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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 9 No. 5

May 3, 2010

"In the beginning the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and is widely regarded as a bad move. Many races believe it was created by some sort of God, but the Jatravartid people of Viltvodle VI firmly believed that the entire universe was, in fact, sneezed out of the nose of a being called the Great Green Arkleseizure." -- Douglas Adams (1952-2001)

In this issue

What's new?
Open-mindedness and skepticism
The minister's folly
Lying for ideology
Scum of the minute

What's New?

My interview with Karen Stollznow of Point of Inquiry is now online.

There is now an entry in the SD for paranormal investigator. It's one of the longest entries in the SD. The proliferation of non-scientific amateurs out for a night of scary fun prompted this lengthy attempt to distinguish the scientific investigators from the vast majority of characters who haven't got a clue what they are doing.

I added an entry for Bert Hellinger and Family Constellations: just when you thought quack therapies were on the wane.

I posted a review of Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What, a film by Renée Scheltema that provides a bully pulpit for parapsychologists, New Age healers, and self-promoting "psychics" and tricksters. She claims the film is a "spiritual journey into the science behind psychic phenomena," but it is too one-sided to pass as a serious quest for the truth about apparently psychic experiences. Skeptics may enjoy seeing and hearing Gary Schwartz spew forth line after line of convoluted gibberish that passes for science at the University of Arizona.

There were two other entries to Skeptimedia: The phonies on the fringe and Protecting child rapists. The former is about whiners who complain that "they" are taking our freedom whenever the whiners don't get their way. The latter is about the failure of both church and state to protect children from predators.

"Clever Irrationality" is an essay on how some people appear to be rational when making seemingly clever claims that are either trivial or palpably not true.

A reader comments on the shroud of Turin.

There were several additions to What's the Harm?

30 April 2010. Measles outbreaks threaten progress in child mortality in west and central Africa.

26 April 2010. Baby starved to death for not saying 'Amen'; mom gets probation.

21 April 2010. Senegal: Boys in Many Quranic Schools Suffer Severe Abuse.

11 April 2010. Child bride, 13, bleeds to death.

Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at www.skepdic.com/updates.html.

Open-mindedness and skepticism

What does it mean to be open-minded? I was recently chastised for dismissing outright the claims of an Indian fakir who claims he hasn't eaten anything in 68 years.

I'm writing to you about the fakir (we all know where that word comes from) [it comes from an Arabic word meaning poor person] Prahlad Jani. As you mentioned in newsletter 34, Jani claims to have survived 30 years without food or water [actually, the claims vary from story to story, but all agree Jani says it's been decades since he ate or drank anything]. Obviously, Jani's claim is a fraudulent load of rubbish.

As skeptics we obviously demand proof, but while we both think Jani is full of something he needs to eat to produce, dismissing anybody's claim outright is abandoning the scientific principle ourselves.

You dismissed Jani because locations and names given in the article have suspicious translations. A quick Google suggests that all are genuine. The area of India exists, and the biologist Dr. Sudhir V. Shah exists and works there at KM school of PG medicine and research, Sheth V. S. General Hospital, Ahmedabad.

You dismissed Jani's claim because of innuendo. If we are going to convert others to critical thinking we need to live by our own rules.

According to Wikipedia:

"As of April 22nd 2010, new tests are being conducted on Prahlad Jani under surveillance of 35 doctors and researchers of Defence Institute of Physiology & Allied Science (DIPAS)."

I hope that this will be a properly controlled test, and that the results will reveal Jani as the fraud he is. If he passes, we need to check out the reputation of DIPAS and if it is good, we have some investigating to do.

As skeptics, we cannot dismiss claims out of hand.

The writer is correct about the new test. A Google search on April 30, 2010, at 8:30 p.m. PDT found an item allegedly posted "8 hours ago" from ABC15.com in Arizona:

An 82-year-old man from India, Prahlad Jani, claims he has lived for 70 years without any food or drink.

Jani says he left his home when he was seven. He says he has lived as a wandering holy man and is regarded as a "breatharian" who can live on a "spiritual life force" alone.

Jani believes he is sustained by a goddess who pours an "elixir" through a hole in his palate.

Jani is now being studied by Indian military who believe Jani could teach soldiers how to survive longer without food or disaster victims to hang on until help arrives.

One man says, "if (Jani's) claims are verified it will be a breakthrough in medical science."

