marja Pronk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sshO4IrvJzI and www.sosburn.info) are astounding and challenge almost every belief we have in Western science. To date there have been approximately 500 who have benefited from this technology in 29 countries (including 46 states in the US). Here, for example, is a video of 22 year old Chris Fleming from Ontario, CA. and some press clippings from Africa:

Newspaper Tanzania
Newspaper Ghana

The protocol is, as we discussed, for those who receive 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th degree burns to simply call the designated free healing hotline within 30 minutes of the burn. As you will see in the videos, the claim, remarkably, is that 100% of those who do this have their pain removed and ALL skin damage reversed within hours or a few days at most. Here is the most dramatic example—a Ghanan girl that Dr. Marja Pronk treated using Dr. Sauvage’s method. Her burns, as you can see, were 3rd and 4th degree and she was expected to die…

Because her father made contact with Dr. Pronk’s team, this beautiful young girl made a full recovery. Here are the after photos. There were no grafts or other surgical procedures performed.

photo of burn patientphoto of burn patient

photo of burn patient

Mr. Greene did qualify his own observations:

I do not have direct experience of these examples or claims. What I do know is that Dr. Sauvage is one of the most intelligent, genuine and unique men I have ever met and that he looks at the world in a very different way. Based on my time with him and Dr. Pronk and Alison McDermott, the highly articulate nurse who coordinates the efforts here in the US, I (even the lawyer side of me) am highly inclined to believe that his healings are real and represent the most repeatable, verifiable and significant scientific breakthroughs in centuries, if not all history.

Thank you for keeping an open mind.

I found Mr. Greene to be a very intelligent and thoughtful man who genuinely believes that Sauvage can do what he claims. However, a little background search on Sauvage turned up some disturbing aspects to the man. For example, I noted that this doesn’t look too good.

I asked Mr. Greene if he believes these things that Sauvage claims about himself:

At the end of “Druidism,” there would be born a single male child [to] the only surviving matriarchal lineage of ancient Armorican spirituality. Androgynous, with the sacred powers of both female and male combined for the only time in Druidic history, this male child would be called the last Strobineller, the paradigmatic shiftmaster, assigned with the task of reconciling Man and Nature before humankind destroyed, forever, planet Earth, or vice versa. Born on December 30, 1953 in the Celtic nation now called Brittany, Philip Savage was this male child.

This, I noted, is the classic messiah complex, single male child of matriarchal lineage, healing the sick…come here to save mankind…he’s the new Jesus and Marja Pronk is his Mary Magdalene.

I asked Mr. Greene what he thought of all this, and he responded thoughtfully:

1) Dr. Pronk is 100% solid with impeccable integrity and the testimonials—as a professional in non-verbal communication and body language who gets as much as $25,000 per day to teach businesses same—are overwhelmingly solid and believable in my professional opinion.

2) I have spent about 30 hours—1 on 1—with Phillip and have experienced a level of knowledge, perspective and answers to questions that I have never experienced before. He is not normal and is, indeed, exceptional in every way—even in his eccentricities. How many con men do you know that speak 17 languages, play at least as many instruments and have 3 advanced degrees.

3) I have never seen anything to indicate that the medical cases are not 100% real.

4) I have never seen anything to indicate that the burn cases are not 100% real. As we discussed, Michael, he could be an alien, the worst human around or even a figment of one’s imagination…but if this shit works, it is a phenomenal story and one of the greatest medical breakthroughs in human history.

All of the above is irrelevant, though, Michael, as you know better than anyone. Let’s do the testing.

Fair enough. The proof is in the pudding. But I did write to Richard the following concerns that I have about Sauvage (sometimes rendered online as Savage):

I appreciate your frankness. I must tell you that the more I read about Philip Savage the louder my baloney detection alarm sounds. I’m sure you must understand why. Even in LaLa land here in So. California, with egos bigger than Mt. Everest and loonies claiming every nutty thing under the sun, Savage towers above them all in both audacity and unbelievability. My experience after three decades of investigating such claims is no one to date who has ever made such claims has turned out to be the real thing. Not one. Not even close. They are either delusional or psychopathic con artists. So…the chances of Savage being able to do what he claims, in my view, is extremely low, very improbable.

Still, as you say, the proof is in the pudding, so let’s put him to the test: not by advertising a phone number and hope people call with a burn accident; but by a controlled test in a laboratory under conditions that he (or Marja) could attempt to alter cells or heal them or whatever—some objective measurable effect that can be documented and recorded. The problem with subjective pain readings (on a 1-10 scale, for example), is that all sorts of things can effect it, including acupuncture, acupressure, meditation, just thinking about the pain scale, etc.

