Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Issue # 12
The United States is in no sense founded
upon the Christian doctrine.
September 24, 2002
(Past issues posted at
1) New or revised entries
1) New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary
& Skeptic's Refuge
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;
magnet therapy page by adding a link to a
report on a study
that failed to show magnets increase blood flow;
out-of-body experience page by adding a link to an
article about a recent study published in
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];
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
comments on the
arrest of one of the con men behind the Nigerian bank scam.
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
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
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!
Julia D Atkinson
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)
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Michael Shermer sent this out in his most recent E-SKEPTIC
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
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
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
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.
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"!