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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 10 No. 5
11 May 2011
“....nothing is so alien to the human mind as the idea of randomness.” --John Cohen
In this issue
Charles Koch buying professorships
The Navy, Presbyterians, & gays
Prostate cancer supplement doesn't work
The Invisible Gorilla
Games People Play
Scum of the Minute
New Skeptimedia post: ACCC drops the ball in faith healing case.
New reader comments: EMDR.
New Spanish entry: quiropraxis.
Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at skepdic.com/updates.html.
Since I didn't post much during the last month, below are some details regarding a few of the more interesting updates..
integrative medicine: Steven Salzberg, a professor at the University of Maryland, wrote a scathing editorial for Forbes. Why Medical Schools Should Not Teach Integrative Medicine "Pseudoscience is insinuating itself into our medical schools across the nation, going by the name 'Integrative Medicine.' Integrative medicine is just the latest buzzword for a collection of superstitions, myths, and pseudoscience that has gone by various names over the years. First it was Holistic medicine, and once that fell out of favor, it became Alternative medicine, followed soon after by Complementary and Alternative medicine (CAM), and lately Integrative medicine. These names can’t disguise the fact that many of the practices lumped together are bad medicine. What disturbs me particularly, as a professor, is that CAM is moving into the medical curriculum at respectable medical schools, including the University of Maryland."
cell phones and brain cancer: Siddhartha, Mukherjee, "Do Cellphones Cause Brain Cancer?" New York Times Magazine. This piece has been called a model of science journalism. I agree. Dr. Mukherjee has the background to answer the question "How do we know that anything causes cancer?" He was recently awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. The reader may be pleased to know that nothing I've written about cell phones and cancer is contradicted by Dr. Mukherjee. I'm about halfway through Emperor and highly recommend it. It's a page turner that reads like a mystery or detective story with a smattering of horror and superstition thrown in for the sake of accuracy.
Bem's precognition study: Bem's study has been replicated by Stuart Richie, Chris French, and Richard Wiseman. According to Ben Goldacre, they re-ran three of Bem's backwards experiments just as Bem ran them, "and found no evidence of precognition. They submitted their negative results to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which published Bem’s paper last year, and the journal rejected their paper out of hand. We never, they explained, publish studies that replicate other work." Classy. Any bets on how fast it will take the same media that trumpeted Bem's work to ignore the negative findings?
Andrew Wakefield: For his outstanding perseverance, stamina and revelation on a story of major importance, Brian Deer was awarded Specialist Journalist of the Year at The Press Awards. His tireless investigation into Andrew Wakefield’s claim of the supposed link between autism and the MMR vaccine blossomed in May 2010, when Wakefield was found guilty of misconduct by the General Medical Council and struck off as a doctor. It was ‘a tremendous righting of a wrong.’
the "birthers": Obama released a copy of the long form of his birth certificate and shortly thereafter it was charged in federal court that the document had been doctored and that none of this matters because Obama was an illegitimate child and illegitimate children can't be president, donchaknow. For those interested in forging documents, see Pat Linse’s debunking of the alleged fraud on Obama’s long form birth certificate.
autism and vaccines: Mark Geier had his medical license suspended by the Maryland Board of Physicians, which charged him with misrepresenting his credentials, misdiagnosing children, and urging parents to approve risky treatments without fully informing them of the potential dangers.* Seth Mnookin devotes an entire chapter of The Panic Virus to "Mark Geier: Witness for Hire." Geier is a favorite with believers in the vaccine/autism connection and has testified in about one hundred lawsuits. He has no status, however, in the scientific community. According to Mnookin, Geier is also distrusted in legal circles where judges consider his testimony "so unreliable as to be worthless."
Spend Memorial Day weekend in northern California and attend the SkeptiCal conference in Berkeley on May 29.
I'll be in charge of one of the breakout sessions: "Five Myths About Skeptics."
Other speakers include Dr. Eugenie Scott of the NCSE, Skeptologists Yau-Man Chan and Mark Edward, Susan Gerbic of CFI's Independent Investigation Group (IIG), Skepchick Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy), UC Santa Cruz Professor of Psychology Dr. Anthony Pratkanis, Darwin Awards website founder Wendy Northcutt, Pacific Institute President Dr. Peter Gleick, Deputy Director of NCSE Glenn Branch, and Thoughts From Kansas blogger Joshua Rosenau. For registration information go to http://www.skepticalcon.org/.