Please ask Marja if she can do something along the lines of altering cells or healing burns or injuries in a controlled setting such as a lab. I do not want to participate in a program that involves giving out a phone number because gullible people may naively start calling it in the belief that their cancer, AIDS, etc. will be cured, giving them false hopes, possibly draining their bank accounts (if such a thing is going on), etc. That would make me party to a scam and so I can’t take that risk. And in any case, as I said, that’s not an ideal test. We need controlled conditions in a lab or a hospital. I don’t see why, if burn pain is a product of the brain and thought, that Marja can’t go to the UCLA medical center and find someone who is in agony, and just heal them right there, reduce their pain level through her and Savage’s method. If you want a dramatic demonstration that could be filmed, that would certainly do it!

In a follow-up email I added:

More to the point, we need to establish some sort of definitive test in which we can clearly see results (or not). Remember, medical conditions are rarely stable—they are constantly changing, so we need to have in place a way to tell if the change is due to natural processes of the body healing itself, interventions by traditional medical treatments, or through Savage’s method. Anecdotes won’t help us. “I felt better after Dr. Pronk treated me” doesn’t mean anything. Maybe that patient feels better after a good night’s sleep, or after the doctor visits, or after taking his meds, etc. Most important is that we are very clear about what exactly is being claimed so that we can test that. Big generic things like “feeling better” or “getting better” won’t cut it in science. Specifics, such as burned skin healing 50% faster with the Pronk treatment versus the traditional medical treatment would be an example because then we’d have a time frame that can be quantified.

Then, out of the blue, I received an email from another Sauvage acolyte named Alison McDermott:

Through researching you, there seems to be pervading humanitarian integrity, a steadfast scientific mind who loves the simple truth of the matter, as well as a remarkably in common, “list of Loathsomes” with Dr Savage and myself. Religions, “New Age bozos” to coin his phrase, (these two top of the list), so-called “psychics”, “mystics”, most definitely “healers”, prophets, “goddesses”, fakirs, so-called “alternative practitioner’s” and all the other self-deluded of which you can find just about everywhere, busy claiming to do what they cannot do…. If I may presume some understanding of your “gurus”? Facts, solid proof, science and the scientific methodology. Also know as “The experiment”, and the findings thereof. (None of which you have ever found demonstrable by the list above throughout your 30 year investigative career, if I am correct?)

The “salt” of any good skeptic you’ll probably agree would be, “We want to see the diligent establishment of these “facts, results and proofs”, else expect, (quite rightly) to be “thrown to the lions”?? The skeptic with integrity that is, not the “dime a dozen”, wanna-be de-bunkers of subjective “mere opinions”, educated or otherwise, “ruin them without testing them”—“witch-hunt” tacticians (“paid for slander” as deployed by the BBC) etc etc, amateurs which are as “virally prolific” as are those on the list of deceivers above your mission is to “expose”.

Dr Savage can do what he claims…and can prove it to you.

There has long existed the perfect logistic to execute this “experiment” meeting all scientific standards required, not shared with you in any contact with Dr Marja Pronk and Richard Greene. Simply put, it is this:

This “right person” is PERSONALLY (friends) connected to a TV News Network DECISION MAKER, (CNN, FOX NEWS, APTV have journalists in every major city) who, with a simple phone call, can quietly and privately mobilise a posse of his journalists on location ALREADY, eg in major cities or war zones etc, to send in burn cases, and film the results. (they are called to fires, explosions, bombings all the time…their “runners” are on the scene in minutes.) Proofs start coming in…where upon, the “decision maker” now KNOWS it’s true!!! Then, he has ALL his worldwide journalists alerted to send in burns…and the start pouring in thick and fast, 100’s or more per day…

The “carrot” for this network decision maker is that they get to “break” the news AND the exclusive interview rights with the man behind the results…(ratings ratings ratings!!)

Would you agree that observable, repeatable and recordable results, documentable over and over by independent scientist’s/doctors around the world, nothing whatsoever to do with YOU or US, each other or any party involved, (except as an emergency admission burn victim to their ER) is as scientific and objective as it gets?

I am permitted to officially “throw down the gauntlet” directly on behalf of Dr Savage himself for you to…”Expose the famous Breton healer” scientifically, once and for all.

I responded:

Hi Alison, thanks for the thoughtful note.

