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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 11 No. 9

September 2012

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish." --Albert Einstein

What's New?

New essay: Pearl Curran (Patience Worth) and the Fantasy-Prone Personality Label.

New Skeptimedia post: Jamy Ian Swiss, TAM 2012, and Cognitive Incompetence.

New posts on Unnatural Acts That Can Improve Your Thinking the illusion of skill, regressive fallacy; self-deception, confirmation bias, and confabulation.

New episodes of Unnatural Virtue on the Skepticality podcast: (mp3) subjective validation and the clustering illusion.

New reader comments: graphology, Gerson therapy, Patience Worth, and Uri Geller.

Updates: paranoid conspiracists, yin-yang, N'kisi, blood type diet, and organic food.

translations: The auras entry has been translated into Polish.

Survey of Pseudoscience Forum in Sacramento

Liam McDaidIf you're in the Sacramento, California, area on September 9th join some local skeptics for a discussion of pseudoscience. The event is sponsored by Atheists and Other Freethinkers (AOF) and will be held from 2-5 pm at Sierra II Community Center - Room 10, 2791 24th Street, Sacramento. Panelists include Shane J. Trimmer, local skeptic-activist; Glenn Branch, Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE); Liam McDaid, Sacramento City College professor of astronomy; Sarah Strand, CSUS professor of neuroscience; and me, Bob Carroll. For more info click here.

Sacramento Freethought Day 2012

Sacramento Freethought Day is October 6, 2012, at the Ben Ali Shrine Center, from 10am- 6pm. Check out the lineup of speakers and entertainers. It's free.

CSICon 2012

David GorskiThe big event of the year for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is getting near. There are still tickets available for CSICon Nashville. From the CSI website:

CSICon 2012 is coming to Nashville October 25–28, and it’s bringing the best and the brightest minds of science and skepticism for an unmissable assemblage of fascinating talks and presentations, enlightening panel discussions, eye-opening workshops, and more food and fun than you can fit into the Grand Ole Opry. And with all the anti-science activity taking place in the statehouse, what better time could there be for a bunch of skeptics to descend upon Tennessee?

David Gorski will set the record straight on alternative medicine. Physicist Lawrence Krauss will blow your mind with what science has learned about cosmic origins. Science journalist Chris Mooney will take you on a terrifying trip deep into the brains of Republicans and Democrats. Social psychologist Anthony Pratkanis will expose the tricks of the trade of flim-flam artists. Psychologist Richard Wiseman will help your brain tell the difference between a haunting and a hoax. And you’ll remember Elizabeth Loftus for making you realize how much you didn’t remember about the whole thing. In the midst of all this intellectual firepower will be ample opportunities to decompress.

Check out a special live edition of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast. Comedic musician George Hrab will have you laughing with both of your brain’s hemispheres. Skepchick Rebecca Watson will MC what might be the nerdiest Halloween party outside of a Star Trek convention, complete with live music and, yes, a moonshine tasting. And of course, we’ll take another crack at communicating with the dead with our traditional Houdini séance. This is just a small sampling of all that’s to be experienced at CSICon 2012.

I'm sure a good time will be had by one and all.

Follow-up on diet and MS

In the May 2012 newsletter, I commented on a YouTube video in which Dr. Terry Wahls claims that she learned how to properly fuel her body at the subcellular level and thereby cured her MS. I wrote: "Did she cure herself with organic food, sunshine, filtered water and other dietary changes? Maybe. But my guess is that she is in remission and that her dietary changes may have had nothing to do with her MS symptoms disappearing." A reader with MS has this to say about my response:

You are right to be skeptical of MS "cures" due to relapsing-remitting nature of the disease. It is a quack's dream, to be sure. However, in the case of Terry Wahls, the claim being  made is that she was in the Secondary Progressive phase of the disease. Most people with RRMS (Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis) eventually enter the secondary progressive stage. In that stage, there are no longer clear attacks and remissions, just a steady worsening. It is (to say the least) very rare to have any improvement in this stage, let alone the dramatic changes the Dr. Wahls describes. In fact, I have tried to find even one other case that is similar, and have come up empty.

Also, to say that MS is not a constant debilitating illness minimizes the nature of the disease for many of us. I think you are thinking of early stage Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis. This type can be benign, or fairly close to benign. However many of us either don't have that type to begin with, or have progressed into the secondary progressive phase (that occurs for, I think about 40%(?) after 10 years, on average).  

