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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 14

A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets. - Arthur C. Clarke

October 26, 2002

Subscribers 1,410

(Past issues posted at http://skepdic.com/news/)

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 Contents

      1)  New or revised entries
      2)  Responses to selected feedback
      3)  News
    

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 1)  New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

Since the last newsletter, I have

  • updated the intelligent design page to include a link to a report on a survey by Case Western Reserve University that found 90 percent of Ohio science professors think intelligent design is not supported by scientific evidence [which makes me wonder about the other 10%];

  • updated the crop circles page to include a link to a BBC News report on Matthew Williams of Wiltshire, England, who has made a 3-hour video that he claims proves that crop circles are not the results of alien or supernatural forces;

  •  updated the miracles page to include a link to an article about the skepticism of the Science and Rationalist Association of India regarding an alleged miracle by Mother Teresa;

  • updated the New Books page to include The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley. I also posted some comments on an excerpt from the book that appeared in The Wall Street Journal;

  • updated the polygraph page to include a link to the press release from the National Research Council regarding an 18-month study that "the polygraph's accuracy is not good enough for security screening for two reasons. First, accuracy is almost certainly lower when the tests are used this way rather than in the investigation of specific incidents. Second, the large groups of people being checked include only a tiny percentage of individuals who are guilty of the targeted offenses; tests that are sensitive enough to spot most violators will also mistakenly mark large numbers of innocent test-takers as guilty. Tests that produce few of these types of errors, such as those currently used by several federal agencies, will not catch most major security violators - and still will incorrectly flag truthful people as deceptive."

  • posted an e-mail from Nadine Gary PR (Professional Raelian?) inviting a physics professor and his class to attend a public "lecture/debate" in Las Vegas on human cloning as the way to eternal life;

  • added some comments on the fallout from Jerry Falwell's remark that Mohammed was a terrorist;

  • added some comments about the Cobb County (Georgia) School Board policy change to allow "disputed views" into the science classroom to compete with evolutionary biology. I also published at the end of these comments a "sermon" written by the Reverend Michael Shermer on equal time for everybody;

  • updated the magnet therapy page to include a link to Michael Shermer's latest column for ScientificAmerican.com, which includes some details about Benjamin Franklin's and Antoine Lavoisier's testing of "animal magnetism;"

  • revised the craniometry entry to include a claim by forensic anthropologists that by skull measurements they can identify race with 80% accuracy; I've also added a link to a New York Times article on Dr. Corey S. Sparks of Pennsylvania State University and Dr. Richard L. Jantz of the University of Tennessee. The pair re-examined Franz Boas' data and concluded that  the founder of American anthropology was wrong about environment affecting head shape and size [thanks to Florin Clapa];

  • updated the New Books page to include Michael Shermer's latest book: In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History;

  • updated the animal quackers page to include a link to an article in the Miami Herald called "Telepathic communication with pets draws skepticism;"

  • updated the cabala page to include a link to a story about Rabbi Berg and his  Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre, which is a magnet for celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Jeff Goldblum, Roseanne Barr, and Mick Jagger;

  • updated the Raelian page to include a link to a story about the latest attack on the Catholic Church by the Raelians;

  • added a link with only a rhetorical question for comment (Who says crime doesn't pay?) about two men who bilked the gullible followers of Miss Cleo out of half a billion dollars: Steven L. Feder, 52, was on probation for less than an hour without ever leaving a courtroom and his cousin Peter Stolz, 54, got two years probation, but his lawyer expects it to last no more than five months;

  • finally, I revised the entry on ghosts.

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 2) Responses to selected feedback

Sometimes the mail is a bit strange. Like this one:

Dear Robert Todd Carroll:

I like your dictionary. It would be my favorite were it not for the OED and The Devil's Dictionary.

My suggestion for an entry is accounting. The basic problem with accounting is not greed or fraud but rather that accounting reports contain free floating numerals with no empirical referents. This is not to deny the existence of greed and fraud but rather to say that even if that were eliminated accounting would still be much more akin to astrology than science.

Accountants don't think there is need for change any more than astrologers do. I am now retired having spent my life trying to get accountants to adopt some simple form of scientific realism or correspondence theory of truth or the like but they cannot see either the need or possibility of it. They rewarded me and awarded me but they never changed. I think the only thing left to do is warn others about accounting, just as we warn them about astrology instead of trying to change astrologers. Hence this suggestion to you.

Sincerely,

Robert Stafford Sterling

Free floating numerals with no empirical referents. I like that. I have no idea what it means, but I like the way it sounds. Maybe accounting is a sub-species of occult statistics.

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Jim Polzois of Charleston, S.C. wonders "why more attention [in The Skeptic's Dictionary] is not given to such common political and philosophical myths as 'ethnic identity,' political 'rights,' 'historical evidence,' or 'sovereignty'....I think a subsection in your dictionary devoted to 'history versus myth' would be exciting and worthwhile."

Jim may be right....but....so many myths, so little time!

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Several readers wrote to tell me that I didn't make it very difficult to figure out how old I was from the Pi Search program (where you can find your birth date somewhere in the decimal part of pi). The correct link is http://www.angio.net/pi/piquery.

