Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Psychic" Sylvia Browne (1936-2013) vs. the Bay Area Skeptics


So-called "psychic" and Grief Vampire Sylvia Browne died in San Jose, CA on November 20, at the age of 77. I thought she was a reprehensible person, willing to tell any lie, no matter how emotionally disturbing, to get money from a sucker. In fact, she seemed to think that truth is "whatever Sylvia says." There was no need for her "facts" to correspond to the real world. If Sylvia said it, that made it true.


Bob Steiner and I founded the Bay Area Skeptics in 1982, one of the earliest local skeptics groups, and for quite a while the most active. We felt that our location in the Bay Area conferred a special advantage, as the most famous of WooMeisters were right in our area. Targ and Puthoff were still at SRI in Menlo Park, and we did what we could to challenge their claims about Uri Geller's supposed Magic Powers. Sylvia (then) Brown's home and "Foundation" was then almost right in my neighborhood, in Saratoga. (Brown became "Browne" when she divorced her husband.) At that time I was living in west San Jose, near the Westgate shopping center, and Saratoga Avenue. According to a story in the Huffington Post, Saratoga has the third-most expensive housing in the U.S., with an average home listing price over $1,582,000. (When Sylvia complains in a letter linked below about not being really rich because she lives on Johnson Avenue, she is calling attention to the fact that she is not in the highest-priced zip code in Saratoga. So her house might be worth "only" a million or so today.)

In the 1980s, Sylvia was well-known locally, but not yet nationally, primarily because of her regular appearances on local TV stations to "prognosticate."  Viewers ate it up, no matter how bad her record, or how stupid her statements. So naturally we went after her in every way we could, challenging her claims.

We wrote letters challenging her to test her supposed "powers," and she replied that she was far too elevated to be tested by the likes of us. She also had some rather colorful things to say about us. Apparently she had never run across a skeptics' group before. I have scanned these challenges, letters, and other papers relating to Sylvia Brown, and placed them on my historical page on debunker.com. The direct link is here. Rather than describing their contents here, I invite you to read for yourself this unique collection of Sylvia silliness. She was making stuff up then, and continued to do so right up until the end.

A welcoming committee for Sylvia Brown'e Las Vegas gig,  assembling at The Amazing Meeting 2012,
South Point Hotel (at the horse's ass). Note Randi on the left, Susan Gerbic with arms extended on the right.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Between a Beer Joint and Some kind of Highway Warning Sign: the "Classic" Cash-Landrum Case Unravels


I have always felt that the famous Cash-Landrum case of  December 29, 1980 was perhaps the most puzzling and vexing UFO case on record. If the events actually occurred as reported, then no prosaic explanation was possible. On the other hand, there was no solid independent evidence to substantiate the witnesses' claims, despite years of searching. As the skeptical Fortean Peter Brookesmith said, "To ufologists, the case is perhaps the most baffling and frustrating of modern times, for what started with solid evidence for a notoriously elusive phenomenon petered out in a maze of dead ends, denials, and perhaps even official deviousness."
Vickie Landrum (left) and Betty Cash

This is a very complex case (like B&B Hill, Roswell, Rendlesham, Travis Walton, etc.), and space does not permit it to be fully described here. As summarized on about.com in its "best UFO case files," while the witnesses were driving about 9:00 PM near Houston, Texas,
They soon encountered a diamond-shaped UFO hanging over the road ahead. The two adults, Betty and Vickie, first thought that they were seeing a helicopter or airplane. [Colby, Vicki's seven year old grandson, was also in the car.] There were several airfields not too far from them. But this object was not like a helicopter, plane, or anything else they had seen before. The large, menacing UFO would from time to time shoot reddish-orange flames toward the asphalt road below.

Betty, though frightened, was somewhat fascinated by the other-worldly looking object. She was now out of her car, and watching the UFO as it hovered above and ahead of them. Suddenly, the skies were full of helicopters. Betty remarked: "They seemed to rush in from all directions... it seemed like they were trying to encircle the thing." 

