From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 9 No. 6
June 4, 2010
“We are living at a time of rising interest, on the part of an uninformed public, in wild beliefs which the entire science community considers close to zero in credibility.” --Martin Gardner
In this issue
I'm pleased to announce that a Dutch translation of The Skeptic's Dictionary by Herman Boel will be published by Lannoo this September. Thanks, Herman!
There is a new dictionary entry on weasel words.
I've posted online Chapter Two: Language and Critical Thinking from the second edition of Becoming a Critical Thinker.
There are several new Skeptimedia posts: Is hypnotherapy a con?, Robbie Thomas: the not-quite-dead-yet tour, Dr. Sudhir Shah and Prahlad Jani, Maine's Tea Party Republic, Warning: Fruits and Vegetables May Be Killing our Children, The Wakefield Propaganda Machine, and Creating Your Own Pseudoscience.
A reader's comments on Prahlad Jani, the man who claims he hasn't eaten since WWII, have been posted.
Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at www.skepdic.com/updates.html.
Martin Gardner, one of the "founding fathers" of the skeptical movement that began in the middle of the 20th century, has died at the age of 95. Google his name and you will find links to dozens of tributes from those who knew him and from others, like me, who never met him but who were indelibly affected by the content and style of his writings on pseudoscience and the paranormal. I sent the following short piece to Skeptical Inquirer:
Martin Gardner’s writings on the paranormal and pseudoscience profoundly influenced a generation of writers, including me, as can be seen by the many references to his works in The Skeptic’s Dictionary. He introduced us to a bizarre world populated by the likes of L. Ron Hubbard, Rudolf Steiner, Edgar Cayce, Bridey Murphy, and a host of other characters on the fringe. He taught us that crackpots and charlatans are dangerous. They should not be ignored, but thoroughly exposed for what they are by detailed critical analysis.
My introduction to Gardner was through his Scientific American column on brain teasers and logical puzzles. When he gave up writing that brilliant and much-missed column, Douglas Hofstadter picked up the mantle. My obsession with Gardner’s writings on the paranormal and pseudoscience began after reading a Hofstadter column entitled “World Views in Collision: The Skeptical Inquirer versus the National Inquirer.” Hofstadter’s panegyric to CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer is one of the seminal essays in the history of scientific skepticism. Every skeptic should keep it at the ready for inspiration and revitalization. (The essay, reprinted in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, includes an account of Gardner’s split with Marcello Truzzi over how best to deal with Immanuel Velikovsky and other pseudoscientists.) Hofstadter’s essay inspired many teachers to become followers of SI, which inevitably led us to become followers of Martin Gardner’s many inquiries. In fact, many of us became somewhat fanatical about our inquiries into what Gardner called “wild beliefs.” We can’t stop investigating and writing about them. Thanks to Martin Gardner, James Randi, and others of like spirit, we won't be quiet until the last bit of bogus science is buried with the last charlatan claiming paranormal or supernatural powers.
In a recent interview with Karen Stollznow of Point of Inquiry, an exercise I assigned my critical thinking students was brought up. It involved asking them to create their own pseudoscience. I couldn't remember where I'd gotten the idea, but now I know. The answer came to me while re-reading Hofstadter's 1982 essay “World Views in Collision: The Skeptical Inquirer versus the National Inquirer.” He mentions Douglas F. Stalker, a philosophy professor at the University of Delaware, who "constructed some plainly preposterous pseudosciences" of his own and showed that they were just like astrology, biorhythms, numerology, pyramid power, and the like. "By working from the inside out," said Stalker, "more students came to see how pseudo these pseudosciences are." I took this idea and ran with it, having my students create pseudosciences rather than doing it for them.
Stalker has a website on which he writes:
From 1979-87 I gave my popular, satirical presentation "Winning Through Pseudoscience" at more than 35 colleges, universities, professional meetings, and high school gatherings. The presentation has been the subject of more than 20 newspaper, wire service, and magazine articles (e.g., Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, Scientific American, Delaware Today).
