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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 26

June 4, 2003

"No meme is an island." --Daniel C. Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea)

Subscribers 2,156

(Previous newsletters are archived at http://www.skepdic.com/news/)

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 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 updated the following entries by adding external links: acupuncture, animal quackers, Bigfoot, creationism, dowsing, fairies, ghosts, Januarius, and  prayer.

I posted some comments on the Pan Pharmaceutical scandal and on the death of a macrobiotic diet pioneer.

I posted nine new Italian translations of dictionary entries by Dario Ventra.

I added a link on my Skeptical Links page to Austin Cline's very good site at About.com in the Atheism/Agnosticism section entitled Skepticism and Critical Thinking.

Finally, thanks to a suggestion from a reader I have resized the newsletter pages that I post so that they are printable.

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 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."

Dear MR. retarted caroll

Your views on the paranormal are completely biased and one sided you wouldn't believe in u.f.o s if they abducted and mutilated you and of all things you believe that only one solar system in one galaxy in the universe this is the only planet to support life?????!!!!!! and that all u.f.o sightings are faked or every day things.

on behalf of the u.f.o. community i hope one night you are abducted and put through horrible mental and physical expieraments

With advocates like Greg bob, the UFO community is in good hands.

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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."

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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.

[O]ver the years I have gotten to know individuals who for one reason or another would be aware of the existence of relevant black programs. From such sources, certain possibilities have made it through my credibility filter and now reside -- like Schroedinger's cat -- in kind of an unresolved mental superposition of quantum states having both the eigenvalues "true" and "false" and no operator around to collapse the wave function.* My credibility filter is a function of several parameters such as my own knowledge of physical laws, state of technology and history of its origin, some personal experience with government agencies and security classification systems, but mostly the filter is tuned to the questions: Which people have I learned over the years to be trustworthy, sensible and knowledgeable? How would they be in a position to know the things they do? Why and to what extent would they tell me anything, even based on long-time friendship? Do they have anything to gain by telling stories or making claims? What consistency and convergence is there among various people's claimed information?

....I now have three completely independent examples of individuals whom I trust reporting to me that individuals they trust have admitted to handling alien artifacts in "our" possession in the course of secret official duties.

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.

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3) Critical Thinking Mini-lesson 2

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:

Shermer and Randi are skeptics.
Shermer and Randi are writers.
So, some skeptics are writers.

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,

All Protestants are bigots.
All bigots are Italian.
So, all Protestants are Italian.

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:

If my astrologer is clairvoyant, then she predicted my travel plans correctly.
She predicted my travel plans correctly.
So, my astrologer is clairvoyant.

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:

If God created the universe, we should observe order and design in Nature.
We do observe order and design in Nature.
So, God created the universe.

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.)

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4) News

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: tombaxter@cogeco.ca.

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.

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5) Scams

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:

  • COMPLIMENTS OF THE SEASON. GRACE AND PEACE AND LOVE FROM THIS PART OF THE ATLANTIC TO YOU. I HOPE MY LETTER DOES NOT CAUSE YOU TOO MUCH EMBARRASSMENT AS I WRITE TO YOU IN GOOD FAITH BASED ON THE CONTACT ADDRESS GIVEN TO ME BY A FRIEND WHO WORKS AT THE NIGERIAN EMBASSY IN YOUR COUNTRY.