There’s no gauntlet to throw down or anything like that. We’re just trying to figure out a way to test Dr. Savage’s and Dr. Pronk’s claims of being able to heal burn patients. The problem with what you suggest about getting journalists to call the number in the event of an accident or fire that results in burned people is that this would not be a controlled experiment. People vary greatly in their ability to heal from various disorders and there are dozens of reasons why. The hard part about doing science is isolating the variable that actually matters from the variables that do not, and then controlling all the variables for the placebo effect as well. Take age, for example. Older people heal much slower than younger people, from most diseases and accidents, so you have to control for age. That is, take age into account in a statistical analysis of group differences in whatever you are measuring. Socioeconomic status also matters, since poor people typically have poorer diets, exercise less, smoke and drink more, engage in riskier sex and do drugs more, have poorer health care, see doctors and dentists less often, and so on, and all these things also influence health and healing, so these too must be controlled for. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Anecdotes about this or that person who got healed by Dr. Savage (or any one of hundreds of other alternative medical treatments available on the Internet and other alternative sources outside mainstream medicine) are completely meaningless from a scientific perspective because of the problem I’ve described above.

What needs to be done to properly test Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk would be to, say, have a sample size of 75 people, all of whom are burned in precisely the same manner, with the same technique (e.g., cigarette burn), at the same temperature, in the same place on the body, etc., then treat 25 of them with Dr. Savage’s technique, 25 with standard medical treatment, and 25 get no treatment whatsoever. Then see if there are any measurable differences between the three groups. Studies such as this, which typically involve much larger sample sizes (usually in the hundreds or thousands) take many months—sometimes years—to complete. It can’t be done in one setting. That’s the only way to know if something works or not.

So, although I can certainly sense in your passion that you believe Dr. Savage can heal burn patients, there’s really only one way to know for sure and that is to conduct a test such as what I’ve outlined above (although there are others I could propose as well). But for both legal and ethical reasons that I’ve communicated to Richard Greene, it is very unlikely we could ever get permission to conduct any such test on humans, and even animals might be difficult to get approval for such a burn test that would inflict harm and damage. I don’t personally feel comfortable burning rats or any other animal for such a test. I’m not a member of PETA, and I don’t in principle object to animal testing, but I personally wouldn’t do it myself and I would prefer that medical research make more efforts to avoid it where possible using, say, computer models for testing.

What would be helpful to me is if someone can tell me exactly what it is that Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk can do. We need very specific definitions of what constitutes a “healing” and over what time frame. Wounds naturally heal anyway. Let’s say a cigarette burn normally heals in 10 days. What is it that Dr. Savage and Dr. Pronk can do? Can they heal it in 9 days? 8? 1? Five minutes? And what does this healing look like? Does the skin just magically grow over the wound such that you can’t even see any scarring? And over what time frame? Again, the problem is that people vary a lot in such conditions. For example, one person perhaps heals from a cigarette burn in 6 days, someone else in 15 days, with a general population average of 10 days. So what if the person Dr. Savage happened to heal was one of those who heals in 6 days, and he then claims to have done the healing in 6 days when in fact he did not. Does that make sense? You see the problem here, right?

Finally, although, again, I can sense in the passion of your words that you believe the claims of Dr. Savage, please be aware that there are thousands of people just like him all over the world making equally bold claims about healing cancer, AIDS, paralysis, weight loss, depression, and the like. Not one has ever been able to prove their claims under controlled conditions such as those I’ve outlined above. Not one. Ever. So what’s more likely? That Dr. Savage is the first person in history to actually be the real deal, or that he’s just like the thousands of others making such claims? For those who know him, such as yourself, the answer is likely to be “yes, he’s the one, the only one, ever, and how fortunate that we get to live at the same time as him and know him.” But to the rest of us on the outside who don’t know him, his claims are indistinguishable from the thousands of others just like him making similarly extraordinary claims.

If anyone reading this blog has an idea of how we can test Dr. Pronk and Dr. Savage in some controlled manner beyond what I’ve described herewith and that would not violate ethical standards outlined by ethics committees that regulate the ethical treatment of experimental subjects I would be appreciative of your thoughts on the matter.

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Shermer Spam Scammers Scam

Every week I receive invitations to speak at various venues around the world. On March 15, 2011, I received the following invitation to speak in London. As I was running out the door to go on my morning bike ride, I missed the obvious cues that this was a scam:

Dear Michael Shermer,

My Name is Prof. Peter Kopelman from the London Youth Community Here in London UK. We want you to be our guest speaker at this Year ST’ GEORGE UNIVERSITY , which will take place here in UK. We are writing to invite and confirm your booking to be our Guest Speaker at these year ST’ GEORGE UNIVERSITY Event.

The Venue as follows:
VENUE: St George’s University of London,
Cranmer Terrace, London, SW17 0RE.
Email:stgeorgeuniversityoflondon@gmail.com
Expected audience: 500 people
Duration of speech per speaker: 7PM-8PM
Name of Organization: ST’GEORGE UNIVERSITY
Topic:MEDICAL
Date: Wednesday 30 March 2011.

We came across your profile on http://www.amazingmeeting.com/speakers and we say it’s up to standard and we will be very glad to have such an outstanding personality in our mist for these overwhelming gathering. With your multi talented speech more lives will come close , Sorry about our late invitation it is due to the fact that our Speaker had back out because of her sudden illness.