There are four sub-types of MS: Relapsing Remitting, Secondary Progressive, Primary Progressive, and Progressive Remitting. Patients with the Relapsing Remitting form comprise the majority, however these are not all benign. I myself am 31 and walk with a distinct limp and foot drop. I have had these symptoms continuously (with some variation in severity) for at least 3 years. I don't expect to ever walk normally again, and these are only the visible/obvious symptoms. I literally could not jog or walk fast to save my life, despite practice. I used to run track in high school, and I have always been super driven and independent. I look at benign cases like Anne Romney, and think in my head that these 'people with MS who don't really have MS' are a poor representation for the rest of us. Then I think of the people worse off than me, with walkers and wheelchairs, and I understand how they must feel about me. To them, I have a mild case, I can still drive and work etc. My case is classified as Relapsing Remitting.

The bottom line, is that MS is a complicated disease, with a really varied constellation of symptoms, and yes it is very, very difficult to know if someone improved by using any specific approach. Nevertheless, it is rare or unheard of for anyone to improve in the secondary progressive phase of the disease. If I were going to be skeptical about Dr. Wahl's claims, I would try to find out if there is a possibility that she was misdiagnosed as primary progressive, or if there are any other cases where secondary progressive patients have improved, before chalking it up to "But my guess is that she is in remission and that her dietary changes may have had nothing to do with her MS symptoms disappearing."

Frankly, I didn't know that MS is classified into four types. Had I known that Wahl's was diagnosed with a type of MS that never goes into remission, I would not have claimed that she probably went into remission but that she was probably misdiagnosed. My reading of the MS Society website post on Secondary Progressive MS, however, is that in this stage the patient gets progressively worse but that there still might be periods of remission. If my reading is correct, Wahl's could be in remission even if she has Secondary Progressive MS.

The 15-minute reader

I've been maintaining The Skeptic's Dictionary website for nearly 20 years. I get all kinds of correspondence from every part of the world. The most annoying come from a type I call the "15-minute reader." Their email usually begins like this: "Hi! I stumbled on your site tonight." Then I'll get some faint praise like "great job!" and be notified that the author is "a skeptic, too." Then comes the punch line. The purpose of the email is to tell me that ... well, let me let the horse speak for itself: "the world and their dog know that modern medicine does nothing more than treat symptoms and rarely provides cures. The driving force behind modern medicine is NOT the search for cures, but the maintenance of a trillion dollar per year industry....Have you got shares in pharmaceutical companies?"

What's sad is that even some M.D.'s who have left the fold of science-based medicine--like Russell Blaylock--make these same kinds of claims. Blaylock's case is particularly absurd, since he's an anti-vaccinationist and vitamin pusher. Every layperson and M.D. should know that vaccinations, which are supported by science-based medicine (in case you've forgotten), prevent more diseases than all the vitamin pushers in the world combined. Everybody should know enough about cancer research, for example, to know that science-based medicine cares deeply about finding cures. My HMO is not unique in offering classes in nutrition, diet, healthy lifestyle, etc. for diabetics, for those who want to minimize the risk of heart disease, etc. The pig-ignorance of the 15-minute reader obviously annoys me. Usually they don't sign their names, but the last one did and added "Mind Mechanic, clinical hypnotherapist, master NLP practitioner, life coach." I can't match that, for which I am grateful..

The Sneaky Illuminati

The SD entry on the illuminati continues to be the most popular content page with over 4,500 visitors last week. The following email may provide a hint as to why it is so popular....or maybe not....

I am responding to your post about the illuminati and possible eschatological events. I agree with you partially about people just being crazy or mentally ill; however, the thought struck me as I was watching one of the Freddy Krueger movies. In this particular one the main character from the first movie was now counseling a number of patients that were being haunted by Freddy. To everyone else these people were just downright crazy; however, in this fictional tale it was real. We often see these kinds of movies and have a bad attitude towards the characters in the movie who ignore the heroines. However, in real life we are too quick to pass off these kinds of people as mentally ill. I am not saying every person who has a crazy story is right; most of them are probably mentally ill.

My question to you is this: If you were a leader of a secret society such as the proposed "Illuminati" how would you keep it a secret? Would it be possible to keep it a secret for centuries? Who would be the ones to carry it on? How could you be sure that those people would never tell and would you have complete and absolute power to silence those immediately who would release such secrets? The answer, in my opinion, is no; the only way to hide would be in the open. To release certain details and once in the hands of the those who are prone to such pct [paranoid conspiracy theory] habits their human imagination would fill in the details for what they couldn't prove and any person with a sound logical mind would disregard it as religious, crazy, irrational propaganda.

My point is I do believe in the illuminati; I don't believe it's aliens, but I believe that the truth is hidden in many different, as you call them, PCT extremists and you have to get the meat from the bones. Through research and yes, speculation. And if I am wrong, no big deal. But if you are wrong, think of the consequences that would be thrown upon us.

Like what? Obama being re-elected? Or Mitt Romney being elected and dying on his first day in office?

