Robert Todd Carroll
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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 26
June 4, 2003
(Previous newsletters are archived at http://skepdic.com/news/)
1) Changes in The Skeptic's Dictionary or Skeptic's Refuge
Suburban myth 63 has been removed. Based on a 1999 article in the Skeptical Inquirer by Scott Aaron Stines, the myth read: Snuff films are real: actresses are really killed in these films. A reader alerted me to an article that appeared in the Guardian in 2000 about the gruesome discovery of some snuff films that originated in Russian and were intercepted in Italy.
I posted a review of three books: The Power of Persuasion, Don't Get Taken!, and The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading.
I posted nine new Italian translations of dictionary entries by Dario Ventra.
Finally, thanks to a suggestion from a reader I have resized the newsletter pages that I post so that they are printable.
2) Responses to selected feedback
Every so often I receive a bit of mail that cries out to be shared. Here is something from "Greg bob" a.k.a. "metalicafan800."
With advocates like Greg bob, the UFO community is in good hands.
On a more intelligent and intelligible note: two readers recently requested information on colloidal silver. On my alternative health practices page I have a link to Dr. Stephen Barrett's article on the subject. I've also received a couple of requests for information on human growth hormone and once again I refer readers to an article by Dr. Barrett: "Growth Hormone Scams."
Patrick Hennessey advised me to visit http://www.ufoskeptic.org/. "You just might learn something," he wrote. Well, Patrick, I looked at the UFO Skeptic's site and I learned that it is run by Bernard Haisch, an astronomer with some impressive credentials that indicate he is an intelligent and serious scientist. Dr. Haisch also finds very credible several people who know several people within our government and who claim to have physical evidence of alien beings and technology.
In short, Haisch has no evidence of alien beings or technology, but he believes people who tell him that such evidence exists. He believes them because they made it through his credibility filter. Now, the question is, does Dr. Haisch make it through my credibility filter? Well, he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin (1975) and numerous publications, many in reputable journals, others in fringe journals (e.g., Noetic Sciences Review). He seems to have a special interest in subjects like zero-point energy. But the issue here is not astronomy or physics, so his credentials in those areas are irrelevant to whether I should believe that our government has alien artifacts because someone told someone who told Dr. Haisch. I have no reason to doubt the claim that someone told someone who told Dr. Haisch. Nor do I have any reason to doubt that those who were told what they were told trust the person who told them. But do I have sufficient evidence to conclude from these facts, assuming they are facts, that our government possesses alien artifacts? Hardly. First, it is possible that the three independent sources each got their information from the same source. But even if they didn't, the fact that they are trusted is not sufficient to warrant believing that the people they trust are telling the truth. Even if I know Dr. Haisch personally and considered him to be the most trustworthy person I've ever known, I would still not believe anybody in our government had handled alien artifacts simply on the say-so of other trustworthy people who heard it from other trustworthy people.
It is possible some government agents have handled alien artifacts. It is also possible that some government agents intentionally mislead the public about handling alien artifacts. The disinformation could be for propaganda purposes, to make foreign governments think we have technology that we don't. The disinformation could be to cause a diversion so that certain misdeeds and illegal activities might go unnoticed. Who knows what reasons our government might have for lying to us? And what better way to lie than to have very trustworthy people acting as sources to other trustworthy people? It is possible that some people in government who have reputations for being trustworthy are also delusional or, if not delusional, given to exaggeration and telling stories that inflate their status.
So, what did I learn by following Patrick's advice and visiting Dr. Haisch's site? I learned that Dr. Haisch has a penchant for the borderlands of science and does not seem to realize that appearing trustworthy is one of the main factors in persuasiveness but appearances can be deceiving. Some claims are so extraordinary that they require more than the trustworthiness of a witness to warrant belief.
The Concept of Validity
Deductive arguments are those whose premises are said to entail their conclusions (see lesson 1). If the premises of a deductive argument do entail their conclusion, the argument is valid. (The term valid is not used by most logicians when referring to inductive arguments, but that is a topic for another mini-lesson.) If not, the argument is invalid.
Here's an example of a valid argument:
To say the argument is valid is to say that it is logically impossible for its premises to be true and its conclusion false. So, if the premises of my example are true, then the conclusion must be true also. The premises of this argument happen to be true, so this argument is not only valid, but sound or cogent. A sound or cogent deductive argument is defined as one that is valid and has true premises.
A valid argument may have false premises, however. For example,
Being valid is not the same as being sound. Validity is determined by the relationship of premises to conclusion in a deductive argument. This relationship, in a valid argument, is referred to as implication or inference. The premises of a valid argument are said to imply their conclusion. The conclusion of a valid argument may be inferred from its premises.
While many errors in deduction are due to making unjustified inferences from premises, the vast majority of unsound deductive arguments are probably due to premises that are questionable or false. For example, many researchers on psi have found statistical anomalies and have inferred from this data that they have found evidence for psi. The error, however, is one of assumption, not inference. The researchers assume that psi is the best explanation for the statistical anomaly. If one makes this assumption, then one's inference from the data is justified. However, the assumption is questionable and the arguments based on it are unsound. Similar unsound reasoning occurs in the arguments that intercessory prayer heals and that psychics get messages from the dead. Researchers assume that a statistically significant correlation between praying and healing is best explained by assuming prayer is a causative agent, but this assumption is questionable. Researchers also assume that results that are statistically improbable if explained by chance, guessing, or cold reading, are best explained by positing communication from the dead, but this assumption is questionable. These researchers reason well enough. That is, they draw correct inferences from their data. But the reasons on which they base their reasoning are faulty because questionable.
