A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 12 No. 1

January 2013

"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." --Bertrand Russell

What's New?

My critical thinking book for kids 9 and up is out in paperback and as an e-book. Click here for more information and on how to order Mysteries and Science: Exploring Aliens, Ghosts, Monsters, the End of the World and Other Weird Things.

New on the Skeptic's Dictionary: preemptive straw man, attribution biases, and the slippery slope fallacy.

New on the blog Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking: Forer effect, false memories, control group study, and attribution biases.

New on the Unnatural Virtue podcast for Skepticality: the polygraph (mp3) and self-help programs (mp3).

Updates on the Skeptic's Dictionary: the polygraph (despite the fact that most scientists consider polygraphy a pseudoscience, the federal government is expanding its use), blasphemy (countries that imprison or execute for blasphemy), medium (no proof Allison DuBois has ever solved any crime), Myers-Briggs (most psychologists still find it bogus), and werewolf (genetics gone wild).

File This Under 'no good deed goes unpunished'

In 2009 William Marotta, now 46, answered a Craigslist ad for a sperm donor. He kindly donated sperm to lesbians Angela Bauer and Jennifer Schreiner. Schreiner bore the child and Marotta agreed to relinquish all parental rights. What he didn't know was that under Kansas law, he did not have the right to relinquish all parental duties.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families is attempting to have Marotta declared the father of, and pay child support for, the now-3-year-old girl. Kansas law requires a licensed physician to perform the insemination. Privately administered turkey-baster insemination doesn't count. Ignorance is no excuse before the law, as they say. Fortunately for Marotta, he will not be held liable for child support of the six adopted children Bauer and Schreiner are also responsible for. Things had apparently gone without a wrinkle until the couple split up and the breadwinner, Bauer, got sick and couldn't support the large family she and her former partner had brought together. They turned to the state for assistance and the state turned to Marotta to pay his legal share. I'm sure there's a moral to this story somewhere.

The Illusion of Control

Many of the responses to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre were based on the illusion that it could have been prevented if we'd had more gun control laws, better mental health services, armed guards in the school, or if Adam Lanza's mother had not kept an arsenal in the home that she shared with her odd son. Such tragedies could be avoided in the future, such people think, if only we banned private ownership of assault and rapid-fire weapons, required mental health checks before allowing someone to purchase a gun, and somehow convinced parents not to keep weapons and ammunition around the home when it is shared with an anti-social loner young male. Not true. It is not possible to predict who will be the next mentally ill or enraged person to go on a murderous rampage. No law and no stripping the cupboards bare of all weapons can prevent all possible rampages.

On the other hand, laws are not useless and being smart about having weapons where children, young people with bad judgment or bad tempers, or violence-prone adults can't get their hands on them easily, isn't without merit. No law will stop all violence, but that is not a good reason for not having the law. Had Adam Lanza or other individuals who used weapons with large-capacity magazines to murder dozens of people at a time not had those weapons, they couldn't have used them. That's obvious. And if others who would use such weapons if they had the opportunity don't have the opportunity, then they won't use them either. It's obvious that removing such weapons from the hands of private individuals isn't going to stop all mass murders. No law could stop all mass murders. We all should know that.

Arming teachers or placing armed guards in every public school would provide the illusion of control and safety, but little more. Forcibly committing potentially violent mentally ill people will provide the illusion of protection. Unless you're really lucky, carrying a gun isn't going to do you much good when a maniac bent on mayhem with an assault weapon starts shooting unexpectedly. But carrying that weapon will give you the illusion of power, control, and safety.

It is not a waste of time to talk about better gun control or improving mental health services. But we're deluding ourselves if we think restricting gun ownership and providing proper mental health services will prevent the next massacre. We might prevent some massacres by our actions, but we'll never prevent them all. The ones we do prevent, we'll never know about, which makes it difficult for some people to see the value of laws and services provided by a civilized state.