Stalker's stage persona was Captain Ray of Light and he enlightened his audiences with the intimate details of such pseudosciences as Fascinating Rhythm (Mambo, Samba, and Rhumba cycles explained), Alphabetology, and Peruvian Pick-Up Sticks. Each of these is explained in excruciating detail in an article by Stalker and Clark Glymour: "Winning Through Pseudoscience," in Patrick Grim's Philosophy of Science and the Occult.
Stalker informed me that over the years his students came up with some interesting pseudosciences. One of his favorites is Mailboxology: "how your mail box is the key to the real you and your true fortune in the great future."
Paul Kurtz (b. 1925), another "founding father" of the modern skeptics movement, has been given the boot by CFI, the organization he helped found in 1976. Officially, the news release says: "The Board of Directors of the Center for Inquiry (CFI)... will accept Dr. Paul Kurtz’s resignation as chairman emeritus and as a member of the board." He was made chairman emeritus when the board booted him out as chairman a couple of years ago. The CFI press release noted that "in recent years the board had concerns about Dr. Kurtz’s day-to-day management of the organization." Whatever. Despite all the great work Kurtz has done on behalf of skepticism and humanism, he has lost touch. This became apparent to me about five years ago when Kendrick Frazier, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, wrote that Kurtz "sometimes argues that no one is interested in the paranormal anymore."* It became obvious again with the publication of his article "A Dissenting View of Blasphemy Day," published last September. He opposes Blasphemy Day not because he finds the idea in bad taste or non-strategic, but because "it betrays the civic virtues of democracy." If that's not a head-turner, I don't know what is. Is free speech not the cornerstone of democracy? What kind of democracy allows only sanitized speech? He didn't stop there, though. He went on to say that anti-religious lampooning dishonors "basic ethical principles," apparently because he thinks such lampooning shows "intolerance for opposing viewpoints." Lampooning Muhammad as a terrorist or a Catholic priest as a pedophile or the Catholic Pope as a liar is considered intolerance by Kurtz. As I said, he's lost touch. Such lampooning may be in bad taste, but to call it unethical and anti-democratic is absurd.
Kurtz displayed his being out of touch again in a recent editorial in Free Inquiry, and it brought out the worst in the new president and CEO of CFI. P. Z. Meyers raked Kurtz over the coals of hellfire for that one, so I'll be brief. Kurtz is upset with the Council for Secular Humanism's Free Expression Cartoon Contest. Ronald Lindsey, president and CEO of CFI, accused Kurtz of being irresponsible and unethical in his criticisms of CFI. Kurtz might be wrong, but calling him irresponsible and unethical is a bit of a stretch. I've never considered myself a humanist, and this fray over what kind of dissent is ethical doesn't inspire me to want to get any closer to that movement. These are the kinds of disputes fundamentalists have. Like Myers, I'm more concerned about people lying and harming others than I am with the tone of anyone's speech. What kind of ethical system holds that you should respect the views of liars, thieves, and abusers of children?
In any case, Kurtz accomplished much for skepticism and humanism, and I wish him well in whatever he pursues.
Mr. Lindsey, on the other hand, seems to be steering without a rudder. He recently sent out a plea for money that included the admission that CFI has been relying on an anonymous donor for 25% of its operating budget. In recent years, writes Lindsey, this anonymous donor has chipped in $800,000 annually, but the donor seems to have vanished without a word of farewell. Coincidence?
In keeping with recent trends for national US skeptical
organizations to work more closely together to advance shared aims,
the James Randi Educational Foundation announced
that other national skeptics organizations will formally be
supporting this year's
to be held July 8-11 in Las Vegas,
For the first time in the history of The Amazing Meeting, both The Skeptics Society and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) will be co-sponsors of the event, providing financial and promotional support to the JREF.
James Randi, in celebration of the organizations coming together to support TAM, said: "This will be yet another step forward in the increasing co-operation between major skeptical agencies who share views about rationality and ethics in the treatment of claims relating to occult, supernatural, or paranormal events."
Whatever the motivation, having CSI leaders join Randi, Shermer, and the other featured speakers at the biggest skeptics bash of the year is a welcome change.
I hope to see many of you next month in Vegas. If I can find it, I'll be wearing a T-shirt that says "James Randi is my messiah and The Skeptic's Dictionary is my Bible."
