From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 8 No. 12
December 1, 2009
Only 18% of Republicans believe that there is evidence of global warming caused by human activity, while 28% of conservatives believe in haunted houses.*
In this issue
The climate change skeptics page is now the climate change deniers page. The address is now www.skepdic.com/climatedeniers. A link was added to Greenfyer's take on what some are calling "climategate," the hacking of a computer belonging to the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Britain and posting hundreds of e-mails and other documents. The deniers are so hot and venting so much carbon monoxide and methane that global warming is said to be accelerating at an unprecedented pace and the axis of the Earth has shifted two degrees. Jim Lippard provides a sober view of the affair.
I posted two items regarding the story of Rom Houben who allegedly began communicating in sophisticated prose after 23 years of paralysis and misdiagnosis: one post is on the facilitated communication page; the other is a new entry I've cleverly called the clever Linda phenomenon, named after Rom's "helper," Linda Wouters. The former is about the incompetent media coverage, including the interviews with medical experts who obviously know nothing about facilitated communication, the ideomotor effect, or the Clever Hans phenomenon. The latter is also about the incompetent media coverage and how easy it is to fool a) oneself and b) others, as long as you are completely ignorant of basic cognitive, perceptual, and affective biases.
Inspired by Bill Maher's response to Michael Shermer's open letter on why vaccination is good, not evil, I added several entries on leaders in the anti-vaccination movement: Russell Blaylock, M.D., Dr. Jay Gordon, Barbara Loe Fisher, Leonard Horowitz, Rauni Kilde, and Joseph Mercola. The first three are cited by Maher as authorities he finds credible. I also added entries on Hulda Clark and Rashid Buttar, D.O., who, along with Horowitz and Mercola, claim they can cure just about anything under the sun with "natural" cures or other unproven remedies. Buttar is a favorite of the Jenny McCarthy crowd, who co-opted Desiree Jennings and turned her into a pinup for the anti-vaccination movement with Buttar's assistance.
(Let me take a moment to plug the new Institute for Science in Medicine. One of ISM's purposes is to "oppose legislation that seeks to erode the science-based standard of care and expose the public to potentially fraudulent, worthless, or harmful medical practices or products." ISM's first press release addresses provisions in current Congressional health care reform bills that require reimbursement for "ineffective and potentially unsafe care." Stephen Novella and Orac have more.)
I've posted an essay, Defending Falsehoods, which tries to explain why some people will defend the palpably untrue to their dying breath.
What's the harm? has several new posts: Uganda proposes jail for homosexuals and death for aggravated homosexuality. A 16-year-old Sudanese Christian girl has been lashed 50 times for wearing an "indecent" knee-length skirt. Saudi Arabia sentences to death alleged witch doctors, fortunetellers, and black magicians. Evangelist Tony Alamo was sentenced to 175 years for sex crimes against children. A Sacramento preacher is accused of fleecing his flock. An adulterer was stoned to death in Somalia. And, the offspring of delusional products such as the Quadro Tracker, the DKL Lifeguard, and the TKS-2000, is being used by Iraq's security forces. The latest junk piece is called the ADE 651.
Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at www.skepdic.com/updates.html.
Thanks to the Herschel telescope scientists are observing the death throes of the biggest star known to science, VY Canis Majoris, which is 30-40 times as massive as our Sun. VY Canis Majoris, a red supergiant, is in the constellation Canis Major and has been recorded by astronomers for at least 200 years. It is some 4,500 light-years from Earth and could explode as a supernova at any time.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Large Hadron Collider was turned on and the world didn't end. (Another failed prediction for Ben Radford's list.) Next on the schedule is an intense commissioning phase aimed at increasing the beam intensity and accelerating the beams. According to a CERN press release: "All being well, by Christmas, the LHC should reach 1.2 TeV per beam, and have provided good quantities of collision data for the experiments’ calibrations."
"At last month's Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, researcher Jack Gallant presented the results of an experiment in which a person's brain activity was used to recreate what the person was watching when the activity occurred. Researchers already use brain scans to reconstruct still images, but Gallant's ability to play back moving images takes us much closer to some freaky sci-fi scenarios." So reads one account of Gallant's work. I'm not a sci-fi fan, but I'm told this kind of stuff occurs in Strange Days, The Final Cut, and the sci-fi series Farscape.
Washington state has barred religious and other nongovernmental displays inside buildings at the Capitol grounds in Olympia. Last year, a Nativity display at the capitol was matched by a nearby display mocking religion. There will still be a state-sponsored holiday tree inside the Capitol rotunda, however.* A few years ago, our celebrity governor here in California didn't spare a giant tree for the Capitol in Sacramento, but our tree was deemed energy-efficient. The lights were powered by a small hydrogen fuel cell system and are energy-efficient LED bulbs, which use about 15% as much energy as incandescent bulbs to provide equivalent light for human vision.*
In 2008, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques (SPOT) team pulled aside for special interrogation some 98,805 people at 161 airports. 99.992 % were released and allowed to continue their travels. Of the 813 people who were arrested, how many were terrorists? Probably none. How many were guilty of "looking like a terrorist"? All we know is that the "experts" are looking at our facial expressions and body language to make their decision on whom to yank from the line at airport security stations. $3.1 million was spent to arrest a few people for such things as possession of drugs or having fake IDs.