This is the same story that the BBC ran six-and- a-half years ago. Jani was tested then, but apparently the test was not conclusive. He's being tested again, this time by DIPAS and a panel of specialists in the fields of neurology, nephrology, and diabetology. You can hear all about it on YouTube! (via AlJazeeraEnglish). A very authoritative-sounding fellow asserts that so far Jani is passing the test. Dr. Sudhir Shah, an Ahmedabad-based neurologist said: “The observation from this study may throw light on human survival without food and water. It may help in working out strategies for survival during natural calamities, extreme stressful conditions and extra-terrestrial explorations like future missions to the Moon and Mars.” No kidding? The test isn't quite over. Jani is supposed to be observed for 15 days. I doubt if the folks at DIPAS will convince the Indian Rationalist Association (or me) that Jani is not a "village fraud." Stay tuned. No, don't waste your time. I think we can safely predict the outcome of this one.

The writer did not understand that in 2003 I was making jokes about Jani's story. I was not dismissing his claims because of innuendo. Jani's claim can't be taken seriously. The test cannot be genuine. To deprive a man of water and food for fifteen days would be to kill him. No ethically responsible person would conduct such a test. The testers can't be trusted. If they would be willing to do something that would inevitably lead to the death of a human being, they would certainly be willing to lie. But I did not dismiss Jani's claim because of the obvious fraud involved in so-called testing of Jani's inedia. I dismissed him because his claim contradicts the very principle on which belief in such a claim is built: the consistency of experience. We trust people's stories because we have experience of the regularities of nature. If someone tells us he lost a leg but by prayer he was able to grow another one even better than the original, we know he's not telling the truth. We can't cut off his arm and demand that he do it again, nor can we believe his story. To believe his story would mean that all the regularity of nature is no guide to experience. For all we know, the next time we take a step we could fly upwards, or when we eat bread it could kill us or turn us into fish. It is only because nature is consistent that we can have any confidence that the present will resemble the past in the sense that like things in like circumstances will produce like effects.

I don't dismiss Jani's story on the grounds that what he claims is logically impossible. Living without food or water is logically possible, i.e., we can conceive it without contradiction. We could also conceive of a person never dying or having been brought into existence out of thin air, but those claims must be dismissed, too. There never has been a person brought into existence out of thin air and there's never been a person who has lived for thousands of years. It is because processes have never been contravened and do not admit of exceptions that we can rely on experience as a guide through life. In short, there are some stories that do not need to be investigated to know that they are not true. We are not abandoning science by dismissing some claims out of hand. Quite the contrary. We are showing our respect for all the knowledge science has provided about human physiology, nutrition, biochemistry, etc., when we feed ourselves or our children, despite any beliefs we might have about being able to live on prana.

I grant that there are some claims that seem to contradict everything science has taught us that we should not dismiss out of hand. Jani's claim, however, isn't even near the borderline of such cases.

If Jani says he cut off his leg during the night and another one grew in its place, don't believe him. You are not being closed-minded by rejecting his claim without testing it. Likewise, if he tells you he never drinks or eats anything, don't believe him. You are not being closed-minded by rejecting his claim. Furthermore, you are not being open-minded by testing it: you are being unethical. If you really do deprive him of food and water for 15 days, you are a murderer. If you allow him to deceive you, you are as much an accomplice in his fraud as if you had agreed to do a fake test.

Now, if Jani claims he can turn a spoon into a fork using only the power of his mind, tell him James Randi will give him a million dollars if he can prove it. We all know Randi's money is safe, and we all know why it's safe. Why pretend we're being closed-minded if we don't test the poor fellow?

Open-mindedness is not the same as being gullible or credulous. For a more detailed account of open-mindedness, see chapter one of Becoming a Critical Thinker, available free online.

While Jani was allegedly being tested by Indian scientists, a dargah priest was performing an exorcism in a city on the other side of the state of Gujarat. The priest's victim was a 36-year-old woman that he deprived of food and exposed to the elements for 22 days. The woman's father claims his daughter was chained and forced to sleep on hot sand under scorching sun during her "cleansing." The process was supposed to drive an evil spirit from her. You might call the priest and his accomplicesthe woman's husband and some in-lawsopen-minded. I call them murderers.

(See also Skeptimedia: Dr. Sudhir Shah and Prahlad Jani.)

new Below is a brilliant educational video from QualiaSoup (Doug), "a UK artist with strong and wide ranging interests in creativity, communication, science and the natural world." (A tip of the brain-warmer to Ethan Clow.)

