Table of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue #3

June 6, 2002

Subscribers 502

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

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 Contents

      1)   New and revised entries
      2)   Responses to selected feedback
      3)   Translations of the SD
      4)   Weird stats
      5)   Books we're reading
      6)   News
     

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

I haven't added any new entries in the SD since the last newsletter, but I have revised the entry on A Course in Miracles at the behest of Joe Jesseph, Coordinator, Miracle Studies at  www.miraclestudies.net. We had a civil exchange. Dr. Jesseph was kind enough to correct several factual errors in the entry. My attitude toward ACIM hasn't changed, but the revision makes it clear that it is not the messages but the alleged channeling of the messenger that I object to most.

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I've posted some comments from a defender of urine therapy who thinks a single speculative article by an anesthesiologist in Israel is evidence of scientific support for drinking one's urine to fight cancer. While researching a response, I came upon an excellent site, both in form and content: The National Cancer Institute's site on the immune system. I recommend it highly.

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I published a commentary in Mass Media Funk (MMF) on Harvard-trained physicist John Hagelin's efforts to persuade Congress to spend millions of dollars on a hare-brained gimmick dreamed up by the giggling guru of Transcendental Meditation.

Also in MMF is a short note about the Bivings Group's use of viral marketing on the Internet. I guess they are modeling themselves after Internet pedophiles and sexual predators, or Enron, or William Randolph Hearst.

I also added to the list of suburban myths: number 60 is that we need 8 glasses of water a day for good health.

A short bit on pet psychics also appeared on the Mass Media Bunk pages recently. What kind of audience believes a psychic who has to ask the pet's owner for the pet's name?

I've also added another entry to the Skeptic Times.

Finally, a lengthy MMF entry focuses on a lawsuit by parents who think their son's autism was caused by vaccinations and the local power company.

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 2) Responses to selected feedback

A reader recently wrote: "I find the SCI.SKEPTIC faq has a very useful definition of "wet skepticism" and "dry skepticism." I don't see these mentioned anywhere in The Skeptic's Dictionary. An oversight?"

Response: Frankly, I was unaware of the distinction between wet and dry skeptics. After reading the FAQ, I can say that I don't think it is a particularly useful or interesting dichotomy. It certainly is nowhere near as colorful as the distinction between the jerks and the creeps  in evolutionary theory (those who support punctuated equilibrium vs. the gradualists). Anyway, here are the definitions, followed by my comments:

Skeptics vary on the attitude they take towards a new fringe idea, varying from the "wet" to the "dry". The question of which attitude is better is very much a live issue in the skeptical community. Here is a brief summary of the two extremes:

DRY: There is no reason to treat these people seriously. Anyone with half an ounce of sense can see that their ideas are completely bogus. Time spent trying to "understand their ideas" and "examine their evidence" beyond that necessary for debunking is wasted time, and life is short. Furthermore, such behaviour lends them respectability. If we take them seriously, so will other people. We must ridicule their ideas so that others will see how silly they are. "One belly laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms" (H.L. Mencken, quoted by Martin Gardner).

WET: If we lay into these people without giving them a fair hearing then we run two risks: 1: We might miss someone who is actually right. History contains many examples. 2: We give them a weapon against us. Ad hominem attacks and sloppy logic bring us down to their level. If we are truly the rational, scientific people we claim to be then we should ask for their evidence, and then pronounce our considered opinion of it.

The two extremes are perhaps personified by Martin Gardner (dry) and Marcello Truzzi (wet). Note that no particular judgement is attached to these terms. They are just handy labels.

People who read articles by dry skeptics often get the impression that skeptics are as pig-headed as any fundamentalist or stage psychic. I think that this is a valid criticism of some skeptics on the dry end. However, an article which ridicules fringe beliefs may also contain sound logic based on careful investigation. As always, you have to read carefully, distinguish logic from rhetoric, and then make a judgement.

The SCI.Skeptic site is based in the UK where the orthography and the weather are unique. That might explain both the spelling of behavior and judgment and the wet/dry terminology, as well. In any case, the distinction is obviously misleading, as indicated in the penultimate sentence. Sloppy logic and levying ad hominem attacks is not restricted to skeptics, much less to any one kind of skeptic. Worse, though, the wet/dry characterization is false. It makes it sound as if skeptics take the same attitude toward every "new fringe idea," regardless of the content or nature of the idea itself. I don't know of any skeptic who thinks every "new fringe idea" is bogus, regardless of what the idea is. Likewise, I don't know of any skeptic who thinks every "new fringe idea" should be given the royal treatment just in case it contains a hidden nugget of truth. The Gardners and Truzzis of the world do not treat all "new fringe ideas" equally. They do not take the same attitude towards these ideas. We all consider a variety of factors before deciding how seriously to take any idea. But clearly, skeptics do not all put the bar at the same level.