Arrangements to welcome you here will be discussed as soon as you honor our invitation. If you have any more publicity material, please do not hesitate to contact me. A formal Letter of invitation would be sent to you as soon as you honor our invitation. We are taking care of your traveling and Hotel Accommodation expenses including your Speaking fees.

Remain Blessed
Prof. Peter Kopelman
stgeorgeuniversityoflondon@gmail.com
ST’GEORGE UNIVERSITY.
Ofice(+44) 702-401-8034

I responded that I wanted $5000 with partial payment up front and a first-class or business-class flight, plus hotel. Only later in the day did I look carefully at the email and notice this guy’s spelling and grammar was pretty bad for a university professor, plus the fact that his university uses a gmail account! His March 16 response to my request reads (and by “mist” does he mean the famous London fog?!):

Respected Michael Shermer,

Thanks for indicating your interest to be our Guest Speaker at this year ST’ GEORGE UNIVERSITY. We are  very excited and happy to have such a wonderful personality in our mist. We the event organizing committee had a meeting earlier today to deliberate on getting you available here within a short period of time. We believe we serve the lord of possibilities.Arrangements are stated below.

We have agreed to buy your flight ticket and to pay your Hotel accommodation expenses . Also your Speaking fee is amounted to $5,000(USD), Three Thousand (USD) deposit is to be paid as soon as you procure all relevant travel documents  so as to avoid any disappointment.You are informed to get across your CERTIFICATE to us so your deposit can be approved according to our mandated rules and regulation.

You are advised by the Event Organizing committee to immediately contact the BRITISH EMBASSY to procure your ANTI-TERRORIST CERTIFICATE as soon as possible

This will enable us to proceed with all arrangements to welcome you here in London. Contact the BRITISH EMBASSY information below.

BRITISH EMBASSY CONTACT
Name: Dr Alex Alfred
British Email: britishembassyservice@gmail.com

Please confirm to us the closest Airport to your location so we can start making arrangements to buy your flight tickets .Understand that you need to expedite action because of the short notice. Feel free to ask any question.

We have attached a formal Letter of Invitation  and contract agreement.Please reconfirm to us your office Address for our perusal and further action.Note you are meant to arrive a day before the commencement of the event.

Please return a signed copy of the contract agreement for proper documentation.

We await your earliest response

Remain Blessed
Prof. Peter Kopelman
stgeorgeuniversityoflondon@gmail.com
ST’ GEORGE UNIVERSITY.
+44 702 401 8034
Ofice(+44) 702-401-8034

Um, strange, “Alex” at the British Embassy also has a gmail account. And I wondered what this “anti-terrorism certificate” was all about, which I was quick to find out when I received this letter from the British Embassy Service:

ATTN CLIENT,

YOU ARE HEREBY ADVISED BY THE UK BORDER AGENCY TO IMMEDIATELY OBTAIN AN ANTI-TERRORIST CERTIFICATE IN ORDER TO BE GIVEN THE PERMIT WITHOUT ANY DELAY.THESE VITAL DOCUMENT WILL ONLY COST YOU ONLY 1000POUNDS,YOU CAN IMMEDIATELY SEND THE MONEY TO THE UK BORDER AGENT IN CHARGE OF YOUR PROCUREMENT VIA THE INFORMATION BELOW THROUGH WESTERN UNION.

UK BORDER AGENCY.
NAME:MRS KELLY CONMAN
ADDRESS: 114 ROMFORD ROAD LONDON,UNITED KINGDOM.
POSTCODE E12 6PY

AS SOON AS I RECEIVE THE WESTERN UNION MONEY TRANSFER RECEIPT I WILL TAKE THE PAYMENT RECEIPT TO THE OFFICIAL AT THE AGENCY,SO SHE CAN PROCEED ON PROCURING THE ANTI TERRORIST CERTIFICATE WHICH IS VALID FOR 3YEARS.ATTACHED BELOW IS THE ANTI-TERRORSIT CERTIFICATE APPLICATION FORM PRINT AND FILL IN THE INFORMATION BLOCK,REATTACH AND RESEND IT TO ME ALONG SIDE WITH YOUR WESTERN UNION MONEY TRANSFER RECEIPT.

IN YOUR SERVICE,
DR ALEX ALFRED
BRITISH EMBASSY SERVICE.

So the British Embassy now sends letters out in ALL CAPS with no stationary? And “Mrs. Kelly Conman”? I think I know her husband, “Lefty Conman.” I replied:

Peter,

I just got an email from Alex at the British Embassy. I’m afraid that I cannot afford the 1,000 pounds. I do not have any money in my account as I have just paid my taxes. If you can wire transfer the U.S. $3000 advance per my instructions in the previous email then I can take care of this.