A Strange Dream or Apparition

Stories of sleep paralysis, hypnagogic, and hypnopompic states provide many amusing and frightening stories. Here is one a reader shared with me:

I am interested in the comments concerning sleep paralysis. Many years ago I was sleeping soundly early one winter morning when something woke me up. The first thing I was aware of was the coldness next to the bed, which I attributed to the bedroom wall: a north facing exterior wall that often got cold on winter nights, except that this was a type of cold that seemed very unusual. The next thing I became aware of was a pure white gaseous somewhat transparent figure about three feet in height and floating about three feet off the floor, right next to me between the bed and the wall, about a two foot gap. As I continued to awaken from my deep sleep, I became terrified and tried to scream, but found that I could not. In fact I found that I was completely unable to move or make a sound. As soon as I began to try to scream the 'vapor', which clearly resembled the figure of a woman, vanished.

It seemed to me at the time in going over the event later that no more than a few seconds had passed during the entire event. I immediately woke my wife and related to her what I had just experienced. A few hours later, still in the early morning hours, my sister called on the phone. I had not heard from her in months, and we usually only called each other at major holidays. She was calling to tell me that my grandmother, whom I also had not heard from or even thought much about for months, had passed away, just about half an hour before my experience. Except for that one event, I have never had another experience like it that I recall. In other words, I do not suffer from sleep paralysis.

Since your position is that people are not experiencing real events, I am curious how you would explain my experience, which I still believe was my grandmother 'visiting' me just after her death. Nothing even close to being that strange has ever happened to me otherwise.

Trying to scream but being unable to make a sound or to move are classic experiences known as sleep paralysis when they occur just before dropping off to sleep (the hypnagogic state) or just before fully awakening from sleep (the hypnopompic state). Sleep paralysis is not a recurrent disorder, so having a single experience like the one described is not atypical. A deceased grandmother appearing as a "pure white gaseous somewhat transparent figure about three feet in height and floating about three feet off the floor" is not so common. I don't want to belittle the experience, but the description of the apparition reminds me of Caspar the Friendly Ghost. Of course the experience was real, but whether the apparition occurred in a dream, in the hypnagogic or hypnopompic state, or during full wakefulness, I can't say. Whether the gaseous figure was some sort of ghost of the writer's grandmother is not something I would argue for, but I'm not going to try to convince anyone that it wasn't.

My Misunderstanding of the Law of Attraction

A kind reader has informed me that I have completely missed the point in my entry on the so-called law of attraction, the notion that one's mental disposition attracts similar external circumstances and events. Here's the real skinny:

Sir, you seem to be misunderstanding the basic premise of the Law of Attraction. Perhaps you are overthinking it just a tad, and this has caused it to go completely over your head.

The examples that you gave are perfect! LOA is about matching vibrations of thought. A seller is thinking "I want to sell." A buyer is thinking "I want to buy". Their vibrations are a match and the universe starts lining the two up. The vulnerable is thinking "Woe is me! I'm so vulnerable and ripe for attack!" The vulture is thinking "Oh where, oh where art thou, my next victim? I seek thee!" They, too, have matching vibrations and the universe responds accordingly. The lazy dreamer thinks of his desire for a get rich quick scheme and his vibration will align itself perfectly with a con artist whose thoughts are about scheming to get rich!

Grief and greed aren't a "match" simply because they are perceived to be two negatives. They match only if the grief-stricken and the greedy have matching vibrations of thought, and this can be negative plus negative or positive plus positive or one of each. Positive and negative are not necessarily factors. There is no reason for the thought vibrations of a grieving person to line up with those of a greedy person unless that grieving person also happens to include thoughts of monetary abundance in their thought process. In such a case, it is not the grief that matched the greed, but rather the monetary abundance that matched the greed ---the monetary abundance being a positive and greed a negative, in such a case. These could then be seen as "opposites attracting", but that would be the incorrect way to see it as, again, the law is not about positives and negatives and, furthermore, "opposites" is subjective and merely a matter of individual and personal perception. Monetary abundance to one person is a blessing and a curse to another. The same for greed---one can be greedy for life, greedy for joy, greedy for knowledge. Context is key. And the LOA is simple when taken in context and exercised thusly.

I hope this commentary helps to give you a better grasp of the concept or prompts you to take a second look at LOA with new eyes from a new perspective, placing your skepticism aside long enough to do so.

You would think so, since my vibration is the negative plus negative of the author's, yet it seems like the backfire effect has kicked in and I still see the LOA as IOC (illusion of control).

Need Something Translated into Dutch?

Herman Boel, Dutch translator of The Skeptic's Dictionary (Het Woordenboek van de Skepticus), has an English language website called Alta Verba where you can find out more about his services as a translator. Herman's also the author of  Will the World End in 2012? 33 idiotic questions to which you already should have an answer.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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