Monday, May 29, 2006

Indigo Caves In

Indigo Books and Music, Canada's largest bookseller, have removed all copies of the June 2006 issue of Harper's Magazine from their stores, because the magazine reprinted the controversial Danish cartoons about Muhammad.

Indigo's corporate headquarters is (416) 364-4499. Give them a call (hey - it's free on Skype) and tell them what you think of their cowardice.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

New Chess Endgame Record

From Marc Bourzutschky, a new chess endgame record: a certain position with king, queen, and night versus king, rook, bishop, and knight requires 517 moves to win. And here "win" doesn't even necessarily mean mate, it just means mate or capture of a piece, thus reducing to a simpler endgame. This kind of complexity is reminiscent of the complexity generated by the busy beaver problem, reminding us that simple systems can lead to all kinds of complex behaviors.

Debunking Crystal Healing

In a previous post on this blog, I discussed one of the main texts about crystal healing --- Melody's Love is In the Earth --- and showed that some of the advice presented there was actually dangerous.

Today, I'll discuss the evidence against crystal healing.

Crystal healers allege that crystals have "energy" that can be sensed. They report sensations such as warmth or tingling when a crystal is held in the hand, and that crystals can interact with energy in the body, with resultant medical effects. For example, this web page qujotes Marcel Vogel as saying "The crystal is a neutral object whose inner structure exhibits a state of perfection and balance. … Like a laser, it radiates energy in a coherent, highly concentrated form, and this energy may be transmitted into objects or people at will. … With proper training, a healer using a crystal can release negative thoughtforms which have taken shape as disease patterns."

Is there any actual evidence for this view? Although crystal healers like to call their practice "scientific", they never cite any controlled scientific studies supporting their claims. (Indeed, Melody reports that many of her claims were "channeled".)

The only scientific studies I have been able to find on the topic of crystal healing are by Christopher French and his colleagues at Goldsmiths College, University of London. These studies do not seem to be available on the web, although there is a news article here. Since they do not seem to be well known, I summarize the results here.

In a 1999 paper presented at the Sixth European Congress of Psychology in Rome, French and Lynn Williams gave a paper entitled "Crystal clear: paranormal powers, placebo, or priming?" In this paper they explored the possibility that the sensations that crystal practitioners report may be due, in part, to "priming"; that is, expecting certain sensations after being told or reading about them in reference books. They used 80 volunteers, half of which were male. The volunteers included customers from a New Age store, as well as undergraduates and non-students. Participants were given either a natural quartz crystal to hold, or a fake crystal made of glass. They were asked to report sensations such as tingling, heat, relaxation, and mood change. Those who had been "primed" to expect certain sensations reported these sensations more frequently (p = .008) than those who had not been primed. However, there was no difference in effects reported between those who handled the real crystal and those who handled the fake crystal.

French repeated the study with Hayley O'Donnell and Williams in a paper presented to the British Psychological Society Centary Annual Conference in Glasgow in 2001. Part of the motivation for the replication was that the original study was not double-blind, as the experimenter (Wiliams) was aware of which crystals were real and fake. The 2001 study was double-blind. This time, the "priming" did not have a significant effect, but once again, there was no difference in effects reported between real and fake crystals. The study concludes "...the fact that the same effects were found with both genuine and fake crystals undermines any claims that crystals have the mysterious powers which they are claimed to have. Instead, the power of suggestion, either explicit or implicit, seems to be the not-so-mysterious power that may convince many that crystals have the potential to work miracles".

I doubt these studies will convince crystal healers, any more than Emily Rosa's debunking of therapeutic touch has affected that practice.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Crystal Healing Considered Dangerous

At a recent used book sale, I picked up a copy of the Bible of crystal healing, Love is in the Earth: A Kaleidoscope of Crystals. The author is "Melody" (no last name given), who describes herself as a "scientist" with "Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts degrees in mathematics". The book was originally published in 1991; I got a copy of the 1995 edition, which has 726 pages.

The first 76 pages of Love is in the Earth consist of a mishmash of New Age nonsense, descriptions of different types of crystals (mostly using invented distinctions not recognized by geologists, mineralogists, or crystallographers), numerology, and a catalogue of how to use crystals to heal. The remaining pages provide a list of minerals, together with a description of what each mineral is good for.

