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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 20

January 18, 2003

It's human nature to be curious about the causes of ... things, but it's also human nature to pervert that curiosity into blame. -- Phil Plait

Subscribers 1,720

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

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 Contents

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

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

Since the last newsletter I have

  • posted new entries on animism, gods, instrumental transcommunication, orbs, and shamanism, and a review of Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy;

  • added a reader's comments on why crop circles are getting more complex;

  • revised the entries on chakras and electronic voice phenomena;

  • added another suburban myth (that women have more ribs than men);

  • added comments on two Salon.com articles, one by an author who felt ripped-off by Sylvia Browne and the other by an author who was completely taken in by James Van Praagh and John Edward;

  • updated the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) page to include a link to a paper by Shawn Bishop that argues the anomalies are best explained by biased data;

  • updated the aromatherapy page to include a link to an article on treatment of dementia with aromatherapy and bright light;

  • updated the Topical Index: Frauds, Hoaxes, Conspiracies page to include a link to scam-buster Chuck Whitlock's page;

  • updated the alternative health practices page to include a link to an article debunking the Natural Vision Improvement system of Dr W H Bates;

  • updated the Bermuda Triangle page to add a link to a skeptical book on the subject that is out-of-print but available from Amazon.com's Marketplace Sellers;

  • updated the zombies entry to include a link to an article about a Voodoo gathering in Benin aimed at a call for peace among African nations;

  • updated the pareidolia page to include a link to an article about the latest Virgin Mary sighting;

  • updated the creationism page to include a link to a satirical article in the irreverent Onion;

  • updated the homeopathy page to include a link to an article about a British M.D. who has been suspended for three months because she "risked the health of an 11-month-old girl and failed to get proper consent before using homeopathic medicine;"

  • updated the witches article to include a link to an article about 20,000 child witches in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo;

  • updated the Mass Media Funk page to include a note on a story in the press about surgical supplies left inside patients and a comment on stone circles in Alaska and Norway.

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 2) Responses to selected feedback

Alison Bevege from Australia wrote to ask if I could work my "skeptical magic on the following ridiculous claims?" The claims in question involve a litany of absurdities regarding September 11th, including the claim that American Airlines flight 77 did not crash into the Pentagon. Where that flight and its passengers are remains a mystery to these conspiratorially gifted timewasters (perhaps it's been commandeered to area 51?). The Internet has its share of these folks, but apparently the main source for 9/11 conspiracy theories is France and the main deceiver is Thierry Meyssan's L'Effroyable Imposture [The Appalling Deception] (2002).

Fortunately, the latest issue (vol. 9, # 4) of Skeptic magazine has a review by L. Kirk Hagen of this appalling book. Hagen's review is called "French Follies - A 9/11 Conspiracy Theory Turns Out to Be An Appalling Deception." I won't go into all the details but one common claim of the paranoid conspiracy theorists (PCTs) is that there was no debris left by flight 77 and no hole in the Pentagon that fits where the plane hit. One Internet PCT writes: "The last time I looked at the real world, a solid object could not pass through another solid object without leaving a hole at least as big as itself." First, the Boeing 757 didn't pass through the Pentagon. Secondly, the last time I looked at the real world when a plane weighing more that 70 tons and traveling over 300 mph while carrying over 10,000 gallons of jet fuel crashes into a something as solid as the Pentagon, the plane disintegrates. (Remember, the mass of this object is distributed over a great amount of space. It's not concentrated in the nose and the wings, which is what the PCT folks seem to be assuming.) However, this PCT has an answer for that fact: It's been proven impossible (he doesn't say how) and it contradicts the notion that bodies were identified by DNA evidence. He also equates "disintegrate" with "incinerate," so that explains in part his belief there couldn't be any DNA evidence to evaluate. Also, shock of shocks, there are contradictions in the eyewitness testimony! Some of it was even fabricated! Hence, there must be a conspiracy and a cover-up.