The great guru-buster is gone but the need for his work goes on. Tapaswi Palden Dorje (Ram Bahadur Bomjan) has allegedly gone without food or water since May 16 or November 6 (accounts vary), 2005, while he sits meditating. Given his fasting habits, the young inediate (b. 19/April/1990) has no need for bathroom breaks. His devotees say Palden Dorje is promoting world peace. If so, he might have to step it up a notch and begin flying while shape-shifting into forest animals because the world doesn't seem to be cooperating.
The Indian Rationalist Association continues to have its plate full as gurus spring up like weeds in the fertile soil of gullibility and desperation.
Business executive Tim Nicholson won the right to sue his employer on the basis that he was unfairly dismissed for his "green" views. A judge ruled that environmentalism had the same weight in law as religious and philosophical beliefs.* About a week later, Alan Power, a police worker who believes he was sacked because he believes psychics can help solve criminal investigations, went to court to defend his right to legal protection from religious discrimination. According to The Independent, employment specialist Judge Peter Russell said that psychic beliefs are capable of being religious beliefs for the purpose of the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. The BBC reports that belief in ghosts must be treated with the same respect given religious beliefs. I agree; they do deserve the same respect, namely, no respect at all. By this kind of logic, atheism could be considered a religious belief. Anyway, Mr. Power lost his case. A tribunal ruled that he wasn't dismissed unfairly; the tribunal ruled, however, that his views should be seen as a faith.
Another strange law in Britain is the Digital Economy Bill, which provides such things as £50,000 fines if someone in your house is accused of file sharing.
Islamic leaders push for international blasphemy law
The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), a bloc of 56 Islamic states, has once again proposed to the United Nations Human Rights Council that it outlaw "defamation of religion" anywhere in the world. The OIC has made the same proposal each year since 1999. The only religion named in the motion is Islam. For once, secularists and religious groups agree in opposing the non-binding motion.* According to the Center for Inquiry, the language of the new proposal is copied from Ireland's blasphemy law.
Schools Protecting Children with Questionable Filtering Software
School districts around the world are installing Internet filtering software from Blue Coat, an international corporation that describes itself as a leader in "Application Delivery Network Technology." The Blue Coat WebFilter™ database "contains over fifteen million website ratings representing billions of web pages, published in more than 50 languages, and organized into 71 useful categories." As far as I can tell, the database just rates the sites. It's up to the buyer to use whatever filters they choose. Some school districts (Indianapolis, for example) proudly print out a list of these categories and present them as if they were their own and as blocked categories. One of the categories is called Alternative Spirituality/Occult and reads:
Sites that promote and provide information on religions such as Wicca, Witchcraft or Satanism. Occult practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or any other form of mysticism are represented here. Includes sites that endorse or offer methods, means of instruction, or other resources to affect or influence real events through the use of spells, incantations, curses and magic powers. This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.
Unexplained events? As Ed Brayton wrote: "What a bizarre amalgamation of unrelated things that is." Or, lol, as the students might text.
Another category is called LGBT and covers
Sites that provide information regarding, support, promote, or cater to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity including but not limited to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender sites. This category does not include sites that are sexually gratuitous in nature which would typically fall under the Pornography category.
School districts purchasing this software might consider the cost of potential lawsuits if they ban all these categories outright.
Journalist Johann Hari has written a must-read article for those interested in understanding how Islamic terrorists are both created and transformed by the values of liberalism.
Christian-themed license plates unconstitutional
A 2008 law that created Christian-themed license plates sailed through the South Carolina state Legislature but was ruled unconstitutional by federal judge Cameron McGowan Currie. Stating the obvious, the judge noted that the law "amounts to state endorsement not only of religion in general, but of a specific sect in particular."* The law was initiated by Lt. Gov. André Bauer (R) after a similar effort failed in Florida. Bauer called the decision "judicial activism" and said it "clearly discriminates against persons of faith." He's going to ask the state Attorney General to appeal the ruling "because it is time that people stand up for their beliefs. Enough is enough."
Joe Mack, director of the office of public policy for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, believes that the Christian-themed license plate is "a protected First Amendment right."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit challenging the plates on behalf of three South Carolina pastors, a rabbi, and the Hindu American Foundation. Barry Lynn, AU's executive director, said: "Government must never be allowed to express favored treatment for one faith over others."
This minute the award goes to the anonymous huckster behind Magnets4Energy. It seems incredible, but there are still people claiming that they have a device that will allow you to have free electricity for the rest of your life. This guy (who must remain anonymous, he says) also claims that the government and the power companies know about this device and have conspired to keep the public ignorant. This guy has the video to prove that what he says is true. To truly understand how much contempt this guy has for his potential customers, consider his pitch: "Understanding the slow deterioration of Earth and thinking back on the past 30 years of my life watching you being robbed by greed is why I’m ‘spilling the beans’ on Uncle Sam." He's not giving anything away, though. For a mere $47, he'll share his secret, plus he'll send you his booklet on how to run your car on water. But you better hurry. He warns: "I reserve the right to stop selling at anytime!"
