A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 11 No. 2

February 2012

“No one in their right mind would let a first-century dentist fill their children’s teeth. Why, then, do we allow first-century theologians to fill our children’s minds?”--Michael Dowd

“Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position." --Bill Maher

What's New?

There's a new entry in the SD for Kids on the Big Bang.

I've also posted a book review of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

The latest posts on the Unnatural Acts blog are ad populum fallacy, representativeness bias, and affect bias. Next up: the priming effect.

Several SD entries were revised. The placebo effect was revised to clarify the notion that it is part of mind-body medicine, as some CAM proponents are saying. I also make more explicit the fact that 'the placebo effect' has become a catchall term that includes many things that are not placebos.

The Parker Lightning Process was revised to include some information from someone who attended the process with his depressed mother.

The alternative health practices entry was revised to call attention to a deception used by many CAM defenders, including the NCCAM. By including prayer, relaxation exercises, yoga, and meditation as CAM, they exaggerate the popularity of CAM.

I also revised a Skeptimedia post on the skeptically-prone personality. I wanted to clarify the point that my definition was a parody but was not without serious purpose. I also added some comments about the definitions of 'autism' and 'mental illness.'

Several files were updated. Deception on the Burzynski Clinic Website? now includes some info about a woman who is suing the clinic for bilking her of nearly $100,000 by persuading her to undergo a proprietary cancer treatment that "was actually a clinical trial," and charging her $500 per pill for drugs she could buy elsewhere for a fraction of that price.

The entry on communal reinforcement was updated to comment on a continuing misdefinition and general botching of the concept on Wikipedia.

The naturopathy entry now includes a link to an article by Linda Rosa about a battle going on in Colorado between licensed and unlicensed naturopaths.

Climate change deniers now has a link to Five shots against global warming denialism taken by Phil Plait and to a lovely response to a recent Wall Street Journal article claiming there's no climate change worth worrying about.

The homeopathy entry now links to Harriet Hall's introduction to Oliver Wendall Holmes's Lectures on Homeopathy published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.

And the diploma mills entry now has a link to The Museum of Hoaxes page on Carlingford University started in prison by a convict for other convicts.

Upcoming Skeptical Events

2012 looks promising as a good year for skeptical and secular celebrations of reason and science.

Next month, Richard Dawkins will be the featured speaker at both the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. and Rock Beyond Belief in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Joining Dawkins at the Reason Rally are Adam Savage, Tim Minchin, and James Randi.

On April 21, the SkeptiCal Conference will be held at the Berkeley Doubletree. Featured speakers include Dr. Indre Viskontas, Dr. Kiki Sanford, and Dr. David Morrison. Get your tickets early and save 17%! I've got mine. See you there.

In May, the "Women in Secularism" Conference will be held at theJessica Alquist Crystal City Marriott in Arlington, Virginia. Sixteen-year-old Jessica Ahlquist has been added to the speaker list. She's the young woman who challenged her Cranston, Rhode Island, high school's forty-nine year tradition of hanging a prayer banner in its auditorium. A federal judge ruled that the banner was in violation of the principle of separation of church and state. The banner beseeches "Our Heavenly Father" and ends with "Amen;" otherwise the sentiments seem innocuous enough. The fight goes on, maybe to the U.S. Supreme Court. Who's daring enough to guess how that group might rule?

July 12-15 are the dates of The Amazing Meeting 2012 (TAM X) presented by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Once again, the Randifest will be held at the South Point Hotel in Las Vegas.

CSI and the Skeptical Inquirer had so much fun at their skepfest in New Orleans last year that they plan to do it again, this time the venue will be Nashville, Tennessee, on October 25-28.

