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

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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 11 No. 6

June 2012

"Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.” ~ Carl Sagan

"...the sun is going down on the sacred cow." ~Bob Dylan

What's New?

New Dictionary entry: Long Island Medium.

New Unnatural Acts blog entries: subjective validation, illusion of control, motivated reasoning, and communal reinforcement.

New Unnatural Virtue episodes on Skepticality (mp3): sympathetic magic, confabulation, and ad hominem.

New reader comments: incorruptible bodies.

Revised Dictionary entries: consegrity (co-founder Mary Lynch died in March, killed like her partner by her own delusions); Jon Barron and the Barron effect (some concerns of Barron are addressed, including his belief that I deliberately distorted his photo to make him look "strange"); and the unconscious.

Updated Dictionary entries: synesthesia, Randi Million Dollar Challenge, acupuncture, Clayton College is back!, shroud of Turin, lucid dreaming, EMDR, eyewitness testimony. IQ and Race,
and near-death experiences.

Mercola, the Sun, Tanning Beds, and Melanoma

joeLynn wrote: "I have stage 4 melanoma and I am doing very well and currently NED [no evidence of disease]...I am so sick of quack J. Mercola promoting his tanning beds and now on Twitter ( last night) he posted the following: DID YOU KNOW…that sun exposure and ultraviolet rays are not the cause of melanoma?

No, I didn't know that, but maybe Joe knows something I don't. So I did a little investigating. First, I went to mercola.com, the site of Mercola's very popular newsletter. I found that Mercola is indeed claiming that melanoma is not caused by sun exposure. For those who don't know who Joseph Mercola is, he is an osteopath who promotes a "natural" way to health. I didn't realize that tanning beds were part of this natural lifestyle. Anyway, Mercola writes:

...research published in the British Journal of Dermatology shows that the sun is likely nothing more than a scapegoat in the development of melanoma, and the sharp increase may actually be "an artifact caused by diagnostic drift."

Mercola got it wrong. The research he links to wasn't about the sun and melanoma; it was about the cause of an increase in reported incidences of melanoma. The authors of that study don't call the sun a scapegoat. Rather they write: "These findings should lead to a ... re-evaluation of the role of ultraviolet radiation and recommendations for protection from it, as well as the need for a new direction in the search for the cause of melanoma." The scientists were cautious in their language, unlike Mercola.

Even so, what is the current scientific thought regarding exposure to sunlight and melanoma or skin cancer? I tried to find out, but I have to admit that it is quite complicated. Mercola makes it sound simple, but it isn't.

Mercola has some things right. Most of us shouldn't be avoiding sunlight at all costs. Sunlight stimulates the production of vitamin D3, which is necessary for a healthy immune system. Vitamin D3 in the skin can be converted to calcitriol, which kills melanoma cells. Vitamin D3 is converted to calcitriol by exposure to sunlight (in the form of UVB, ultraviolet radiation in the 290–320 nm range). UV rays in the 321–400 nm range (UVA) can cause mutations. What some researchers have found is that people who are exposed to UVA but not UVB have a higher incidence of melanoma. Who are these people? People who work indoors. Apparently, the glass in most buildings allows in UVA rays, but blocks out UVB rays. The researchers who speculate that the reason indoor workers have a higher incidence of melanoma than outdoor workers is that they don't get the needed exposure to UVB that helps fight melanoma. They do NOT say, as Mercola does, that sunlight is a scapegoat. The very first line of their article reads: "Outdoor solar UV radiation (UVR; 290–400 nm) and indoor UVR exposures contribute toward skin cancer."

I'm not a medical doctor and I don't give health advice, so I am not going to make any recommendations on how much exposure to sunlight is healthy and how much is unhealthy. But, " studies have found as little as 5-10 minutes of sun exposure 3 times per week can boost your vitamin D levels to where they need to be."* I'm not going to recommend whether sunscreen should always be used or what kind. Skincancer.org, website of the Skin Cancer Foundation, provides the following information:

Sunscreens are products combining several ingredients that help prevent the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the skin. Two types of ultraviolet radiation, UVA and UVB, damage the skin, age it prematurely, and increase your risk of skin cancer.

UVB is the chief culprit behind sunburn, while UVA rays, which penetrate the skin more deeply, are associated with wrinkling, leathering, sagging, and other light-induced effects of aging (photoaging). They also exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of UVB rays, and increasingly are being seen as a cause of skin cancer on their own. Sunscreens vary in their ability to protect against UVA and UVB.

Apparently, most sunscreens do the same thing as glass: block out UVB and let in UVA.* The rules are changing, but it may be some time before they go into effect.

About melanoma, the Skin Cancer Foundation says it is the

... most dangerous form of skin cancer, these cancerous growths develop when unrepaired DNA damage to skin cells (most often caused by ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds) triggers mutations (genetic defects) that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors.  These tumors originate in the pigment-producing melanocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis. Melanomas often resemble moles; some develop from moles. The majority of melanomas are black or brown, but they can also be skin-colored, pink, red, purple, blue or white. Melanoma is caused mainly by intense, occasional UV exposure (frequently leading to sunburn), especially in those who are genetically predisposed to the disease. Melanoma kills an estimated 8,790 people in the US annually. 

