From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 8 No. 10
October 2, 2009
"If the history-deniers who doubt the fact of evolution are ignorant of biology, those who think the world began less than ten thousand years ago are worse than ignorant, they are deluded to the point of perversity." --Richard Dawkins
In this issue
My highly paid editor John Renish has posted another column, this one on chiropractic neuroscience.
Skeptimedia has three new postings: Abusing children to raise TV ratings (about the rush to promote child psychics), Incivility in America (about the movie Creation), Teachable Moment or Media Manipulation? (about parents, teachers, and Republicans who don't want the President of the United States to address schoolchildren).
comments: Dragon Dabic (Radovan Karadžić)
comments: Catalina Rivas
comments: The Celestine Prophecy
comments: The Liars at 60 Minutes
comments: about some claims made in the last newsletter
comments: detoxification therapies
Updates were made to the following (the links goes directly to the updates): climate change deniers, inedia, placebo effect, vitamin supplements, conspiracy theories, skeptical essays, vitamins & herbs, Newsletter: ghostwriting medical journal articles, UFOs & ETs, lunar effects, Amazing Grace: we need a clean language act, economic forecasting, and fakir (the great B. Premanand of Guru Buster fame will soon no longer be with us).
College Course in Stupidity
Occidental College offers a course in Stupidity. It's not as stupid as it sounds. It's a reflection of what postmodernism has to offer our young scholars:
Stupidity is neither ignorance nor organicity, but rather, a corollary of knowing and an element of normalcy, the double of intelligence rather than its opposite. It is an artifact of our nature as finite beings and one of the most powerful determinants of human destiny. Stupidity is always the name of the Other, and it is the sign of the feminine. This course in Critical Psychology follows the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and most recently, Avital Ronell, in a philosophical examination of those operations and technologies that we conduct in order to render ourselves uncomprehending. Stupidity, which has been evicted from the philosophical premises and dumbed down by psychometric psychology, has returned in the postmodern discourse against Nation, Self, and Truth and makes itself felt in political life ranging from the presidency to Beavis and Butthead. This course examines stupidity.
I thought this might be a joke. How can you get away with describing stupidity as "the sign of the feminine" or the "double of intelligence" unless nothing means what it obviously means? Hey, maybe the postmodernists are right: maybe nothing does mean what it obviously means and nothing is what it seems to be.
reader comments: It seems odd that you would mock
Occidental College's course offerings in a number of subjects
without specifying your substantive concerns. The question of
where to draw the line between established and presumably
unobjectionable academic disciplines, such as sociology--the
study of society and its social groups--and fanciful flights
into theorizing with dubious relevance to or reference in
observable experience seems to me not to have a self-evident
answer. Abstract ideas that examine social institutions from
unorthodox angles can offer insights. Certainly a social science
or humanities frame of reference with which one disagrees ought
not automatically to be dismissed with the degree of alacrity
one reserves for attacks on false claims in the hard sciences,
such as those of intelligent design advocates. So perhaps an
elaboration and refinement of your criticism would be useful.
C. P. Snow, in his 1959 talk on "The Two Cultures," famously worried about the collapse in communication between the sciences and the humanities. I think his concerns were prescient; the lack of respectful dialogue makes more difficult the task of building a pro-science culture in which curiosity and skepticism could coexist more robustly than they seem to do today.
reply: I didn't specify my substantive concerns because language is an inadequate mode of transport for subtext ideas that threaten the status quo.
It is not that I disagree with the frame of reference that identifies stupidity with the feminine. To do so would require an unorthodox grasp of the quantum hiddenness of parallel dialectics, a task beyond my curiosity.
That said, I have no reason to doubt that these courses are quite insightful regardless of whether critics are pro-science or anti-scientific charlatans.
I assume the course titles and descriptions are marketing tools and that the courses have passed through a rigorous curriculum vetting process, but I couldn't resist having some fun with them.
Mississippi's course in stupidity
The Mississippi Department of Human Services hosts several abstinence-only events each year, including a big summit at the Jackson Coliseum. Performing at this year's Jackson summit was a cheerleading team whose cheer was selected by the state as the best abstinence-only cheer. On the risibility scale of 1 to 10, I rank this cheer an 11.
“Stop! Don’t touch me there! This is my no-no square!”
The abstinence-only events include "significant religious proselytizing," which has inspired the ACLU to file suit against Mississippi for promoting religious messages in a state-sponsored and state-funded event.