Anti-vaccination movement not dead yet
Andrew Wakefield's unethical and callous research may have cost him his license to practice medicine, but his dismissal from the medical registry in the UK will have little effect on the vocal anti-vaccination movement. An essential part of their denialism is the belief that there is a conspiracy to persecute and stifle anyone who challenges the safety of childhood vaccines. (See The Wakefield Propaganda Machine.)
In the U.S.A., despite the fact that most parents have their children vaccinated against childhood disease (about 90%), a sizeable minority believe (about 25%) that some vaccines cause autism in some children. The belief in a connection between vaccines and autism is not based on the preponderance of the scientific evidence. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that there is no link between the two. The most frequently given reason for not vaccinating children is "I have read or heard about problems with this vaccine."*
Maybe a few skeptical parents will read the following:
Actually, there aren't many problems with the MMR vaccine. Before it was introduced, [in the United States] about 450 children a year died from measles, and 20,000 were born blind, deaf, or retarded from rubella infections. The vaccine all but eliminated these diseases as childhood health risks, and serious side effects are very rare.* [Worldwide, the number of measles deaths among young children fell to 118,000 in 2008 from 1.1 million in 2000.* The disease is on the rise, however, and Dr. Peter Strebel, who leads WHO's work on measles, fears a "return to over 500,000 measles deaths a year by 2012, wiping out gains made over the past 18 years."]
....immunization can be credited with saving approximately 9 million lives a year worldwide. A further 16 million deaths a year could be prevented if effective vaccines were deployed against all potentially vaccine-preventable diseases.*
1996: Andrew Wakefield begins receiving money from lawyers, led by Richard Barr, wanting to file lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. Of £3.4m distributed to doctors and scientists recruited to help build their case, Wakefield received £435,643 in fees, plus £3,910 expenses.* Note the date: Wakefield received this money before his little study was published.
2010: "a new study in Pediatrics examined the long-term effects of delaying vaccines and found that children whose parents refused or postponed vaccines did no better than children who were vaccinated on time, when tested on things like speech, language, achievement, fine motor skills, attention, and general intellectual function seven-to-10-years later."* So much for the idea that giving too many shots too soon causes autism.
Susan Jacoby: Atheist of the Year
The Atheist Alliance International has announced the winner of the 2010 Richard Dawkins Award: Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. (My review of the book is posted at skepdic.com/refuge/jacoby.html.) The Richard Dawkins award is given:
to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance; who through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge; who through work or by example teaches acceptance of the nontheist philosophy; and whose public posture mirrors the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins.
The winner of the award gets to address the group at its annual convention, which will be in Montreal this year from October 1-3. Other speakers include Daniel Dennett, PZ Myers, Karen Stollznow, and the creator of Mr. Deity.
Sam Harris on Ethics
In his talk at TED this year, Sam Harris defended the position that science can answer moral questions. How seriously should we take Sam Harris on ethics when he admits that he intentionally has not studied the important philosophers in the history of ethics? For those who know that history, the question is a little different: how seriously should we take Sam Harris when he doesn't seem to understand some basic facts about ethics?
This isn't the first time that Harris has ventured into a field he admittedly knows little about. I took him to task in 2007 for some comments he made in an interview about a footnote in his The End of Faith. After noting that there might be something worth knowing about reincarnation and psi based on the work of Ian Stevenson and Dean Radin, Harris wrote: "The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists."*
He didn't study the issues, yet he felt qualified to tell those of us who have that maybe Stevenson and Radin were right. Then he admits he doesn't find the subject worthy of his time. I think he feels the same way about ethics. He hasn't studied the subject, obviously doesn't think it's worth his time, but still knows there are people who will listen to him talk about it as if he had something new or interesting to say. He does have a lot to say to those who, like him, are ignorant of the history of ethics. He found his greatest opposition coming from people defending ethical relativism, which encouraged him to think that he was doing ethics when he wasn't. He was showing how science could inform a particular kind of ethics. He seems to be unaware of the fact that there isn't a modern philosopher of ethics who thinks differently.
