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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 12

The United States is in no sense founded upon the Christian doctrine.
     --George Washington

September 24, 2002

Subscribers 1,273

(Past issues posted at http://skepdic.com/news/)

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 Contents

      1)   New or revised entries
      2)   Feedback
      3)   News
    

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 1) New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

  • updated the psychic detectives page by adding a link to the Klass Kids Foundation article on the way psychics impede police, rather than help them find missing persons;

  • updated the magnet therapy page by adding a link to a report on a study that failed to show magnets increase blood flow;

  • updated the out-of-body experience page by adding a link to an article about a recent study published in Nature that suggests "out-of-body" and "near-death" experiences may be influenced by a portion of the brain misfiring under stress. Dr. Olaf Blanke of Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland found that electrically stimulating the right angular gyrus (located at the juncture of the temporal and parietal lobes) triggers out-of-body experiences [thanks to Joe Littrell];

  • updated the electromagnetic field page by adding a link to an article about a study commissioned by the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority that found no "consistent evidence" that cell phones are a significant causal factor of cancer [thanks to Florin Clapa];

  • revised several entries after receiving some sharp and very useful criticisms from Susan Blackmore regarding my entries on altered states of consciousness, out-of-body experiences [OBEs] (and near-death experiences), and Charles Tart. These revisions reflect the kind of changes in tone and content you'll find in the published version of The Skeptic's Dictionary. In the altered states entry, I added some comments about recent work that found alpha waves predominant in video game players and athletes who reach "the Zone" where they function on auto-pilot;

  • added some comments on the arrest of one of the con men behind the Nigerian bank scam.

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2) Feedback

Stellios Keskinidis wrote to inform us of the meanings of two Australian slang terms used in the last newsletter. A larrikin is "a bloke who is always enjoying himself, a harmless prankster." You can look it up in the on-line book of Australian slang. A stirrer is someone who 'stirs' emotions in another person or group that they would find amusing.

Another Australian wrote me the following some time ago:

Dear Professor Carroll,

I have followed the Skeptic's Dictionary for many years now, to the extent that I only need to check the updates to keep abreast of most of the topics. However I find the increasingly political tone of the articles, particularly those found in "mass media funk," to be disturbing.

Let me speak plainly. I think that the role of the skeptic is becoming more political not because skeptics are over-stepping the mark dictated by logic and reason, but because politicians, religious leaders and would-be warriors are moving beyond the borders of their own responsibilities, expertise, and jurisdiction.

In my opinion the Skeptic's Dictionary remains one of the most impressive monuments to rational thought in the world today. The fact that this resource increasingly finds itself commenting on the decisions of world governments and large corporations, rather than the usual quacks and charlatans, reflects a disturbing trend for the civilised, rational world.

Sincerely,

Caleb Owens

I guess the U.S. isn't the only country that finds it political right-wing ramrodding religion into politics. But, things are bad all over. Here's a recent letter from the U.K.

Dear Dr Carroll,

Congratulations on a wonderful resource which has given me many hours of entertainment and information. The urgent need for sceptical material was brought home to me a few days ago, when I arrived at work to find four colleagues talking about the notorious Fox "documentary" which claimed that the Moon landings were an elaborate hoax (it had been screened the previous day on on the UK's cheesy Channel Five). All four of them were instant converts - one woman actually said she was ASHAMED that NASA had fooled her for so many years! "It certainly makes you think," said another, oblivious to the fact that this was the very last thing the programme makers want you to do.

Needless to say, not one of the converts had enough genuine curiosity to investigate these ludicrous claims for themselves, and by the following day interest had shifted to another TV programme about psychics. A man who asked if the words "oxtail soup" meant anything to a subject was told that her dead relative had loved oxtail soup as a child. "Wasn't that weird? There's no way he could have known about the oxtail soup!" twittered my co-worker (an undergraduate temping during the summer holiday), who went on to say that she was so frightened after watching the show she slept with the light on. I had neither the time nor the patience to explain that the words "watering can," "marmalade," "rabbit." or "arthritis" would have gotten some sort of positive response with no input from the Other Side. The Age of Enlightenment is well and truly dead at the Norwich Union offices in York!