I am not suggesting by the above comments that the data and methods of these researchers is beyond criticism. In fact, I find it interesting that skeptics seem to divide into two camps when criticizing such things as Gary Schwartz's so-called afterlife experiments. One camp attacks the assumptions. The other camp attacks the data or the methods used to gather the data. The former camp finds errors of assumption and fallacies such as begging the question, argument to ignorance, or false dilemma. The other finds cheating, sensory leakage, poor use of statistics, inadequate controls, and that sort of thing.
Finally, some deductive arguments are unsound because they are invalid, not because their premises are false or questionable. Here is an unsound deductive argument whose premises may well be true:
This conclusion is not entailed by these premises, so the argument is invalid. It is possible that both these premises are true but the conclusion is false. (She may have predicted my travel plans because she got information from my travel agent, for example.) This argument is said to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Another example of this fallacy would be:
The premises of this argument may be true, but they do not entail their conclusion. This conclusion could be false even if the premises are true. (We should also observe order and design in Nature if something like Darwin's theory of natural selection is true.)
I'll be attending The Skeptic's Toolbox, August 14-17, 2003, at the University of Oregon at Eugene. The 4-day event will examine the science behind scientific studies on such subjects as "the role of prayer in healing; communicating with the dead; psychic influencing of the output of random number generators; remote viewing; therapeutic touch; dowsing; the feeling of being stared at; water with memory; and psychic dogs." As I noted in the last newsletter, this CSICOP-sponsored event should help me prepare for my new course: Critical Thinking About the Paranormal and the Occult.
I'll also be attending the CSICOP conference on Hoaxes, Myths, & Manias to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 23-26, 2003. I'll be presenting a talk on hoaxes from around the world during the Friday morning program, which will also feature Alex Boese (The Museum of Hoaxes) and Jonathan Vankin. Thursday evening's program has an all-star cast: Kendrick Frazier, Barry Beyerstein, and Ray Hyman. Friday evening's speaker will be Jan Harold Brunvand, the father of urban legends research. I'll bring along a few copies of my book, which I'll be shamelessly hawking in the hallways.
If I could, I would be attending the special celebration of the career and achievements of James Randi on June 12th, 2003, in Kitchener, Ontario. The event will feature speeches by Michael Shermer, author Pierre Berton, Ray Hyman, James Alcock, and performances by magician Jamy Ian Swiss and mentalist Banachek. Tickets are $49.00 Canadian, and are available to the public. For more info contact Thomas Baxter at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On June 15, 2003, Ian Rowland will be speaking at Cal Tech in Pasadena, California as part of the Skeptics Society's Sunday lecture series (click on "Lectures" in left-hand column for more information).
If only I were retired (and rich!), I would leave Oregon and fly to Australia for the Australian Skeptics Convention in Canberra to be held August 22-24, 2003. I'd revisit the Sydney Harbor and Melbourne before exploring new territory (for me!) like Adelaide, Perth, and Darwin. Then I'd head for London for the 11th European Skeptics Conference to be held September 5-7, 2003. After London I'd spend a little time in western Scotland and southwestern Ireland before heading to Wellington, New Zealand for the New Zealand Skeptics conference being held September 19-21, 2003. I'd probably spend too much time in the Backbencher's Pub, however, eating sweet potato fries and sampling the many excellent local beers. So it's just as well that I stay home. Although I would love to hop the ferry from Wellington and revisit such grand places as Milford sound and Doubtful sound, Queenstown, and Dunedin.
I didn't receive an offer from Johnson Nyerere to share in millions of dollars to help him move money from one bank to another or I might have ended up in jail like Graeme Kenneth Rutherfurd did. Not really. The New Zealand businessman lost $NZ7 million (about $US4 million ) in a variation of the Nigerian bank swindle. Fortunately, I don't have access to millions of dollars that I might manipulate in an attempt to get rich quick while helping some of my fellow human beings. Had I such access, who knows whether I would be prey to the delusion that I had met the goose that lays golden eggs?
In any case, I have received several other offers from various scam artists over the past few months, most of which are variations on the Nigerian Bank Scheme. Their appeals may be pathetic but there is something poetic about their language, which I have reproduced here exactly as it was presented to me:
And finally, the latest arrival (June 4, 2003), which looks very much like the original version of this scam, allegedly from Dr. Charles Igho, Director, Project Implementation Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Lagos, Nigeria:
Each of the above promised me millions of dollars (U.S.) to assist them. I wasn't tempted but one fellow stood out from the above crowd of scammers. His name is Dr. Swi Shang. He has an herbal cure for SARS and wanted to share some $14 million with me for helping him set up a factory. Here is his appeal in the form it was sent to me:
The sad thing is, there is probably somebody out there who sent this character some money, even though at the bottom of his e-mail one finds the following advertisement:
Yes, Bob Kulma with an account at zwallet. Now, why wouldn't I trust Bob?
I have been asked who should I report these obvious frauds to. The U.S. Secret Service handles such complaints in the United States. (Feel better already?) I have no idea who their counterparts might be in other countries. An Indiana University web site advises
Do I report them? No. I just advise the obvious: Never give out your social security number or bank account number to an unsolicited offer of money or goods from a stranger .
I'll conclude this newsletter with a rather sad and pathetic note on religious justice as practiced in Nigeria. If a woman has a child outside of marriage she may be stoned to death in Nigeria. Amnesty International reports that these kinds of barbaric punishments are only carried out against Muslims and that while a woman may be stoned to death, the father of her child goes free to sin some more.
Many thanks to John Renish for editorial assistance.