Michael

“Prof Peter” replied:

Let me know how much you can afford then we can add to you from the university. I will be waiting to hear from you .

Wow, so the British Embassy is willing to negotiate the price of this certificate, depending on how much someone can afford. I responded:

Peter,

As for what I can afford, as I said I have no money in the account I sent you as I just paid my taxes. So I will need you to wire transfer $3000, then I can pay the $1000 anti-terrorist certificate. I have alerted my bank to expect a wire transfer from you, and I gave them all your personal information, so they are expecting a wire transfer from you today. When that transaction is complete then I will take care of the anti-terrorist certificate.

Michael

“Prof Peter” then wrote:

This is the form for you to fill out for me so we can transfer you the deposit as soon as possible. I will be waiting to hear from you.

NAME ON THE CARD:
BILLING ADDRESS:
CARD NUMBER:
EXP DATE:
CCV:
CARD LIMIT:
AMOUNT OWING:
BANK NAME AND ADDRESS:
BANK TOLL FREE NUMBER:
DATE OF BIRTH:
MOTHER MAIDEN NAME:
SSN:
CELL PHONE NUMBER:
HOME PHONE:
DEBIT AND PREPAID CARD ARE NOT ACCEPTED

Um, credit card information? It was time to up the ante in this little game. So, I wrote:

Hello Peter,

I am very excited about coming to your university. And to tell you the truth I really need the money because, as I told you, I’m flat broke after paying my taxes. I gave you the information for transferring money into my account so when receipt of the $3000 is confirmed then I will follow the instructions from the British Embassy to send 1,000 pounds to them in order to get my anti-terrorist certificate. Otherwise I cannot pay the 1,000 pound fee and will not be able to come to London. That would be very sad.

In the meantime, I have a favor to ask of you. Would you please take a picture of yourself with a copy of my magazine, Skeptic magazine, in front of St. George University? I want to know what you look like so that when we meet in London I can find you at the airport.

Michael Shermer

The morning of March 17 I received the following email and photographs:

Dear Michael,

Good morning to your , have just got your mail and is nice hearing from you . Attach is the some of the photos of the university compound, the staff my photo of myself as well also the inside of the conference , am also standing in front of the university glass. Also as soon as you have procure the ANTI-TERRORIST CERTIFICATE, the hotel confirmation will be send to you as soon as possible.

Also get me aware as soon as you have send your payment to Dr Ales , so i can start up with the bookings of both the Flight and Hotel

I will be waiting to hear back from you as soon as possible ..

Remain Blessed,
Prof Peter

Prof Peter photo photo
photo
photo

Golly, that photo of Prof Peter standing in the doorway is so real looking! Time to get crazy with this loon:

Dear Professor Peter,

Thank you ever so much for the confirmation letter and photographs. I was wondering if you know the woman in the photograph next to the university sign? She is beautiful. I was wondering if you could fix me up on a date with her when I get there. I am single and am looking for a wife and have always loved English women. I love their accents, don’t you? Can you tell me her name and give me her email address so that I may introduce myself?

I will print out the anti-terrorist certificate form today per your instructions and send it to the British Embassy. I lost the email that Alex sent me, but I have the address of the British Embassy and will send the form and money to them. When they send me back the certified form I will email it to you.

Thank you,
Michael

“Prof Peter” Replied:

Dear Michael,

Thanks for your mail , the woman you are talking about is one of the student and she is just 29 yrs old , there is no problem about that, I will hook you up with her when you get here . Also send your payment to Dr Alex to the address he gave to you , you can mail him if they can receive credit card.

I will be waiting for the signed copy of the contract agreement.

Remain blessed.

Well, if he’s willing to bless me and fix me up on a date with one of his students, how bad could this guy be? Let’s find out…

Dear Prof Peter:

My friend with money to lend me tells me that there are a lot of fraudsters out there and to be careful. If you or one of your associates or students will make a sign that says “I’m Skeptical” and stand in front of Buckingham Palace and take a picture of it and send it to me, I promise that I will send you the money. I need some sort of proof. Anyone could have pulled those photographs of St. George’s University off the web page. I need something personalized as proof, and the “I’m Skeptical” sign will do it. I promise.

Oh, also, my friend with the money wants to come with me. Will he need an anti-terrorist certificate as well? Is it the same price, or can we purchase two at the same time for a discounted price? Also, as I asked before, can we pay by credit card? I was wondering if we authorized $1500 for two certificates would that be acceptable? Please check with Alex at the British Embassy and let me know.

Michael

I then received this March 18 reply from Prof Peter:

Dear Michael,

Thanks for your mail , i did not have any prove after all you ask me to get a photographer of myself at the front of the university and
have done that , i  have show you some prove , i have never deal with such a speaker like you before you are making this issue long. Also
the woman you are talking about , i have see her yesterday and i have discuss with her , she can not also wait to see you.