If melanoma is recognized and treated early, it is almost always curable, but if it is not, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal. While it is not the most common of the skin cancers, it causes the most deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that at present, about 120,000 new cases of melanoma in the US are diagnosed in a year. In 2010, about 68,130 of these were invasive melanomas, with about 38,870 in males and 29,260 in women. 

I trust this information more than I do the rants of Joseph Mercola.

The Incomplete FAQ

In the last newsletter, I answered several questions sent in by a reader who thought I might want to use them to supplement my FAQ. I often get questions like these, usually from people who haven't read much of my writing. This person, who wishes to remain anonymous, is no exception. Here are few more of her questions and my answers.

Q8. When did you believe in something that you eventually regretted? How old were you? How many times did it happen?

A. The main belief I regret having is the belief that most other people are truth seekers. I have wasted many hours researching topics and arguing with people who had no interest in understanding how the brain works, why memory isn't reliable, why perception is misleading, why the self is not the most objective judge of personal experience. I still find myself reading e-mails from people who know from experience the power and reality of chi, prayer, reiki, automatic writing, psychics, astrologers, homeopathy, and dozens of other superstitions. I know I can't change the minds of these people and I regret having believed that I could. I don't regret engaging them or publicly attacking these beliefs because I learned long ago that I'm really writing for the spectators, the bystanders, the audience. I don't write for the one who engages me. I gave that up long ago.

I also regret believing that the spirit scientists might discover something worth knowing. They haven't. I've wasted many hours reading books and articles by Dean Radin, Gary Schwartz, Rupert Sheldrake, Charles Tart, Raymond Moody, Roger Nelson, Robert Jahn, Hal Puthoff, Russell Targ and his daughter Elisabeth, Larry Dossey, Randolph Byrd, William S. Harris, Herbert Benson, Mitch Krucoff, Edgar Mitchell, and dozens of others like them. I've learned nothing of value from these people except, perhaps, that there is no necessary connection between intelligence and self-deception.

Even the answers I've provided here are not intended to change the mind of the one who sent in the questions. If I can discourage just one person from pursuing a career in energy medicine, parapsychology, or from a life filled with chimerical gods, ghosts, and goblins, then I'll consider my time wasted studying this crap to have had some value.

Q9. What is your definition of a "crackpot"?

A. A crackpot is somebody whose ideas are laughed at and ridiculed, and whose ideas are not accepted by the mainstream thinkers in the field because they (the ideas) demonstrate a lack of understanding of a basic concept in that field.

Q10. Why encourage people to be skeptical, which is by definition closed-minded (a person who habitually doubts the authenticity of....surely you already know the definition), instead of encouraging them to be "curious" or "questioning" or "investigative" or "informed buyers"?

A. Being skeptical is not being closed-minded. The Greek word from which 'skeptic' is derived means an inquirer. To encourage skepticism is to encourage inquiry and discourage dogmatism, accepting things as certain on the authority of others. If you want to be a fair-minded inquirer into anything, you must be skeptical of your own perceptions, memories, and intuitions. Most people are not willing to do this.

Q11. Do you find the idea repulsive that you and the creator are co-creators? He/She/It has plans but you also have free will?

A. No. I find the idea repulsive that my life can have meaning only if I was created for a purpose. I find the idea silly but not repulsive that I am a co-creator of meaningfulness along with some supernatural co-creator. The universe that we observe is grand enough and mysterious enough that we don't need to posit magical beings living outside of our observational purview who can pull the strings that hold together our vastly old and vastly large part of reality: well, old and large compared to a human being's lifespan and size.

Q12. Some writers, scholars, thinkers would consider the statement [that you don't need a god to create you for a purpose in order for your life to be meaningful] to be a very stereotypical ego-based thought. How would you answer that? What is the role of ego in skepticism?

A. Being the creator of your own meaningfulness is egocentric by definition. One of the first lessons of skepticism should be to mistrust your own perceptions, memories, and interpretations of your experience. We must be especially careful in resisting the urge to see causal connections between events we associate in our minds. Learning to temper our belief that the patterns we recognize are real and not illusory is difficult, especially when most of us are ignorant of the methods of science and why science uses the methods of testing causal claims that it does.

Q13. What is the role of emotion in skepticism? It is clear that many of your answers are colored with anger or frustration or belittlement. Is that a key aspect of skepticism? Can someone be a happy, peaceful skeptic?

A. Nobody would think about anything if they didn't feel it was important. I don't think there is much thought without an emotional component. So, in that regard, the role of emotion in skepticism isn't any different than for any other methodological tool. I disagree with your characterization that many of my answers exhibit anger and belittlement. I try to respond to my critics with the same respect that they show me. I admit that I have often become frustrated while trying to get somebody to see something I consider clear, obvious, and well-supported but which they do not.