I've already written an essay on how science informs philosophy without philosophy becoming science, so I won't repeat myself here. I will, however, recommend Massimo Pigliucci's blog on Harris and ethics. The fact that I haven't spent any time on Harris's arguments should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be.
update 8 October 2010: Sam Harris's book on ethics is out: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. If you want to read a defense of utilitarianism by someone who has not studied Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Bentham, Mill or the other thoughtful philosophers who have attended to topics in ethics and happiness, then by all means pick up a copy. Before you do, though, you might want to read this review in The New York Times and this blog from Joshua Rosenau.
One of the most immoral things a writer on ethics can do as a writer is to dismiss thoughtful criticism as "stupid" and then ignore it, which is apparently what Harris has done. I say "apparently" because (after reading Rosenau's reproach of Harris) I don't intend to read the book.
I recently spent some time re-reading David Hume's Principles of Morals. Harris might benefit from reading this thoughtful and incisive book on ethics. One can only speculate what Hume might have written had he had the benefit of our scientific knowledge regarding the evolution of species. Hume was locked into a view of a Nature that is just there, its origin and history shrouded in myths and religious incrustation. Still, he did an admirable job of finding evidence to support the notion that our moral sentiments are as natural as our other senses and that it is not an accident that these sentiments have great social utility. Our concept of justice owes everything to these natural sentiments.
Hume did not claim to have found the one, true principle of morality. There is nothing equivalent to "the greatest happiness principle" or the "categorical imperative" in his writings. His work is mainly descriptive and critical. "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions," he famously wrote. You cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is.' How things are and how things ought to be are distinct matters. Our sentiments guide us, but our reason derides us by constructing elaborate and convincing, though often contradictory, rationalizations for just about any proposition under the sun.
Will the Texas Education Massacre Spread?
By now, every reader of this newsletter must know that the Texas state school board has mandated a curriculum that teaches children not to trust the United Nations or the Supreme Court (but trust in Jesus and the Abrahamic God as the founders did, according to the Texas Republican mythological version of American history), that McCarthyism has gotten a bad rap from historians, that Thomas Aquinas is more important to our history than Thomas Jefferson, that our government is a "constitutional republic" not "democratic" ('democratic' reminds people of Democrats, which is bad, and 'republic' reminds them of Republicans, which is good), and that taxation is bad, bad, bad (just like Republicans keep saying, saying, saying). The children will also learn that Jefferson Davis wrote the Declaration of Independence before he was born. (For those who are about to correct me, please don't bother.)
Some people worry that the Texas revisionist history will be forced on students in other states because of the large textbook market there. The California state Senate Appropriations Committee was so worried it took a vote to approve a bill (S.B.1451) designed to prevent California from adopting textbooks that contain the controversial changes approved by the Texas State Board of Education. Publishing experts say there's nothing to worry about, however, according to an Associated Press article.
"It's easier nowadays to create one edition for one situation and a different edition for another situation," said Bob Resnick, founder of Education Market Research. "I don't believe the Texas curriculum will spread anyplace else."
Technology has made it easier and more affordable for publishers to tailor textbooks to different standards. That's especially true in the 20 other states like Texas where education boards approve textbooks for statewide use.
Substitutions are an easy fix. And publishers won't gamble on incorporating one state's controversial curriculum into a one-size-fits-all product for other markets, said Jay Diskey, executive director of the schools division of the Association of American Publishers.
Diskey's group is the trade group for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education Inc., which together publish more than 75 percent of the nation's K-12 textbooks.
"Why would we walk in with stuff that we know might be rejected and knock us out of a business opportunity?" Diskey said.
Anyway, I'm not as worried as the ACLU is that textbook publishers are going to rewrite history to fit the delusions of a few whack jobs in Texas. Do the folks at the ACLU really believe that textbook publishers drive the curriculum decisions of school boards across the country?
The theme of the Skeptic's Toolbox this year is Scams. The intimate and informal affair will be held from August 12-15, 2010, at the University of Oregon in Eugene. The superb faculty is led by the creator of the Skeptic's Toolbox, Ray Hyman. Participants get an opportunity to put the tools of science and skepticism directly to work on specific topics or problems. I've been to a couple of these events and I can tell you that they are a blast, and well worth the small expense. (Registration, room, and board costs less than registration alone at the Amazing Meeting.)
