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

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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 10 No. 6

2 June 2011

“Christians are hard to tolerate; I don’t know how Jesus does it.” --Bono

In this issue

What's new?
Report on SkeptiCal 2011
Sex and the Vatican
the 4 ponies of the apocalypse
pseudoscience at the University of Arizona
Scum of the minute

What's New?

Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Skeptimedia: I may be a fool, but I have my reasons and Why the world didn't end yesterday (about the end-of-the-world prophecy of a numerologist Bible man); Storm: caught in the behaviorist parenting trap (about the parents who won't reveal what sex their latest child is); and WHO Says Cell Phones May Not Cause Cancer regarding the latest report about cell phones and cancer).

The vitamins and minerals page was reorganized and updated.

reader comments: Mary Lynch and Consegrity.

What's the harm? Persistent Infant Deaths Reported in Idaho Faith-Healing Church.

Translations to Turkish of chi, Freemasons, and transcendental meditation entries.

Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at www.skepdic.com/updates.html.

SkeptiCal 2011: a self-serving report

Two northern California skeptics groups, the Sacramento Skeptics and the Bay Area Skeptics, hosted their second annual conference on May 29 at the Doubletree Hotel in Berkeley, a very pleasant setting. Here you are minutes from the Bay Bridge and the eastern entrance to San Francisco. (The Golden Gate Bridge joins San Francisco with Marin county from the north side of the city.) I drove from Davis early in the morning. The sun was shining after days of rainy weather. The traffic was thin. The iPod was playing Bob Dylan tunes. Getting up early and being on the road by 7:15 a.m. wasn't such a bad thing after all.

Yau-Man Chan from the reality shows Survivor Borneo and Survivor Fiji was the first speaker. I know the show from passing through the TV room on my way to the kitchen or after being called out of the study by my wife to see the opening scenes of waves shooting out of blowholes and aerial shots of garden islands surrounded by blue-green seas and coral reefs. It seems like every time I pass the TV while Survivor is on, there are several beautiful women in skimpy bathing suits milling about or clamoring in the mud, so my understanding of this bit of "reality TV" is probably a bit skewed. Frankly, I now know more than I need to about the program. (Did you know that the greatest number of applicants are white males from the Midwest?) No offense to Mr. Chan. He was charming and entertaining, and told some funny stories. I assume he was invited because he was one of the cast members of "The Skeptologists," a skeptical TV program created by Brian Dunning that has apparently not found any buyers yet. Yau-Man is very likeable and was a good opening act. He put the audience in a relaxed, receptive mood. He's also a man of many talents. He had to leave immediately after his talk to attend a ping pong competition. Before he left, though, he did mention that the producer of Survivor, Mark Burnett, is producing a series on the Bible for The History Channel. Yes, the stories of Noah, Exodus, and the Resurrection will be told as history. They may even be promoted as reality.

Peter Gleick then spoke about disinformation and misrepresentation regarding climate change. (The title of his talk was "The Integrity of Science and Climate Change: Logical Fallacies and Abuse of Science." He has made it avaiable in PDF format.) Gleick's presentation design is a model worth emulating for a talk dealing with deniers, such as the Holocaust deniers, Apollo moon landing deniers, tobacco-cancer link deniers, HIV-AIDS link deniers, safe vaccines deniers, 9/11 deniers, evolution deniers, and climate change deniers. If you are looking for an effective way to respond to groups who manufacture controversy, look no further.

The model Gleick follows is to present some of the science, present some of the claims of the deniers, and then return to the science and the data to demonstrate the misrepresentations and fallacies of the deniers. Gleick didn't pick soft targets, either; so he can't be accused of straw man tactics. Since the issue he dealt with is related to policy issues, he made a clear distinction between speaking as a scientist about the science and speaking as a scientist about policy.

Gleick is a water expert and co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, California. One thing I'm sure most attendees will remember is the comparison of graphs that depict select months or years by climate change deniers to the graphs that depict much longer time frames. The comparison not only highlights the method of cherry-picking by deniers, but exposes them as foolish. (Gleick didn't make this analogy but the cherry-picking deniers are like mutual fund salesmen or stock brokers who select just certain years of stock market values to show the potential dupe customer how rich he'd be if only he'd invested $10,000 in 19__.)