Meyssan finds it appalling that flight 77, which struck the Pentagon at 9:43 a.m., was unaccounted for for some 40 minutes as it flew 300 miles over Ohio. Hagen points out that there were thousands of planes that had taken off from or were approaching airfields on the Eastern Seaboard. "It is remarkable that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) acted as quickly as it did," says Hagen. "As early as 9:17 a.m. it closed all airports in the New York City area, and by 9:40 a.m. halted all air traffic nationwide. Controllers had been monitoring Flight 77 as it approached Washington, and had even warned the White House." Meyssan, by the way, claims flight 77 was shot down by a missile. Some Internet PCTs claim it was indeed a plane that hit the Pentagon, but a small plane loaded with explosives.

Gerard Holmgren has posted "An analysis of the physiscs [sic] of the pentagon [sic] crash on Sept 11, 2001." It is quite elaborate and begins by giving all the physical dimensions of a Boeing 757 and a Byzantine set of calculations as to how big a hole such a craft should have put in the Pentagon. Shock of shocks, Mr. Holmgren couldn't find any public listing of the the physical dimensions and structural properties of the Pentagon. Needless to say, I don't have them either, but I can guarantee you that the Pentagon is not built like a barn or a billboard, where, as we have all seen in the movies, a plane leave a visible impression of its wings and fuselage upon passing through. Nevertheless, Mr. Homgren is certain there should be a much bigger hole in the Pentagon than he can decipher from photos, and he has links to many, many photos. He does many calculations, but his conclusion is based on the assumption that the plane should have left a bigger footprint. None of his calculations can show that, unless he also assumes the plane did not disintegrate upon impact.

Holmgren then goes on to do many more calculations of burning points of metals, DNA, etc., to prove that no DNA could have been identified because it would have melted. Again, this assumes all the bodies stayed neatly jammed in a small area where the hottest fire raged and were thus incinerated. This is gruesome, but disintegration was not only of the airplane and the small parts that were disbursed widely were not just metal parts. Now, I have no idea whether DNA was identified (Holmgren says that "authorities" say that 63 of the 64 people aboard were identified by DNA testing), but it seems obvious to anyone with common sense that it would be possible to do such testing on the disbursed body parts. Holmgren's argument assumes everybody was incinerated. My guess is that the rest of his arguments make lots of unwarranted assumptions as well and I'm not going to waste any more time on them.

Alison writes: "I am trying to argue with one of these (PCT) morons but I don't have your skills." My advice is not to argue with them. They have no interest in examining all the facts and only give the appearance of truly wanting to find out the truth about these matters. I suggest, however, that anyone being confronted by the 9/11 PCTs consult Hagen's scathing critique of Meyssan's tabloid best-seller (in France, anyway).

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Martin Wagner thinks there is a scam out there taking advantage of lonely men.

I thought you ought to know about another too-good-to-be-true piece of exploitation floating around out there that could use the skeptical treatment. It's a bastard offshoot of NLP [neuro-linguistic programming] called Speed Seduction. Ross Jeffries, a.k.a. Paul Ross, a former stand-up comic, has developed a system that promises lonely men that they can meet and get into bed absolutely any woman they want--no matter how gorgeous, no matter even if they're married, no matter if you're the furthest thing from her type--within minutes of meeting them. All men, he says, have an inner James Bond and Speed Seduction can help you break him out of his shell.

Jeffries' approach mixes basic common sense advice (don't act needy, be in control) with verbal techniques called "patterns," which are basically rehearsed and memorized NLP-ish speeches employing "trance words" and the like, which Jeffries claims will hypnotize women and make them more sexually receptive to you. Again, while much of Jeffries' material has at its core simple common sense (e.g., he spends a lot of time emphasizing that men need to build up a positive self-image so they don't take rejection so harshly), once he's got his guys feeling good, he lays into the hypnosis and psychic stuff. And if patterns don't work--well then, like most pseudosciences, he explains it as being the men's fault. They've come on too strong, they aren't using the patterns correctly, they haven't established rapport, they need to relax, they need more practice. In short, he's building up false hope in men.