Those who favor Truzzi's attraction to anomalies would probably call him open-minded and call Gardner closed-minded. However, it's obvious that one can be critical while pointing out the ridiculous. A perfect example would be Gardner's classic essay on L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics (in Fads and Fallacies). But the fact that Truzzi has a lower bar than Gardner when it comes to what he takes as a realistic possibility and worth investigating doesn't necessarily mean one is more open-minded than the other.

Some skeptics appear closed-minded when in fact they are simply people who have studied an issue thoroughly and have come to a reasoned position on the issue. Once you have thoroughly investigated ESP and have come to the conclusion that the most reasonable probability is that ESP is a chimera or delusion, then you are not closed-minded simply because you find fault with any new psychic claim. If  you suspect someone stole a piece of jewelry from you and the thief swears the jewelry was teleported by some psychic somewhere, you are not being open-minded by offering to do a controlled experiment on the teleportation of jewelry. You know from experience, from your knowledge, etc., that the probability of some things is too small to be worth investigating. In my view, to study John Edward and other so-called psychics the way Gary Schwartz did does not make Schwartz more open-minded (or "wet") than James Randi (who has debunked both Edward and Schwartz). Schwartz may be Harvard-trained, but his competence as a scientific researcher leaves much to be desired. He seems to be indifferent to establishing adequate controls to prevent cheating. In fact, he seems indifferent to controlled studies. He is either ignorant or doesn't care about cold, warm, and hot reading techniques. And he has a very low bar when it comes to what he will accept as a "psychic hit." (See Randi and  Randi, and CSICOP and CSICOP).

On the other hand, it would not be wise to advocate censorship of improbable claims. Some may turn out to be true. But that does not make it wise to treat every improbable claim equally. The difference between Truzzi or Schwartz and Gardner or Randi is not that the former are open-minded. Rather it is that the former refuse to give up hope in the improbable, despite overwhelming evidence that they are wasting their time.

When someone claims they can cure your back pain or improve your golf score with a talisman, you really do not do that person or the world a favor by agreeing to do a double-blind controlled test. First of all, it is the responsibility of the person with the panacea to do his or her own studies. And, it should go without saying, that such a person should do proper studies. Real scientists don't put all their money into marketing and then expect skeptics to do the scientific tests for them. Nor do they ignore setting up proper controls. Furthermore, you may help people see why these kinds of scams are so common by giving some instruction in the regressive fallacy, confirmation bias, wishful thinking, controlled studies, and post hoc reasoning. You are not closed-minded for rejecting out of hand the takionic bead headband. By all means, takionic beads should be tested and their advocacy should not be censored. But they should be properly tested by the one making all the fantastic claims for them. The skeptic's duty is not to do the testing, but to apply his or her past experience to the present situation. And, if it looks like a scam, smells like a scam, swaggers like a scam, why call it a "great new possibility worthy of our inquiry"?

When I consider a new idea, like inedia for example, I use my knowledge of biology, nutrition, etc., my experience, etc., to come to a very quick decision that this idea is not worthy of scientific examination and testing. I would be surprised if Truzzi and Gardner don't do the same.

On the other hand, when I consider a new idea for which I do not have the necessary knowledge and experience to judge its plausibility, much less its probability, I seek out experts in the field. For example, when magnet therapy was a "new fringe idea" I consulted the work of physicists and medical researchers before making a judgment that the idea is bogus. I've investigated some "new fringe ideas" that, in my opinion, did not have overwhelming evidence against them. Those topics are not in the Skeptic's Dictionary (e.g., multiple chemical sensitivity) even though other skeptics who are experts in medicine think they should be. My bar is lower (or higher, depending on your perspective) than Dr. Stephen Barrett's on this one. I have suspended judgment on MCS.

I've investigated many issues that have not made it into the SD. At the urging of SD readers who claimed there was something pseudoscientific going on, I have researched the use of Ritalin for ADD, the causes of global warming, the dangers to health and the atmosphere from HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Project), marijuana for medical use, and male genital mutilation (euphemistically known as circumcision). On some issues I suspend judgment; on others I side with what I think are the best arguments. If there is pseudoscience, as in the case of the LifeGuard from DielectroKinetic Laboratories , I write up something for the SD or the Skeptic's Refuge. If the disagreement is empirical, and there is nothing paranormal or supernatural involved, I don't write about it in the SD.

Finally, I've removed some entries because I've changed my mind about them. For example, I removed the evolutionary psychology entry because the more I read the more I came to believe that, while much of it looks similar in form to Freudian pseudoscience or speculative philosophy, much of it does not.