We'll also remember the retelling of the joke about the guy who walks into a bar and hears one fellow shout out "23" followed by laughter. After a period of silence, another patron yells out "37." Again, the outburst was followed by laughter. What's going on? the guy asks. He's told that the locals have told the same jokes for so many years that they decided to save time by giving them numbers. The guy decides to join in and yells out "42." Nobody laughs. He says "what's the matter? Isn't 42 one of your jokes?" He's told yes, it is, but you didn't tell it right. Gleick used the joke as a starting point to refer us to the website Skeptical Science (whose iPhone app I highly recommend) which lists denier arguments repeated so often that they've been given numbers (they're up to 163 as of 30 May 2011). He then reviewed #10 (Antarctica is gaining ice), #19 (Al Gore got it wrong), #28 (Arctic ice melt is a natural cycle), #44 (Arctic sea ice has recovered), and several more. Gleick also reminded the audience that scientists make mistakes, science is not infallible, and there is a major distinction that must be made between the science of climate change and policy recommendations regarding climate change. If we let those ignorant of science but big on economic ideology make the policies, it becomes unlikely that the policies selected will be the best we can come up with. Scientists must be involved in the policy-making decision process. We ignore them at our peril.

Much discussion ensued on how to get the masses of people, including policy makers, to think far into the future. As a species, we do not seem to have evolved to look much beyond our own life span unless we're contemplating some rosy paradise or some ghastly furnace for souls to dwell in for eternity. Fear, of course, is a great motivator, as is pleasure, but when the consequences talked about aren't likely to occur until many of the current generation are dead or very old, those motivators lose much of their traditional power. Anyway, do we want to scare our children with doomsday scenarios? I think our chances of getting policies enacted that are likely to mitigate some of the effects of worst-case scenarios increase the more we can tie those policies to immediate gains. Emphasis on living in a cleaner world, on enhancing our quality of life with new forms of energy, on creating jobs, might be a better approach than trying to scare people with predictions of a future where the east coast of the U.S. is under water—even if it is highly probable that those predictions will come true.

****

After a 30-minute break, the group of about 250 (my estimate) divided up for the breakout sessions. I conducted one session. Susan Gerbic of CFI's Independent Investigation Group (IIG) and co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics led another session. The third was run by Wendy Northcutt, founder of the popular website www.DarwinAwards.com and author of six Darwin Awards collections. Obviously, I can't tell you what went on in the two sessions that occurred during my session. I can tell you that Susan Gerbic approached me for a photo that she said she would post on the Wikipedia article about me. I doubt if the photo she took will be posted, however. Her Canon camera has gone missing.

My session was called "Five Myths About Skeptics." I should provide a little background. When I was asked to participate in SkeptiCal 2011, I was led to believe that I was to do a presentation for 15 or 20 minutes and then open it up for discussion. So, I developed a presentation and a few days before the conference was about to do a final edit when I received an email from one of the organizers of the event. I was told that I was not to give a talk and I was to take no more than 10 minutes introducing my topic. I was not to use PowerPoint and I was not there to answer questions. No problem there. But I decided that what I'd prepared wouldn't be of much interest if I just stripped it down to a list of five myths, said something witty and insightful, and opened it up for comments. We had two mics, one for me and one to pass around the audience, but one didn't work. So, I spent the entire 60 minutes walking around the room with a microphone letting people tell the rest of us what they thought were myths about skeptics or anything else that was on their minds. Fortunately, the 80 to 100 participants were a lively, intelligent, articulate group who needed no managing to keep focused on topics that would be of interest to skeptics and those we try to communicate with. We were very lucky to have no trolls or opportunists in the audience who might try to take over the session.

From the time we started (with my asking a participant to try to read my mind and identify one of the five myths) until my closing remark (about scientific skepticism not meaning we give science a free pass) there were hands up and people ready and eager to chime in.

