From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 9 No. 7
1 July 2010
"I like your stuff, it helps me think about stuff. But your political opinion pieces show you to be a little too confident of your thinking abilities." --from one of my more self-conscious readers (I find it enlightening that people we admire for their astuteness become imbeciles when they disagree with us.)
In this issue
-Patriotism and Freedom on Independence Day
-Church politics in the U.S. and Britain
liberal Earl Warren-Atheists vs. Theists:
Good vs. Evil?
-JREF grants for educators
-Hitch 22 & the iPad
There is also a new entry for fantasy-prone personality, a concept favored by some skeptics, but one with little empirical support and less predictive or explanatory power.
I've posted a two-part article on creating your own pseudoscience. From part one:
We have to keep reminding ourselves that critical thinking is an unnatural act. Most of us who have the leisure to study the sciences and develop our critical thinking skills aren't inclined to do so. Nobody, however, enjoys getting scammed or harmed. Trying to get people to understand and reject pseudosciences may seem fruitless at times, but getting people to see the types of marketing tricks used by the purveyors of snake oil and the callous sellers of useless devices like dowsing rods for detecting bombs, may have a higher payoff.
From part two:
17. If you're too lazy to create your pseudoscience from scratch, find a model to copy. For example, nobody ever went broke selling vitamin and mineral supplements. Of course you'll claim that your brand prevents cancer by stimulating the immune system and increases IQ by increasing blood flow to the brain. But don't forget to mention that your product is organic and natural, safe for children (even if it isn't), and has been shown to improve scholastic performance by up to 80%. You might even claim that your product helps balance chi and uncoil the kundalini.
I've posted a review of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The Invisible Gorilla is a welcome antidote to Malcolm Gladwell's seductive homage to intuition, Blink.
There are some new reader comments on reincarnation.
There is a new Skeptimedia piece on prayer, miracles, and other disasters.
The Blondlot entry was revised to correct an error regarding the French scientist's later years.
The chiropractic entry was revised to include a statement from the General Chiropractic Council in the UK rejecting the traditional concept of chiropractic subluxation.
The crystal skull entry was revised to include new information that the Mitchell-Hedges skull was likely created around 1933 and is not a Mayan artifact.
The inattentional blindness entry was revised to include new material from Chabris and Simons.
Bob McCoy, founder of the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices and author of Quack!: Tales of Medical Fraud from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices, died after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease.
Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at skepdic.com/updates.html.
Patriotism and Freedom on Independence Day
What could be more patriotic than keeping religion out of secular affairs? Nothing, according to Atheists of Florida. The group placed several billboards in the Lakeland, Florida, area to send a message on the 4th of July to Christians who want America to be and be seen as a "Christian nation," whatever that means. The billboards read "One nation, indivisible," as did the pledge of allegiance before Congress bastardized the pledge in 1954 by adding the words "under God." Our fearless leaders wanted to let the world know that God likes us and dislikes communists. With such simpleminded twits running the country, it is a wonder the nation survives.
One of the billboards was defaced by vandals doing God's work.
Church politics in the U.S. and Britain
In Lodi, made famous by John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, the City Council starts every meeting with a prayer, usually pleading with a man who's been dead for 2,000 years to help it decide which pothole to fill next. When the constitutionality of the council's action was challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the city rallied behind its hidebound, calcified crusaders. The story is a common one in America, where Christians often treat the Constitution and the Bible as talismans engraved with their favorite delusions. One wonders if the many defenders of "Christian America" have ever read either in any but delicatessen style.
We have never had a Church of America, thank the Framers. Those who celebrate Losers Day on the 4th of July, however, have a Church of England. Local councils may have Anglican chaplains and nobody can rightfully complain about separation of church and state. While the lyric "O Lord Mayor, stuck in Leicester again" remains unlikely, the Lord Mayor there has struck a blow against inequality in promoting superstitions.
In Leicester, Colin Hall banned prayers before monthly council meetings, calling the practice "outdated, unnecessary and intrusive." He added: "I consider that religion, in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business. This particularly applies in Leicester, where the majority of council members, myself included, do not regularly attend any particular faith service."