The alleged UFO, surrounded by helicopters
Flames from the object were supposedly strong enough to make the car body too hot to touch. Reportedly, severe health effects began almost immediately, especially for Betty Cash. Wikipedia says,
That night, they all experienced similar symptoms, though Cash to a greater degree. All suffered from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, generalized weakness, a burning sensation in their eyes, and feeling as though they'd suffered sunburns.
Over the next few days, Cash's symptoms worsened, with many large, painful blisters forming on her skin. When taken to a hospital emergency room on January 3, 1981, [Jerome] Clark writes, Cash "could not walk, and had lost large patches of skin and clumps of hair. She was released after 12 days, though her condition was not much better, and she later returned to the hospital for another 15 days."
This has given rise to the common belief that the witnesses were exposed to some sort of "radiation," and suffered its ill effects. However, on closer examination this does not hold up. Brad Sparks, certainly no UFO debunker, wrote in 1999 that "it does NOT appear that the Cash-Landrum symptoms were due to ionizing radiation or "radiation sickness" for the reasons listed below. I reviewed this case for APRO in the early 80's but was not able to publish the results of my analysis for various reasons.  Radiation oncologist and APRO consultant Dr. Richard Niemtzow reviewed my findings and agreed that the symptoms did not match those expected for ionizing radiation syndrome." Skeptic Gary Posner, M.D., looked at the reported symptoms, and came to the same conclusion. If radiation were involved, according to Posner, the reported symptoms would have indicated a fatal dose. Since both women lived many years after the incident, and Colby is still living, nobody received a fatal dose of radiation, and the reported symptoms, if correct, must be caused by something other than radiation (see his letter on page 16 of the April, 1983 MUFON Journal).

However, Betty Cash's medical records have never been released, on grounds of "privacy." Fair enough, but you cannot simultaneously cite alleged medical symptoms as proof of a UFO encounter while refusing to release the medical records that might confirm or refute the claim. So long as the medical records remain "private," anecdotal accounts of what they contain are worthless.

These claims of harmful effects led Cash and Landrum to file a $20 million in damages against the U.S. government in 1981. They were represented pro bono by UFO lawyer Peter Gersten, who attracted much attention in 2012 by his announced plan to leap from Bell Rock in Sedona at the moment of the winter solstice Mayan apocalypse  (but fortunately he had second thoughts, and is still alive). The suit was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge in 1986 on the grounds that U.S. government involvement had not been demonstrated. It ought to be quite straightforward to trace a fleet of 23 Chinook helicopters flying over the United States. Much effort has been expended to trace such helicopters, to no avail. The U.S. military simply didn't have a fleet of that many Chinook helicopters in one place, nor did any private firm.

the Chinook helicopter; 23 of these are supposed to have chased the UFO
This case has received extensive media attention, on That's Incredible (ABC-TV), UFO Coverup Live, Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings, and UFO Hunters, to name just a few. The principal investigator of the case has always been John F. Schuessler, a well-known MUFON Director, also affiliated with several other UFO organizations. He wrote a book The Cash-Landrum UFO Incident.

Curt Collins is a UFO researcher who, for the past year or two, has been gathering as much information as possible on the Cash-Landrum case. He has shared this information on his Blog, Blue Blurry Lines. Collins was a "contributing editor" helping the late, great James Moseley put out his semi-legendary newsletter Saucer Smear.

Collins titled his Blog posting dated Nov. 12, 2013, "The Cash-Landrum Incident: The Suppressed Case Files." You will have to read it carefully to understand its significance. Collins wrote,
The physical evidence in the Cash-Landrum UFO incident is much of what makes it such a compelling and enduring case. Another key factor is the reputation and expertise of the case’s chief investigator John F. Schuessler who had the difficult jobs of seeking evidence, promoting the case and protecting the witnesses. The medical records have been long protected by Schuessler, citing the privacy of the witnesses as reason for withholding them. What is less widely known, is that there was other case evidence that Schuessler chose not to share.
After the women went to the Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin to file a complaint, the Texas Department of Health’s Bureau of Radiation Control did an investigation into the matter. Collins writes,
The TDH report revealed that there was no residual radiation found along the road, but they were not dismissing the case. They made an important offer: they were interested in continuing the investigation, starting with their doctors examining the medical records. There is no documentation of it in the TDH files, but Schuessler refused or ignored the State’s offer to help the witnesses.
Claimed physical traces from the incident seem to be among the strongest pieces of evidence supporting  the case. Collins writes, "When discussing the case, Schuessler told how the witnesses were able to return to the precise location, and that the scene contained some identifiable, distinct features:"
“It is interesting to note, that although neither Vickie or Betty had been back to the site since the incident, they both were able to take us to nearly the exact same location. The separate site visits verify the location of the incident for us.”  -The Cash-Landrum UFO Incident, page 54
“They were able to point out a spot on the road that indicated that it had been heated to an extreme level of heating. It was burned, and it was very clear to the naked eye.”-Unsolved Mysteries (NBC) February 6, 1991
“We had a very large flying machine that that came over the road that actually left marks on the road, so you know where it was exactly.”   -Sightings (Sci-Fi Channel TV Series): “Physical Effects” July 31, 1992
There are, alas, no photographs or other evidence to show us these supposed UFO marks on the road. One wonders why?