Many of the comments were about the lack of civility in discourse with each other and with the general public. Because I sharpened my Ph.D. teeth on religious controversies among 17th century Europeans, I am jaded when it comes to this topic. When I was a young man. I read tract after tract by clerics who vilified one another and promised each other eternal torments for their errors, while letting no fallacy or sophistry go unplayed if they thought it would make those with different religious views look foolish. This was during the height of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement in the late sixties and early seventies—a period of incivility that cannot be reasonably compared to anything happening in the U.S. today. I was reading books by religious men who were defending sacred ideas (to them). As a group, they were among the least civil writers I've ever come across. The atheists, what few there were, dared not join in the fray. Hobbes and Spinoza were held up as models of evil atheism because they had reasoned their way out of a fairy-tale reading of the Bible into a philosophical understanding of "God." I can't think of two more civil philosophers in European history than Hobbes and Spinoza, yet they were reviled by most defenders of religion in their day and condemned with incessant vituperation.

In addition to my being immersed in 17th century religious controversialist literature, I was and continue to be under the spell of John Stuart Mill's exhortation (in On Liberty) not to censor speech because of its rancorous style, which is often, Mill said, a cover for censoring the ideas being expressed. Mill advised us to exhort and remonstrate those who spoke vulgarly or with vileness, but don't censor them. I think we shouldn't even bother to exhort or remonstrate those we consider to be "dicks," to use a word now in favor. But then, I'm old and want to spend my time on other things besides arguing about style or language. Anyway, the only comment I offered during the discussion at SkeptiCal was something to the effect that incivility is rampant throughout society and we all know why. Who do others and the media pay attention to? Models of incivility are everywhere and are obviously very popular. There is a lesson about this issue in a recent column by E. J. Dionne that compared the media attention to two groups of Catholics. One group used President Obama's scheduled talk at the University of Notre Dame to attack in vicious terms Obama, Democrats, and anyone else who supported the killing of babies, i.e., abortion. The other group used John Boehner's scheduled talk at Catholic University to respectfully remind Republicans and others who "fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) ... that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor." Guess who was ignored? Guess who got their message splashed across talk shows and TV news program? I'm not giving advice here; I'm just pointing out what I think is a fact.

Nobody has asked me for advice on this issue, but if I were asked I would say: if you are so concerned with style and manners, ignore those you consider to be bad examples and emulate those you think are good examples. And, don't be afraid to challenge anybody about any idea or policy. Also, if you use words to frighten, belittle, ridicule, or degrade a child or other defenseless person, you will have me as your enemy for life. I make no exceptions for those wearing religious uniforms or those claiming their intentions are good.

****

Another area of concern was with the identification of skeptics as atheists. Frankly, I would probably butcher the comments made if I relied on my inaccurate memory, but one of the participants stands out: a young woman who identified herself as a church-going skeptic. Beyond the obvious point that one can be both religious and a skeptic, I don't remember her exact concern. Anyway, I mentioned an article I'd read that morning by a United Methodist minister who divides religion into good religion and bad religion. What is good about his religion, he argues, is that it is tolerant, open-minded, and non-judgmental. Good religion is pro-science and pro-women. One young man told us he left his church because it was so closed-minded. I joked that maybe he belonged to the wrong church. I might have added that there are probably some skeptics who have left our movement because they felt unwelcome by the anti-theism and pro-atheism talks at some skeptical conferences. Anyway, others were soon to extend this conversation to the larger one concerning how we are often tolerant and skeptical until our own sacred ox is gored. Suddenly, the person we used to admire and respect for her brilliant thinking becomes a closed-minded bigot when she criticizes an area we don't want to examine too closely.

There was also much discussion on education and miseducation. One teacher expressed how heartbreaking it is to have children scared to death that the world's going to end because of 2012 hysteria or media overreporting the musings of a gobshite retired engineer with a moronic attraction to numerology and the Bible.

