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From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 8 No. 7

July 3, 2009

"I believe in God. I would never defend my belief in God." --John Edward

"We like to be deceived." --Blaise Pascal

In this issue

What's New?
Psychic Lifeline
Scam School
Atheist Amusement
Nostradamus
Open-mindedness
Religion loses importance with age
Scum of the Minute Award
Skeptics' Circle

What's Next?

What's New?

There is one new entry in the Skeptic's Dictionary: the Hutchison hoax, about a very strange man and his apartment research center. Michael Dennett is remembered on the In Memoriam page.

I posted a rough draft of a chapter from a book I will probably never complete. The idea of the book is to revisit many of the topics I wrote about in the published version of The Skeptic's Dictionary (Wiley, 2003) and admit my mistakes and errors. The working title is Mistakes Were Made and I Made Them: A Skeptic Admits Where He Went Wrong. The chapter I posted is entitled: Acupuncture and CAM. I posted it as part of a dialogue I had with an M.D.-turned-homeopath who challenged me to discuss a "good scientific paper" supporting homeopathy. I wanted Dr. Mirman to understand my position on why acupuncture and homeopathy seem to work. Here's a quote from the chapter:

The evidence from many high caliber scientific studies has shown that many forms of energy healing relieve many people of many symptoms and that this is probably due to one or more of the following factors, some of which are referred to as placebo factors, some as false placebo factors (because in some studies their effects have been erroneously attributed to the placebo effect):

· classical conditioning

· suggestion by the healer

· patient beliefs in the competence of the healer and in the method of healing

· patient expectancy and hope for recovery

· the healer’s manner (showing attention, care, affection, sincerity, knowledge)

· the color of the treatment room or the color of the pill one is given (might affect patient expectancy)

· the rituals and theater involved in the delivery of the treatment, including technical jargon, special uniforms, medical gadgetry, treatment room setup, and the like

· spontaneous improvement (the pain or illness runs its natural course to its natural conclusion)

· fluctuation of symptoms

· regression to the mean

· additional simultaneous treatment from scientific medicine

· patient politeness or subordination (the patient doesn’t want to disappoint the healer)

· neurotic or psychotic misjudgment

· psychosomatic phenomena

I wanted Dr. Mirman to understand that unless his homeopathic study was a double-blind, randomized, control group study with a sufficient number of subjects that was designed to tease out the efficacy of the tested substance from placebo and false placebo effects, I wouldn't consider it a "good study." I also told him that I would consider a study only if done within the past ten years.

I don't think Dr. Mirman read my chapter, though. The study he submitted is twenty years old and makes little effort to tease out placebo from false placebo effects. I reviewed it anyway. His response to my review indicates that he is willing to put his money on a lame horse and accuse the rest of us of being unable to see the horse's talent. His response to my response indicates he doesn't understand what "statistical significance" means. He thinks it means "proof of causality," rather than "not likely due to chance." My detailed evaluation of the old and unimportant study he selected to discuss is posted for those who are interested.

*****

Several other new reader comments were posted since the last newsletter. One reader is sure that chemtrails indicate our government is secretly trying to alter the weather to curtail global warming, but she doesn't want to be called paranoid. Another is sure that there are no pyramidiots who think aliens from outer space built the pyramids and he threatens to sue me for "public discrimination." Another reader wrote to defend Gary Schwartz, the most overqualified incompetent spirit scientist in America. A creationist wrote to accuse me of masquerading as a critical thinker for accepting the religion of evolution over creationism. (I took off both the mask and the gloves in my response to this miscreant.) Perry Marshall supplies a nice example of begging the question. British scientists ask the WHO to condemn homeopathy for diseases such as HIV.

****

There were numerous updates. $2.5 billion wasted on alt health studies. Exorcism leads to manslaughter charges. Exorcism leads to child being nearly burned to death. The SkepDoc wrote to correct a claim about chiropractic and harm to patients. The St. Petersburg Times ripped into Scientology.

An asbestos emergency was declared in Libby, Montana. Steorn's free energy gizmo fizzled again. A paper combining the results of all previous studies showed antioxidant vitamins were not beneficial, and some even made diseases worse.

The atheist bus campaign had a few developments.

