Death from the Skies!
Summer reading at its best.
From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 8 No. 8
August 3, 2009
"I support three foundations; their schools, churches, everything. I don't worry about the skeptics." --Sylvia Browne
In this issue
There are several new entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary: analytical and associative overlay (invented by parapsychologists to turn misses into hits), curse-missing (invented by me to mock parapsychologists), delusion (a clarification on my use of the term in the SD), New Atheism (atheism with an attitude), diploma mill (it's worse than you think), debaptism (mockery or liberation?), Camp Chesterfield & Lily Dale (where the dead come alive), and Apollo Moon hoax (in honor of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing).
Jacob Mirman, the homeopathic M.D., and I have finished our discussion of a peer-reviewed paper on a homeopathic treatment of the flu published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. Mirman makes the same mistake that many parapsychologists make: he seems to think that correlation is causation and that 'statistical significance' means 'my causal hypothesis is supported.'
I've posted a book review of parapsychologist Charles Tart's The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together. The evidence is actually pushing science and spirit further apart, but hope springs eternal in those with the "spiritual thirst."
John Renish has posted the first of many (I hope) Letters from the Editor. The topic is Islam and dangerous delusions.
Skeptimedia has a new post: on woo-woo apps for the iPhone. (There are, of course, many excellent apps for the iPhone. I saw one in action the other day. I played golf with a techie who used his iPhone to gauge the distance from his ball to the flag. I don't remember the name of the app, but a quick Google search found this site with 10 such apps.)
The following entries were updated: organic food, Rorschach, economic forecasting, placebo effect, chiropractic, Golf and the Enneagram, natural, Randi (we wish Randi a speedy recovery), Bigfoot comments, superstition, atheism, pareidolia, young earth creationists, what's the harm?, woo-woo, Scientology, alternative health practices, and the last newsletter (twice).
Science and the Public
The Pew Research Center reports that "nearly 9 in 10 scientists accept the idea of evolution by natural selection, but just a third of the public does. And while 84% of scientists say the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, less than half of the public agrees with that." On the other hand, less than half of the public knows that electrons are smaller than atoms.
The survey sought to find out how Americans feel about science and contrast that with the opinions of actual scientists. 27% of the respondents said that the advances of the US in science are its greatest achievement, down from 44% ten years ago. Scientists are critical of how the media cover science stories. They also think research funding has too much influence on study results. One of the more interesting statistics is that only 6% of the scientists interviewed say they are Republicans (55% say they're Democrats).
Overall, the American public has a very positive view of science, but scientists don't have a very positive view of the public's knowledge of science. 85% of the scientists surveyed said that the public’s lack of scientific knowledge is a major problem for science.
A substantial percentage of scientists also say that the news media have done a poor job educating the public. About three-quarters (76%) say a major problem for science is that news reports fail to distinguish between findings that are well-founded and those that are not. And 48% say media oversimplification of scientific findings is a major problem. The scientists are particularly critical of television news coverage of science. Just 15% of scientists rate TV coverage as excellent or good, while 83% say it is only fair or poor. Newspaper coverage of science is rated somewhat better; still, barely a third (36%) of the scientists say it is excellent or good, while 63% rate it as only fair or poor.*
I haven't finished Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, but their thesis seems to be that Carl Sagan is responsible for our scientifically illiterate public. Yes, Sagan never should have died. He was the only scientist who knew how to communicate with the public without offending their religious and other peculiar sensibilities. Everybody since has been a total flop or near flop. Sagan would have handled the Pluto fiasco in a way that would have pleased everyone, and he wouldn't have made any wisecracks about people's devotional habits. Maybe the thesis changes as one gets deeper into the book, but so far that's the main message I've gotten. Scientists need to do a better job of educating the public and the media by improving their communication skills, and they should use Carl Sagan as a model. (I don't know when I'll get around to finishing Unscientific America. I've begun reading a lengthy biography of Benjamin Franklin. No, I won't speculate on what Franklin would think of intelligent design had he had the pleasure of reading The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.)