We talked about the reputation skeptics have for being nihilists and cynics. We're the party poopers. It is said that we take away hope and extinguish the mystery from life. I don't remember much of the discussion here, but I had a few prepared comments on this point that I'll bring up now:

Skeptics have a positive outlook on the quest for knowledge, and believe that it is possible to demonstrate that some claims are more probably true than others. Skeptics are not being negative when we oppose ignorance, fallacious reasoning, biased thinking, and irrationality. Skeptics affirm some of our most positive human values by giving appropriate status to the faculties that separate us from the beasts. Every mystery studied by scientists seems to yield a dozen more mysteries. As long as skepticism affirms science, it cannot be truthfully said that we are taking away the mysteries of life.

I also was going to mention Carl Sagan's acute observation:

It’s sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. It takes nothing away from the romance of a sunset to understand it from a scientific point of view.

I talked to several people after the session and nobody complained about my not lecturing, showing PowerPoint slides, telling jokes, entertaining them with stories of some of the weirder ideas and people I've locked horns with over the years, or trying to educate them on some of the finer points of skepticism.

It wouldn't be fair, or wise, for me to evaluate the session. I can say that I enjoyed it and it was the easiest million dollars I've ever made. I left the session feeling "stoked," to use an expression from my surfing days.

****

After lunch, Anthony Pratkanis, the most awesome social scientist in the world according to the Institute of Noospheric Sciences, gave an animated presentation on how to create your own brand of flim-flam. Actually, the title of the talk was "Influence and Persuasion in Selling Flim-flam." There is no such thing as the Institute of Noospheric Sciences. I made that up. (I didn't take notes, so if by chance I actually remembered the name of the fake institute he mentioned, I apologize.) The idea of making up a fake institute and calling yourself the Director or Founder is just one tip he gives for those considering a way to scam your fellow citizens and defraud them out of their money. The tip to make stuff up about foundations, degrees, etc., is one I failed to consider when I wrote my articles on creating your own pseudoscience. I foolishly advised people to buy a phony degree from a diploma mill. In my defense, I point out that my article was intended for honest frauds, not dishonest ones. If you want to be an out-and-out crook, go ahead and make stuff up, lie, and cheat. Say you have a Ph.D. in ergotromics or whatever. Nobody's likely to check it out. Another tip I failed to include, but which was emphasized by Pratkanis, is to start an MLM. Become a general and let the soldiers make the money for you. That's good advice. Why not let others sell your cancer cure or whatever you decide to center your scam around? Let others do the work while you rake in the money.

Pratkanis teaches a course on the Social Psychology of Flim-flam, among other courses, at UC Santa Cruz. He and Doug Shadel authored Weapons of Fraud: A Source Book for Fraud Fighters, available free from AARP. They studied 645 undercover audiotapes of telephone communications between “con criminals” and undercover investigators who posed as elderly victims of previous cons. The message of that book seems to be the same one Bob Steiner had in Don't Get Taken: - Bunco and Bunkum Exposed - How to Protect Yourself. You, yes you, the clever one with all the street smarts who is so savvy, you, can be taken. Pratkanis tried to get his message across to the SkeptiCal audience about how con criminals work by pretending to be giving advice on how to make your own personal con work. I think the audience greatly appreciated the content, the method, and the style of this very lively speaker.

****

After a short break, we returned for the afternoon breakout sessions. I chose to attend Mark Edward's session on "Guerrilla Skepticism," so I can't comment on the sessions run by Amy Davis Roth or Dan Werthimer.

Edward either didn't get the same email directive I got about not lecturing or he ignored it. In any case, I'm glad he did a lecture rather than run around the room with a microphone, as I did in the morning. The session began at 3:30 p.m. I'd had nearly non-stop stimulation for about seven hours, despite the breaks. I could feel my body vibrating. The last thing I wanted to do at that point was participate in a discussion. So, I don't fault Edward for not sticking to the late-coming directive. That said, however, I think his talents would have been better used as a performer. He did a very short sample of his séance demonstration and a very good sealed envelope trick, but mostly he talked about some things he and others have done as skeptical activists. He also mentioned that he has a book coming out soon. I believe it's called Psychic Blues and will be published by Feral House.