A View from the Outside

"I hate to tell you this, but the details of your life and the philosophy of your existence are neither that interesting nor that original. You, like me, are really not that compelling. I have heard the content and what you are saying before, more times than I can count....I suspect part of the allure of alternative medicine providers is that the dull details of my life, which are of no interest to anyone but me and (maybe) my family, are of endless interest to the fake diagnosis and treatment by the homeopath or naturopath. The patient gives us a story, we extract the small amounts of information that are relevant to the diagnosis, but do not give a narrative back in return. We give data and odds and studies. Alt med providers return a narrative and a story, incorporating the faux uniqueness of their patient."--Mark Crislip

Sheldrake's Alternative World

Rupert SheldrakeIn the seventeenth century, Spinoza declared that viewing the universe as purposive was the way of pre-scientific thinking. The teleological view of our ancestors would have to make way for a mechanistic view of nature. Most scientists today agree, but there are some, like Rupert Sheldrake, who believe that mechanistic explanations are insufficient and science never should have given up on teleological models. Sheldrake has also been doing scientific studies that conclude such things as that dogs and parrots are psychic and that people can psychically tell when others are staring at them. Many skeptics have criticized Sheldrake and others like him.

Several years ago Rupert Sheldrake enlisted a few friends and together they launched a website they call Skeptical Investigations. The purpose of the site was to fight back against the skeptics by building a case that the skeptics were pseudoskeptics and the defenders of the paranormal were the true skeptics. Furthermore, the Sheldrake group claims that all science that rejects the teleological model is pseudoscience and only those who reject the pure mechanistic model are doing real science.

So, Rupert Sheldrake is the real skeptic and scientist and all of those other people who call themselves skeptics and scientists are deluded. Now he's put his alternative view of reality into book form with such an unoriginal title and thesis that one wonders about the state of a world that finds him a person of interest. Yet, he's managed to get The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Inquiry reviewed in The Guardian (twice!) and the Independent (no, I won't provide links). I won't read the book because I don't think Sheldrake knows what he's talking about. He characterized modern science as being irrationally strapped to some sort of simplistic materialism such as the corpuscular theory of matter (that all reality is made of little bits of matter that bump into, bounce off of, or stick to one another).

Sheldrake doesn't think it was a good thing that scientists grew out of the magical thinking that posited ghosts in the bodily machine to explain human behavior or 'vital spirits' to explain the movement of things. His view of 'materialism' and his claim that modern science still works under the paradigm of 19th century notions of matter don't jibe at all with the books I've read about quantum physics, modern medicine, evolutionary biology, or neuroscience. I've not come across anything while reading books of modern science that still present the crude materialism of Democritus and LaPlace. Nobody I've read recently claims that the laws of nature are fixed forever and are the same here as everywhere, as Sheldrake claims is a basic tenet of modern science. One of the great admissions of modern physics is that we have very little understanding of the stuff that makes up most of our universe: dark matter and dark energy.

May Sheldrake find asylum in the countryside and there luxuriate in the quiet stares of the psychic parrots and wolves dwelling in the surrounding fairy thicket.

Alternative Medicine in Australian Medical Schools Under Fire

A group called Friends of Science in Medicine has written to the vice-chancellors of 19 Australian universities calling on them to axe alternative and complementary medicine (CAM) degrees. Professor Alan Bensoussan, director of the center for complementary medicine research, University of Western Sydney, Australia, recently defended the continued teaching of CAM in medical schools. He begins his argument with the following appeals to popularity and tradition: "Complementary medicine treatments are used by two in three Australians each year and have been taught in universities here for two decades." The truth of the first claim probably depends on including such things as prayer, relaxation exercises, and yoga as "complementary." In any case, it's irrelevant to whether the practice of teaching healing by magic and superstition should continue, as is the appeal to tradition. I imagine some righteous citizens made a similar argument centuries ago while debating the continued practice of burning women to death for witchcraft. Bensoussan concludes his defense by making the false claim that removing CAM from university medical training is "a shameless push to censor learning." I suppose astrologers could make the same claim about the continued denial of their admission into university departments, but the claim would be equally false.

Being psychic, I wrote a response to Bensoussan In Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed! months before he made his argument public:

The number of years that something has been practiced, in itself, does not justify that practice. The fact that magical thinking and superstition persist in many areas of modern life does not mean that magical thinking and superstition are superior to other methods. Rather than be guided by the inferior methods of our ancestors, we would be better off if we tried to understand why these primordial ways of evaluating experience persist and what we might do to overcome the tendency to think like our less knowledgeable predecessors. Rather than celebrate ancient errors, we might do better to train ourselves in ways of overcoming our tendencies to fallacious thinking.