I see no reason why a skeptic could not be happy and peaceful. A skeptic will be unhappy, however, if she thinks that all it should take is solid evidence and cogent reasoning to persuade anti-vaxxers, 9/11 conspiracists, birthers, HIV/AIDS denialists, climate change denialists, and a host of others like them, of the errors of their ways.

Q14. Are you aware of the scientific evidence that the participating scientist's intention in the experiment has an effect on the outcome? With this in mind how do we know what "scientific evidence" to trust and believe in?

A. Yes. This is known as the experimenter effect. I discuss it here. You shouldn't be trusting or "believing in" scientific evidence. You should be evaluating it with a critical eye.

Q11. You mention "informed belief." How many encounters with "proof" does it take to create an informed belief? How can I know "proof" when I see it?

A. Excellent question. Whole books have been written about proofs, cogent arguments, evaluating evidence, and reasonable beliefs. People often assume they are open-minded and have come to their own beliefs because of the evidence in support of them, and they accuse those who disagree with them of being closed-minded. In fact, the one accused of being closed-minded may have come to her belief because of years of study and evaluation of the evidence, while the one who thinks she is open-minded may have come to her belief because of an anecdote she heard that harmonized with something her acupuncturist told her. Being open-minded doesn't mean you have to go over the same ground again and again. Unfortunately, there can't be a formula for knowing a proof when you see it because we're all prone to self-deception, to thinking more highly of ourselves than we probably deserve, and thinking those who disagree with us are ignorant or stupid or motivated by something like money, ego, keeping a job, etc. In general, however, the less knowledge you have of a subject, the less likely it becomes that you will be able to recognize a good proof in that subject area.

Q12. How are a Christian, a Tai-Chi Master, and a psychic similar? How are they different?

A. They're all subject to delusion, self-deception, and all the cognitive illusions and biases that affect everyone. They each think the others are deluded and closed-minded but not themselves.

Q13. Why do you believe science and religion are different? Are they not both based on belief in our current age? If I believe a scientific study was done in a proper way and make decisions based on that, how is that different than if I believe God exists and make decisions based on that? Surely we can't all be present for every scientific experiment ever done or every miracle ever reported. Are you encouraging each of us to be our own scientists?

A. Science is a set of methods used to discover things about the observable universe. Religion is a set of beliefs and rituals used to connect people to some sort of magical realm where beings can do such things as protect us and harm our enemies, make rules, and make sure justice is done in some sort of afterlife. I discuss the difference between evidence-based beliefs and religious faith in my entry on faith.

Evaluating evidence properly doesn't require our being present when the evidence is created or discovered. We evaluate testimony and methods, reports, and replications, etc. If a scientist ever reported something like a miracle, say a mangled limb becoming whole again by a special atom rearranger box, we'd expect replication not only of the limb but of the experiment in other labs by other scientists. Stories of miracles have fascinated people for as long as records of gullibility have been kept. Belief in miracles is always a matter of faith, not reason. Accepting scientific facts is a matter of reason, not faith. We can't all be scientists, but we can all make a greater effort to think more critically, be less gullible, become aware of all the hindrances to fair-minded thinking, and do our best to overcome them. Most of all, we need to recognize that humans are story makers and storytellers, driven more by our wishes and desires than by an impersonal quest for truth.

Marko Rodin

Jacques writes: "Have you heard of a guy named Marko Rodin? He fits in pretty much every category in the Skeptic's Dictionary." Never heard of him. Somebody has a website at markorodin.com which allows you to donate money to fluxthruster@xxxxxx. The site has no content. Conspiracy addict Jeff Rense has a site promoting Rodin's ideas where you can read such things as the following that are put forth without tongue in cheek:

At the age of fifteen Marko Rodin projected his mind as far as he could across the universe and asked the question, "What is the secret behind intelligence?" Due to his gift of intense focus or because it was time for him to know the answer, his stomach muscles turned to iron and as he was literally lifted forward he answered out loud, "I understand." What he had gleaned from his query was that all intelligence comes from a person's name.

It gets worse.

Dark Matter, the vibratory essence of all that exists, is no longer on its elusive hide and seek trip -- it has been found! With the introduction of Vortex-Based Mathematics you will be able to see how energy is expressing itself mathematically. This math has no anomalies and shows the dimensional shape and function of the universe as being a toroid or donut-shaped black hole. This is the template for the universe and it is all within our base ten decimal system! You have entered a place where Numbers are Real and Alive not merely symbols for other things. You will discover that the relationships between numbers are not random or man-made but that numbers are actually elementary particles of which everything is composed. This lost knowledge was well known to our ancients and is now being uncovered for us today.

As soon as a crackpot mentions "lost knowledge" that has been rediscovered by him, I head for the exit. I hope you'll follow me out.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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