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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 10 No. 3
3 March 2011
Do people who believe in reincarnation commit suicide? (overheard while daydreaming on Twitter)
In this issue
Skeptics in New Orleans for Halloween
Good news for UK ad critics
CSI launches billboard campaign
Robert Lancaster's latest venture
Gawd Bless America
Summer camps for kids of skeptics
Various layers of scum
The Skeptic's Dictionary app for the iPhone and iPad now has an e-mail feature. While accessing any SD entry using the app, there is an e-mail option to allow you to send the article to anyone you think might enjoy it or need to read it.
The list of entries in the app now includes the topical indexes, listed under topics.
New Skeptimedia posts: Our Soldiers Deserve Better (battlefield acupuncture), Wakefield's Delusions (Andrew Wakefield now claims vaccination itself poses a long-term threat to the survival of the human species, we need to reexamine germ theory, and The American Academy of Pediatrics is an instrument of the state.), Psychic Intuitive Profiling Parenting (it's as bad as it sounds), Dowd, Deepak, & the Emptiness of Spiritual Gibberish (my take on two religious windbags), and How did he know that? Actually, he didn't. The Great Psychic Con.
Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at skepdic.com/updates.html. One of the more important updates pertains to a new study that found no increased risk of brain cancer from cell phone use. Another update that many SD readers may be interested in is Ben Radford's new book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.
I finally rented the 2008 film Milk, which guides us through the last eight years in the life of gay rights activist Harvey Milk (1930-1978) who was shot five times, including twice in the head at close range, while going about his business as a San Francisco City Supervisor. Milk's assassin was a former San Francisco cop, firefighter, and member of the Board of Supervisors. The assassin murdered mayor George Moscone shortly before taking out his anger on Milk, killing both men in broad daylight in City Hall. Security was a bit looser in those days.
The assassin's name and the reason for his anger don't interest me anymore. I was surprised to find while watching the movie that the despicable self-righteousness of people like Anita Bryant and John Briggs still arouses strong feelings of contempt in me. In fact, I wondered if it wasn't Anita Bryant (b. 1940) who pushed me over the edge from not caring what religious people think to realizing that religion poisons everything, as Christopher Hitchens so poignantly, if hyperbolically, put it. (Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, which happened shortly before the murders of Milk and Moscone, may have dampened any neutrality I might have felt for religion, too.) Both Bryant and Briggs (b. 1930) are mostly forgotten, but Harvey Milk lives on in books, films, and the continued struggle for equal treatment for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and others whose sexuality doesn't match the "norm" of heterosexual man attracted to heterosexual woman and vice-versa.
Briggs was a state assemblyman from Orange county (the most conservative county in California at the time) when I moved my family to the Sacramento area in 1976 to take a teaching job in the Capital City. Two years later, Briggs was a state senator and the main force behind Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative, which was aimed at making it illegal for a homosexual to teach in a California public school. His knowledge and reasoning on the issue was appalling, even by 1978 Orange county standards. I was interested in this initiative first as a human being, but also as a teacher, a citizen, and as a logic teacher. When teaching about fallacies I would often bring in clippings from the newspaper with examples of the shoddy arguments of politicians, especially during campaign season. (I know...talk about shooting fish in a barrel.) Anyway, here is an example I used in my logic classes in those days when discussing the slippery slope fallacy:
If the initiative is defeated, then all of those [homosexuals] are going to be asked to come out of the closet and declare themselves, and then what we have done is placed in front of our children those legitimized role models for our young children to emulate. And I think it just portends a period of moral decay in this country that is going to lead to the carrying out or bearing out of the prediction of Gen. MacArthur, who stated that no civilization has ever been recorded as having survived when it falls into a period of economic decline and moral decay. We are certainly in both periods right now . . . .The thrust of the gay liberation movement is to have males reject females in favor of another male and females reject males in favor of the female. Well, if you follow that to its logical conclusion, and since every group wants to multiply many times over, we would breed ourselves out of existence as a country over a long period of time.