Well i have conclude with the Committee organization and they have agree with you opinion , paying the 1500usd for both of you, and the
university has agreed to pay the remaining of the payment for the certificate .

As you can see that we did not have much time to waste on this , and again do not disappoint us , because the university can’t wait to have
you in our mist event the woman .

The name of the woman is MARIA BRETT, and you can get in touch with her on the following email address … mariabrett28@yahoo.com.

Make the payment to Dr Alex as soon as possible , then try and call me on +44 702 401 8034 as soon as you have send the payment to him , so i can start up with the Flight Booking and Hotel accommodation.

I will be waiting to hear back from you as soon as you receive my mail

Remain blessed.;
Prof Peter.

Time to get crazy with “Maria” (who, of course, is just this dude with a different email address):

Dear Maria,

My name is Michael. I believe that Professor Peter Kopelman from your school has mentioned me to you. I am coming to London on March 30 to speak at St. George’s University. Professor Peter sent me a picture of the school and I asked him about you as you are in the picture. I would like to meet you when I am in town and maybe go out on a date. Would you like to have tea with me? Isn’t that a very British thing to do? Please tell me a little more about you, plus send me some photographs of you. I very much want to see what you look like before we meet.

Blessed be to you,
Michael

Then I wrote to Peter:

Maria has written me back. I am even more excited about coming to London, now just 13 days away! We are going to go out on a date!!

I finally have the money together for the anti-terrorism certificate and will take care of that today. But FIRST, Peter, you must provide me with personalized PROOF that I am really dealing with you and not some scammer. I need you to get one of your students to hold up a sign that says in big letters “I’m Skeptical”. If you do not do this then I am not going to send the payment today. If you go do this right now then I will go straight away to the office and send Alex the money. I have $1500 to wire to him today. If you want the $1500 you will make me the proof sign. If you don’t make the sign, I will not send you the $1500.

Michael

Then, amazingly, “Maria” writes back:

Is not that i did not want to send it , but i want you to come to Uk first then we can meet ..And again , Prof Peter told me that you will be coming to UK  soon that you have not procure the certificate , make it as soon as possible so we can meet . I will be waiting to hear from you . Also i will be waiting to receive your lecture here in UK  as well .
  
Maria

I responded:

Dear Maria, 

I finally got the money today to get my anti-terrorism certificate. I am going to take care of that today, but I have asked Peter for proof that this is not some internet scam. You know you can’t be too careful these days. You never know who you are talking to online, right? That’s why I am asking you for a picture. I need proof that I am actually writing a real person, a woman named Maria. You could be anyone. 

So, please send me a picture of you holding a sign that says “I’m Skeptical” and then I will have proof and will send my money.

Michael

The reply from Prof Peter finally came:

photo

Dear Michael,

Have just taken a photographer which you requested for we are trying to best just for you to know that this is a real event coming up. As soon as you have send the payment to Dr Alex, send me the copy of the certificate, also the signed copy of the contract am still expecting it .

I will be waiting to hear back from you as soon as possible, I will also love to have a coffee with you when you get here.

Remain blessed,
Prof Peter.

And from “Maria”:

Dear Michael,

You are right , but i will have to confused you that am also happy that this event is coming up and i will love if you can understand . I know how you feel but i also want to know you as well . See my photo and i hope you will like them those are my new photo . also send me yours as
well . And again , i will be waiting for you in UK to meet you first before anything .

Bye for now
Maria

photo

Time to get tough with Prof Peter … I wrote:

That’s not what I requested. This is just a photoshopped picture. Obviously you are not serious. I have $1500 in my bank account and I was going to go down to the Western Union office and wire it to Alex today, but I see no need to continue to waste my time and money when you cannot agree to my requirements, goodbye.

Prof Peter decided to get tough back … He wrote:

Dear Michael,

We did not have time to waste and let me know if you are not interesting any more .

Bye.

Time to play my trump card—the “anti-terrorism” certificate, constructed for me by Pat Linse, the Art Director of Skeptic magazine!

Dear Professor Peter and Dr. Alex,

I have very good news! I decided to trust you and so this afternoon I went down to the British Counsulate-General in Los Angeles and I wire transferred $1500 from my bank account with Washington Mutual (account #666-42-1999) to the British Embassy through Western Union. Did you get it? They gave me a confirmation number to give you:

Western Union Wire Transfer Confirmation #419-2011-1984

They also gave me the Anti-Terrorist Certificate, which they signed and told me to scan and to send to you. I have attached it below. 

So, please, book my airline reservation and hotel and send me the confirmation numbers right away. I can’t wait to come to London and speak at your university. My friend with the money is coming with me. He will pay for his own flight and will book it himself once you tell me what flight you have booked me on. 