Document from Texas department of Health
In the newly-revealed document, Collins notes that Texas Department of Health investigator Charles Russ Meyer wrote,
“I then asked Mr. Schuessler if he had pin-pointed the location of the siting [sic]. Mr. Schuessler stated that due to the late hour and the ladies’ emotional state they could only state that they believed they saw the object on the straight portion of FR 1485 between a beer joint and some kind of highway warning sign.”
In other words, neither Cash, nor Landrum, nor Schuessler had any idea where this incident actually took place! Collins remarks,
The Meyer report documenting that Schuessler and the witnesses not knowing the precise sighting location does answer some troubling questions. Now we can understand why there are no photographs of a scorched road or trees, and why soil/pavement samples were never presented as evidence. The claim that the sighting location was found and investigated was the foundation of his case. If this claim was false or inaccurate, the entire case is tainted. It raises other questions about how evidence was presented and just how much of it can be verified.
In other words, it appears that Schuessler simply made up the claim to have identified, and investigated, the sighting location, and found evidence there.

There is also the puzzling question of why the proponents of this case remain so utterly opposed to releasing any of Betty's medical records, even after her death, and especially after so much anecdotal data about her alleged medical conditions has already been discussed publicly.  "Schuessler refused or ignored the State’s offer to [medically] help the witnesses." Why?

While we were discussing this case via email, Gary Posner wrote,
"I recall a photo being shown [on the April 1, 1982, edition of ABC-TV's That's Incredible] of Betty's arms, with discrete, round, sunburn-type rashes that immediately caused me to suspect that she had created them by covering her arms with a garment containing circular cutouts and then exposing herself to sunlight (or a sunlamp)." 
There is no way that such discrete, round patterns could be produced by radiation from a distant object. What Dr. Posner is suggesting is that, like religious zealots of yore who fabricated their own symptoms of  "stigmata," Betty Cash created the discrete, round "radiation burn" patterns on her arms to be able to display impressive symptoms to her doctors.

Medical science has a term for this kind of behavior: "Münchausen syndrome is a psychiatric factitious disorder wherein those affected feign disease, illness, or psychological trauma to draw attention, sympathy, or reassurance to themselves." While not terribly common, it is far from rare. And assuming that Betty Cash's medical records contain the words "Münchausen syndrome" or words to that effect, which seems quite likely, we now understand why the promoters of the Cash-Landrum case adamantly refuse to let anyone see her medical records. It would destroy all vestiges of credibility that this case ever had.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

FINALLY! All Issues of Klass' "Skeptics UFO Newsletter" (SUN) are On-Line!


Several years ago I pointed out to CSI(COP) that the collection of Klass' influential and significant Skeptics UFO Newsletter (SUN) hosted on their website was incomplete. I was assured that the librarian would get right on it, but that didn't happen.

Then on October 23, 2013 UFO researcher and archivist Isaac Koi posted a plea on the UFO Updates mailing list, noting that
Luis R. Gonzalez (a Spanish researcher) has scanned his almost complete run of xerox copies of Klass' skeptic UFO Newsletter, and filled the gaps with the help of others. Only a small number of issues are currently available online, at the CSICOP website...  Perhaps CSI/CSICOP will give permission for me to share a link to a much more complete collection of SUN, as searchable PDF files, on a free file storage website; and/or (2) CSI/CSICOP may like to make this more complete collection available to download from its own website....I have yet to receive any positive answer to either of the above possibilities or any reasons for refusing the requests... If anyone has a good relationship with CSICOP then perhaps they could have a word with someone there.
As soon as I saw that I put together an email in support of Koi to the appropriate persons, and they began talking. Soon the matter was resolved, I think, to everyone's satisfaction. Koi has uploaded the complete collection of SUN #1 - SUN #76 to on-line storage, with a nice introduction and explanation here. He also links in a two-part YouTube video from 1987 by Ted Koppel interviewing Klass and Stanton Friedman. (You will note, to no one's surprise, that Friedman is given far more time to speak than Klass.)
SUN revealing the Gulf Breeze UFO photo hoax (Isaac Koi)
Soon after that, the full collection of SUNs was posted to the CSI(COP) website. Both of the scans appear to be searchable.

The on-line presence of SUN is a huge boon to serious UFO researchers of all stripes, as Klass was invariably the best-informed skeptical researcher, and the newsletter is filled with information concerning many famous (and less-famous) UFO claims. Klass was a meticulous researcher, and while you may not agree with his conclusions (even I do not agree with Klass 100% of the time), you can be confident that all of the facts he cites are correct and can be substantiated. You can then draw your own conclusions from that. "Write only what you know," Klass admonished me on more than one occasion. Don't state something as a fact unless you know that it is a fact, and can demonstrate it. 

Koi provides some nice examples above of what SUN contains. These searchable files are also a huge boon in making the skeptical viewpoint about UFOs available to interested persons.

I should mention that following in the footsteps of SUN today is Tim Printy's SUNlite, continuing Klass' tradition of meticulous and careful UFO investigation with a skeptic's eye. Tim puts out six issues a year, covering all manner of contemporary UFO claims and controversies.