My appearance at SkeptiCal 2011 depends on the inaccuracy of Harold Camping's prediction that the rapture will occur on May 21st. If you are a pet-loving person wondering what's going to happen to the pets of those taken up in the rapture, wonder no more. Atheists will take care of them. In case the rapture passes you by, SEB has the scoop on Plan B.
Registration is now open for The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry conference in New Orleans to be held next October 27-30. More than 60 speakers have been lined up, including Indre Viskontas, Paul Offit, Karen Stollznow, Ray Hyman, Barbara Forrest, James Randi, Sandra Blakeslee, Phil Plait, Lawrence Krauss, Harriet Hall, Steve Novella, David Morrison, Debbie Goddard, Edzard Ernst, Eugenie Scott, and Massimo Polidoro. For more information go to http://csiconference.org/.
Kris Hundley of the St. Petersburg Times has a very nice article about a very rich man who has a penchant for trying to eliminate the opposition, especially if that opposition is the Democratic Party or anyone who might want to regulate banks or corporations. Hundley's article begins innocently: "A conservative billionaire who opposes government meddling in business has bought a rare commodity: the right to interfere in faculty hiring at a publicly funded university." The author then proceeds to explain how Koch bankrolled a foundation with $1.5 million for positions in Florida State University's economics department on condition that his representatives get to screen and sign off on any hires for a new program promoting "political economy and free enterprise." The lesson here is simple: free enterprise means being rich enough to buy whatever you want.
According to NavyTimes, Chief of Chaplains Rear Adm. Mark Tidd has issued a memorandum that states once the military’s ban on gays serving openly is lifted, Navy chaplains will be permitted to officiate at same-sex marriage and civil union ceremonies on base.
“This new guidance from the Navy clearly violates the law,” Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services seapower subcommittee, said. However, not long after the announcement another announcement was issued that took back the first announcement. "Under pressure from more than five dozen House lawmakers, the Navy abruptly reversed its decision that would have allowed chaplains to perform same-sex unions if the Pentagon decides to recognize openly gay military service later this year."*
This news item reminds me of the Bob Dylan anthem "The Times They are a Changin'," but it also makes me wonder why does the Navy even have chaplains?
In related news, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will now allow the ordination of gays and lesbians as ministers. Several conservative congregations quit the Church over the issue, taking with them some large memberships and active leaders who resisted changes to ordination standards. The new standards don't require ordination of gays; they permit it.
File this one under "there's a sucker born every minute" or "delusions of the poor and infamous."
Geoffrey Crockford claims that human beings have a sixth sense, the magnetic sense, that senses diamagnetism and "paramagnetism." This enables the human body to be used as a sophisticated magnetometer. The magnetism he speaks of, however, is not ordinary magnetism. There's is a "lesser-known form of magnetism" that consists of "an invisible world of energy." This energy contains "incredible information" and can be accessed by dowsing. Crockford says his first application of dowsing was "as a research technique into harmful radiation from mobile phones and computers." From there, he has moved on to use dowsing to detect water leaks, locate artifacts at archaeological sites, detect the history of a landscape, assess food quality and freshness, assess pollution, locate underground cables, and obtain health and fitness information such as blood sugar levels.
Crockford shares his knowledge in a couple of books written with a former KLM pilot. He also offers a training course for the modest fee of £50, including lunch, which, I assume, has been duly assayed with his magic dowsing rods.
A randomized, double-blind study has found that consuming daily doses of soy (40 g), vitamin E (800 IU), and selenium (200 µg) did not benefit men who were at higher risk of developing prostate cancer because of a precancerous condition. The study involved 303 Canadian men. One group took the supplement and the control group took a whey-based placebo powder for 3 years. About 26% in each group developed cancer.*
According to the authors of The Invisible Gorilla, a paperback version of the book will be released into the wild on June 7 (assuming North America counts as wild). You can pre-order it now.
If I hadn't heard Jane McGonigal being interviewed on NPR I doubt that I would have bought or read, or perhaps even heard about, her wonderful account of games and the effect of those games on millions of people. She calls her account Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. The title reveals both her pessimism and her optimism, but no title could convey the many treasures within, not only about games but about the pursuit of happiness.