Blessed be to you,
Michael

mock certificate

I also wrote to Maria:

Maria,

I am writing to tell you the good news that this afternoon I went down to the British Counsulate-General in Los Angeles and I wire transferred $1500 from my bank account to the British Embassy through Western Union.

They gave me the Anti-Terrorist Certificate, which I have attached it below. 

So now I can come to London and we can go out on our date together. Where would you like to go? Do you think you can introduce me to Prince William? 

By the way, you look different in the photographs you sent me from that photograph in the university picture. You had much lighter skin in that photograph but darker skin now. Have you been out in the sun getting a tan?

Please send me some more photographs of yourself, and make me the “I’m Skeptical” sign.

Michael

Finally, on Sunday March 20, Prof Peter wrote back:

Dear Michael,

I did not understand you at all , and again i did not know what you mean about the confirmation you are talking about and again you hav
procure a wrong certificate this is not the certificate we issue and you are not to procure Los Aneles but UK certificate. i will advise
you to go back to them and collet your money back that you did not need that certificate again , then you send the payment to the address
Dr Alex gave you .

I will be wating to hear back from you as soon as you have receive my mail .

Remain Blessed,
Prof Peter.

I didn’t respond for awhile, so Prof Peter wrote me with more “proof”:

photo

Dear Michael,

Maria brought this photo to me on my office and told me that this is what you have been requesting for , i hope you are satisfy now .

I will be waiting to hear back from you .

Warm Regards.

Okay, now it’s time to get really crazy! So I wrote back:

Prof. Peter and Dr. Alex,

I’m shocked and very upset. Do you mean to tell me that I wasted $1500? Someone scammed me. I am going back down to that Los Angeles office and demand my money back tomorrow. I will keep you informed.

In the meantime, I have a wealthy donor who wants me to put together a scholarly book and he’s willing to pay $20,000 for a book about why the last four American presidents have been in reality alien beings from another planet. Do you know anyone interested in contributing such a book, maybe some of the professors at your university? A sample article would need to be provided since this donor is very demanding – he is an eccentric Buddhist nudist who believes that public nudism is not only healthy but essential to world peace. Do you know any nudist professors in need of $20,000? I can bring the money with me next week when I come to London. Are travelers’ checks ok? 

My wealthy donor sent me the picture below as proof of President Bush as an alien, and the alien who converted him.

Michael

photo

Surely now the spam scammers will realize that they are being scammed! Apparently not, as this came in a day later:

Dear Michael ,

I got your mail and i was so sad because if you have listen to me this will not have happen and is because you did not following my word
and all you think is maybe we are trying to scam you . Well as you have stated in the mail , go back to them and collect your money back
, then send it to Dr Alex. As soon as you have send the payment to Dr Alex get back to me so i can start up with the Flight booking and
Hotel reservation and again the payment you are paying to Dr Alex will be payed back to you as soon as you come to London .

We can not wait to have you in our mist, also to have a coffee with you also Maria can not wait to go with a date with you .

I will be waiting to hear back from you as soon as you have read my mail.

As soon as you have get the payment back send it to Dr Alex , then when you get here we will talk about the Donor together with the staff here in the university.

I will be waiting to hear back from you .

Warm Regards
Prof Peter.

That brings us up to date to the present moment. I think I’ll pull the plug on this silliness now and get back to work, but at least I wasted this guy’s time and distracted him from possibly duping someone into actually sending in money. Oh, by the way, when I noticed that he said he got my name from The Amazing Meeting list of speakers, I queried the other speakers at TAM and, sure enough, they all received the same invitation to speak!

So much for scamming the spam scam scammers. It was worth a few laughs.

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The Eternally Boring Hereafter

A review of Clint Eastwood’s film Hereafter

/// ATTENTION! Spoiler Alert! ///

After a string of highly successful and critically acclaimed films by Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Invictus, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, etc.), I fully expected his latest, Hereafter, to be so well written (screenplay by Peter Morgan—Frost/Nixon, The Queen) and so compelling that stories about near-death experiences would skyrocket and that I would be preoccupied for months dealing with media inquiries about “true stories” of the hereafter. Alas, and with some relief, this will not happen as Hereafter is possibly the worst film Eastwood has ever directed.

If the hereafter is anything like its filmic namesake, then it will turn out to be glacially slow, eternally boring, and pointless, with seemingly random plot lines aimlessly wandering about the ethereal landscape. I wanted to like this film, despite my skepticism on its subject, because I like Clint Eastwood productions and I’m a sucker for a well-produced story, able and willing to suspend disbelief long enough to get emotionally involved. I tried but failed to do so with this film. It’s a bomb. Don’t bother to see it in the theaters, and don’t even waste a couple of bucks on a Netflix rental.