Fox News and others reported that the Obama administration had quashed an EPA report on global warming, when the truth was that a right-wing economist at the EPA complained that a pseudoscientific document he had prepared on his own wasn't being taken seriously. Fox didn't mention that Sen. Paul Broun of Georgia called global warming a hoax perpetrated by the scientific community.

We learned that Darwin killed off the werewolf and that certain psychics predicted Michael Jackson's death or at least that he would have health problems (at least we predict that they will say they predicted it). Uri Geller was shocked at his friend's death and had predicted a very successful resurrection of Jackson's career. Geller was referring to Jackson's planned comeback, but the message from the aliens may have been garbled. The promoter for the comeback concerts sold $85 million in tickets for the shows. Days after Jackson's death, his company offered the nearly 1 million ticket-holders the choice of a full refund or a special ticket that featured a three-dimensional image of Jackson. So far about 40% to 50% have opted for the souvenir ticket. Since his death, three albums by Jackson have sold over 100,000 copies.*

The Frauds and Hoaxes page now links to about a dozen Brian Brushwood lectures on skeptical topics that you can find on YouTube.

Richard Dawkins is supporting a summer camp for atheist kids and hopes to have them singing John Lennon's "Imagine" around the campfire. Go Richard!

I'm a psychic and I'm here to help!

I can imagine the distress caused by losing a loved one to kidnapping or suspected foul play. But when a person claiming to be psychic shows up uninvited to announce that she knows what happened, I get disgusted. I'm sure many people who've lost a loved one only to be hounded by persons claiming to have psychic abilities are equally disgusted. But, we rarely hear about such people in the news media. An exception is an article in thewest.com.au about the shenanigans of one Debbie Malone, who claims in a book she's recently published that she has information from the psychic world about the murder of Corryn Rayney. Sharon Coutinho, the sister of the murdered woman, is featured in the article as saying that Malone was trying to profit from the family’s grief. This viewpoint contrasts significantly with the claims of characters like James Van Praagh and John Edward who fancy themselves to be "grief counselors" rather than grief exploiters.

Malone has claimed to have been in contact with Mrs. Rayney since her death and that she had assisted police investigating the case. WA [Western Australia] Police have not denied her claims. [The following statement was issued: "WA Police does not use psychics or seek their services. However, if a person contacts police with what they believe is important information about a crime, we will consider what they have to provide.'' In this case, however, a "junior detective," apparently on his own initiative, contacted Malone. The detective let Malone hold Rayney's diary (sealed in a plastic bag), so she could apply psychometry.*]

Mrs. Coutinho said her family had been contacted by several psychics since Mrs. Rayney’s death, but had declined their offers of help.

She said she had read the extract from Malone’s new book, which addressed the Rayney case, but it had offered no new information.

Mrs. Coutinho was upset that Malone had used her sister’s murder as a means of publicising her book.

“Everything she has said has been public knowledge for the last two years,” Mrs Coutinho said.

“We are not bothering with psychics. Unless someone comes up with something that hasn’t been made public, it’s really not worth listening to.

The father of Claremont serial killer victim Sarah Spiers also warned victims’ families not to listen to psychics, saying yesterday they fed off misery and drove him to a mental breakdown in 1996.

More typical of how the media deals with alleged psychic detectives who claim to have helped police solve crimes is the story from Perth Now. The headline reads: "Police offer Corryn Rayney diary to psychic medium." The Perth Now piece is little more than an advertorial for Malone's book and popular TV psychics. Not too many journalists seem put off by the kind of promotion of magical thinking and superstition displayed by the junior detective and the psychic. Such reprehensible activities are defended in the name of leaving no stone unturned.

Look for some follow-up to the Malone exploitainment on The Skeptic Zone.

update: July 5, 2009. Perth Now reports that WA police chiefs have refused to issue a blanket ban on officers listening to psychics and using their information, despite the police force's communications director describing mediums as ``hocus-pocus'' and stating "no reputable policing agencies use psychics'."

Scam School

Until I downloaded recent episodes of Skepticality and The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, I'd never heard of Brian Brushwood's Scam School, which "takes viewers on an inside tour of bar tricks, street cons, and scams."  Brian is a magician whose lessons are given in bars and on the street. "If you watch carefully," the promo says, "You'll never have to pay for a drink again!"