    PLEASE EXCUSE MY INTRUSION INTO YOUR PRIVATE LIFE. I AM BARRISTER AHMED COLE, I REPRESENT MOHAMMED ABACHA, SON OF THE LATE GEN. SANI ABACHA, WHO WAS THE FORMER MILITARY HEAD OF STATE IN NIGERIA.
  • I am Mr Frank Jebba, Branch Manager, Stallion Bank Nig Ltd. I managed to get your contact details through the Internet myself.
  • I am Mrs. A. Masupha Ephraim Sole wife of Masupha Ephraim Sole, the Ex Chief Executive of the Lesotho Highland Authority, presently based in South Africa.
  • I AM JOSEPH SISOLO, A FREEBORN INDIGENE OF CAPE TOWN SOUTH AFRICA AND AN ADMINISTATIVE EMPLOYEE OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN DEPARTMENT OF MINING AND NATURAL RESOURCES HERE IN SOUTH AFRICA.
  • I am Dr. Mrs. Mariam Abacha, wife to the late Nigerian Head of state, General Sani Abacha who died on the 8th of June 1998 while still on active service for our Country.
  • MY NAME IS ROBET OKEH.I AM 20YEARS OLD .I AM THE ELDERST SON OF LATE CHEIF KAMARA OKEH OF TUNGO DISTRICT,SIERRA LEONE.I GOT YOUR CONTACT INFORMATION FROM THE INTERNET WHILE BROWSING AT THE RECREATIONAL CENTRE IN REFUGEE 'S CAMP INTERNET CAFE HERE IN HOOLAND.
  • I am Amos Remi, a director with the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and the Secretary of the Contract Review Panel (CRP) of the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR).
  • MY NAME IS MR. JOHNSON UMBEKI, A NATIVE OF CAPETOWN IN SOUTH-AFRICA AND A SENIOR EMPPLOYEE OF THE SOUTH-AFRICAN DEPARTMENT OF GAS AND MINERAL RESOURCES. [I wonder if Mr. Umbeki knows Mr. Sisolo?]
  • WITH ABSOLUTE TRUST IN GOD AND DUE RESPECT TO YOU, I WRITE YOU THIS LETTER WHICH I BELIEVE YOU WOULD BE OF GREAT ASSISTANCE TO ME AND WOULD KEEP THE INFORMATION CONFIDENTIAL AND PRIVATE. I AM MICHEAL SANKOH JUNIOR, A SON TO FODAY SANKOH, THE REBEL LEADER IN SIERRA LEONE WARRING FACTIONS, I AM ABSOLUTELY AGAINST THE UNENDING POLITICAL CRISES IN MY COUNTRY THAT HAS RESULTED TO MISSIVE DESTRUCTION OF HUMAN LIVES AND PROPERTY WHICH IS CURRENTLY IN THE WORLD NEWS.
  • I am Madam Cecilia Lawson wife of the late Eng. Lalas Lawson the former managing director of the Seirra Leonean Ministry of Solid Minerals and I have this opportunity to solicited for your- assistance on the best way to secure a viable and profit oriented business or company that can - guarantee prolific dividends in off-shore where I can accomplish this investment prospect.
  • I am the son of the late president of Democratic Republic Of Zaire, President Mobutu Sese Seko, ( now The Republic Of Congo, under the leadership of the son of Mr. Laurent Kabila ). I presume you are aware there is a financial dispute between my family ( THE MOBUTUS ) and the present civilian Government.
  • I am Mr Femi Kuye, The manager, Bills and Exchange at the Foreign Remittance Department of a reputable Bank in Africa.
  • I am Dr. Philip Williams, a citizen of Kenya, I work in Nigeria as a Medical Doctor with the Lagos State Government Specialist Hospital.
  • I am an official of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing (FMWH) in Nigeria. [signed Dr. Akin Bashiru]
  • I am Professor Frank Obi, a solicitor at law and a partner at Richard Akinjide and Co. I am the attorney to Mr. James McCullough, an expatriate, who used to work with Shell Development Company in Nigeria.
  • This letter may come to you as a surprise due to the fact that we have not yet met. The message could be strange but real if you pay some attention to it. I could have notified you about it at least for the sake of your integrity. Please accept my sincere apologies. In bringing this message of goodwill to you, I have to say that I have no intentions of causing you any pain. I am Mr Joseph Wayas , Branch Manager, Stallion Bank Nig Ltd. I managed to get your contact details through the Internet myself. Time is of the importance and I am desperately looking for a person to assist me in this confidential business.

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:

  • Dear sir, We are sending you this letter based on the information gathered from the Foreign trade office of the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. We believed that you would be in a position to help in our bid to transfer the sum of sixteen million, five hundred thousand dollars (USD 16.5 Million) into a foreign account.

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:

why this is been related to you is because i dont want it to be known to the chinese government, due to the fact that if it is publicly known i might be snuffed out of life by some top men i would want to establish a factory where this drugs would be produced in your country or a neighbouring country with the money that was earned from curing the infected patience via [hong kong][shangai].the said amount would be sent to you immediately for work to shoot of at once in the factory once i receive your reply and a vivid discription of your bussiness life the named amount is[$ 14.6million]. I urgently awaits your reply.

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:

Get Paid... With Your Free Email at http://www.zwallet.com/index.html?user=bobkulma.

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

If you receive this type of message, you may report it to the US Secret Service for their ongoing investigation of this type of fraud. More information about this kind of fraud is available at the Secret Service Web site at:

  http://www.secretservice.gov/alert419.shtml

To report this message to the Secret Service, enable the full headers and send the full headers with the original message to 419.fcd@usss.treas.gov. For directions on how to enable and send the full headers, see the Knowledge Base document In e-mail, what are full headers, and how do I display and send them?

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 .

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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.

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Many thanks to John Renish for editorial assistance.

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