An Atheist's Christmas
Ariane Sherine, creator of the atheist bus campaign, has edited a book called The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, the first atheist charity book. Contributors include Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre, who suggested that the charity to receive all contributor and editor royalties (along with the full advance) be the UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity, Terrence Higgins Trust, which provides testing, medical and legal advice, and emotional support to people living with HIV. For more information, read Sherine's column "Atheism's open-door policy."
The Creationist Delusion
Richard Dawkins could easily have called his latest masterpiece The Creationist Delusion. His editor wanted to call it Only a Theory, but Dawkins settled on a title that was inspired, in part, by a T-shirt that was given to him: The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution. (The T-shirt can be found in the non-fiction aisle of most fine department stores.)
Dawkins dwells among some of the loftiest intellectuals on the planet, yet he has managed to meet some of the dumbest members of our species (like Wendy Wright) and has lived to tell the tales. I call them dumb rather than ignorant, though they are certainly ignorant of evolutionary science, geology, a host of other sciences, and, it turns out, they are usually pig-ignorant of religion as well. Two other books hammer home this latter point: Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t and Jeff Sharlet's The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. It's appalling how ignorant of religion religious people are, even of their own religion. It seems apparent that the tens of millions of Americans who are young Earth creationists are making up both their scientific and religious beliefs as they go along. The worst example of this that I have come across is Doug Coe, the leader of the Family, a Jesus-based group formed in 1935 to oppose Roosevelt's New Deal and trade unions. These are the power brokers behind the annual national prayer breakfasts attended by every president since Eisenhower. Coe thinks he and his political allies are "chosen" by God to be leaders and that that implies they don't have to abide by the moral rules the rest of us should follow. He admits he admires not only King David (who did a lot of bad things but it didn't matter because God liked him), but also Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, and others who exerted their will over others. Coe teaches that religion gets in the way of Jesus, but Jesus seems to be a do-whatever-you-want-and-it's-ok-because-you're-chosen card. These are the folks who can say with a straight face that there is no evidence for evolution when they've not made even a feeble effort to look at the evidence. They're also often the ones who use their erudition and scholarship to defend, as Dawkins describes it, the origin myth of a Bronze Age desert tribe.
Dawkins feels compelled to digress in his brilliant exegesis of the evidence for evolution to address various boneheaded notions of creationists. He explains the importance of these digressions for Americans:
We should be able to ignore [the 40% of Americans who believe the Adam & Eve and the Noah's ark stories] and get on with our science, but we can't afford to because they control school boards, they home-school their children to deprive them of access to proper science teachers, and they include many members of the United States Congress, some state governors and even presidential and vice-presidential candidates. They have the money and the power to build institutions, universities, even a museum where children ride life-size mechanical models of dinosaurs, which, they are solemnly told, coexisted with humans.
Most of Dawkins's new book is devoted to the fossil, comparative, and molecular evidence for evolution, and related matters like plate tectonics, various methods of dating materials, and the like. But in the rather naive hope that people like Wendy Wright might actually read his book, he addresses some questions that only pig-ignorant creationists could ask. If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? What good is half a wing? Why are there no fronkeys or crocoducks or doggypotamuses or elephanzees? There is even the creationist who thinks he speaks sense when he says: I'll believe in evolution when a monkey gives birth to a human. Dawkins patiently explains the concept of having a common ancestor, but I fear it will fall on deaf ears in the creationist camp.
If the young Earthers are right, one wonders why God would create the illusion that light is reaching us from stars whose light can't reach us for billions of years? Why did God have one group of marsupials hightail it off Noah's ark directly for Australia, leaving no trace of having been anywhere else? (Yes, there are marsupials elsewhere, but where's the trail from where the ark ended up to where the marsupials evolved?) In short, why did God create so much evidence for evolution and a universe that is billions of years old?
Evolution does not prove God doesn't exist, but it makes a designer and creator of the universe unnecessary. One can posit God as the Being beyond Being or the Ground of All Being or whatever, but such concepts are not necessary to understand how the universe and life on Earth evolved. One could posit a daisy chain of gods, if one likes, but none are required for there to be a universe or an Earth with all its species.
In page after page Dawkins acts as ringmaster and docent, taking the reader on a grand tour of what surely is the Greatest Show on Earth.