Forever Marketing

Steve Allen once wrote that he didn't understand the full meaning of the adage "the clothes make the man" until he saw a relative in his casket all dressed up to look like a fine gentleman--and looking completely unlike the not-so-fine gentleman he'd looked like when he was alive. I guess the same could be said for some of the characters who are brought to trial looking like IBM executives but who looked like Charles Manson on a bad hair day when arrested.

While you can't make a scientist out of a monkey by putting a lab coat on him, you can turn some pretty ordinary and sub-par products into attractive beauties with the right marketing. All it takes is creative use of a few words and images. Sounds simple, but if you've ever tried it, you'd know that it's harder than it seems.

If you're looking for an exemplar, I've found one thanks to a reader concerned about a friend getting involved in a multi-level marketing scheme: Forever Living Products. The products are described as "life-enhancing products." They're also called "wellness and beauty products." They're also called supplements and cosmetics. The only thing forever about them is the multi-level marketing scheme you must get involved in to buy these life-enhancing drinks, pills, sprays, and ointments. One key selling point is their connection to Nature and natural stuff.

Nature knows best. Everywhere you look in nature you find balance, harmony, life, and renewal. Our planet holds a world of secrets just waiting to be discovered. From the industrious honeybee and the exquisite mangosteen fruit to the rejuvenating aloe vera plant, each bountiful element is meant to balance and improve our lives.

Experience the difference of Forever Living’s products. Infused with 100% pure aloe vera gel and many other beneficial botanicals, these products will give you something unexpected. Energy. Vibrancy. Wellness. You’ll notice it right away—and others will too. The difference is only natural.

"Everywhere you look in nature you find balance, harmony, life, and renewal"? I suppose that's true as long as you don't look everywhere and don't count the things in nature that maim and kill us, taking away all our energy, vibrancy, and wellness.

Forever Living Products has a swell-sounding mission statement that would attract many generous souls looking for a way to make money:

We will create a profitable environment where individuals can, with dignity, be what they want to be: where integrity, empathy and fun are our guides. We will create and cherish a passion for, and belief in, our company, our products and our industry. We will seek knowledge and balance and above all, we will be courageous as we lead our company and distributors.

Plus, they have their own charity, Forever Giving, that you will be a part of. Unfortunately, those who join this MLM scheme will find what millions before them have found in similar outfits: you'll end up selling products to yourself, friends, and acquaintances that are no better than products you and they can buy for less money at local stores or online. Before joining this outfit, you might want to consider what billionaire hedge fund investor Bill Ackman had to say about Herbalife, another MLM scheme:

  • Herbalife recruits unwitting "distributors" with the promise they can achieve lofty incomes. However, fewer than 1 in 1,000 do so.
  • Herbalife's products are overpriced but sell because they are bundled with a perceived business opportunity. However, the vast majority of new distributors make nothing.
  • Herbalife is a pyramid scheme because its participants obtain their monetary benefits primarily from recruitment rather than the sale of goods to consumers.

Cain and Abel School for Prophets

It sounds like a Poe.

For 200 shekels you can get certified by the Cain and Abel School for Prophets in south Tel Aviv, Israel.

It's the real deal. Shmuel Hapartzy, a Russian immigrant with a long beard and a short sense of history started the school. Twelve people signed up for the course. Maybe Hapartzy is the Messiah. He dresses in black. Is that a sign?

Hapartzy says he was an atheist who turned to Judaism after dabbling in mysticism, Chinese philosophy, astrology, and a few other endeavors favored by those seekers who are born every minute in every country.

Apparently, Hapartzy doesn't know much about Jewish traditions and hasn't read the Talmud....neither have I actually....but those who know about these things say that the days of prophecy were suspended with the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Prophets will return when the temple is rebuilt. The only prophets these days are children and fools.

Hapartzy does follow one archaic Jewish tradition: he has the women sit in a corner, segregated from the men.

Another Sokal-type hoax?