Best wishes,

Julia D Atkinson

The Guardian (UK) had a recent article on the belief that the moon landing was a hoax. The article was partially stimulated by the news that 72-year-old Buzz Aldrin had punched some nutter in the face for harassing him and demanding that he swear on the Bible that he really went to the moon. The article indicates that the hoax belief is widespread in the UK.

A 1999 Gallup poll found that about 10% of Americans believe the moon landing was faked. If you know one of these people, tell them to look at (and seriously study) Phil Plait's site. Some blame television for the lack of critical thinking ability of many people to distinguish fact from fiction. Some might blame the examples of famous writers and historians like Stephen E. Ambrose, Michael Beschloss, Joseph J. Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Edmund Morris, who have been known to play loose with the truth. Then, of course, there is the view of truth that has emanated from Washington, D.C. for years: The truth is what we say it is, especially if we say it loud and often. I blame our schools and parents for most of it. You have to be trained and encouraged to think critically, and the training must begin early and be reinforced throughout one's schooling.

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Sometimes the mail is just too weird to comment on. Here's one from rd1064 (nice name). I've cleaned up some of the grammar a bit so it's readable.

God chose me to tell you your forgiven for leading people astray, and wanted you to know the world as we know it will end at 3am 11/13/07. So dedicate the rest of your life proving the Bible is fact. After all, daily finds just back up everything the Bible says. Hundreds of things people have pointed to and said weren't true or possible have since been proven true and possible. The next big one will happen on 12/03/02, it will change the minds of almost anyone who did not believe Jesus is God--the son of course, but God none the less......you truly have been blessed, move in the right direction and your name will be carved into the book of life................bob......
 rd1064

Right. Where shall I start, with Deuteronomy? rd1064 wouldn't be so scary if he didn't have allies in high places in Washington, D.C. who start each day with a Bible lesson and seem to think that it may be their duty to fulfill some apocalyptic prophecy by bringing about a world war.

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Freda Watts wrote me to say:

I cannot find reference anywhere to the return of Houdini.

His wife signed an affidavit in 1929, that she had received communication from her husband in an agreed method via several mediums, each delivering the prearranged words in the sequence determined with his wife along with the added word - BELIEVE.

I find it strange that with all reports on the man, no mention is made - ever - of the above. Yet with all the access to files it should be so easy to find details of the affidavit, but not so profitable I fear for the sceptics, who, on learning the TRUTH should be expounding it, not decrying people who KNOW what is to come.

There are many where he is now, who have tried to redress their mistaken views when here, by telling the TRUTH of the Spirit world. Many who literally had egg on their faces when they found that their beliefs were actually based on myths, that life goes on after the physical death, and on passing, wished to inform of their erroneous actions whilst here in order to redress the balance.

Well, I tried to locate this document but failed. I did find the following at Joe Nickell's Skeptiseum:

After his death at the age of 52, on Halloween 1926, Houdini's wife Bess attempted to communicate with Houdini's spirit through mediums, using a secret code the couple had prearranged.

After ten years, and only one pretended contact (by fraudulent medium Arthur Ford), Mrs. Houdini extinguished the "eternal light" she had kept by his portrait, stating: "Houdini hasn't come. I don't believe he will come." Today, séances to reach Houdini continue to be held each Halloween at various locations, including CSICOP's headquarters at the Center for Inquiry – International in Amherst, New York.

So, if you haven't anything planned for Halloween, you might try to contact Houdini or Bess. But don't contact me if they contact you. Contact Joe Nickell or Freda Watts.

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Andy Kapust wrote to complain about something I've commented on several times in the Mass Media Bunk pages: The Learning Channel isn't always a worthwhile learning experience. His case in point was an evening with shows on spontaneous human combustion and the Bermuda triangle.