Brian was interviewed recently by both Swoopy & Derek and the Rogues at SGU. After listening to the interview with Skepticality, I was hooked. Anyone who wants to learn some great magic tricks without being led to believe that you have to be superior to the rest of the world to do them, should sign up for Scam School. It's free, educational, and fun.

To find out where Brian will be appearing next, see his website. To see some of his skeptical lectures on YouTube, click here.

The interview with the Rogues is also very good. Even though the two interviews overlap somewhat, they differ enough to make it worthwhile to listen to both of them.

Atheist Amusement

An anonymous donor gave $10,000 to the New York City atheist bus campaign, which aims to promote atheism as healthy and respectable. Keith Olbermann apparently found it so amusing that he awarded the benefactor 3rd prize in his nightly "Worst Person in the World" segment. He said he wasn't put off by the message of the campaign, but found it amusing that the donor wanted to remain anonymous. I guess it doesn't take much to amuse someone whose nightly fish in a barrel is Rush Limbaugh.

Nostradamus, my friend

Something triggered a Nostradamus frenzy on June 21. In a good week, the Nostradamus page gets 8 or 9 hundred visits. On June 21st the page had about 20,000 visitors. Did he predict the summer solstice?

Open-mindedness

I recently received the following e-mail:

Dear Dr. Carroll,

I appreciated reading your article on the N'Kisi project. It is helpful to have different perspectives on these things. I wonder, however, what your response would be if you came a across an unambiguously telepathic, unambiguously communicative parrot. My question to you would be, are you as close-minded as the fundamentalist spiritualists would be? Are you truly a skeptic or are you a dogmatist?

I'm a physician, specializing in infectious diseases. Several years ago, I cared for a 32-year-old young man, who had a heart valve infection. I had never lost a patient with a valve infection who survived the first 48 hours of hospitalization. I generally keep these people in hospital for 7 days of IV antibiotics before I send them home. In my patient, the evening prior to discharge, he suddenly became unresponsive, having bled into his brain. I went out to tell his mother of this dire complication, and she was strangely not nearly as upset as I was. We took the patient to surgery, but he died. Afterwards, as I spoke to his mother, she told me that days before this event the patient had told her that his father, deceased several years ago (with whom he had been very close), had come to his bedside and told him he would be coming home soon.

What does the above story mean? I don't know. I haven't passed judgment on it one way or another. I feel no need to either "explain it away" or to interpret it. Do you? If so, does it unsettle you not to have a "rational" explanation? If it does, I would suggest that it might benefit you on several levels of your being to keep an open mind.

We need "skeptics" out there, so don't take what I'm saying to be overly offensive.

I replied (though I've added a bit here):

Dear Dr. X,

You're not the first to pose the question "are you a skeptic or are you open-minded?" I've written about the subject of open-mindedness in my critical thinking book, and it was one of the first topics I would take up with my students in critical thinking classes. A recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 2009) had an article on the subject by William Hare, and there is letter to the editor in the current issue (July/August) offering a suggestion on how to answer that question when your high school students ask it of you. I recommend reading both.

You've probably received many e-mails from someone claiming to be a good person who happens to have come into a large sum of money that bad people will get if he or she doesn't prevent it with your help. All you have to do to get your share of many millions of dollars is provide a little up-front money for the paperwork. The story sounds implausible and you've heard similar stories many times, but it could be true. Am I being closed-minded when I place such e-mails in my Scams folder (along with dozens of other such letters that I keep for who knows what reason)?

We all have to make decisions regarding whether the implausible but possible is worth pursuing. For the past twenty years I have made it my business to try to figure out why people believe what they do, rather than focus solely on whether their beliefs are true.

The case you mention stands out for you. I'm familiar with hundreds of similar stories. It is possible dead people survive as ghosts, that the young man's dead father (or "spirit" or ghost) contacted his son, that the father's spirit was able to see into the future and communicate a message in a clear, unambiguous fashion to the son (although "coming home" might leave some wiggle room for interpretation).