His chaplain backed the Lord Mayor, but she's also a secularist. Hall also refused to attend a cathedral service conducted by a bishop in a traditional ceremony to welcome new Lord Mayors. Hall is not anti-religious, however. In fact, he boycotted the service because he and his secular comrades consider kowtowing to Christian prayers divisive. Hall wanted the service to include other faiths as well as humanist texts. The bishop invoked his right of prior restraint and demanded to see the humanist "sermon" in advance. No free peeks said the Lord Mayor.
Leicester claims to have the "first secular society in the world." Lodi, however, is known locally for its superior Zinfandel. Maybe the mayor of Leicester should send the mayor of Lodi a case of 7 Deadly Zins with a note asking him to repent, go, and zin some more.
A blast from the past: Earl Warren
Remember the "liberal" Warren court, led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren? Conservatives more conservative than Warren tagged the court as liberal for such things as ruling that the 14th Amendment guaranteed blacks equal protection of the law by making segregation in schools unconstitutional.
If Earl Warren was a liberal, then George W. Bush was a fascist. For those who think conservatives are wacky today, consider this excerpt from a Warren talk at the National Prayer Day breakfast in 1954, quoted recently by a lovely lady on the Texas state board of education as part of her defense of rewriting American history so it's not so liberal:
I believe the entire Bill of Rights came into being because of the knowledge our forefathers had of the Bible and their belief in it: freedom of belief, of expression, of assembly, of petition, the dignity of the individual, the sanctity of the home, equal justice under law, and the reservation of powers to the people . . . I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country.
What version of the Bible did Mr. Warren read? He thinks the Framers found "freedom of belief and expression" advocated in the Bible? He thinks they found a call for "equal justice under the law" in the Bible? The Bible explicitly states that you are not free to believe what you want or think is true; you must believe what it says. I challenge any Christian to find a defense of equality in the Bible, except for such inane claims as that we're all equally sinners before god. If Warren really believed that no harm could come to our country as long as we live in the spirit of the Christian religion (as bigots? haters? misogynists? subversives?), then he was daft, demented, and deranged.
Even dumber than Warren's comments is this alleged quote from John Adams, also making the rounds in conservative revisionist circles:
Suppose a nation in some distant Region should take the Bible for their only law Book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited!... What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be.
The sentiment expressed here contradicts everything we know about Adams's religious views. More to the point: have the right-wing defenders of the Bible actually read Leviticus or Deuteronomy? Have they studied the Ten Commandments?
On the other hand, change Bible to Koran and surely that would be a Utopia.
Atheists vs. Theists: Good vs. Evil?
Are atheists really more moral than theists? Not really, but atheists have the advantage of appearing more moral since they don't run any large institutions that specialize in child abuse or mass murder. It is true that a few atheists have governed over some horrendous acts (Stalin, Pol Pot), but they didn't represent organized atheism. There is no organized atheism any more than there is organized non-belief in Santa Claus.
Still, some atheists point to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the current Islamic terror campaign, and the like as proof that theists win hands down the award for most death and destruction in the name of righteousness.
Another side of this debate of who has the right to the moral high ground concerns caring. No less an authority than MacLean's Magazine has declared that atheists don't care as much as theists do. The magazine says so in an editorial entitled "Do atheists care less?" Justin Trottier of CFI Canada calls the Maclean's piece "drivel." It seems that Statistics Canada calculated that the average annual charitable donation from weekly churchgoers is $1,038, compared to $295 for the rest of the population. Of course, it's not fair to call those who don't go to church 'atheists,' but that is only a minor detail to the folks at Maclean's. Trottier writes:
Deeper research into the Statistics Canada data from which the $1,038 figure is derived shows the majority of that amount in the form of donations to charities whose only stated purpose is "the advancement of religion". These charities do not feed the poor, operate blood banks, provide literacy programs or lead other activities we generally consider beneficial. When we filter out such donations, we find that weekly churchgoers, who represent 17% of the population, are said to be responsible for 20% of donations to "non-religious" charities. That no longer seems so impressive.
Clouding the issue, Statistics Canada somehow managed to count missionaries, seminaries and religious publishers and broadcasters as "non-religious" charities for this particular survey.