Camp Inquiry and Camp Quest West
Camp Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry's summer program for children ages seven to sixteen, will take place July 18-July 24 at Camp Seven Hills in Holland, New York. Guest speakers and entertainers now include James “The Amazing” Randi, secular-parenting author and Beyond Belief charity founder Dale McGowan, Skeptical Inquirer managing editor Benjamin Radford, and author Jennifer Michael Hecht.
Camp Quest West will be held near Grass Valley, California, from July 11-17. Camp Quest was specifically designed for children of agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, humanists, and others who hold a naturalistic world view. For information on other Camp Quest locations click on one of the following: Ohio, Smoky Mountains, Minnesota, Ontario, Michigan, UK, Florida, Texas, Virginia.
Straw Man Argument of the Month
There is something profoundly un-American about demanding that people give up cherished, or even uncherished, beliefs just because they don't comport with science. And the demand seems even more peculiar when it is applied so indiscriminately as to include religious believers with Nobel Prizes. What sort of atheist complains that a fellow citizen doing world-class science must abandon his or her religion to be a good scientist?
Our commitment to pluralism and individual freedom should motivate generosity in such matters and allow people "the right to be wrong," especially when the beliefs in question do not interfere with us. Nothing is gained by loud, self-promoting and mean-spirited assaults on the beliefs of fellow citizens.
The New Atheists need to learn how to play in the sandbox.
This argument was provided by Karl Giberson, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College and author of Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. It was submitted by John Renish who asks: "Have you ever demanded people give up ideas that don’t comport with science? I haven’t." Jerry Coyne has a lot more to say about Mr. Giberson.
Weird Story of the Month
Three men convicted of raping an 18-year-old woman in Hanoi in 2002 were released after an acupuncturist declared that the men were virgins.
Pham Thi Hong, an acupuncturist at the national traditional medicine hospital, said an examination of a pressure point beneath one convict's ears showed a small capillary was unbroken, proving the man is a virgin. Is this science? No, but it's empirical and evidence-based, according to Vietnamese traditional medicine. Hong examined the other two men and came to the same conclusion: no broken capillaries beneath the ear; therefore, all virgins. (Apparently, these unbroken capillaries were seen with the naked eye by Hong, which is almost as amazing as the inference she drew from her inspection.)
The case was reopened at the request of Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet after traditional medicine specialists said the men could not be rapists because they had never had sex. The acupuncturist verified the claim and the men are to be exonerated next month.*
(Submitted by John Renish.)
The good news is that science and skeptical podcasts are flourishing. The bad news is that there are so many good shows now that it is impossible to find time to listen to them all. The good folks at Skeptical Review can help by letting us know what's been covered recently on our favorite programs.
....and the winner is.....Power Balance: "performance technology that uses holograms embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body’s natural energy field." Where, you might wonder, are these holograms that are embedded with frequencies embedded? In neoprene wristbands and zinc alloy pendants! What? No credit cards that react positively with your body's natural energy field? I suppose scientific research (by somebody in his garage) has found that credit card holograms are embedded with frequencies that react negatively with the frugality instinct. The same scientist working in the same garage also discovered that watching 3-D movies rearranges the body's energy field in a positive way. Positive ways, by the way, have been shown in 88.3% of all cases studied to be more beneficial than negative ways. So, if you're going to have a reaction to something, it has been scientifically proven that a positive reaction is better than a negative one.
The powerful technology behind these lucky charms that cost only about $30 has been proven by certified pseudoscientists using applied kinesiology. You can view a test of the AK test, this one done by skeptic Richard Saunders:
"On October 21st, 2010, members of the Independent Investigations Group, 15 volunteers, and former Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes conducted a test of a product called Power Balance bracelets ($29.95 online) at the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles. Dominique was there with Yahoo News which did a story and shot some video of our test....
"Our initial conclusion is that Power Balance bracelets have no discernable effect when the wearer doesn't know if he has one on or not. In other words, the bracelet itself doesn't seem to be doing anything.
"As a sort of rabbit's foot to be worn to boost one's confidence, the bracelet might have some value, but as a boon to one's athletic prowess, Power Balance bracelets are a bust."