In addition to his professional life as a magician and mentalist, Edward is an activist skeptic. He goes to events and leaves his mark in the form of cards with questions or phone numbers or lists of failed prophecies by Sylvia Browne. He does what he calls guerrilla skepticism or performance art. For example, he was part of a group that showed up on Hollywood Blvd. on the day the world was supposed the end for an end-of-world countdown party. At my age, and given my temperament, I'm not likely to participate in too many stunts, but I like the idea and applaud those who do take it to the streets. Now that I think of it, I guess I could call what I did guerrilla skepticism when I was traveling after The Skeptic's Dictionary came out. I put a bookmark advertising my book in each Gideon Bible I came across in hotel rooms. If I'd had any brains, though, I'd have trashed the Bibles and replaced them with copies of The Skeptic's Dictionary.

I chose to attend Edward's session because when I was teaching I used P & T's Bullshit! Season 1 episode where Edward does a reading for a woman (not very convincing or interesting) but then deconstructs, dismembers, and otherwise mutilates Rosemary Althea's pathetic hot reading of one sad young man who missed his mother, and two couples who lost their daughters to suicide. His analysis of this craphound posing as a caring human being is a classic.

After Edward's talk, I was beat, so I left for home and missed the panel discussion on "Evolution vs. Creationism" and the Science and Skeptic Themed Game Show.

When I got back to Davis my wife wanted to hear all about the day. So, over a couple of glasses of Bushmills I related some of the above and a bit more. The bit more includes being greeted by a man who was a student of mine at Sacramento City College some years ago. Jason's now an engineer with the California Environmental Protection Agency's Air Resources Board. It was gratifying that he came to the conference to see me and to tell me about how much he valued the classes in philosophy he took from me years ago. Thanks for coming, Jason, and reminding me of the "good old days" at SCC.

While I was running around the room transporting the mic from person to person, I recognized two faces that I couldn't link to names or places. After the session, a young woman introduced herself as Indre Viskontas. Now I knew where I recognized her from: the television program "The Miracle Detectives" on the Oprah Network. I watched the program at my wife's insistence and was glad I did. It features a skeptic and a believer investigating various miraculous claims. In a review of the show, I wrote:

The main surprise for me was that the skeptic was not a token brought in at the end to insult the believer who had been given ample opportunity to produce a slam-dunk case. Not only that, but the skeptic is a female and obviously a superior intellect to the believer. Indre Viskontas far outshines Randall Sullivan, a journalist who represents the believer in miracles.

Indre ViskontasIndre told me that she got a lot of negative email from viewers and that when she read what I wrote it put her in a better mood. For those who will be at the CSI conference in New Orleans next October, be sure to catch her talk. In her real life, she is a neuroscientist and an opera singer. She'll be part of a Breakout Panel and will discuss how we might combine neuroscience and art to create successful television programs in the age of new media.

For those who are looking for a skeptic who treats a believer with respect, look no further. Be warned however, that despite her superior evidence and arguments, and despite her respectful presentation of that evidence, Indre did not convince the believer. And don't forget that negative email she got. My point is not that had she been in his face, she'd have won him over and the fan mail would have poured in. No, actually my experience has been that neither method, the kind and respectful nor the obnoxious and merciless, has been shown superior to the other when it comes to making converts to skepticism. I don't deny, however, that the respectful approach is more likely to leave the channels of communication open, while the in-your-face approach is likely to shut off those channels forever. Most of us don't care whether the likes of a Sylvia Browne closes the door in our face, but there are many believers in supernatural and paranormal things who are not frauds, not cynical miscreants, and who might be worth conversing with.

The idea of winning the hearts and minds of those on the "other side" recurs frequently in skeptical debates. I don't want to spoil the party, but most of the success stories skeptics point to are also failures in another sense. Yes, Peter Popoff was exposed. Yes, Uri Geller was exposed. Yes, Sylvia Browne has been exposed. Yes, John Fitzsimons was exposed. Yes, Andrew Wakefield has been exposed. Yes, Kevin Trudeau has been exposed. Yes, Airborne's been exposed. Astrology's been debunked into ashes, but most daily newspapers still carry a daily horoscope page. Frauds and pseudoscience have taken a licking, but they keep on kicking. That won't stop us because we know there are bystanders and inquirers who are watching and listening to us. From their feedback, we know when we've been effective.

