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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 11 No. 1

January 2012

"Scientific skepticism, the engine that propels intellectual inquiry, has morphed into skepticism of science fueled by religious certitude."--Kathleen Parker

What's New?

My book Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed! is available from Amazon, but because of an unfortunate accident to my editor at the JREF the book is not yet available from Barnes and Noble for the Nook or from iTunes. Free apps available from Amazon will let you read a Kindle book on your Mac, iPad, Windows PC, iPhone, Android, Windows phone 7, or Blackberry.

New posts in Unnatural Acts, the blog: ad hoc hypothesis, ad hominem, apophenia and pareidolia.

New Dictionary entries: Carey Reams (a man with a head full of ideas apparently made up on the fly) and Lynn Andrews (plastic medicine woman spreading shamanistic nonsense at the speed of smoke).

Updates: the Nobel disease to include Suzanne Humphries (no vaccine is safe) and Robert Lanza (biocentrism); homeopathy to link to a story about the UK pharmacy chain Boots being ordered to stop listing medical conditions in their in-store advertising of homeopathic products; chiropractic to include a link to Science-Based Medicine's Subluxation Theory: A Belief System That Continues to Define the Practice of Chiropractic and to Chiropractic: An Indefensible Profession; Maya prophecy 2012 to include a link to Psychology Today's What You Should Know About 2012: Answers to 13 Questions; the Bloxham tapes to include a response to Ian Lawton's concern about a seemingly lucky guess by "Jane Evans" about a golden apple; and William C. Rader, M.D. to include some nasty charges against him and his stem cell treatments.

The College of Medicine

The Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Health may have closed down, but it seems to have been resurrected as The College of Medicine (CoM) with Prince Charles as an open supporter. His Foundation shut down last year amid allegations of fraud and money laundering. Edzard Ernst reports that the CoM is pursuing "Prince Charles's bizarre concepts about healthcare." Last May Charles attended a dinner at St James' Palace for the CoM, which is "organised and run by much the same individuals as the Foundation." The CoM describes itself as "a force that brings patients, doctors, nurses and other health professionals together, instead of separating them into tribes. A force that combines scientific knowledge, clinical expertise and the patient's own perspective. A force that will re-define what good medicine means." And this is needed because? "Something has gone wrong with healthcare" and the National Health Service is "unsustainable and scandal-prone" and medicine is in "crisis."

These folks deserve the chutzpah award for the organization doing the most to promote disinformation about scientific medicine while awarding itself the good doctor award.

We Get Mail

Emily wants to know what the following "argument tactics" mean: Impossible Expectations and Moving Goalposts, Argument from Metaphor/violations of Informal logic.

'Violations of informal logic' refers to various fallacies of assumption, relevance, ambiguity, completeness, and sufficiency of evidence. For examples, click here.

'Impossible expectations' would be an appropriate description of those who demand that there be absolute certainty about something before taking action. For example, some people say they are "pro safe vaccines," but they then go on to claim that the only safe vaccines are those which are absolutely certain not to cause harm to anyone anywhere at any time. Some climate change deniers often say that we should not take steps to avert disaster that might ensue from global warming caused by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide until we can prove with absolute certainty both that the greenhouse gases are a significant cause of global warming and that the disaster will occur if our behaviors don't change.

'Moving the goalposts' refers to a tactic of changing evidentiary requirements as the requirements you've stipulated are met. For example, a global warming denier might say that the instrumental record for global temperatures only goes back about 150 years. If only we had more data, we might make a good case for global warming. So, more data is provided, e.g., records that go back a thousand years. The denier then says that a thousand years is not enough data. So you provide evidence that goes back tens of thousands of years. The denier says that's not enough data. So you provide data that goes back 750,000 years and the denier says that's still not enough data.

Some cases of moving the goalposts can be instructive. For example, many a young Earth creationist has demanded evidence for evolution in the form of an example of something that is evolving today. When provided an example, the creationist reveals his ignorance of evolutionary theory by demanding an example of a mother giving birth to a member of a different species or to something absurd like a crockoduck.

I've never heard of the argument from metaphor, but it may mean the same thing as 'false analogy.' Some anti-evolutionists, for example, think that it is relevant to their opposition to evolution to point out that the parts of jumbo jet will lie on the ground forever and never assemble themselves into an airplane. It's true that both biological organisms and jumbo jets have many parts that must be organized in a particular way for them to function properly, but this fact is irrelevant to whether organisms evolved.

***

Another reader asked me how do I, an atheist, know it is right or wrong for a woman to show her bare face in public. I have to admit that the question about it being right or wrong to be barefaced in public has never come up in my circle. I do know that I wouldn't look for an answer in the sacred scriptures of some tribe of ancient shepherds or robbers for an answer to this or any other question I might have. I assume the reader was implying that without a rule given to him by a god he wouldn't know what is right or wrong. He wouldn't know whether it is right or wrong to buy expensive works of art and burn them for fun unless some god told him it was ok or not. He wouldn't know whether it is right or wrong to torture butterflies unless his god told him it was ok or not. There would be a very long list of items at least as interesting as whether going barefaced in public was right or wrong that this fellow wouldn't have a clue about unless his god gave him an order. He wouldn't even know that murder is wrong unless some god told him it was. If the god changed his mind and made a new rule that murder is good, then this fellow would believe murder is good. The divine command theory of morality has to be one of the most moronic of all ethical theories and yet it is very popular among many people in many religions.