A million monkeys randomly punching keys on typewriters could never come up with a line like that: we would breed ourselves out of existence as a country over a long period of time. Well, here we are some 33 years later and we haven't bred ourselves out of existence. We haven't seen the end of civilization as predicted by Briggs should homosexuals continue to teach in our schools. In fact, we Californians have moved from Proposition 6 to Proposition 8, which made gay marriage illegal and is being challenged in the courts. Even so, I think it is obvious that we as a nation are making progress in bringing equality to one more group of citizens now denied participation in a basic legal arrangement. The military is getting rid of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy with gay soldiers. The Obama administration has repudiated a federal law denying marital benefits to gay and lesbian couples. The Maryland Senate has approved a gay marriage bill. California attorney general Kamala Harris has asked the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to let same-sex weddings resume in California while the court reviews Prop. 8. We're making moral progress, despite the efforts of the homophobic descendents of homophobes like Anita Bryant and John Briggs to prevent equal treatment for those they find abominable.
The Briggs Initiative failed, thanks in large part not only to Milk, but to people like Jerry Brown, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter who publically opposed it. The anti-gay movement was dealt a staggering blow and soon anti-discrimination laws became the norm. A few years later Barney Frank was elected to Congress, though he didn't come out of the closet until 1987. Gerry Studds was the first openly gay congressman, though he didn't come out of the closet until 1983, ten years after he was first elected to office. As more and more people, especially celebrities and admired sports figures, have announced to the world that they are gay, it has become easier for others to be forthcoming and honest about their sexuality. Even so, many know that they risk rejection by family and friends if they come out. The mask of shame is slowly dissolving, however, and is being transferred to the homophobes where it belongs.
When seeing Bryant's image again in Milk, I couldn't believe the feelings I had while watching her smug, pretty face with every hair in place, talking to the cameras about "the family" as the foundation of our society and the need to "save our children." She led a nationwide campaign to overturn every advancement gays had made since the civil rights movement began. She started in Dade county, Florida, where she made a living doing commercials for orange juice. (She was a former pop singer and beauty queen.) The movement spread across the country as city after city overturned ordinances that forbade discrimination against gays. She didn't call her attempt to ruin the lives of millions of Americans an anti-gay campaign, of course. She called it a "Save Our Children" campaign. Children became the shield behind which the anti-gay activists marched. From a Madison Avenue point of view, it was brilliant. From a moral point of view, it was despicable because it was a lie, and the evidence was available to anyone who would take the time to look it up: most child abusers are heterosexuals, whether you're talking in absolute numbers or percentages. The typical homosexual is no more likely to be a child molester than is the typical heterosexual.
I remember when Milk and Moscone were murdered, gunned down in their offices in San Francisco. I didn't know much about Milk except that he was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. I don't remember what, if any, reaction I had to the debate he had with Briggs over Proposition 6. That Milk would debate Briggs in Orange county indicates that Milk was either fearless or had a death wish. The film reminds us that he had four lovers, three of whom committed suicide. The opening scene of cops raiding bars to round up homosexuals for the crime of being homosexual made me sick to my stomach. The reminders of the senseless beatings and killings that homosexuals have suffered and continue to suffer in San Francisco and other places around the world at the hands of homophobes dampens the joy of the successes gays have achieved. Those successes came at a heavy cost: most of the gay men who were coming to The Castro in the seventies would either die of AIDS or be destined to live out the rest of their lives having lost many lovers and friends to HIV. Because of his murder, we'll never know how Milk would have responded to the AIDS epidemic that was to decimate the gay population in San Francisco in the two decades following his death.
Nobody's born homophobic. I grew up in a Catholic household and was taught by Catholic nuns and priests for more than twelve years. I never once heard a kind word for homosexuals from my Catholic mentors. I was groomed to be another homophobe, to despise the abomination of a man lying down with another man. As teens, I and my Catholic comrades (and quite a few of my surfing buddies from non-Catholic quarters) used the word "queer" quite freely, sometimes with contempt, sometimes to ridicule, always without thought to what we were saying.
I can't say I remember when I gave up the notion that homosexuality is an abomination and came to believe that it is as normal as heterosexuality. Watching Anita Bryant go through her self-confident speeches about God and saving children made me wonder if it wasn't people like her that finally showed me the way to the truth. She was the evil one, not the people she believed her Bible told her were violating some sort of divine command. It was easy to reject her, her Bible, and her ignorant claims about child molestation. Of course, it did help to see the light by learning a little bit about evolution, sexuality, biology, human culture, and a few other things, not least of which were the data gathered by social scientists about sex crimes, sexual abuse, and the real families that make up our nation. Nature may not "love" variety, but given the natural laws that govern genetics and the fact that genes are the basis of what we and all other living species are, it is inevitable that there would evolve a great variety of sexual inclinations, physical manifestations of sexuality, degrees of desire, and differences of attraction.
