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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 24

April 15, 2008

"The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit." -- W. Somerset Maugham

Subscribers 2,006

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

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What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary and Skeptic's Refuge?

Since the last newsletter I've posted

  • our first entries in Italian, thanks to translator Dario Ventra, a geology student in Florence;

  • suggestions for using The Skeptic's Dictionary in the classroom;

  • comments on an article in Parade magazine on the alleged scientific proof of the power of prayer;

  • comments on Erich von Däniken's latest venture in Switzerland;

  • comments on Sylvia Browne and Montel Williams being dead wrong again;

  • an update to the gods page that consists of adding a link to an article in the BBC News on temporal lobe epilepsy and the experience of god;

  • comments on another school board that wants creationism taught in the science classroom;

  • and an update to the subliminal page that consists of adding a link to an article in ADWEEK called "Sex, Crackers and Subliminal Ads."

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 Skeptic's Dictionary, the book

My editor has turned down my request to change to title of the book to Harry Potter and The Skeptic's Dictionary or The Skeptic's Dictionary and Armageddon. "Too late," he said. "You should have gone with my earlier suggestion: The No Grain No Gain Diet and The Skeptic's Dictionary. Then you might have had a bestseller." He told me I'm suffering from title regret and should consider adding an entry of that name on the web site. I may.

I've also had a request from Malcolm Muggeridge (I doubt if it is the MM, since he died in 1990) to add an entry on aphrodisiacs. Malcolm said he searched my site for the topic and came up dry. "Does that mean you are not skeptical about the effectiveness of many food and other substances which are believed to be love potions?" Not at all. Surprisingly, only 91 results came up in a search of 'aphrodisiacs' on Amazon.com. The number-one seller in this category is called Intercourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook. Not a bad title, but not as catchy as Goddess in My Pocket: Simple Spells, Charms, Potions, and Chants to Get You Everything You Want. The former apparently debunks things like Spanish fly and rhino horn, but touts chocolate, coffee, asparagus, and strawberries. I couldn't find any titles that indicated the author had done any controlled studies on the subject, however. Several of the titles indicate that herbs, botanicals, and essential oils are reliable love potions. One even goes so far as to claim that Truth is an aphrodisiac.

I suppose there is room in The Skeptic's Dictionary for such an entry, but perhaps I should just add a paragraph or two to the entry on sympathetic magic, which is probably behind many of the delusions regarding aphrodisiacs. That and wishful thinking. (I can still remember a student asking Professor Kane in my social psychology class at Notre Dame nearly forty years ago: Is it true that Jewish girls are more promiscuous than Catholics? Professor Kane's reply: No, that's just wishful thinking.)

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My agent Ted Weinstein has scheduled my first book signing. If you're in San Francisco next July 23rd stop by the Monticello Inn in Union Square between 5:30 and 7 PM. My publisher is trying to arrange another signing on July 19th at the 8th annual Books by the Bay celebration of independent bookstores to be held in Yerba Buena Gardens. I'm also tentatively scheduled to appear at Beers Books in Sacramento sometime next August or September.

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Feedback

Persuaders

My editor at Wiley recently sent me The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and Sold by Robert Levine (Wiley & Sons 2003).  I found it so interesting that I've begun a book review that will include two other books that concern persuasion, either directly or indirectly: Ian Rowland's The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading and Bob Steiner's little classic Don't Get Taken. The review should be up in a few weeks. In the meantime, I received an interesting e-mail from someone who was not too pleased about having to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. According to Levine, there are more than twenty-five hundred commercially published personality assessment instruments despite the fact that "traits are nothing more than probability statements....In fact, the demands of the situation--the particulars of the time, the place, and the social context--are often better predictors of how people will act than is the type of person they are" (p. 17). Nevertheless, the MBTI remains quite popular with many professionals, as is evidenced by the following letter:

You are absolutely correct about the potential for abuse that this thing can have. Sadly, in our over-consulted modern age, the abuse is now commonplace in most self-professed "employment counseling" programs. I was forced to endure one such when I made the mistake of answering an ad in a local newspaper for job-search assistance. There was one thirty-minute "interview" which was basically a set-up to get me in the door for their "workshop" which was headed by two of the most parasitical and psychologically abnormal people I have ever had the misfortune to be placed into forced confinement with for three weeks of unending psychological torture.

A three week workshop? That should have been the first clue.

Let's just say that, being a lifelong anarchist, I never put much stock in personality profiles to begin with, of any stripe whatsoever. The way they were proselytizing this Myers-Briggs test (and an admittedly bastardized version of it, to boot) at the beginning of our initiation into the cult was enough to start raising my hackles. Nobody pushes something like that unless they have either been brainwashed themselves, or want to do the same to you.