I can't believe that many people are really that stupid as to believe that they couldn't tell right from wrong unless some god gave them a rule to follow. Does anyone really need a god to give them a rule before they could know that abusing children or enslaving other humans is wrong? Why have certain men hidden behind the claim of divine commands to justify their domination over women? Why do these men continue with their humiliation and subordination of women in the name of religion? I don't believe for a second that the men in these misogynist religions really believe that morality would be impossible if some god didn't give them rules to follow. They know that if people use their brains and hearts to figure out right and wrong the reign of the misogynists will be toppled and their centuries of abuse of women will be over.

The question is not how atheists know it is right or wrong for women to go in public barefaced. The question is how long can misogynists continue their cruel deception that some god commands women to hide their faces in public? What will be exposed when the veils are pulled from the womens' faces is the fear of the men who make the rules and claim to be speaking for some god.

***

A mother defends Brain Gym and credits the program with her daughter's newfound success in school: "I find it rather sad for someone to thrash something without experiencing it.....you are so mistaken about Educational Kinesiology...I am a mother of a child who had major difficulties at school and if it wasn't for Brain Gym she would still be struggling. Do your homework!"

I did my homework. That's why I created an entry for Brain Gym in The Skeptic's Dictionary. Brain Gym is a program designed by Paul and Gail Dennison in the 1980s to help children and adults who had been identified as 'learning disabled.' They drew from a large body of research on using physical movement to enhance learning ability. They called their work "Educational Kinesiology" and called attention to the parallels between their work and applied kinesiology, the bogus muscle-testing practice popular among some chiropractors and other "alternative" thinkers like David Hawkins.

I checked out the research the Dennisons drew on, as well as on research done in recent years. The research has been widely discredited and the follow-up research on the program itself is laughably inadequate, as I describe in the entry on Brian Gym. In 1987, the Dennisons and some other educators established a non-profit called The Educational Kinesiology Foundation, which does business as Brain Gym® International and is located in Ventura, California.

The mother's position is that since her daughter has experienced Brain Gym and the mother has witnessed the effects of the experience but I haven't experienced Brain Gym, it follows that I shouldn't be criticizing the program. Her position is a familiar one: experience trumps scientific studies and renders false any claims based on those studies that don't jibe with experience. The illusion of causality is natural, especially when there is a strong emotional component like love of a mother for her daughter. Of course it anguishes the mother to see her child struggle to learn what other children seem to learn without much difficulty. It is only natural that when her child shows progress after being in a program like Brain Gym that the mother and child would agree with the program directors and educators who promote it that the program works and is the main cause of the child's current success.

Was Brain Gym responsible for the child's improvement? Perhaps. If the mother had read my article closely she would know that I do not claim that Brain Gym doesn't work, that some students don't benefit from it, or that the program is without defense. The program is defended by testimonials, not by research, which indicates to me that while some students might improve after going through the program, the evidence isn't there that the students improved for the reasons the program developers claim, such as "neural repatterning" or coordinating the front and back of the brain. There is no scientific evidence that yawning can improve eyesight or that drinking water before taking a test helps the brain stay hydrated.

One of the most vocal critics of Brain Gym is Ben Goldacre, M.D., who calls the program "ludicrously pseudoscientific." Goldacre notes that there's nothing wrong with drinking water before tests, but these folks think the water goes to the brain, which is 90% water, and this will help you think better. They're actually taught that if one holds the water in the mouth for a few seconds, it will go through the roof of the mouth and be absorbed by the brain.* Even if you stand on your head while drinking water it won't go directly to your brain.

It's not the exercises themselves that raise Goldacre's ire, but the pseudoscientific jargon used to make the exercises seem like they are based on scientific evidence. Despite five years of criticizing Brain Gym, Goldacre finds that the program keeps on finding advocates even if it has been around for thirty years without providing sound scientific evidence for its claims. It hasn't needed to, since those who buy into the program are either children who naively assume their teachers know what they are doing or teachers who are bamboozled by the pseudoscientific jargon or seduced by charismatic and enthusiastic believers. Another reason the program thrives is that there are many parents who desperately desire their children to succeed in school and who are grateful for any sign of hope that a program exists that can make their desire come true.

A View from the Outside

Philosopher Frank Cioffi died on New Year's Day. He was once interviewed about Freud. Frank CioffiHere is one question and answer from that incisive interview.

Q: Freud has bequeathed a rich panoply of metaphors for the mental life such as penis envy; castration anxiety; phallic symbols; the ego, id and superego; repressed memories; oedipal itches; sexual sublimation. Have any of these survived the test of time beyond mere terms embraced by popular culture?

A: What you must ask is: suppose you woke up one morning with a complete amnesia for the meaning of the itemized terms; in what ways would you be disadvantaged? Wouldn’t it be more like forgetting the names of all the current movie stars than like forgetting to sterilize your hands before performing surgery? You would be at a loss to fathom the genitalization of the cultural landscape. You would no longer understand why the Empire State Building was considered a symbolic erection; why the lamp rubbed by Aladdin was really his phallus; why the locked room in the classical whodunit is the parents’ bedroom and what it conceals is the primal scene, etc. etc. No activity, which depends on knowledge for its successful execution, would be held up. Only in conversation would you be at a disadvantage.

Scum of the Minute

The winner is the HoJo Motor and its promoters who claim that it is the only device that produces “Free Energy” and has three U.S. patents.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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