An abstract for an article in Frontiers of Bioscience appeared in PubMed on 3 Jan 2013 entitled "Adaptive network nanomedicine: an integrated model for homeopathic medicine":

This paper presents an evidence-based model for the nature and mode of action of homeopathic remedies. Recent studies reveal that homeopathic remedies contain nanoparticles (NPs) of source materials formed by "top-down" mechanical grinding in lactose and/or succussion (forceful agitation) in ethanolic solutions. Silica nanostructures formed during succussions in glass and/or biosynthesized by specific plant extract tinctures also may acquire and convey epitaxial information from remedy source materials into higher potencies. NPs have enhanced bioavailability, adsorptive capabilities, adjuvant reactivity, electromagnetic and quantum properties compared with their bulk forms. NPs induce adaptive changes in the organism at nontoxic doses (hormesis), serving as salient, low level danger signals to the biological stress response network. Activation of stress response effectors, including heat shock proteins, inflammasomes, cytokines and neuroendocrine pathways, initiate beneficial compensatory reactions across the interconnected networks of the organism as a complex adaptive system. Homeopathic remedies act by stimulating hormetic adaptive rather than conventional pharmacological effects. Updating terminology from "homeopathy" to "adaptive network nanomedicine" reflects the integration of this historical but controversial medical system with modern scientific findings.

I laughed so hard when I read the above that I practically fell out of my chair. Had I injured myself, though, I could have taken comfort in knowing that an adaptive network nanomedicine awaited me that would stimulate hormetic adaptive effects with advanced quantum properties.

I stopped laughing when I noticed that one of the authors is listed as GE SchwartzGE Schwartz of the Department of Family and Community Medicine, The University of Arizona College of Medicine. Yes, this is the same Gary Schwartz skeptics have learned to mock for his egomania and incompetent work on what he called the afterlife experiments and for his ability to turn his grandiose rhetorical talents into such things as the director of the University of Arizona's Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health. His co-author is Iris Bell, Iris BellDirector of Research for the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Bell is no doubt the brains behind this latest publication. She's a licensed homeopath and has brought in some $3,000,000 from the NCCAM to train homeopaths and other CAM wannabes at UA. She's also a consultant for a homeopathic manufacturer.

It's not a laughing matter that folks like Schwartz and Bell have the credentials and the jargon to appear to know what they're doing and to tap into a healthy stream of money from the NCCAM. David Gorski has done an excellent job of investigating Bell's scientific work on homeopathy and NCCAM's funding of implausible things. Suffice it to say that for all the high-sounding rhetoric Bell exudes in her attempt to characterize water as nanomedicine, there is little substance to her work.

As an antidote to Bell and Schwartz, I suggest Boing-Boing's Worst product of the week: homeopathy for kids and pets.

Another non-laughing matter is that annual sales of homeopathic remedies in the US alone are nearly a billion dollars.

Odds and Ends

There is now a digital version of Skeptic magazine. You can read it on your pad and you get it a bit earlier than the print version.

Doubtful News is a nice source of information and commentary for skeptics. Sharon Hill is the editor. She posts links and comments on stories in the following categories: "alt med/anti-vax, cryptozoology, hauntings, paranormal, UFOs, psychics, questionable claims, superstition, and money-making schemes, among others. Information about paranormal and skeptic personalities is also included, good news and bad." She also posts a weekly log on the JREF's website. Every Monday, I think it is, Dr. Harriet Hall posts a review of what was posted the previous week on Science-Based Medicine.

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body by Frances Ashcroft provides detailed and enlightening explanations of what we know about how electricity works to keep our bodies functioning and what happens when things go wrong.The author has played an important part in the history of the science that she describes. Coursera is offering a free course on bioelectricity taught by Duke University professor Roger Coke Barr. (Other interesting courses will be taught by Dan Ariely [a beginner's guide to irrationality] and Paul Offit [vaccines])

Psychic Blues: Confessions of Conflicted Medium by Mark Edward is an enlightening and delightful account of how mediums and their clients feed off of each other. The book is on par with M. Lamar Keene's Psychic Mafia and Ian Rowland's Full Facts Book of Cold Reading.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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