Karla McLarenFor example, there's Karla McLaren, whose name was brought up by Mark Edward. He called her out at his session, but apparently she wasn't there. He told the audience that she had once been a New Age healer but gave it up after she learned from him and Randi that she was really doing cold reading. I know Karla was at the conference because I had spent some time talking to her earlier in the day. One upon a time she had a career writing New Age books and running New Age conferences. We exchanged emails several years ago after she'd made her decision to leave the New Age. She has a blog where she explains the rather complex situation she has found herself in.

Karla attributes her turnaround to the works of Randi, Shermer, Edward, myself, and other skeptics. She's written about it for Skeptical Inquirer. If you really want to know about her transformation, I suggest reading the SI article and her blog Missing the Solstice. After reading her emails and talking with her at SkeptiCal, I would say that while it's true her reading of skeptics played a part in her transformation, it was a small part and maybe not even a necessary part. She's a smart woman, an inquisitive person, and is quite capable of thinking for herself without our guidance. In fact, in some ways she used our work in spite of its many unattractive elements. How many of us would take seriously the work of a New Age writer or a parapsychologist who occasionally referred to us as dupes and deluded (or as wankers and fuckwits)?

Anyway, two of Karla's concerns are how to respond to those in the New Age movement who still look to her for advice and how to bridge the chasm that exists between skeptics and non-skeptics. Maybe she'll be invited to the next SkeptiCal to speak about these things. In any case, she'll be famous in our world soon: PZ Myers has devoted a column to responding, in his usual kind and gentle way, to a piece Karla wrote called In Defense of Anger. The piece was posted on a blog I'd never heard of called NonProphet Status (run by "humanist interfaith activist" Chris Stedman). Karla's defense of anger was in response to the vitriolic response she got from another post on Stedman's blog that was about anger and incivility in New Atheism (Why Do We Need New Atheists? Can’t We Just Spruce Up The Old Ones?). I've read Karla's posts. She makes a number of specific criticisms of the gnu atheists, but the one Myers responds to is one I can't find. Myers writes: "Karla McLaren can no more be the authoritarian dictator of how atheists should behave than I can." How he found that claim buried in her two posts, I can't say.

****

Talk in Dublin, Ireland

The other woman whose face I recognized but couldn't place approached and asked me if I remembered her. I was honest and told her that I did but I didn't remember where I knew her from. I asked if I'd met her at a Humanist meeting. No, she said, we met in Dublin. Ah, how could I forget. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but I do remember that a group of Irish skeptics, my wife, and I closed the place long after the last waiter had urged us to leave. The night before, I'd given a talk at the Davenport hotel for the Irish Skeptics. That afternoon I'd visited Hodges Figgis, a bookstore mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses, where Paul O'Donoghue had arranged for The Skeptic's Dictionary to be put on display. (Why wouldn't I enjoy a bit of magical thinking in Ireland?)

Bob Carroll in front of Hodges Figgis

We only left the restaurant because the waiter refused to bring us another bottle of wine. I was glad we got kicked out because the night had become a songfest and it was my turn to entertain the table. I don't remember much of the cognitive content of the evening, but the emotive content still lingers in a corner of my amygdala. Paul O'Donoghue sang a Leonard Cohen tune. I think he and wife, Róisín, were married by Cohen or Cohen was staying on some Greek island when they got married and came by for a free drink or something like that. Or maybe they'd met at a Leonard Cohen concert. Anyway, I know Leonard Cohen was important to them and Paul gave us his rendition of a fine tune. I do remember the tune but that's between those of us who were there. I don't remember any other songs from that night in 2004, except one. It was a Sophie Tucker song and the singer was standing before me seven years later and 5,000 miles from what used to be her home. Catherine, it was a pleasant shock to see you again. I hope you read this and get in touch with me because I forgot to get your contact information

****

My colleague from SCC, Liam McDaid, was there. Check out his 2012 doomsday page. Also, Jim Lippard came all the way from Phoenix and stopped by to say hello.