One thing Levine makes clear is that brainwashing is just persuasion over time using techniques not much different from those used by good salespeople, teachers, and preachers. The fact that we can sell each other on the idea of personality tests isn't different in kind from such things as selling such advertising non-sense as the current Army pitch to be an army of one.

Needless to say, I did not agree with the personality type I was given. Which the facilitators contorted so it would fit with their "advice" to me: "stay on welfare so we can see you back here again and reap even more of the government's money."

I was, of course, "resistant" and "not being a team participant" by disagreeing with the assessment I was given, which, they assured me, was now graven in stone. Immutable, impermeable utterly inalterable.

This, despite the fact that these types of assessments are known to be quite mutable. As I note in my entry on Myers-Briggs, several studies have shown that when retested, even after intervals as short as five weeks, as many as 50 percent will be classified into a different type.

I wasn't the only one in this unfortunate group to see the silliness of this putrid little test, I was just the one who complained the longest and the loudest. One woman disagreed so vehemently with her profile (but was afraid to question the two facilitators who had set themselves up as god-like entities in complete control of our fates at this beginning of this little workshop of horrors), she was reduced to tears.

The male facilitator's response? He went and photocopied a different profile entirely, brought it back and flung it at her with a terse, "There, maybe that one suits you better!"

During one break we were reading humorous horoscopes (satirized astrology done adroitly by a particular alternative newspaper in the area) and when the facilitator came back in and asked what we were reading, I replied, "Horrorscopes from the (name of paper)...and they're just about as accurate as that Myers-Briggs test you gave us earlier." Man went white with rage. I've never been happier in my life.

The Myers-Briggs, unfortunately, is now recommended as the gold standard for all social workers/employment consultants/facilitators/etc. and they are so thoroughly brainwashed by the cult leaders of the MBTI process that to question the process at all invites reactions akin to Scientologists defending their erstwhile "religion," albeit without lawsuits from the MBTI people. Yet. Give it time, I'm sure it will occur to them. Give even any hint of a suggestion that the Myers-Briggs is an evil tool used for the domination and categorization of the hapless victims rendered to its tender mercies at the behest of poorly-trained and psychologically-aberrant social workers, however, and you will make enemies who are more than mere enemies, as I'm sure you have already seen.

Well, I've criticized the MBTI but never accused proponents of trying to dominate hapless victims, nor have I stated or implied that those who administer the test are inadequately trained or abnormal. If that were generally the case, I doubt if the MBTI would have achieved the status it now has.

Keep up the good work. The Myers-Brigg cult needs to be deprogrammed, in a big way.

Oh, and as for their advice? I fled the province at the earliest given opportunity, and have been gainfully employed for three years now.

Well, all's well that end well, I suppose. I recently took the MBTI and attended a three-hour workshop conducted by one of the counselors at my college. She has a doctorate from UC Davis and is very unassuming. She has authority, elicits trust, and is very likeable, qualities apparently lacking in the employment counselors mentioned above. Her qualities are just the kind that successful persuaders have, according to Levine. What I found most interesting was that she had bought into the MBTI many years ago and used it to explain many things in her own and others' lives, including why one of her children didn't do well in a certain kind of educational setting. She reminded me of another colleague, also a Ph.D. from UC Davis, who uses astrology to explain many of the same kinds of things. It intrigues me that intelligent people can believe in such things as astrology or the MBTI and find them useful for explaining relationships, health, behavior of children, and their own well-being or lack of it. These people were not browbeaten and they are not unintelligent or abnormal in any evident way. They probably have been led to their beliefs by rather mundane methods and experiences.

To some, the MBTI folks might appear to be part of a cult because they seem so committed to what they believe that they neither seek disconfirming evidence nor recognize it when it stares them in the face. They may come across as closed-minded and dogmatic because they believe so unwaveringly that the MBTI "works."

I came across a similar charge by Joe Griffin, author of The Origin of Dreams (1997). I stumbled upon an interview with him in New Scientist while trying to find an article on cold fusion. Griffin believes that "dreaming evolved to preserve the integrity of our instincts by discharging unresolved emotional arousal from the previous day that would otherwise build up to the point where it would disable us."*  He says that depression is caused by emotional needs not being met. He claims he can treat depression in one day. When asked about the resistance he was getting to his approach, Griffin replied

We met quite a significant bit of hostility....Schools of therapy follow the format of cults, with sacred texts and high priests, so they tend not to be open to new ideas.

Griffin calls himself a "human givens" therapist. Another human givens therapist, neuroscientist Ian Robertson, says something similar.

I am dismayed at how counseling and psychotherapy practice in many areas has become willfully divorced from evidence and science to the extent of becoming self perpetuating cults in some cases. No one has the right to pick and choose a theory as a matter of personal preference and then offer it as a service to someone when there is a possibility that that service might do harm. We have to move towards evidence based practice and away from cults and ideologies.