[/new]

The minister's folly

A local minister thought he was being clever when he wrote that he could never muster the faith of an atheist. "Whenever I look for a reason to have faith in atheism," he smirked, "All I find is … nothing." Like many arrogant ministers, this one is befuddled by the notion that an atheist believes there is no god. It would be pointless to try to explain to him that actually an atheist doesn't believe there is no god. Forget altogether trying to explain the difference between believing god doesn't exist and not believing god exists. Anyway, why not play along with his misconception that atheists believe god doesn't exist and respond to his challenge to prove it. The minister thinks it is obvious that nobody can prove god doesn't exist, so the atheist is trapped when challenged to do so. The minister's folly is in not realizing that he's setting a trap for himself, not for the atheist.

The first question to ask the minister is "what do you mean by 'god'?" If his definition is empty or self-contradictory, then maybe I will believe that his god doesn't exist. His god must have some attributes and they have to have some meaning, be coherent, and be consistent with each other. The minister I have in mind says he's a Christian, so I assume his god is omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, all-good, and creator of the universe. Let's start with the concept of omnipotence. What does it mean? I contend that the concept is meaningless. To be all-powerful means what exactly? He can do anything he wants? He can make good evil and evil good? He can make a piece of bread be both a piece of bread and a jackrabbit? He can make 2=3 and 3=6? He can make a stone too heavy for him to lift? To say god is omnipotent is gibberish. It means nothing.

What about omniscience? What does that mean? He knows everything. What does it mean to know everything? Does he know that omnipotence is absurd? Can he know that he knows everything? How can he be sure? How does he know anything? He's non-material and has no brain, so how does he know anything? He must be a disembodied consciousness, then. That helps matters, you think? What is a disembodied consciousness? Ever meet one? You can't even conceive of one, especially a masculine one.

So what is it that is supposed to be eternal? This creator of the universe has always existed. What is this creator? There doesn't seem to be anything left to do the creating except the universe itself. Is the universe god? Not according to the minister. God is the creator of the universe and existed before the universe came into being. These are just words. This creator is nothing but a word, an unnecessary word at that. When I try to understand what this minister means by god, I find nothing but words that don't make any sense. How could anyone believe is such a nothing, or be so foolish as to demand that those who don't believe in this nothing prove that such a nothing doesn't exist?

The minister's more sophisticated brethren don't anthropomorphize god. They use 'he' for convenience; god has no gender, no sex, no organs of any kind. Images, like the one Michelangelo created on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, are to help humans get a glimpse into the divine realm. Or so the theologians say. They also say that god can't be comprehended by humans, that language can't capture the essence of god, that words can either tell us what god isn't (the via negativa) or provide some sort of analogy. God isn't bound by space and time (hey, that's just like psi!) and isn't material or limited, etc. God is being beyond being, the ground of being, the source of what is (that it is and that it is what it is), etc. Do these words make sense? Do they have a reference beyond your imagination? I don't think so. When I try to understand what the minister's more sophisticated brethren mean by god, I find nothing but words that don't make any sense. How could anyone believe in such a nothing, or be so foolish as to demand that those who don't believe in this nothing prove that such a nothing doesn't exist?

I can't prove every god doesn't exist, but if you define your god for me, I can at least examine your definition to see if there is anything there for me to deny. In the meantime, I'm content to simply not have a belief in any gods. I say to all theists: You can believe whatever you want about gods, but don't say that an atheist believes your god does not exist until you first clarify what you mean by 'god'. Most likely your definition doesn't make enough sense to deny, but give it a try. The exercise won't do you any harm. It might even do you some good. Who knows? Maybe you'll have an aha! moment and realize that you've put your faith in nothing but words and feelings.

Another way to have an aha! moment would be to envision yourself on this planet at the edge of our galaxy surrounded by billions of other galaxies with billions of planets existing in an unimaginably huge space for the unimaginable duration of more than 13 billion years. Or consider any object at hand and imagine magnifying it until you can get to the molecular structure and then continue even deeper into the sub-atomic structure until you see that most of what is there isn't there at all: it is mostly empty space. Ask yourself: in the grand scheme of things, how important are the stories of a desert tribe that lived several thousand years ago or the equally implausible stories told by peoples all over the planet?