On the drive home to Davis from Berkeley I remembered that I'd forgotten to thank Shane Trimmer for inviting me. Thanks, Shane, and if you don't invite Indre Viskontis, Jim Lippard, Liam McDaid, and Karla McLaren to speak next year your salary may be cut in half.

Sex and the Vatican

Sex and the VaticanCarmelo Abbate's book, Sex and the Vatican, grew out of an investigation into the double lives of some gay priests in Rome. It expanded to include issues such as women who become priests' mistresses and the children they have (and those they abort), as well as allegations of the rape of nuns by priests. The author sees a vital connection between priestly sexual misconduct and the Vatican's insistence that they lead lives of celibacy and chastity. What a shock. The Vatican denies the connection. Not a shock.

John Hooper of The Guardian writes:

The French edition shot to number 12 in Amazon.fr's non-fiction bestseller list as the initial print run sold out in under a week. Abbate was interviewed at length on one of France's prime-time current affairs programmes. There have been articles about him and his book in various French dailies. Now there is a television documentary in the making for French television, based on his disclosures.

In Italy, by contrast, the publication of Sex and the Vatican has been met with a wall of embarrassed silence. It is as if it had never happened.

Hooper's take on the quiet response in Italy is that it shows that Italy's public life continues to be influenced by the Catholic church in a way that is thoroughly unhealthy, notwithstanding the collapse of Christian Democracy.

The four ponies of the anti-apocalypse booked for the Global Atheist Convention

Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris are booked to speak at The Global Atheist Convention, ''A Celebration of Reason,'' next April in Melbourne, Australia. An article in The Age mentions that the atheists will receive government Global Atheist Conventionfunding and that Dan Dennett finds quite amusing the analogy to the riders in the bizarre ending of The Book of Revelation. According to Dennett, apart from one videotaped meeting in Christopher Hitchens's apartment about five years ago, they had ''never shared a podium before." No mention in the article was made of the fact that Hitchens is dying of esophageal cancer.

University of Arizona and pseudoscience

The University of Arizona is home to Gary Schwartz and Andrew Weil, the one promotes belief in the paranormal and the other encourages the integration of non-scientific medicine with evidence-based medicine. A recent survey of students at U of A found that less than 30% of those surveyed say astrology is not scientific. Compare that to 65% of adult Americans who say astrology is not scientific, according to a survey by the National Science Foundation. Does U of A attract students who believe in pseudoscience? Does the atmosphere there enhance any tendencies they might have to believe in pseudoscience? Or, is it just a coincidence that U of A students are twice as likely as other Americans to think there's some sort of scientific basis for astrology? Is there no connection to this rather unique feature of U of A students and the fact that two of the leading lights of anti-scientific, faith-based thinking in the name of science happen to run programs there?

Scum of the minute

The award goes to the Wikpedia editor who wrote the following on the page for Robert Todd Carroll: "He is viewed by some commentators as pseudoskeptic for his alleged dogmatism and scoffing attitude." Shouldn't it be "as a pseudoskeptic"?

This anonymous comment cites two sources for support, Richard Milton and an anonymous author who backs up his claim with references to Richard Milton. Guess what? I had some nasty things to say about Mr. Milton when he operated the now-defunct site he called "Alternative Science." He responded by setting up a whole section on his site devoted to me, whom he referred to as 'the nutty professor." I've also done battle with Rupert Sheldrake, whose anti-skeptics' site is the second reference to Milton in the Wikipedia article.

It takes a lot to make me cry, but I might feel a tiny pang of sadness were I not in such good company. Richard Dawkins described Milton's book Alternative Science: Challenging the Myths of the Scientific Establishment as "twaddle that betrays, on almost every page, complete and total pig-ignorance of the subject at hand.” Sheldrake's list of pseudoskeptics includes Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins, Edzard Ernst, Chris French, Martin Gardner, Ben Goldacre, Nicholas Humphrey, Ray Hyman, Paul Kurtz, David Marks, James Randi, Michael Shermer, and Richard Wiseman.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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