It's also possible that the son made it up and told this story to comfort his mother because he may have felt he was dying. It's also possible the son had a dream or a daydream in which his father appeared and told him he was going to die soon. It's possible the mother imagined the story while in the waiting room as a way to comfort herself at the great loss of a son. Who knows? The mother obviously believed the son had been visited and this seems to have provided her with some comfort. That seems to be about the only fact we can be relatively sure of. The rest is speculation. I fit this story into a network of hundreds, maybe thousands, of similar stories I'm familiar with. My judgment is that the probabilities are not on the side of ghosts knowing the future and communicating that knowledge to the living. I agree with William Hare that open-mindedness "is not an invitation to give thoughtful consideration ... to all manner of nonsense and flim-flam...." Rejecting ideas like ghosts seeing the future and communicating with living persons is something I do because of years of open-minded inquiry into the subject. I don't close the door on investigating the topic, but I won't open it unless compelling new evidence is presented. Your anecdote does not provide compelling new evidence.

For every story like yours there are thousands of stories of unfulfilled premonitions and precognitions. I don't wonder how I should explain such stories any more than I wonder how to explain your experience. Even so, both kinds of stories, unfulfilled and fulfilled, fit into a psychological model of how some humans respond to anxiety about their own death and the deaths of others. They think about it, dream about it, create stories about it. They seek confirmation of their premonitions and forget about the cases that don't come true. They retrofit data to fit what they want to believe, but they rarely try to falsify their beliefs. I could go on, but what's the point?

The demand for open-mindedness can be taken to be a demand for gullibility. Just as there can be too much skepticism (as in the 9/11 deniers, the climate change deniers, the HIV/AIDS deniers, the Holocaust deniers, the anti-vaxxers, and the like) there can be too much open-mindedness (as in belief in psychics, ghosts, and perpetual motion machines). A healthy skepticism is tempered by open-mindedness, and open-mindedness is tempered by a healthy skepticism. Finding the balance between dogmatism and gullibility is not an easy task, but assuming someone is closed-minded because they reject as unlikely a hypothesis you think is possibly true is not justified. That person may have studied the issue more than you have and may have a larger context into which he places an event you find singular.

As an aid to developing a sense of the dangers of closed-mindedness, I advised my students to seek out company and read the works of those not likely to agree with them. Critical thinking is an unnatural act. We naturally like to surround ourselves with people who think and believe like we do. A recent review of some 90 studies in Psychological Bulletin found not only that we tend to put the blinders on when views contrary to our own are presented, but that:

People who are less confident in their beliefs are more reluctant than others to seek out opposing perspectives....

Overall, the studies suggested people are about twice as likely to cherry-pick information that supports their own viewpoints than to consider an opposing idea. Nearly 70 percent cherry-picked compared to about 30 percent who ponder the other side.

Close-minded individuals opted for information that went along with their views 75 percent of the time.

Close-minded people are very certain and dogmatic in their views, and generally believe that there is a single correct point of view....*

Getting students to see the value of considering alternative explanations for data was one of the more difficult tasks I faced as a teacher. The task was easier to accomplish in my critical thinking about the paranormal class than in my general critical thinking course. The general course, of necessity, focuses on avoiding faulty reasoning and outlining the qualities of cogent reasoning. The course with specific content (the paranormal) provided many opportunities for opening up minds to alternative explanations for apparently psychic phenomena. Whether the lesson was carried over to other areas of investigation by my students, I can't say. Sadly, I have to admit that most of my students probably didn't do much investigation of anything unless it was assigned to them as part of a course requirement.

Getting students to see the value of trying to falsify rather than confirm beliefs was also not that difficult. But getting them to show that they could attack a problem by applying the lesson proved impossible. For example, after a thorough discussion of confirmation bias, I'd have a class do the Wason card problem, which is easy to solve if you try to falsify rather than confirm your hypothesis, but most failed. (Note for those who teach logic: I got no better results when I gave the Wason test after a thorough discussion of conditional statements.)

As I said, critical thinking is an unnatural act.

update: July 4, 2009: Ed noticed that there is a "big error" in the following piece on the Pew survey. "These are two age cohorts who have lived different life courses in different times. They are not the older and younger versions of the same people. One cannot conclude that any change occurred or that older folk are more religious than younger." Good reading, Ed! You are correct and I feel very stupid. This was my error, not the pollsters'. Can anyone name this fallacy? How about "cohort conflation," in which one conflates several groups and treats them as if they were one? (The yellow text below indicates additions to the original.)