The Lord works in mysterious ways
Gunther Link, a devout Catholic, prayed to be saved after he was trapped in an elevator. He was saved, but he was then killed when he went to the Weinhaus Church in Vienna, Austria, to give thanks. He apparently hugged a stone pillar with such intense fervor that he toppled a stone altar that was perched on the pillar causing it to fall on top of him.*
If I were a theist I might say that God was laughing as he crushed Link to death. The Almighty might say: "Do you know how many millions of creatures like yourself were asking for my help while you were stuck in that elevator? Do you think I put you there to see if you would beg me to save you? Use your brain, man. Why do you think I gave you one? I'm busy enough listening to requests from people who want me to bless their food, help them win football games, or guide them at City Council meetings. What a bunch of pathetic losers. They're supposed to do my will, I'm not here to do theirs! Be careful what you pray for, my children. Look what I did to those righteous folks in Georgia who've been begging me for rain for several years."
I'm not a theist, however, so I wouldn't say such things.
The Gunther Link story, on close reading, is much too good to be true; pay particular attention to the names and the photos. You should have been more sceptical.
reply: I admit that the story in The Telegraph seems too good to be true (at least from the point of view of a skeptic). I should have contacted the Vienna police, but I don't speak German and it might have been embarrassing for me. I did look up churches in Vienna and, contrary to your assumption that the name ("wine house," I know a little German) gives away the hoax, there is a church in Vienna (18th District [Währing]) called St. Joseph zu Weinhaus.
The story in The Telegraph has no pictures.
Try this link:
Police office Roman (Roman means Fiction, although it is a real mid-European forename as well) Hah-slinger, and a knocked-over outside garden ornament presented as an 850 kg object.
I'd have liked to believe it but ...
and anyway, the Telegraph is only the Mail with a posh accent.
A reader in Germany writes:
There are a few German language press articles about the incident, which are not consistent among each other (and at least one contradicts itself on a minor detail). One source is the public law broadcasting corporation ORF, which is not renowned for making stuff up.
The ORF reports that there are no eye witnesses for the incident, but the fingerprints of the man were found on the fallen object.
The Telegraph article you linked to deviates from the dictionary in translating the name of the type of the fallen object as stone altar / stone pillar. It is a "wayside shrine" according to the dictionary.
Just in case you want to pursue this issue any further: A web search for the keyword "steinmarterl" will currently report relevant articles about the incident, mostly in German language. There is also a discussion about it in the newsgroup talk.origins (same keyword), in English.
New Zealand Skeptics announce "winner" of bent-spoon award
The winners are the deer-hunting Graf brothers. Their award is for producing a widely distributed DVD claiming that a pesticide (1080) "kills large numbers of native birds, poisons soils, persists in water and interferes with human hormones." It also hurt their hunting business. The NZ skeptics say the DVD is laced with falsehoods and is misleading.
The head of the skeptics group, Vicki Hyde, said:
People say that 1080 is cruel - so is a possum when it rips the heads off kokako chicks. Environmental issues aren't simple. We are forever walking a difficult balancing act. At this stage, 1080 is the best option for helping our threatened species hang on or, even better, thrive. It would be devastating for our wildlife were we to abandon this.
Hyde served for eight years on the Possum Biocontrol Bioethics Committee.
The Bullitzer Prize
The Bullitzer Prize is awarded to the journalist who has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to leave his or her bull detector at the door while covering a story. This month there are two awards. Paul Henley of the BBC deserves a Bullitzer for his completely uncritical story about camel milk as a cure for diabetes. I heard his report on the radio as I was driving to the grocery store. Somebody in India says it works and scientists are studying it in labs, so it qualifies as news. Henley even visited a camel farmer in Holland. The farmer says camel milk makes him feel better. Henley has quite a resume, so maybe this was just an off day.
I did a Google search when I got home and found the Indian connection. There has been some study of camel milk and diabetes. The milk is not a cure for diabetes, however. It's touted as an insulin supplement. No control group studies have been done, as far as I could tell. There are anecdotes (like the story about a village where the camel milk drinkers don't get diabetes). It is claimed that a liter of camel milk contains about 52 units of insulin. It might be cheaper and less inconvenient to do injections. One puzzle is the claim: “These units in camel milk are not neutralized by the acidic juices in the stomach, unlike other forms of orally administered insulin.” There is a reason insulin must be injected rather than ingested orally. Insulin would be broken down during digestion and would not get into the blood to do its work. Why insulin in a camel's milk wouldn't be digested is not clear. In the meantime, we wait for the story about genetically modified cows that produce indigestible insulin in their milk.
Sharing the Bullitzer with Henley is the CBC's unnamed reporter for a credulous story about an 86-year-old Canadian dowser who thinks he is helping villagers in rural Kenya. Lex Rutherford is a retired "agricultural specialist" who is now specializing in finding water with two wires. According to the author of the CBC story, "Rutherford insists that God has a hand in moving the wires." (As if God had nothing better to do.) He's training Kenyans in the dowsing art so God will have something to do after Lex is dead.
