Every year members of Sisyfos, the Club of Sceptics, meet for a gala evening -the annual presentation of the Stray Boulder Awards to astrologers, faith healers, fortune tellers and other practitioners of pseudo science, not to mention those who give them publicity and thus help to "mislead the Czech public". Something akin to the Razzie Awards, the Stray Boulder has lots of fans and increasingly its winners are showing up for an evening of fun. The "judges" file in with much pomp and ceremony and there's a lot of witty banter between them and the winners.
Astrophysicist Jiri Grygar, who heads the club of sceptics, explains why this year's ceremony is special:
"This is the fifth anniversary so we have something of a jubilee here tonight. The Stray Boulder Awards are awarded once a year in two categories: to individuals and groups. We award a bronze, silver and gold boulder."
Who picks the winners and on the grounds of what criteria?
"Anyone can make a nomination, but it is mainly Sisyfos members who do so. We have over 300 members in the Czech Republic. However we do invite the general public to join in. A special committee then meets to evaluate the nominations and the winners are eventually selected by secret ballot."
So could you tell me who this year's winners are?
In the groups category the bronze boulder goes to Czech Radio, Channel 1, the silver boulder to an Internet magazine which collects predictions about the future and the gold goes to a paper journal called WM magazine which concentrates on some very strange paranormal phenomena."
So what are they guilty of?
"Well all of them are guilty of "violating the normal standard procedure of scientific reasoning". And the winners in the individuals' category : the bronze goes to pop singer Karel Gott, the silver to the artist Jirina Pruchova and the gold to physician Josef Hrusovsky."
Can you explain why? Why was Mr. Gott awarded the bronze for instance?
"Yes, he published a book in which he presented his views on various earth vibrations and some funny ideas about how the world is run. Some of the views presented in his book will be repeated here because they are really fantastic."
Do you feel that the Czech public is very much influenced by what famous people say or what a radio station says? Are Czechs as a nation very gullible?
"Well, I originally thought that this was not true. We had the reputation of being a very sceptical nation. We are actually sceptics even when it is not necessary but apparently the situation is changing and due to the mass media especially electronic media and television people are now gullible to a very great extent. "
Well, imagine my surprise when I learnt that Radiozurnal Chanel 1 of Czech Public Radio was the proud winner of the bronze Stray Boulder in the group prize category. So what exactly is Czech Radio guilty of ? Jiri Grygar again:
"Well, for instance, last year during the summer we had, as you know, general elections. And about a month in advance it is the standard procedure to give the parties and coalitions running in the elections a number. Simply a serial number that they get in a lottery. And on the day that these numbers were announced the anchor on Radiozurnal's main news programme interviewed a "so called" numerologist and this poor lady tried to convince us that some numbers are strong and some numbers are weak so she practically predicted the outcome of the elections. And in doing what she did, I think she could even influence some voters because some voters might say : OK, this number is strong so I will vote for the party or that's a weak number so I won't vote for a weak party. That seems to me to be quite criminal."
Don't you think that in such cases it is just pure entertainment?
"Well, it did not seem so. At least the news anchor was not making fun of it. She took it very seriously and the debate was not in some entertainment feature. It was in the main news at noon. The anchor spent five minutes discussing it with the numerologist. It was not at the end of the story, you know -it was in the middle of the news programme. So this is not just a problem relating to astrologers and faith healers but also to media people who appear to believe these very strange things and give them serious publicity. For instance Czech Public Radio was always considered a very good source of information and that is not true anymore."
Radiozurnal's deputy director Martin Schulz bounded down the steps of the Charles University lecture hall to collect his prize and he was obviously in high spirits.
"We listened to the mentioned election programme carefully once again and you know what - it turned out that the numerologist was more or less right in her predictions -so we were rather worried we might have to give back the prize....Anyway I am glad we don't and we value it as we would the Nobel prize. It is also the first present anyone's given me on my birthday today."
To those who took the anti-award in their stride with a touch of humor the public showed a benevolent face. But not everyone was up to the challenge. Mrs. Jirina Pruchova who won the silver boulder for selling people color pictures to protect them against electromagnetic smog - demanded an apology, a withdrawal of the award and financial compensation for the public insult.
Dr. Josef Hrusovsky, won the Golden Boulder for cooperation with angels and archangels in the process of healing, and caused a delighted uproar when he offered members of the audience a session at half-price. Pop singer Karel Gott received the bronze for some bizarre thoughts about earth vibrations and various conspiracy theories published in his recent book, but failed to collect his prize in person. He was the only winner to absent himself -and the sceptics insisted that his mock candidacy for Czech president some time ago had nothing to do with his merit in promoting gobbledegook. And as a courtesy to the evenings winners - the sceptics surpassed themselves and took part in a hilarious session trying to make contact with Albert Einstein's ghost. Needless to say, successfully.