To the deep thinker who wrote "Atheism, taken as an organising imaginative principle, is just as much a myth as any other," I say you shouldn't project your yearnings onto others. Just because you need an emotional construct for your yearning to find meaning and significance in your existence doesn't mean that not believing in a god is an organizing principle. Atheism isn't a story to combat the story of theism. Atheism is not "believing the atheistic story;" it's not believing the theistic story. Atheism isn't a belief. What part of "isn't a belief" don't you understand? Maybe you'll understand it if I put it this way: I don't have a belief in the non-existence of Thor; I don't believe that Thor exists. My non-belief isn't a belief. It isn't a story, It isn't a myth, and I don't need faith to not believe Thor doesn't exist. Still don't get it? Sorry, I can't help you. It doesn't seem that complicated: atheists don't have a belief about your god, or a myth about godlessness that we can hang other beliefs on, or faith in godlessness. Like you, we don't believe in thousands of gods that other humans have put their trust in over the millennia. Surely you understand that you don't have thousands of myths or organizing principles based on the denial of each of the gods you dismiss as non-existent. Or do you?

On the bright side: we're not dirt, we're stardust.

Lying for ideology

The Militant Libertarian has posted an article from Natural News by Aaron Turpin with the title "Autism: Study Confirms Increased Rates Correlate with Use of Aborted Fetal Cells." The first sentence of the article claims: "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study, published in Environmental Science & Technology that shows a correlation between the rise in autism rates since the 1980s and the use of fetal cells from aborted pregnancies." My first thought while reading the article was that the anti-vaxxers have moved the goal post once again. It's not the mercury in vaccines, nor the number of vaccines, nor the spacing of vaccines that causes autism. It is aborted fetal cells that cause autism.

After reading Turpin's militant diatribe against abortion and Big Pharma, I immediately went to Science-Based Medicine and did a search for "vaccines fetal cells." Dr. Steven Novella had read Steven Ertelt's article in LifeNews with the title "Study Suggests Link Between Autism and Use of Cells From Abortions in Vaccines." Novella also had read the EPA study. Guess what? There is "no mention of vaccines, let alone fetal cells in vaccines" in the EPA report. What gives?

According to Novella:

The study simply looked at databases of autism diagnosis to see if there was a point at which the increasing cumulative diagnoses was most sharp – any turning points in the data. The point of this exercise is to suggest where to look for a potential environmental factor contributing to autism – because that’s what the EPA does, look for environmental exposures that are causing human disease.

Obviously, if the EPA study makes no mention of vaccines or fetal cells, somebody else must have made the connection. According to Ertelt, that somebody was a "pro-life blogger" named Jill Stanek. Since 1988 was identified as one turning point in some locations studied by the EPA, Stanek apparently went data mining and, according to Ertelt, found that in 1988 "the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices added a second dose of the MMR vaccine, containing fetal cells from aborted babies." Dr. Novella comments:

That’s it – a second dose of MMR vaccine was added. Since the vaccine schedule was being expanded regularly over the last two decades, no matter what date the EPA study found as the turning point for increased diagnosis, a temporal link to some vaccine could have been found. So the fact that this roughly correlates with the addition of a second dose of MMR is meaningless. It is not evidence of a connection.

It may be a minor point, but the vaccines don't contain fetal cells. The vaccines are derived from cultures that use fetal cell lines that date back 40 years. More important is the fact that several studies have already vindicated the MMR vaccine from being a significant causal factor in the development of autism. Apparently, Stanek knows what she's doing. Her linking of abortion to autism by linking an EPA study to both, even though the study mentions neither, is getting some press.

If the reader prefers a throat-slitting response to Stanek's chicanery, you must read "When right wing loons try to 'do' science involving vaccines or HIV/AIDS..." at Respectful Insolence. (Orac's rant attacks several ideological liars. Scroll down to the section with the heading "Oh, noes! The fetal DNA in vaccines is giving the kids teh autism!")

Scum of the Minute

Gary Null claims he suffered kidney damage and was left bloodied and in intense pain from two daily servings of his own supplement: Gary Null's Ultimate Power Meal. He's suing the manufacturer of a product he's been selling to others as a great source of vitamin D. Too great, apparently.

Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos defended the Roman Catholic Church's practice of not reporting sexual abusive priests to the police, saying it would have been like testifying against a family member at trial.

A special award goes to a group of social conservatives and retired military chaplains who claim that the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy would have an adverse impact on the religious freedom and careers of military chaplains. According to retired military chaplain Col. Rich Young, allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the armed forces "steals from the chaplain their religious freedom."

It goes without saying that a scum award goes to all the ideological liars out there. Congratulations and keep up the bad work.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the editorial assistance of John Renish
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