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Jim Collier wrote to correct my claim that the odds of 9-1-1 being selected in the New York State lottery on September 11th are 1 in 1,000. The odds are actually one in 500 because NY has two drawings a day. John Allen Paulos explains it all in his recent column for ABCNews.com. Both Jim and John point out that the chances of some significant number being selected on any given day are very, very good, especially since we get to shoehorn whatever we want into the numbers after the drawing has taken place.

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Just when I start to feel that things are hopeless and that the work of skeptics is having no impact, I get some encouragement from a reader who gives me the impetus to keep up the Lord's work. I must admit that when I saw what happened recently in Cobb County Georgia and the state of Ohio (see comments), I was disheartened that so many people have been suckered by the radical fundamentalists into thinking that these people really care about truth, science, and fairness. They don't care about any of those noble things. They want to destroy natural science, not correct it. They don't want to advance science; they want to revert to a period hundreds or thousands of years ago.  They pretend to defend fairness, but they don't want to hear viewpoints different from their own. Their goal is to wreak havoc in the science classroom, to cause confusion and doubt, to divert attention from truly scientific issues, to engage scientists in trivial pursuits that make things like "intelligent design" seem worth refuting. In short, their main objective is to terrorize with rhetoric not just the teachers of evolution but the entire scientific community. They also claim they are being persecuted for their religious views and try desperately to arouse sympathy for their plight from politicians and the general public. The Discovery Institute and defenders of so-called Creation Science should be exposed for what they are: anti-science religious groups bent on turning back the clock to a time before the rise of modern science. They'd like to force all scientific claims to pass the litmus test of their bizarre interpretation of Scriptures. (Do I sound like a voice crying in the wilderness?)

Then, I receive encouragement like the following from John Clavis and I'm spurred on to keep fighting the good fight.

While watching an archived episode of the "James Randi Show" (www.randi.org), I was reminded (by his mentioning you) of the Skeptic's Dictionary site, and I thought I should send you a message. Simply put, I am a skeptic, amateur scientist and writer who values the Skepdic.com as a source of excellent and thorough coverage of pseudoscience and paranormal codswallop. You are to be commended. More times than I can count, I have responded to a challenge from a New Ager by simply going to your site and gathering the necessary information and references. I often end up with a better understanding of what they believe than they do! It can be disheartening to see how little many people have thought about their own beliefs and assumptions. But I can also think, with satisfaction, of the times I have actually gotten through to someone and helped them to understand the value of the skeptical and scientific perspective. Your site has been invaluable to my education. Please, please keep up the good work. You are needed.

OK, John, I won't quit just yet. In the meantime, I'm looking for a corporate sponsor to underwrite a campaign to put stickers on all Bibles. The stickers will read: WARNING! CREATION BY GOD IN SIX DAYS IS A RELIGIOUS MYTH, AND NEITHER A THEORY NOR A FACT. We could include a brochure about the nature of religious myths, as well.

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3) News

October 23rd was a busy day. In the morning I got a courtesy call from AP reporter Matt Moore who is doing a story on Egyptian TV's planned 41-part mega-series on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (He was going to use some material from my entry in his article about the planned series.) Somehow I don't think Egyptian TV will treat the Protocols as a forgery based on a bit of plagiarized fiction, event though that's what it is.

In the afternoon, I spent more than an hour being interviewed for an as yet unnamed TV series (13 planned episodes) for Showtime. Penn and Teller will host the series, which should begin airing next spring. I was quizzed on creationism, astrology, Nostradamus, numerology, Tarot cards, and palmistry. The shoot took place on the roof of a building at Sacramento City College, with our observatory dome as a backdrop. The location was thanks to Liam McDaid, our astronomer-in-residence. Liam, a senior scientist for Skeptic magazine, also went on camera to demonstrate the latest in detecting ghosts with high-tech equipment. Right.

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On October 28th, the Discovery Channel's series "Critical Eye" will have its premiere at 8 pm ET/PT.

The series will investigate 34 topics including, subliminal messaging, alien abduction, acupuncture, ghosts, astrology, exorcism, Stonehenge, near-death experiences, and the lost city of Atlantis. Each topic will be addressed by leading experts and scientists. These subjects will be brought to life through lively debate and extraordinary visuals in order to shed light on its scientific relevance.

CSICOP was consulted throughout. Their executive director, Barry Karr, said "I think it's pretty safe to say that the skeptical point of view will be very well represented."

The programs will run on Monday nights for 7 weeks (there are 8 episodes, with two being shown the first night).

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On November 15th I'll be giving a talk to the Sacramento Skeptic's Society. The time and location have yet to be determined, but it will be at a restaurant in the Sacramento/Carmichael area. The topic will be "Christian Terrorism - Lobbing Rhetorical Hand Grenades into the Science Classroom for Jesus" or something equally obnoxious. If you are interested in attending, contact Terry Sandbek at terry@sandbek.com

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If you're going to be in Ft. Lauderdale January 31 to February 2, 2003, why not register for "The Amazing Meeting," hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation? I will be one of the "additional speakers" not yet listed in the program. My topic will be "Christian Terrorism - the War against Science." (Anybody recognize a pattern here?)

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