A Bullitzer Reader Prize goes to the fellow who posted on the CBC site a defense of dowsing as something science hasn't been able to explain yet. A Reader Prize also goes to the poster who defends dowsing based on his personal experience. Neither of these fellows seems to know anything about double-blind controlled experiments, the ideomotor effect, confirmation bias, or self-deception.
I'd love to nominate a couple of journalists for the Bullitzer Prize but I can't find any information about it online. Where can I get in touch?
reply: I thought I made it up, but I just did a Google search and got 1,780 hits, none of them to my newsletter. Number one was the University of South Florida, where Bullitzers are given to students for essays in first-year composition courses.
I'd like to nominate a few more journalists myself. For example, all those who wrote stories about the young girl who died after being immunized against cervical cancer but made no mention of the fact that the post mortem found a massive and previously undiagnosed tumor in her chest. (She was killed by a malignant chest tumor and not by a reaction to the vaccine.*) For years, Ben Goldacre has been outing journalists who deserve a Bullitzer, such as Lucy Johnston of the Sunday Express, whose work includes spreading the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism. It doesn't.*
New study on St. John's Wort for depression
A review of 29 studies involving 5489 patients with depression that compared treatment with extracts of St. John's wort (botanical name Hypericum perforatum) for 4 to 12 weeks with placebo treatment or standard antidepressants has concluded:
the hypericum extracts tested in the included trials a) are superior to placebo in patients with major depression; b) are similarly effective as standard antidepressants; c) and have fewer side effects than standard antidepressants. The association of country of origin and precision with effects sizes complicates the interpretation.
Most of the good results came from studies in German-speaking countries where these products have a long tradition and are often prescribed by physicians, while in studies from other countries St. John's wort extracts were less effective. The authors note that "it cannot be ruled out that some smaller studies from German-speaking countries were flawed and reported overoptimistic results."
Poland okays forcible castration for pedophiles
Poland has approved a law making chemical castration mandatory for pedophiles convicted of raping children under the age of 15 years or a close relative.
"The purpose of this action is to improve the mental health of the convict, to lower his libido and thereby to reduce the risk of another crime being committed by the same person," according to a government statement.
The New York Times reports that a Danish study of 900 castrated sex offenders in the 1960s suggested the rate of repeat offenses dropped after surgical castration to 2.3 percent from 80 percent. Human rights groups say that such studies are inconclusive because they rely on self-reporting by sex offenders. Other psychiatric experts argue that sexual pathology is in the brain and cannot be cured by surgery.
Trayce Hansen, Ph.D., in The Politics of Rape: Debunking the Feminist Myth, notes that:
John Bradford, M.D. authored a chapter in Sexual Deviance: Theory, Assessment, and Treatment where he summarized results of surgical castration research. Although surgical castration studies are unreplicatable today due to “ethical” considerations, they are theoretically important because, as Bradford writes, surgical castration’s “mechanism of action … is the reduction of plasma testosterone, the principal hormone for the maintenance of sexual behavior in males and the hormone involved in sexual drive.” Surgical castration studies therefore can shed considerable light on the degree to which a rapist’s sex drive is involved in his raping behavior. Bradford reviewed several studies that examined both pre- and post-surgical castration recidivism rates of sexual deviants, mostly rapists and child molesters. The results of these studies (which included large numbers of subjects over long periods of time) reported significant reductions in sex offender recidivism rates ranging from more than 70% precastration to under 5% postcastration.
It seems obvious, though, that while testosterone levels may drive sexual desire the hormone itself doesn't lead men to rape or desire sex with children or animals or inanimate objects. Something else must be at work in these deviates. In any case, anyone who reads the sports pages these days knows that there is more than one way to increase one's testosterone.
As anyone who has
followed the Simon Singh
fiasco knows, the libel laws in the UK are an open
invitation to the litigious to stifle criticism and thwart the
progress of science and medicine.
Richard Dawkins has now
thrown his considerable hat into the arena. He says:
London has become the libel capital of the world. Litigants are coming to England from another country to sue people who live in a third country over a book that was published in a fourth country....
Do we really want discussions on matters of science, evidence and medicine, and indeed any area of public interest, to be conducted in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty?