The evolution of beautiful women
Data gathered in America from 1,244 women and 997 men, who were followed through four decades, found beautiful women had up to 16% more children than their plainer counterparts and that the most attractive parents were 26% less likely to have sons.
Attractiveness was assessed from photographs taken during the study. Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist, suggested this was an evolutionary strategy subtly programmed into human DNA. Either that or the work of intelligent design.*Science News
Graphene is the strongest material in nature—roughly 200 times the strength of steel, even though it is only one atom thick. A graphene sheet large enough to cover a football field would have a mass of less than a gram.
It gets better. Graphene permits electricity to flow more or less unimpeded. "Electrons have been shown to behave as massless particles similar to photons, zipping across a graphene layer without scattering," prompting speculation that graphene could eventually supplant silicon as the substance of choice for computer chips.* Graphene conducts electricity 100 times faster than the silicon in computer chips.*
The evidence is piling up in favor of restricting one's diet if one wants to live longer. A new study on rhesus monkeys supports the conclusion of earlier studies on rats.
Seventy-six rhesus monkeys were involved in the trial, which began in 1989 and was expanded in 1994.
Half had their diets restricted, half were given free rein at feeding time.
The rate of cancers and cardiovascular disease in dieting animals was less than half of those permitted to eat freely.
While diabetes and problems with glucose regulation were common in monkeys who ate what they wanted, there were no cases in the calorie controlled group.*
We may all need to go on calorie-restricted diets if the global food shortage predicted by some comes to fruition. Bob Park recently wrote:
According to a story in the Guardian, investors in some of the world's richest countries are buying or leasing land in some of the world's poorest countries in anticipation of major world food shortages. An estimated one million Chinese farmers have been moved to Africa. India and South Korea are also major investors in African food production. In some parts of Africa the trend may save the land from being broken up into small, uneconomic farms that succumb to desertification from over cultivation.
U.S. companies are also investing in farmlands around the world. For an extensive account of what's going on see A Global Scramble for Lucrative Farmlands. After you digest that article, wash it down with Sandia researchers say worldwide water shortage on horizon. These folks have seen the future and it isn't pretty.
Park seems to think the solution is population control. Well, it wouldn't hurt, but would it be enough? Maybe the world is suffering from the baby Moses syndrome (the hope-in-a-basket fallacy), a kind of defense mechanism whereby one deceives oneself into inaction by the wishful thought that somebody else will eventually come along to solve our problems for us and save us from disaster.
Psychics in the Secret Service?
A new book by Ronald Kessler claims that the Secret Service followed the advice of a psychic to protect President George Herbert Walker Bush during a motorcade in Oklahoma in 1992. Kessler is a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter and the author of several books on U.S. intelligence. Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan said: "We don't make a practice of changing a motorcade route based on a psychic."*
Would a reporter or a government spokesman lie or mislead? Get out the polygraph.
Scum of the Minute
Matrix Energetics wins first prize. Did you know that the "body is the physical manifestation of an energy field, which records everything that has happened to us in our lifetime, including accidents, illnesses, stress, etc."? Worse, "if this field is not cleared and balanced, we can develop an imbalanced energetic expression and this can cause disruption at many levels of our being, compromising our vital life force."
Thank goodness for Dr. Bartlett and Polycontrast Interference Photography (PIP). He's a chiropractor a "mixer," I presume) and naturopath who will put "the quantum field at your fingertips." Ooh, hah.
If Bartlett can't cure your imbalance, try Richard Gordon's Quantum Touch. All you need is love (and a few other things) says the creator of Self-Created Health. "Quantum-Touch techniques teach us how to focus and amplify life-force energy (or chi, bioenergy, prana) by combining various breathing and energy awareness exercises."
Richard discovered his creation when he realized that his flu wasn't caused by a virus but by an insult. You learn something new every day, but it doesn't necessarily make you any wiser.
* AmeriCares *