Importance of Religion Increases with Age (Maybe)

A recent Pew Foundation survey found that as people get older religion becomes more important in their lives young people don't find religion nearly as important as older people do or, as the Pew Foundation put it: "Religion is a far bigger part of the lives of older adults than younger adults. Two-thirds of adults ages 65 and older say religion is very important to them, compared with just over half of those ages 30 to 49 and just 44% of those ages 18 to 29." My experience has been just the opposite. Was religion as important to the older folks when they were young? Is the next generation going to get more religion when it ages? I don't know. When I was young, religion was very important to me. As I got older, it became less important. Now that I'm almost in the 65-and-older group, religion means nothing to me at all.

Survey interviews were conducted by telephone (using random digit dial) by Princeton Survey Research Associates (PSRA) between February 23 and March 23, 2009. The subjects were 2,969 adults living in the continental United States. According to Pew, the margin of sampling error at the 95% confidence level is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points for results based on the total sample and 3.7 percentage points for adults who are 65 and older.

One of the more interesting areas of this survey compares perceptions of what to expect as we age with what actually happens. For example, about 25% of us will experience memory loss after age 65, but the general perception is that about twice that many will have significant memory loss. Worries we have about aging may be overcooked. This is hard to accept for those of us who have seen friends or family members decline significantly as they live into their late eighties and nineties.

Scum of the Hour

...and the award goes to....Devi S. Nambudripad, M.D., D.C., L.Ac., Ph.D. and Nambudripad's Allergy Elimination Techniques (NAET). According to her website:

We now know that most illnesses (i.e., headaches, back aches, joint pains, addiction, PMS, indigestion, cough, body aches, etc.) are caused by undiagnosed allergies. When left untreated, allergies can become serious life threatening illnesses.

She claims that all you have to do is read her pamphlet "Say Goodbye to Illness" to find the cause of whatever ails you.

The brain provides warnings to the body whenever blockages occur within the energy pathways. These warnings include illness, pain, inflammation, fever, heart attacks, strokes, abnormal growths, tumors, and various physical, physiological and psychological discomforts. If the symptoms are minor, blockages are minor. If the symptoms are major, blockages are major. Minor blockages can be unblocked easily, whereas major blockages take a long time to unblock.

Her logic is impeccable in some parallel world, even if her assumptions are woo to the third power.

Dr. Nambudripad's discovery, NAET®, is an innovative and completely natural method for regaining better health with often permanent freedom from allergies and the diseases arising from those allergens.

Her innovation seems to be her claim that energy blockages don't cause illnesses, they just cause the brain to send warnings to the body and these warnings are the illnesses we suffer. Since her cure is natural, it must be good, right? Even better, her cures are homeopathic! What do allergens have to do with any of this, you might wonder? I don't know, but I was not impressed when she explained how her homeopathic biologicals would prepare my meridians for some swell detoxification.

Dr. Nambudripad has used applied kinesiology to test some jewelry (a pendant called "the wheel of life", priced from $125 to $5,200) and concluded:

I have discovered that when one finds the Wheel (five varieties) suitable to one’s energy field, it is capable of reducing the intensity of allergic reactions if it is worn close to the body. The Wheel of Life pendant also helps to improve one’s physical energy and mental clarity by bringing the energy meridians into a Yin-Yang state of balance.”

Don't laugh. Actor Steven Segal says: "my chakras began spinning and then went into balance after putting on my Wheel." And some TV minister said it made her aura jump 60 feet.

114th Skeptics' Circle

The latest cornucopia of links to skeptical blogs has been posted at Homologous Legs and features an international array of skeptical writing on a wide variety of topics, from psychics and myths to weird beliefs and dangerous delusions.

What's Next?

I just received my Amazon order of new books by Chris Mooney (Unscientific America) and Charles Tart (The End of Materialism). I imagine Mooney's book will be reviewed in Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic, but few skeptics will read Tart's book, whose subtitle is "How Evidence of the Paranormal Is Bringing Science and Spirit Together." I'll let you know what I think of the evidence. I'll be posting my review of Tart's latest book soon. I'll leave the reviews of Mooney's book to others.

*****
Written by Bob Carroll with the editorial assistance and wise counsel of John Renish.

*

* AmeriCares *

Unscientific America
Is ignorance really bliss?

Evolution
The true story.

A History of Doubt
No doubt, no enlightenment!

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