Apparently, Bensoussan didn't pick up my vibe, but if he believes in healing at a distance, then surely it would not be too much to expect him to believe in reading at a distance.

On the other hand, I am completely nonplussed by the argument of Dr. Valerie Malka, who is described as a surgeon and former director of trauma services at Westmead Hospital.

There is no better than modern medicine when it comes to surgery, emergency and trauma, but for almost everything else, traditional, natural, or alternative medicine is far more effective - particularly for chronic illness which modern medicine is completely unable to treat or cure.

I haven't got a clue what Dr. Malka bases this claim on, but speaking for myself I prefer real medicine for my diabetes and cholesterol and blood pressure control. My medical doctor and I work together to keep my dependency on drugs to a minimum. The classes offered by Kaiser Permanente on various things that affect diabetes have been lifesaving. I'll leave the detoxing, waving of hands, and water and vitamin therapies for others who find Dr. Malka's views palatable. It might surprise some people to find out that even real doctors recommend eating daily helpings of fruits and vegetables, exercising, and keeping one's weight under control. What a shock! On the other hand, I hear homeopathy works wonders with Alzheimer patients and those with Type I Diabetes, but I doubt it's true. At least, Dr. Malka realizes that there's no need for an aromatherapist in the emergency room.

Reader says he has an interesting question

Dear Mr. Carroll,

I was reading your dictionary and came upon an interesting question. Is rape a real concept?

Carroll: The reader did not find the question in The Skeptic's Dictionary. He's claiming that while reading the SD the question just popped into his head. There are 68 occurrences of the word 'rape' in the SD. There are no occurrences of 'the concept of rape.' Furthermore, the question strikes me as very odd. What could he possibly be getting at, especially with his use of the word 'real'? Are there unreal concepts? Is he really asking is rape real, not is rape a real concept, in which case, I sense the question is part of an agenda that the reader will now put forth.

In many of these cases you argued that anecdotes are nothing more than contaminated stories via other people, environment, society, etc.

Carroll: The writer doesn't specify what cases he's talking about, but if he is talking about rape cases, then his comment is false. The 68 references to rape in the SD occur in discussions of false and repressed memories, alien abduction, psychoanalysis and other psychological treatments, stories of abuse by priests, and the like. None of the references to rape in the SD concern the problem of anecdotes being contaminated. The writer has made this connection on his own, presumably to further his agenda.

I discuss the problems of anecdotal evidence many times in the SD, but never in relation to any discussion of rape.

Furthermore, you argued that stories cannot be proven via the scientific method. But wouldn't the same be true of rape?

Carroll: OK. Now we know what this moralist is about. He wants to jump from the fact that anecdotal evidence does not trump the results of properly done scientific studies to the conclusion that rape can't be proven. To do this requires some intentional distortion or inherent cognitive disability or both. I'll go out on a limb and guess both in this case.

I never claim that stories or anything else cannot be proven via the scientific method. In fact, I don't usually use the expression "the scientific method" because there are several methods used in science, not just one. And I don't usually talk about "proving" claims. I usually use language that indicates that the evidence is strong in support of a claim or that no association between two things like vaccines and autism was found in a study.

I always claim that belief should be proportional to the evidence. I never claim that unless something is proved with absolute certainty we shouldn't accept it as probably true. I think the standard we should use depends on the case at hand. I wouldn't require as much evidence regarding the reliability of a brand of pencil as I would to convict someone of murder or rape in a court of law.

Just people someone [sic] argued that they were raped doesn't mean it's true. rape victim [sic] lie all the time. Furthermore, they could use fraud, deception, and influence from others to help recreate their story.

Carroll: How this has anything to do with 99.9% of the kind of stuff I write and am known for is beyond me, but it deserves a reply only to educate other moralists who might think that just because testimony can be faked they are justified in rejecting all claims based on testimony or just because something isn't proved with absolute certainty it isn't "real."