The only redeeming part of the film was the striking opening scene of the tsunami in Southeast Asia that sets the background for the first plot line. An attractive French reporter leaves her lover in their hotel room to go shopping for his kids among the street vendors below. When he hears a disturbing sound and looks out the window he sees the ocean receding, followed by a massive body of water rushing back in to the shore and slamming into buildings and leveling everything in its path. From the woman’s street level view tucked in among buildings she can only see trees felling and chaos approaching with only enough time to realize that there is no time to do anything about it. She is swept up in the tsunami’s leading edge and slammed about cars, building debris, trees, and the like, until she is whacked on the head unconscious. Cut to minutes later when she is being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by rescuers, to no avail. They give up and move on to the next victim, whereupon she comes to life, after a brief encounter with the hereafter, which Eastwood portrays as a fuzzy, nebulous place with people walking about aimlessly. It’s a portent of things to come.

The second plot line is Matt Damon’s psychic character George, a former psychic who gave up fame and riches because his “gift” is also a curse. A cross between James Van Praagh and John Edward, George concedes to a reading for a client of his sleazy brother (Jay Mohr) and scores several hits. The brother encourages George to quit his job at a San Francisco dock and return to the psychic world, but he will have none of it as it’s just too emotionally traumatic to read people’s inner thoughts (that much I suspect is true, if any of it were true, which it isn’t). Matt Damon’s love interest is the beautiful Bryce Dallas Howard, whom he meets at a cooking class, but after nearly an hour’s worth of romantic buildup to some sort of coming together, she departs the film for good after George reads her and conveys the message that her deceased father is sorry for the naughty things he did to her as a young girl.

The third plot line develops around 12-year old twins named Marcus and Jason, who live with their drug-addicted mother in London, England. Jason is hit by a car and killed, leaving Marcus to wander about the city in search of a psychic who can connect him to his brother. Here at least Eastwood had the good sense to depict what most psychics are like—scammers and flimflam artists conning their marks out of a few bucks by talking twaddle with the dead through standard cold-reading techniques. Marcus is dismayed by the idiocy of these pretenders and finally returns to the foster home where he struggles to keep his sanity.

For an hour and forty-five minutes all three of these plot lines run parallel, leaving audience members to wonder when—oh please when?!—will they finally be brought together. Finally, after what feels like an interminable marathon of tedium, George quits his job and takes a vacation in London to visit the home of his favorite author, Charles Dickens. While there he notices a flyer for a lecture about Dickens at a book fair in London, where, per chance, the French reporter is doing a signing for her new book on life after death, which she was inspired to write after an hour and a half of futzing around with her mundane reporter’s job distracted by her experience with the hereafter in the tsunami. By chance, little Marcus finds himself drawn to the book fair where he recognizes George from his web page photos, and begs him for a reading, which he finally gets. Naturally, George is better than those phony psychics, and Marcus encourages George to seek out the French woman so that they may all connect to the dead. George and Marie find a love connection as well and the story ends happily ever after.

Never have I been so relieved for a movie to end. There was one memorable moment, however, and that was the opening line of the opening trailer before Hereafter even started. The trailer was for a January 2011 release called The Rite, staring Anthony Hopkins as an American priest who travels to Italy to study at an exorcism school. (You can watch the trailer here). The line that rather caught my attention as I was settling into my seat, was, “You know the interesting thing about skeptics?” To which I blurted out “No, what?” The answer: “It’s that we’re always looking for proof. The question is, What on earth would we do with it if we found it?” I know what I do with proof when I find it. I publish it! Another character in the trailer then says “I believe people prefer to lie to themselves than face the truth.”

Here, then, in this trailer is the message for belief in the hereafter. If there were proof of it, we would publish it to the high heavens. But, since there isn’t, most people prefer to lie to themselves about it rather than face the truth that it is what we do in this life that counts.

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The Baloney Detection Kit (on RDF TV)

With a sea of information coming at us from all directions, how do we sift out the misinformation and bogus claims, and get to the truth? Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, lays out a “Baloney Detection Kit” — ten questions we should ask when encountering a claim. (continue reading…)

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The Art of the Con

How we can avoid falling prey to con men such as Bernard Madoff
magazine cover

On a Los Angeles street corner in 2000, I was the “inside man” in a classic con game called the pigeon drop. A magician named Dan Harlan orchestrated it for a television series I cohosted called Exploring the Unknown (type “Shermer, con games” into Google). Our pigeon was a man from whom I asked directions to the local hospital while Dan (the “outside man”) moved in and appeared to find a wallet full of cash on the ground. After it was established that the wallet belonged to neither of us and appeared to have about $3,000 in it, Dan announced that we should split the money three ways. (continue reading…)

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