Here is a sampling of the typical sort of hogwash that can be found in this book:

The energies of the mineral kingdom are "universal energies". Hence, when one contacts and is willing to receive this energy, and begins to exercise personal creativity via exercise of the Higher Will, one can contact and synthesize the energies from which the entire universe is comprised. This is the reason that crystals and other minerals are so very powerful and also why their powers must only be used through the highest consciousness of the individual. (p. 32)

Master Number 44: Metamorphosis and continued change throughout all times is concentrated with determination of both the acceleration and the ease of reformation of the self. The concepts of impetus and catalytic motion are reflected in the "forty-four" vibration. (p. 49)

Soak the crystal in brown rice for twenty-four hours; the rice balances and centers the energy, removing the negativity, while dissipating and transforming the negative to the positive. Upon completion of the "soak" the rice is purified and energized and is quite wonderful to eat. (p. 55)

Gasoline mileage has been enhanced by placing a quartz crystal on the carburetor and/or on the fuel line. Increases of up to 50% have been reported. (p. 65)

How anyone could be so foolish as to believe these bizarre, laughable, and unsupported claims is beyond me. Nevertheless, its devotees (nearly always women) can be found by the dozens at gem and mineral shows, picking up each crystal in turn and holding it in their hand with closed eyes, waiting for the crystal to "speak" to them. They are often derided as "healy-feelies" by serious mineral collectors.

What's worse, however, is that this book is potentially extremely dangerous to one's health. First, here is the obvious danger that people who fall for this nonsense might avoid seeking competent medical treatment for serious conditions. For example, Melody recommends the use of a form of sphalerite for "the treatment of AIDS" on p. 592.

Second, Melody recommends various ways of creating "elixirs" on pages 62 and 63; this involves soaking the mineral in water and/or alcohol and then drinking the water. While most minerals are not very soluble in water, this process could still lead the user to consume small amounts of toxic minerals -- particularly because Melody almost never gives any warnings about the toxicity of various minerals.

Take witherite, for example. This mineral is barium carbonate (BaCO3), which is so toxic that it has been used as a rat poison in the past. The fatal dose for an adult human is about 5 grams, which is not that much because of witherite's high specific gravity. (See more about barium carbonate here.) But Melody doesn't say a single thing about the toxicity of this mineral. Instead, she says "It can be used in the treatment of disorders of the digestive system, providing for a cleansing effect on the unitary whole"! (p. 695) Anyone who followed Melody's recommendation and made an "elixir" of witherite might end up solving their digestive problems for good.

Other toxic minerals that Melody recommends for various uses include

  • orpiment (arsenic sulfide) ("can be used to stimulate the intellect, to cleanse and to activate the solar plexus chakra, and to assist one in reasoning capabilities");

  • anglesite (lead sulfate) ("It can be used in the treatment of nervous disorders, to stimulate neural transmitters, and to promote the circulation of blood")

  • the radioactive mineral autunite (calcium uranyl phosphate) ("The energy emanating from autunite has been used to soothe the temper and to ameliorate heart disorders")

For betafite, a mineral which can be extremely radioactive, Melody suggests that it is "used to grid the body, via wearing and/or carrying". I would definitely not recommend wearing or carrying this mineral. You might set off radiation detectors at airports or borders, and you would be exposing yourself to a significant source of radiation, potentially leading to skin or other cancers.

If you know anyone who has fallen for Melody's decidedly unscientific fantasies about minerals, warn them. Many minerals are toxic, and should be handled carefully to avoid ingesting them or breathing their dust.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Dumbest Papal Remarks Yet

Pope Benedict is annoyed with Canada.

Is it Canada's poor treatment of native people that raises his hackles? Or the failure to live up to Kyoto?

Neither. We're not having enough kids.

Yes, you heard that right: Canadians are saying no to the Pope's grotesque vision of women as little baby factories, churning out more and more humans so they can praise his apparently insecure god. Never mind that most of the countries with high birth rates (for example, Congo, Pakistan, Afghanistan) are not societies that would please most of us.

His solution: Canadians must listen to their Catholic bishops. That's right: the way to increase the birth rate is to take instruction from men who have sworn an oath to not have children themselves.

Just when I thought Christianity couldn't get any sillier...