The charge of rape does not logically entail guilt. That is why there is a trial. In our system of justice we say that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. This does not mean that if we can't prove you are guilty of rape, then you didn't commit a rape. It means that until we prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty of rape, we cannot legally treat you as a guilty person and legally punish you for your crime. Defense lawyers are given the right of cross examination and if there is a suspicion of lying, it is their duty to try to cast doubt on the prosecution's case against the defendant. Actually, it's the duty of the defense to cast doubt on the prosecution's case even if there is no doubt that the defendant is telling the truth, but that's a topic for another time.

As a professor of law, I believe you would agree that rape is inherently subjective.

Carroll: You're a professor of law? Amazing. I hope you're not a prosecutor as well. Anyway, I'm not a professor of law. I'm a retired philosophy professor who used to teach a course in the philosophy of law. It so happens that rape law was one of the topics I took up in that class. Most states used, and some probably still do use, the "reasonable man" standard to determine consent, which was measured not so much by whether the victim used words that typically indicate consent or not but by how much force was used and how much resistance the victim showed. Some appellate judges recognized the unfairness of this standard, given the inherent differences in power and size of men and women. Notwithstanding the fact that some women are bigger and stronger than some men, the fact is that to expect any given woman to resist a sexual assault as if she were a man being harassed by another man is unfair. Clearly, if a rapist is armed with a knife or gun, a woman who shows no resistance is not thereby assumed to have given her consent. But even if a man is not obviously armed, it is possible for him to instill such fear in a woman that her lack of resistance cannot reasonably be taken as a sign of consent. So, yes there is a subjective element in some cases of rape, but that is a long way from saying that rape is inherently subjective. If a small man with no weapon tried to rape a larger man, we would expect the larger man to resist and fight off the smaller man. If a small man reminds a larger woman that he knows where she lives and what school her children go to and reminds the woman that she wouldn't want to come home one day to a dead child or the burnt ruins of a house, her sticking a knife in the small man's throat might not only be taken as a clear rejection of his advances but also as self-defense, even though he never laid a hand on her.

The victim tells us if it was consensual or not.

Carroll: And sometimes the physical evidence tells us it was not consensual. But it is true that one person can charge another with rape and both agree that they had sexual intercourse but one say it was consensual and the other deny it. It is also true that a person can accuse another of rape and be knowingly lying. It is also the case that a man can rape a woman and knowingly lie about it.

We cannot scientifically tell if someone is [sic] raped or not.

reply: We can determine from various kinds of evidence whether a rape has possibly or probably occurred. And we can determine beyond a reasonable doubt, in some cases, that a rape has occurred and who did it. Some sick perverts even film themselves raping women or children. They leave no doubt about their crimes.

Consent is not testable.

Carroll: If not, then I wonder why so many male judges ruled that consent was given because a woman didn't fight for her life while she was being raped.

There are cases where lack of consent is uncontestable, e.g., when men rape children or comatose or anesthetized women. There are cases where there is strong evidence in support of a woman not giving consent. How about where she says 'no' to a man's sexual advances and he then rapes her in front of witness who testifies truthfully?

On the other hand, if you are claiming that because consent is a mental intention we can't test it, you are wrong. We judge intentions by behavior all the time.

The presence of semen does not mean that one is raped. If that was true, millions would be incarcerated per day.

Carroll: The first sentence is self-evident. The second one, not so much. Both statements, though, are equally inane in the context of this discussion.

So are you in agreement that we should stop wasting valuable resources on rape and outlaw rape laws?

sincerely, a devoted fan

Carroll: No. I don't agree that we are wasting valuable resources charging people with rape, especially people who are entrusted to care for others like priests, therapists, nurses, coaches, babysitters, and teachers. Yes, some men have been unjustly accused of raping women or children, but many more men, I would suspect, have lied about raping women and children than have been lied about. Humans lie. That fact is not a sufficient reason for abandoning a legal system built on a belief that motives and intentions matter in determining what kind of act has occurred and that both motives and intentions can be determined, in some cases, beyond a reasonable doubt, without having to read anybody's mind.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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