Dawkins presented his case to the Liberal Democrats who are proposing reforms to the libel laws by shifting the burden of proof toward the plaintiff, cutting libel costs, and narrowing the jurisdiction of the English courts.
update: 14 Dec 2009. Libel Reform by Ben Goldacre Our libel laws are a menace, but not to journalists, or even to doctors: they are a menace to you. Put very simply, when you restrict the free criticism of medical ideas and practices, you harm patients and the public.
update: 19 Oct 2009. England’s libel laws don’t just gag me, they blindfold you by Simon Singh In the UK, "bloggers and scientists are increasingly reluctant to write anything critical for fear of ruin."
Scum of the minute
The winner this minute goes to the folks who are marketing the EFX bracelet, "an embedded wearable holographic" bracelet "designed to maximize performance and overall well-being by increasing balance, strength, and flexibility." Remember the Q-Ray bracelet? This one's even better. It tunes your chakras.
EFX’s technology consists of frequencies that are highly compatible with both humans and animals on a cellular level. Because it works instantly when placed in close proximity with the body’s electromagnetic field, real time functional performance gains can often be demonstrated....EFX is designed to resonate with and tune your body’s naturally occurring bio-electric frequencies....
Did you follow that gibberish? It gets better.
Like acupuncture, acupressure or deep therapeutic massage, we believe that placing EFX energetic dots near specific energy centers or chakras, may promote or enhance the energy flow along the main meridian channels.
Pay no attention to the grammar that would have you believe that acupuncture has beliefs. Notice they're not making any claims; they're just telling you what they believe. It's up to you to believe their beliefs, even if they're qualified by weasel words like "may promote or enhance." Then again, the dots may not do anything except sit there watching the energy go by.
A reader saw an ad for this paratrinket in a golf magazine, where the appeal is to the superstitious who might think the following clause makes sense: "isolating 89 of the bodies [sic] 106 frequencies and programming them into a unique hologram inside the bracelet." Google turned up more than 16,000 sites hawking it. The one I clicked on brags about using applied kinesiology to validate the power of the EFX doodad. It can get rid of jet lag and motion sickness, too. Check out the graphic at the bottom of the page with the dancing silhouettes.
Anyone who believes you can get more energy and less pain from a bracelet will find the EFX just what the alternative doctor ordered.
JREF announces scholarship winners
The James Randi Educational Foundation has announced this year's scholarship winners. The top prize ($5000) went to Stephen Folmsbee.
Mr. Folmsbee is an honors student and senior undergraduate at the University of Kansas. He is majoring in neurobiology and plans to attend medical school. He has a 4.0 GPA and boasts an extensive list of honors and awards. He is an active skeptic, promoting critical thinking and evidence-based medicine in a column for his university paper.
It's award season. The Willesee Award goes to the organization that selects the most inappropriate recipient for an award. The winner is Atheist Alliance International (AAI) for giving Bill Maher the Richard Dawkins Award. According to AAI, the award is to
honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge....
Maher's a nontheist, but he uses his bully pulpit to promote pseudoscience and anti-science, as well as science. He supported evolution when Dawkins appeared on his television program; but Maher has also railed against science-based medicine on several occasions, while giving praise to anti-vaccinationists and other peddlers of medical woo. Personally, I don't see a necessary connection between being an outspoken critic of theism and promoting science, but the AAI sees a connection and they linked the two in the qualities they honor by their award. Like Dawkins, I enjoyed Religulous, but if I were asked, as Dawkins was, if I approved of Maher as the choice for the award, I would have made an effort to find out more about him instead of assuming that the funny, irreverent guy in Religulous isn't a boob in other areas.
The Willesee award is named after Michael Willesee who, in 1987, was given the Responsibility in Journalism Award by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now known as CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) for his reporting on such topics as psychic ability, dowsing, and acupuncture. Willesee later went on to promote a panoply of religious nonsense after he became convinced God saved him from dying in an airplane crash. (There's that busy God, again.)
A new (to me) website is up and running at ground level. It's called Grassroots Skeptics and seems to be a clearing house for announcements of upcoming skeptical events as well as a source of information for those wanting to start a skeptical group. I don't know anything about the folks who run the site, but Phil Plait vouches for them and that's good enough for me.
If you don't find what you're looking for there, try my Get Involved page.
If you are at TAM8 next July, look for the guy walking around in the T-shirt that reads: The Skeptic's Dictionary is my Bible. That'll be me honoring Nice Guy Eddie's kind words posted here.
I can't say the SD is my bible since my bible is my bible, I will say that it is my Book of Mormon.
That's meant to be a compliment.