Maclean's, like most defenders of religious "charities," failed to note that churches rip off the state of billions each year by their tax-exempt status. As Trottier points out, much of this rip-off is in the form of "granting charitable status to organizations simply for propagating religious opinions and nothing else." In Canada, this religious exemption amounted to about $1.18 billion in 2007. If we consider the billions that we atheists are giving to religions in the form of tax exemptions, a reasonable case might be made that atheists are indeed more generous than theists. What tax breaks have theists ever given atheists?
At last count, over 1,100 people were registered for the Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. Richard Dawkins is the headliner this year, with a supporting cast of thousands (or so it seems). In addition to Randi, some of the biggest names in science and skepticism will be there: Paul Kurtz, Ray Hyman, Joe Nickell, D. J. Grothe, the Skeptic's Guide rogues, Phil Plait, Dr. Rachie, Simon Singh, the SkepDoc, and many, many more.
For those in Australia and Europe, TAM events are scheduled for this fall. TAM London 2010 will be held on 16-17 October at the Hilton London Metropole. TAM! Australia 2010 will be held on 26-28 November in Sydney.
Announcing The James Randi Grants for Educators
The James Randi Educational Foundation will award a limited number of grants of up to $500 each to educators. For details, click here.
I'm reading Christopher Hitchens's latest book, cleverly called Hitch 22: A Memoir, on my iPad. Calling it my iPad may be presumptuous. It's mine whenever somebody else in the house isn't using it, which is not very often. Anyway, the combination of Hitch's adventurous stories—laced with words and combinations of words that one rarely finds in print these days—and the iPad's amazing search features have enhanced the pleasure of reading beyond measure. For instance, in one passage Hitch bemoans some schoolboy classmate who didn't do a proper reading of a poem by Wilfred Owen entitled "Dulce et Decorum Est." The poem, Hitch writes, still evokes strong emotions in him. A couple of taps of my index finger on the iPad screen brings up a search feature that allows me to search the rest of the book for the word now highlighted by my tapping, or, alternatively, to search Google or Wikipedia. Within a minute I was reading the poem without leaving my chair. The search feature is one of three options the word tapping brings up. One can also look up the word in the embedded dictionary or highlight it for future reference.
Hitch is only a few years younger than I am, so the trajectory of his life covers the same political and social changes I've witnessed from afar. He, on the other hand, witnessed many of these events personally as a journalist. For me, his memoir is often a reminder of the best and worst of times over the past half century. His accounts of his associations with the works and lives of writers I've never read is an added bonus. Reading about the British ruling class and their sons impressed on me the unimportance of competence as a virtue. (For some perverse reason, I was pleased to read his contemptuous accounts of several American political figures for whom I still have a strong loathing. On the other hand, I found it slightly amusing that someone who found intellectual succor in Trotsky and Marxism would consider Herbert Marcuse a "pseudo-intellectual." I took a course on Marx from Marcuse at UCSD in the early 1970s and read some of Marcuse's books. I didn't agree with much of it, but he was certainly as much, if not more, of a real intellectual as Hitch or the intellectuals Hitch admires.)
In addition to being reminded of the history of Argentina's death squads, for instance, Hitch also reminds me, on nearly every page, of some lovely words I haven't seen used in many years. He has also introduced me to some words and expressions I was completely unfamiliar with, for which I thank him. There are also the useless, some might say tasteless, accounts of such things as the sexual propensities of Gore Vidal or puerile word games played by Hitch and his literary pals.
Overall, I'm enjoying Hitch's memoir. (I call him Hitch because that's what he calls himself and it sounds better than Hitchens, I think.) I'm currently about half-way through the book, being reminded of the fatwah against his friend Salman Rushdie and the lack of concern by George H. W. Bush who said he didn't see that it had anything to do with America's interests. Now there's a man with foresight.
I'm looking forward to reading my second iPad book: The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, James Bradley's account of the wicked ways of Theodore Roosevelt and their disastrous consequences.
Some things I don't like about electronic reading: I can't take my iPad to the beach without undue risk; I can't toss it in the trash when I'm put off by what I'm reading; and I can't loan my books to anyone without giving them my electronic reader. Another thing I like: I don't have to find room on my overstuffed bookshelves for new acquisitions.
* AmeriCares *