Milk served only11 months in office, but he got a gay rights ordinance passed and he remains the Mayor of Castro Street (even though the Castro ain't what it used to be). Milk has gone down in history as a most righteous individual deserving of our adulation. He's also a reminder that one person's righteousness is another person's instigation to murder.
Milk's assassin spent five years in prison and committed suicide two years after being released. Maybe he couldn't stand living in a world where the law says that gays are almost equal to heterosexuals. We've made progress over the past 30 years, but it seems to be going in slow motion. When gays can legally marry, they'll be one step closer to equality and, of course, they can then enjoy what heterosexuals enjoy: a 50% divorce rate.
Some might think it was a setback when the US Supreme Court ruled yesterday in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church (i.e., Fred Phelps and his immediate family) and supported the right to carry anti-gay signs at U.S. troops' funerals. However, the same right belongs to anyone who wishes to carry anti-Phelps signs outside his church, if he really has one anywhere. He and his family seem to be traveling so much to publicize their demented beliefs that it seems unlikely they ever spend any time in a real church that they call their own. Be that as it may, the homophobic antics of a family of zealous fundamentalists is likely to bring shame on them and evoke sympathy for those they mock, including those in the gay community. You might think that a clever prosecutor might indict the Phelps clan for sedition, since they're promoting the idea that no one should serve in the U.S. military because the country is corrupt. They're subtly advising civil disobedience on a grand scale. The only problem is, another ruling by the Supremes says buffoons like the Phelps clan can't be arrested for seditious speech since nobody takes them seriously. (To count as "seditious speech" it must be directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and be likely to incite or produce such action. It's hard to imagine someone carrying an anti-Phelps protest sign reading God Hates Signs being driven to lawless action.)
I give Milk 4.5 stars (out of 5). The picture is riveting and Sean Penn delivers an Oscar-winning performance. I regret waiting so long to see it.
Mark your calendars: May 29th is the date for the second SkeptiCal northern California science and skepticism conference put together by the Sacramento Area Skeptics and the Bay Area Skeptics. This year's event will be held at the Berkeley Doubletree and will probably run from 8:30 am until 6 pm. Last year's speakers included Brian Dunning, Chris Hoofnagle, David Morrison, Wallace Sampson, Kirsten Sanford, Genie Scott, Seth Shostak, and Karen Stollznow. Check the SkeptiCal website for information on this year's program. I hope to see you there.
Skeptical Inquirer Conference in New Orleans
The Skeptical Inquirer/Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (SI/CSI) has announced that it is having a conference next October in New Orleans. The 4-day event will take place just before Halloween and will be held at the New Orleans Marriot in the French Quarter.
More than 60 speakers have been lined up, including Paul Offit, Phil Plait, Bill Nye, Eugenie Scott, Ray Hyman, James Randi, Lawrence Krauss, Steve Novella, Chris Mooney, David Morrison, Sandra Blakeslee, Joe Nickell, Ben Radford, Karen Stollznow, Edzard Ernst, Massimo Polidoro, James Alcock, David Willey, Rebecca Watson, DJ Grothe, and musical guests "The Heathens."
Topics will run the gamut from conspiracy theories to UFOs.
I'm told that I should not miss CSI's Mardi Gras parade and night out on the town.
There may be a few spaces left for the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City on April 9-10. The speakers include Susan Jacoby, Carl Zimmer, Ken Frazier, John Allen Paulos, Phil Plait, the SGU crew, JREF Communications Director Sadie Crabtree, and many others.
Good news for those in the UK
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has changed its rules so that members of the public can make complaints about misleading marketing communications on websites. According to the Nightingale Collaboration, "until now, the misleading, outrageous and sometimes dangerous claims made on many healthcare websites have been off-limits, but now you can do something about them by submitting your own complaint."
CSI CFI Joins the Atheist Billboard Campaign CSI CFI (Center for Inquiry) has launched a new program and website called Living Without Religion. The goal of CSI's CFI's new venture seems to be the same as that of the atheist bus and billboard campaign: to let those who aren't believers know they are not alone and to let the world know that you don't need God or religion to lead a meaningful life. The motto of Living Without Religion is "You don’t need God—to hope, to care, to love, to live."