I should state up front that I am not a gamer. I had not even heard of one of the most popular games ever devised, World of Warcraft, until I read McGonigal. There were more than 11.5 million subscribers in January 2010. The average amount of time a player spends on the game is between 17 and 22 hours per week. McGonigal figures that gamers have spent about 6 million years collectively playing just this one game. The players have written some 250,000 wiki articles on WOWWiki. To the outsider, these folks may seem to be trying to escape from reality. To McGonigal, they're trying to enhance and improve on reality, or, as she puts it, they're finding in gaming what's missing in the real world, namely, "carefully designed pleasures, thrilling challenges, and powerful social bonding." Games have become more than a diversion to relieve the boredom of the workaday world; they have become a major instrument in the pursuit of happiness. I had no idea that one in seventy-five people on the planet play Farmville on Facebook. Some 30 million people a day log in to play Farmville each and every day. I'm not one of them, but then I'd never heard of most of the dozens of games McGonigal reviews, many of which she created herself.
Rather than philosophize about happiness, McGonigal cites the work of Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky in what they call "positive psychology." Briefly, the argument is that we crave satisfying work, achievement of success (or at least the hope of being successful), social connections, and meaningful activity. Happiness, at least in part, depends on being able to satisfy these cravings. Reality often conspires to prevent the nurturing of our cravings, while games offer the opportunity to creatively pursue what we crave. As an aside, she notes that the self-help movement goes against almost every positive-psychology finding. In the end, McGonigal unintentionally provides support for what philosophers have been arguing for millennia: fame, fortune, power, and beauty aren't sufficient for happiness. Eric Weiner cleverly puts it this way: "Happiness isn't a noun or a verb. It's a conjunction."
McGonigal is convinced that games are already making the world a better place and will continue to do so. She provides many concrete examples of how this is happening and how gaming will continue to be one of the most progressive influences for the better in social history.
I don't want to spoil the book for those who haven't read it yet, so I will just add one more comment about why it sounded interesting to me while listening to the interview on NPR. What really influenced me to buy the book was her asking in the NPR interview what is the goal of golf? The goal, she said, is to get the ball in the hole from some starting point. This is repeated several times during a complete game. Why not just carry the ball to the hole and drop it in? Why hit the ball with a club? Why create obstacles in the form of bunkers, trees, water hazards, canyons, and the like? Why are there so many rules governing play? It is hard to admit it, but we golfers beat ourselves up on golf courses in the pursuit of happiness. Our activity might appear meaningless and frivolous to non-golfers, but in fact we are satisfying our craving to work toward overcoming obstacles and to light up our social connections as we bs our way around the course in the hope of achieving some sort of success ... if not today, then surely tomorrow.`
1. UFO Casebook. From the website: "Is there an 'Alien Base' on the Moon? More and more people are coming forward with stories that might prove this is true. Rumors say that there is an Alien Moon Base on the far side of the moon, the side we never see from Earth."
Need I go on? Probably not, but I'll mention one of the sources of these rumors, according to UFO Casebook: William Cooper, whom I've written about in the illuminati entry.
2. Real Alkalized Water from Affinity Lifestyles. "Real Water is the only alkalized, antioxidant, negative ionized bottled water with cellular hydration like never before with Real Water's proprietary E2-Electron Energized technology." Rebecca Hill of The Guardian asked Real Water about the treatment, but public information officer Xzavia Ross said: "Our process is proprietary so there really is no way we can disclose the process by which we add electrons to the water." On the other hand, the company confidently asserts that "many food and beverages ... are devoid of electrons."
Would you buy a bag of carrots if its packaging said "no cholesterol and void of electrons"? Anyway, for those who care: every non-ionized atom in the universe contains as many electrons as its atomic number.
3. Brauer homeopathic potions for children. It's just water, so it can't do much harm, right? Not necessarily. At the very least, Brauer and all other homeopathic peddlers are guilty of false advertising. They label their products with stuff like this: Contains equal parts of:
Bryonia 30C, Chamomilla 6C, Colocynthis 6C, Mag. phos. 6C. To the unsuspecting parent in the pharmacy, the labeling looks like there are active ingredients in the potion. In fact, those C numbers tell you there's NOTHING in the bottle but water! (For more on the potency scales used in homeopathy see http://skepdic.com/homeo.html).
4. Sungazing: a practice that includes gazing at the sun for nourishment or as a spiritual practice.
* AmeriCares *
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