I wish I were making this up.
For those who are looking for others to take down young Earth Christian evangelist Ray Comfort's latest stunt, a website has been set up just for you. It's called Don't Diss Darwin and it's run by Eugenie Scott's National Center for Science Education. In case you haven't heard, Comfort is distributing free copies of Darwin's Origin of Species on college campuses. These copies, however, have a long introduction by Comfort that is "full of mistakes, half truths, untruths, muddled logic, old creationist arguments, misleadingly excerpted quotations, and ill-framed analogies—plus a good dose of fire and brimstone at the end."
Comfort's traveling buddy in Jesus, actor Kirk Cameron, is famous for claiming that evolutionists think that a member of one species gave birth to a member of a new species "millions of times." If evolution is correct, say Comfort and Cameron, then there should be transitional species like the crocoduck. No, there shouldn't. No evolutionist thinks any member of one species gave birth to a new species. If you're going to oppose something, you should at least spend some time trying to understand what it is you oppose. If Ray and Cameron really want to understand transitional fossils, I suggest they start by reading Richard Dawkins or my article on the missing link, which has a reading list preacher Ray should go through before embarrassing himself further.
Demonic possession still a hit among Roman Catholics
I thought the Roman Catholic Church had moved into the 19th century and no longer held that little devils are literally invading human beings and taking over their thoughts and actions. Brain disorders, not literal demons, are behind so-called "mental" illnesses, aren't they? Didn't some Pope acknowledge that? I guess not. At a recent Catholic Medical Association conference, newly installed president Dr. Leonard Rybak declared that one of the high points of the meeting was a talk by Father Thomas J. Euteneuer on suffering caused by demonic possession and the healing power of exorcism.
“It wasn’t just hearsay. It was based on his personal experience as an exorcist.” When his time to answer questions from the audience was up, Father Euteneuer invited those who still had further questions for him to step outside into the lobby and he would take them. A number of physicians, and others in health care took him up on the offer, relating instances which they have encountered in dealing with patients.*
You would think that fear of demons snaring your immortal soul for eternal damnation would be laughed at in the 21st century, but that is not the case in Catholic strongholds.
Feeding the hungry and clothing the poor are also still big among Roman Catholics
"Take any random program to clothe and house the poor in your city, and there's a good chance it's being sponsored by the local Catholic church," writes the Amateur Scientist. Furthermore, a study on clergy sexual abuse, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, confirms that homosexuality is not a predictor of pedophilia. Even though the majority of rape victims by Catholic clergy have been boys, the percentage of rapists who are also homosexuals isn't statistically significant. "This is good news," says the Amateur Scientist, "since a huge number of ignorant people believe homosexuals (especially homosexual men) are prone to pedophilia, and that the priesthood offers a veritable boy buffet. As a result of this study, the church probably won't begin to consider homosexuality a factor in selecting priests. Another positive from this study? Incidents of clergy sexual abuse seem to be on a sharp decline since the mid '80s."
On the other hand, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released an "Ethical and Religious Directive" that bans "any Catholic hospital, nursing home, or hospice program from removing feeding tubes or ending palliative procedures of any kind, even when the individual has an advance directive to guide their end-of-life care." The Bishops’ directive claims that "patient suffering is redemptive and brings the individual closer to Christ."*
The Brazilian Senator and the Psychic Foundation
Brazzil Magazine reports that senator Arthur Virgílio, leader of the opposition party PSDB (Brazilian Social Democracy), requested the Brazilian senate to summon a psychic service to determine what caused a massive blackout that left 60 million people in the dark for several hours when 18 of Brazil's 26 states were without power. The senate agreed. Allies of the Lula administration criticized the move, saying that the opposition "has lost its mind."
Energy Minister Edison Lobao said the blackout on November 10th was caused by heavy rain, lightning, and strong winds that made transformers on a high-voltage transmission line short circuit, which led to two other lines going down as part of an automatic safety mechanism.*
Virgilio isn't buying it. He claims that nobody really knows what happened. "And since no one knows let's call the Cacique Cobra Coral (Coral Snake Chief) foundation to have the opinion of a psychic, since science and the public administration are not able to answer our doubts."
Cacique Cobra Coral has a department of forecasting and changing the weather. Just in case the psychics can't get through to the psychic underground, twenty experts in energy and weather are also being summoned by the senate.
Playing for Change: Peace Through Music is the perfect DVD gift for those who share the view that music is one of humankind's best uniters. The sounds of street musicians are brilliantly mixed with those of professional musicians from around the globe to provide a joyous experience in a troubled world. A CD is also available.
Richard Dawkins's Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution is the book I'd buy for my friends, except they already have their copies. An alternative might be Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. You'll find a review of Brand's book here.
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Written by Bob Carroll
with the editorial assistance of John Renish
* AmeriCares *