I agree with Griffin and Robertson that there are many therapies today that have emerged without any grounding in science. But what makes human givens therapy different? Why isn't it just another competing psychotherapeutic cult? Actually, given what Griffin says about treating patients, he seems to be using techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy. Why call your competitors cults? What evidence is there that the other 500 or so psychotherapies have been chosen by their adherents as matters of personal preference? Most therapists probably choose to enter their profession and select the type of therapy they practice because they think the therapy works. They've probably become persuaded of the worthiness of their choice in much the same way that the MBTI folks, or astrologers for that matter, have come to believe in what they do. They've gradually been led to their belief by people they consider authoritative, trustworthy, and likeable. They probably believe the evidence supports their beliefs. In any case, there is no evidence that people in cults "pick and choose" their beliefs "as a matter of personal preference." They are gradually sucked into the cult by some of the same methods that lead people to buy a new car, buy into the MBTI, or become an advocate for human givens therapy. I'll have more to say about this in my review of Levine's book.

Planet X, Niburu, or Comet NEAT

Marcello Alves wondered if I could shed some light on the prophecies and predictions from Nostradamus, the Mayans, etc., about stories he's seen on the Internet that claim the earth is about to be disrupted by an object 20 times larger than our planet that is heading our way. If you are interested in this subject, I suggest you take a look at Phil Plait's page. If you are new to the issue and want the background from the skeptical perspective, check out Planet X and the Pole Shift - A look at the Science behind Planet X.

The Pathwork

I received an e-mail from a man who lost his wife to a cult called The Pathwork. He just wanted information on it, but it seems that this one has slipped under the radar (at least on the Internet). It's not listed at Watchman, Steve Hassan's site, nor on Rick Ross's site. Yet it's been around for nearly 50 years. It's based upon the allegedly channeled messages from "The Guide" to Eva Pierrakos, a Viennese medium and wife of psychiatrist John C. Pierrakos, one of the founders of bioenergetics, a type of energy medicine. Eva left behind 258 lectures with messages from "The Guide" such as "Every human being senses an inner longing that goes deeper than the longings for emotional and creative fulfillment. This longing comes from sensing that another, more fulfilling state of consciousness and a larger capacity to experience life must exist." The Guide never told Eva who he or she was but it did reveal that we should "not be concerned with the phenomenon of this communication as such. Furthermore, take into consideration that every human personality has a depth of which he or she may as yet be unaware. At this depth, everybody possesses the means to transcend the narrow confines of his or her own personality and receive access to other realms and to entities endowed with a wider and deeper knowing."

The Pathwork is billed as "a spiritual path of self-purification and transformation" and has counselors and helpers in centers throughout the United States and in many other countries.

Anybody out there ever heard of it?

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News

The Skeptic's Refuge was favorably reviewed in the Moonies-owned newspaper The Washington Times.

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CSICOP has invited me to give a talk on hoaxes at a conference to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center next October 23-26, 2003. Details to follow. The overall theme of the conference will be hoaxes, legends, and myths. Copies of The Skeptic's Dictionary will be readily available!

In September CSICOP is co-sponsoring the 11th annual European Skeptics Conference in London. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend. Nor will I be able to attend the Tampa Atheist's Conference next weekend, where James Randi will be awarded the Richard Dawkins prize for his lifelong work on behalf of critical thinking and skeptical challenges to pseudoscientific and paranormal claims.

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The Guardian (UK) has added a new feature called Bad Science. The Guardian also has an interesting article on "The Battle for American Science," which examines the threat to research and science teaching coming from the Christian right.

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It has been reported that on February 21, 2003, Michael Drosnin (of Bible Code infamy) was invited by Paul Wolfowitz, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, to address some top military intelligence officials on such things as how to find Osama bin Laden by reading embedded codes in the Torah. He also told them that the code reveals that Hussein will be destroyed. According to Drosnin, his audience "took it very seriously. They're practical people and I wanted to give them something of practical use." As a result of the meeting, Drosnin says, U.S. and Israeli intelligence forces are hot on bin Laden's trail. I guess this is what is meant by faith-based defense.

Drosnin is a former police reporter for the Washington Post and former writer for The Wall Street Journal. He is undeterred either by those who claim that they can get the same kinds of "predictions" from Moby Dick or by those who point out that the Bible forbids soothsaying.

Barry Levy, dean of McGill University's religious studies department and a Torah scholar, says, "I'm surprised to learn that the Pentagon is engaging in sorcery as part of its military strategy. There is nothing particularly spiritual or convincing or valid about this. It's entertainment." Maybe, but some military and political leaders take it quite seriously.
[Thanks to John Renish.]

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