Both shows ignored all significant research on these topics and completely sidestepped the rational, accepted causes of the "phenomena'. Instead, they both went out of their way to raise new, unfounded, obscure, and illogical reasons for their occurrence. I think the only two possible causes they left out were black magic causing combustion and UFO activity in the Triangle. Other than preaching (ranting) to the choir (i.e. this message), is there anything that can be done to stop this abuse of the broadcast medium?

Well, Andy, you can always complain to CSICOP's Council for Media Integrity. They recently sent out a rant by Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry, regarding a program on the Discovery Channel about an allegedly haunted house in Ellersie, Georgia. Writes Flynn: "The narrator intones breathtaking claims like 'Science has proven that strong geomagnetic fields are associated with ghosts.'"

Despite its ludicrous aspects, "A Haunting in Georgia" merits skeptics' serious concern - and the attention of anyone who cares about the documentary form's power to transmit genuine knowledge (or harmful misinformation). Haunting presents highly questionable paranormal claims as fact, and does so in a "newish" way that will discourage many viewers from expecting any skeptical rejoinder, or from finding its absence remarkable. By eroding the already-porous boundaries of documentary technique, Haunting undercuts the last stylistic clues most viewers can rely on to estimate the possible veracity of any given shot or sequence.

Expect a lot more such rubbish on television as we approach Halloween. Which reminds me that it is that time of year again to promote my Skeptic's Halloween page.

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3) News

Michael Shermer sent this out in his most recent E-SKEPTIC newsletter:

NONBELIEVERS NEEDED
The ABC News web page is doing a story about atheism, agnosticism, and nonbelief in America. The reporter, Oliver Libaw, has been interviewing various people like myself who are actively involved in skeptical and humanist organizations in America, but he would also like to talk to or hear from nonbelievers who do not necessarily belong to any "nonbelieving" organizations, but just go about their lives with no belief in God at all. He wants to know what it is like being a nonbeliever in a country in which the vast majority (90-95%) are believers. If you would like to be interviewed by Oliver, or e-mail him your thoughts, he can be reached at oliver.libaw@abcnews.com

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Joe Littrell sent me a news item that might be seen as a response to the Frontline program that asked "Where was God on September 11th?" It took me some time, but I finally figured out that the item came from Northern Illinois University, where someone in the school of business management wrote to remind us that God was there. His proof?

The Twin Towers, which employed about 50,000 people with 6,000 missing: that means 90 percent of those targeted are still here. Next, the Pentagon: some 23,000 were the target of the third jet. At last count, 123 people had lost their lives. That’s an amazing survival rate of 99.5 percent.

Now the airplanes: American Airlines flight 77 hitting the Pentagon could have carried 289 passengers, but for some strange Holy Ghost reason only 64 people showed up that morning. American Airlines Flight 11 could of [sic] held 351 passengers, but carried only 92, (thanks to who?).  After reading such staggering statistics, you still ask me, “Where is God?” (More stats available upon request).

I don't think we need any more stats. We get the picture. Instead of thinking of all those killed and injured, we should think of all those who survived and weren't injured. I guess my next question for this shrewd statistician would be: Can you look directly into the eyes of the children who lost parents and say "God protected all those other children's mommies and daddies. He didn't save your mommy or daddy, but he could have if He'd wanted to."

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Steve Ireland of Sydney, Australia, wrote to let us know that John Edward's "Crossing Over" program is now showing in prime time down under. Edward is being billed as an "internationally acclaimed psychic medium who can communicate with the world beyond. Deeply compelling, often startling and even humorous, his honest and almost skeptical attitude regarding psychic phenomena has made the staunchest of skeptics take notice and listen." Steve says he may let his 10-year-old stay up past bedtime to learn about cold reading.

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I was recently contacted by Tim Rogan, who is producing a program for Showtime on "junk science and other pop culture beliefs." He wanted to interview me on feng shui, but we couldn't get together. There is a chance I'll be used for some other segment of the program, which will be hosted by Penn and Teller. I'm told Michael Shermer is also participating. Sounds like something to look forward to. Let's hope it's at least as successful as "A Haunting in Georgia"!