Republicans and fairness
Is it fair to characterize the Senate Republicans' move to eliminate all federal funds going to Planned Parenthood as an "attack on women" or "all-out attack on Planned Parenthood and family planning"? After all, two really bad things will happen if we Americans don't keep breeding at a high rate: there will be fewer consumers in the future and that will hinder the growth of markets, and we will eventually be so outnumbered by Muslims that we may as well start praising Allah now. These are vital American interests that must be protected, so maybe we should thank the Republicans for being farsighted instead of criticizing them for not wanting to spend federal dollars on activities that benefit a selfish few at the expense of free enterprise.
I'm actually disappointed that the Republicans aren't pushing for a law requiring every sperm and egg of every American to be maximized, i.e., joined in holy whatever to increase our population to the max. I used to think like a liberal and worry about birth control ultimately leading to an imbalance in breeding between the poor and ignorant and the rich and intelligent. The Republicans awakened me from my liberal stupor and I now see that the more unintelligent poor people there are, the easier it will be to harvest cheap labor.
The ACLU would have us believe that it matters that in 2009 alone, Title X providers performed 2.2 million Pap tests, 2.3 million breast exams, and over six million tests for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including nearly one million HIV tests. So? And why should the taxpayer foot the bill? The more healthy women we have, the closer we get to socialism. Just ask Glenn Beck. He knows a lot more about this stuff than I do.
Robert Lancaster of "Stop Kaz" (www.StopKaz.com) and "Stop Sylvia Browne" (www.StopSylvia.com) fame has begun hosting a radio show on Saturday evenings at 7 PM Eastern. The show is called Resident Skeptic and he promises a respectful treatment of paranormal topics such as psychic mediums and ghost hunting. The show is made possible by the Para-X Network. Not everybody can become a host on this network:
Para X Radio broadcasts all paranormal content from all sides of the paranormal universe. Para X Radio is unbiased, and promotes equality through our programming by inviting anyone to respectfully share their opinions during our live shows through our chat room and call-ins when available.
However, they don't say what will happen to you if you call in and aren't respectful. Maybe you'll have to spend a weekend with Sylvia Browne. (Was that disrespectful?)
"Gawd Bless America"
Finally, a "documentary" on the paranormal that skeptics might enjoy: Gawd Bless America is a documentary comedy coming to theaters this spring. The film follows Blake Freeman, who sets out to disprove the notion that aliens, people with psychic abilities, and ghosts live among us. Freeman takes a morally and financially bankrupt 69-year-old man named Leroy on a journey in search of the truth about the paranormal. Leroy's spent his life savings trying to protect himself from aliens and ghosts. This film sounds like the antidote to Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What.
Camp Inquiry and Camp Quest West
Camp Inquiry 2011, for kids aged 7–16, will run from Sunday, July 31 through Saturday, August 6 at Camp Seven Hills in Holland, New York. RSVP by July 18, 2011.
Camp Quest West 2011, for kids aged 8-17, will run from Sunday July 10 through Saturday July 16 at Camp Ross Relles near Nevada City, California. Registration deadline is May 15, 2011.
Scum of the Minute
Shaman John outpaced all other candidates with his Parents With Gifted [i.e. psychic] Children page.
Do you have a "hyper active" child who is always wanting to do something and gets bored easily? Do they like to draw and paint? Are they attracted to plants, rocks, or animals? These children unfortunately are labeled and medicated when most of them just need their energy redirected.
Where is Shaman John suggesting they "redirect their energy"? Toward developing their psychic "gift."
Who is Shaman John? According to Shaman John:
Shaman John is a native Shaman, Reiki Master, Martial Artist, Dowser/Geomantic Practitioner, Energy Therapist, Psychic, Spiritual Counselor, Teacher, Artist and offers to his clients holistic healing, the art of energy replacement, chakra balancing and energizing, aura energy replacement, crystal energy, Reiki, Seichim Reiki, meditation, psychic development, aroma therapy, tone vibration transformation, paranormal investigation and much more.