To some uncritical readers it may appear that I reject "new fringe ideas" out-of-hand because the Skeptic's Dictionary is not about subjects on which I have suspended judgment or am in agreement with. I publish mainly three kinds of entries. Some are simply definitions. Some debunk. Some instruct on critical thinking tools. To some, it might appear that there is a fourth kind (e.g., the entry on the Freemasons), but I think you will find that such entries belong in the debunking category. They debunk debunkers. One reader thinks the "atheism" entry is different from the others in the SD because it is not approached skeptically. Neither are the entries on "control study" or "Occam's razor." This reader did make me realize, however, that the homepage description of the SD needed revision. It  used to read "over 400 skeptical definitions and essays on occult, paranormal, supernatural and pseudoscientific ideas and practices with references to the best skeptical literature" (emphasis added). Now it reads "over 400 definitions and essays on occult, paranormal, supernatural, and pseudoscientific ideas and practices, and how to think critically about them." The new blurb may be more arrogant, but I think it's more accurate as well.

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3) Translations

Dario Ventra, a student of Earth Science at Florence University, Italy, has offered to assist Guisseppe Ferro with the Italian translation of the SD. When news of the offer reached him, Guisseppe responded with "I'm not a young person (I'm 68), and I doubt I'm the ideal man for this job. So, I'll be glad to have a collaborator, if not a successor..."

I look forward to seeing the SD in the language of my maternal grandmother's parents. Now, who wants to try a translation into Gaelic?

4) Weird stats

There are 1,323 files in The Skeptic's Dictionary and The Skeptic's Refuge combined. That averages out to about 165 files per year since we began in 1994. Clearly, I'm running out of steam!

5) Books we're reading

I've started reading Gould's final work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and have a sore right wrist from trying to hold up the book while reading in bed. It's enjoyable reading, but frankly I think the first 20 pages could have been cut to about two pages without much loss of content. However, by the time you get to page 30 you will realize that you are in the presence of greatness. By page 40, if you are like me and believe that studying the history of a subject is essential to understanding it, you know you will read this one to the end.

I am also reading Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press edited by Kristina Borjesson, with a foreword by Gore Vidal. Publisher's Weekly says that "if members of the general public read this book, or even portions of it, they will be appalled. To the uninitiated reader, the accounts of what goes on behind the scenes at major news organizations are shocking. Executives regularly squelch legitimate stories that will lower their ratings, upset their advertisers or miff their investors. Unfortunately, this dirt is unlikely to reach unknowing news audiences, as this volume's likely readership is already familiar with the current state of journalism."

I've only read one entry so far, an account by Gerald Colby of the powerful Du Pont family and their ability to manage the news and control what gets published about them. I also learned a new word: privashing. Apparently, the word has been around since the 1970s, yet you will find nothing of interest regarding the practice on the Internet. Privashing--a portmanteau of private and publish-- is how publishers squash their own books without the authors' awareness or consent. Publishers may reduce the initial run so the book can't make a profit. A book that doesn't make a profit can't justifiably be reprinted. Publishers may cut the advertising budget to zero or cancel promotional tours. Why? According to Colby, fear of being sued or blackballed or financially ruined by boycotting plays a major factor. Who would make such threats? Families like the Du Ponts who, says Colby, caused his book about them to be privashed. (Surely, you remember the Du Ponts from history class? The ones who cornered the gunpowder market during the Civil War. The ones who poison the environment and then poison the well regarding "environmentalists." The ones called a "species of outlaws" by our Secretary of War during WW I for overcharging the government for munitions. The ones who undermined the 1924 Geneva Disarmament Conference. The ones who smuggled munitions to the Nazis. What? Those weren't mentioned in your history books? Funny, they were omitted in mine as well. Wonder why?) The book, Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain (Prentice-Hall), is out-of-print, but two used copies were available from Amazon.com for about $30 on June 3, 2002. Another attempt at publishing the story--Du Pont Dynasty (Carol Publishing Group)--is also out-of-print, but used copies are available ranging in price from $45 to $110.

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6) News

The last newsletter went out before I got the sad news that Stephen Jay Gould had died. He was one of my favorite writers and thinkers. Perhaps I'll read his final work more carefully, knowing there won't be any further books with his unique imprint. Actually, there is one more book in Gould's legacy: his final collection of essays from his columns in Natural History. I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History was also published this spring.

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Some of you may have already seen "A Different Way to Heal?", the PBS/Scientific American's critical evaluation of "alternative" medicine. The series is outstanding and unique on television in promoting curiosity, critical thinking, scientific methodologies, and skepticism. The program hasn't shown in my area yet. Check your local PBS station program guide for the time. It may not have shown in your area yet, either.

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I received a nice note from Elizabeth Dickey, GMLC eCourse Development Coordinator for the Virtual Campus of Trinity Western University:

Trinity Western University students will be viewing your site for educational purposes. Our e-course instructors have viewed your site and believe it contributes to the information provided in our on-line courses. Thank you for contributing current and relevant information as this information assists us greatly in the delivery of high quality on-line education.

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