Most of this is backed up by nothing but anecdotes, and it's a lot like those "make a million dollars in no-money-down real estate" infomercials on late night TV. Even if one person uses the techniques and gets rich, your mileage may vary, and Jeffries doesn't have the disclaimer that says these results are atypical like the real estate infomercials do. And he is employing pseudoscientific NLP claims and telling men they can trance women into having sex with them, even if you're a 300-pound zit-faced slob and she's married and looks like Raquel Welch in her prime.

Jeffries has seminars that fill up for which he charges about $1000, and the tapes of these seminars sell for about $400. I think that if any of his techniques work, they'd most often work for guys who are the sort of Lotharios that don't have much problem chatting up women and getting them into bed anyway. A lot of men appear as guests at his seminars and boast of their sexual conquests, but then men have enjoyed boasting to other men of their sexual conquests for millennia. I've heard some of Jeffries' tapes and it's clear to me these guys are just getting off on the ego charge of acting the alpha male stud in front of the lesser betas. I think Jeffries is exploiting lonely, sexually inadequate guys. His website is www.seduction.com and is loaded with egregious sales-pitch language. Looking forward to seeing new stuff on the site this year.

I plan to add some new stuff, but I don't think I'll have anything to add to Martin's comments on "speed seduction." I think he's said all we need to know about this subject.

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Several readers have asked why there is no entry on "God." The original entry I had on that topic, which I removed some time ago, focused exclusively on the Judeo-Christian God (JCG). Now there is a short entry on gods.

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3) News

Kimberly Winston, a reporter for the online magazine ReligionLink (www.religionwriters.com ), a Pew-funded service for reporters in the secular press who cover religion, contacted me about being a source for writers on miracles. "Specifically," she asked, "can you address why people believe in miracles? Why so many miraculous claims turn out to be untrue? Why people choose to believe in them anyway?"

I wrote back that

I used to believe in miracles and my reasons for believing were quite simple: I was taught from birth to believe in them. Everybody I knew believed in them. I had no cause to doubt the reality of miracles. I eventually came to believe that there was historical, testimonial evidence for miracles. I suppose I began doubting stories of miracles when I read Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian/philosopher. After reading his analysis of miracles in works like Concluding Unscientific Postscript it became apparent to me that even an eyewitness to an alleged miracle--defined as a supernatural contravention of the laws of nature--would have to believe on pure faith. I think Kierkegaard must have read David Hume's critique of miracles. The reasoning is very similar. To believe in a miracle requires abandonment of all the evidentiary principles upon which beliefs are based, namely, that there is a regular order to nature. It is not that miracles are impossible, but that to believe in them must be based on faith alone, not evidence.

People have believed in miracles for thousands of years. I believe the first miracle workers were magicians who deceived people into thinking they had supernatural or paranormal powers. Some of these fraudulent miracle workers still attract large audiences, such as Sai Baba in India and Peter Popov in this country. People believe in these frauds because they are easily deceived about things that give them hope for the one big miracle most people long for: immortality. For some reason, most people seem to believe that their lives would be meaningless unless they live forever. So, it doesn't really matter that most stories of miracles turn out to be untrue. As long as there is hope that at least some are true, the faithful will continue to believe in them.

I finished my reply by telling Ms. Winston that I'd be happy to expand on any of these notions or go deeper into the subject. To my surprise, she enthusiastically agreed to put me on the list of sources reporters can contact. I'll let you know if any do.

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The program for The Amazing Meeting sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation has been published. Check it out. I hope to see some of you there (in Ft. Lauderdale, January 31-February 2). I'll be speaking on Saturday night.

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The 11th European Skeptics Congress will be held in London, September 5-7, 2003. According to organizers, "We are keen...not to rely too heavily on lectures from individual speakers, as we want to encourage a lively audience interaction. To this end we hope to have some debates on controversial issues....We shall strive to avoid presentations that ‘preach to the converted’. Hence we shall try to include broader topics that invite divergent views, even amongst sceptics."

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