In other words, Shaman John is a full-service woo-woo meister. I'd never heard of Seichim Reiki or tone vibration transformation. The former joins an allegedly ancient Egyptian form of energy healing with the more recent Japanese form. Seichim (pronounced "Say-keem") is "living light energy" and an ancient Egyptian system of healing wisdom. I'm not sure what benefit this hybrid energy healing technique has that can't be gotten from reiki or chakra balancing alone.
While trying to find out more about "tone vibration transformation" I stumbled on a BeliefNet page that featured a guy calling himself Silent Storm whose profile is nearly identical to that of Shaman John. They even look alike.
Another page (Linkedin) I stumbled on was about John Coughlin, whose photo is identical to Shaman John's. I wonder, does he also specialize in multiple personality disorder? On Linkedin, he adds to his many talents the following: drum circles, house clearing and cleansing, and musician. Anyway, I'm sorry to report that there were only 26 Google hits on "tone vibration transformation" and each of them went to a site promoting Shaman John/Silent Storm/John Coughlin where it was mentioned that this is one of his specialties. Nowhere was the term defined, however.
I did find one site on vibrational transformation, which listed "toning" as one of the many ways to achieve this fantastic whatever. I didn't know, and I'll bet you didn't either, that "Once in the past in the last age sound was the main platform for which the whole of the civilization based it’s existence upon." [sic] Some readers may recognize the statue of Menkaura and Queen Khamerernebty II. According to the website just quoted these ancient Egyptians were "toning masters." I'd like to report on what this means, but I am afraid that the entire website is just gibberish to me.
Another website looked more promising in my quest to understand toning and vibrational transformation. This one was owned by a chiropractor, Jeffrey Parham, who has discovered that "The tone, vibration, shape, and position of the spine and nerves determine the awareness and level of consciousness with which we experience the world." Parham believes that some memories are stored as energy in the spine. He uses Network Spinal Analysis (NSA) to release that energy and restore the mind/body connection or some such thing. NSA, he says, is "an evidenced based [sic] approach to wellness and body awareness." According to Parham, "bio-fields surround and animate the body through Spinal Gateways. Each bio-field has a corresponding level of consciousness, tone, vibration and awareness." He doesn't mention what evidence he bases these claims on, but my guess is that the evidence was garnered somewhere outside of scientific investigation, perhaps in the neighborhood of ancient Egypt or in Shaman John's sandbox.
I'll conclude my comments on Shaman John with an observation. It seems like I'm finding more and more multitaskers like Shaman John. It is not uncommon, for example, to read about a Tarot card reader who is also a reiki master and who practices reflexology, applied kinesiology, aromatherapy, ear candling, and stone healing.
Coming in a close second was the Montclair [New Jersey] Metaphysical & Healing Center. This "spiritual watering hole" features many harmless activities such as meditation and Native American flute playing, some ancient superstitions like praying the rosary, and some standard woo and alternative medicine like angel readings, hypnotic weight loss, negative energy removal, dream interpretation, and reiki. But the one activity that caught my eye was the Psychic Children Support Group.
This group is for children who are gifted and intuitive as well as their parents. If your child is sensitive, speaks to spirit [sic] or people you do not see, please come along to this group and meet other parents and children going through the same thing. Often, sensitive children are misunderstood by their parents, teachers and their peers. Without any support, sensitives can become fearful and depressed.
In the two-hour course, parents and kids will be taught "energy and psychic protection techniques and how to shut the psychic senses down when they are not required."
Also in contention was David L. Cunningham, who claims that being a POW in Iraq gave him the courage to become a faith healer. He's now faith healer to the stars and counts Haley Mills and Demi Moore among his trophies. On the lighter side, a website called Spiritual Healing Centre relates the following story involving skeptic Stephen Fry and Cunningham:
[David] said: "John [Mills, Haley's father] was a wonderful man. I became his confidant, and he used to invite me to their grand parties. I remember his 90th birthday at the Dorchester. I was Hayley's escort and we went in a white Rolls-Royce. There was a red carpet, a fanfare; it was incredible. Andrew Lloyd Webber played Happy Birthday on the piano and Crispian Mills (Hayley's son) sang a lullaby. I sat next to Stephen Fry. We started talking and he asked me what I did, so I began to explain about the eight chakras and I asked him if he would like me to see if his were OK. "He said: "I don't think, my dear boy, I want you to touch my chakras."
With my retarded wit, I might have come up with such a line a few lifetimes after the encounter.