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Robert Todd Carroll


 

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logo.gif (2126 bytes)Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 35

December 21, 2003

"...rhetorical questions in philosophy ... paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments." --Daniel Dennet

In this issue: an apology; winter solstice; a few new entries and a couple of facelifts; creationism and chiropractic; photos from space and Hampton Court; Nostradamus turns 500; Darwin Day; and good buys on hoaxes.

Note

I apologize to any of you who hit the reply button to send feedback to the last newsletter. I forgot to put in the "do not respond to this e-mail" notice. If you replied to the newsletter return address, your mail is in cyberhell. Sorry.

Solstice

Today is the day the sun stands still. Or so it seems. Here in Davis, California, and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, the days start getting longer and the sun starts rising further north each day until the summer solstice. I've never been to Stonehenge, which many New Age druids associate with solstice, but I've been to Newgrange in Ireland, a much older structure (ca. 3200 BCE), where at sunrise on the winter solstice the light from the sun enters a shaft above the east entrance portal and illuminates the main chamber of the passage grave. However, evidence of an even older site in Europe with astronomical significance was revealed earlier this year. This one is in Germany near Goseck and has gates that marked the sunrise and sunset of both the summer and winter solstice. It is estimated that the Goseck site was built about 7000 years ago.

For a particularly beautiful photo of Stonehenge at sunrise
For more on Newgrange
For photos of Newgrange at winter solstice
For more on Goseck

Changes

I've added several new entries:

Both The Skeptic's Dictionary and The Skeptic's Refuge index pages have had facelifts. Over the years, I have added a number of features to the Web sites. Figuring out how to create easy and clear navigational links to these features became more difficult as I added more features. I have tried to make the index pages easily navigable, relatively quick to load, and with acceptable clarity on most monitors, browsers, and screen resolutions. I realize that nothing can please everybody but if you are having any particular difficulty viewing or loading these pages, let me know. So far, I've only received one comment on the changes.  Ian Johnson of the UK wrote, "I'm afraid I have no constructive criticism. It's painful." I'm not sure whether the "it" refers to the changes or to Ian's inability to come up with a constructive criticism. Anyway, here are the links:

Skeptic's Dictionary

Skeptic's Refuge

While reorganizing, I dropped the New Books page. I haven't been maintaining it with any consistency. I'll still mention new books in newsletters or the Funk page. I also added a short biography:

http://skepdic.com/refuge/bio.html

Feedback

Laurie Fraser of Australia writes:

Thanks so much for your website, especially the "Creationism and creation science" page. Very enjoyable, especially your urbane replies to the various misguided souls who take you on. I teach a course in critical thinking at a college just outside Sydney, Australia, and have been preparing my students for a conference which is taking place near here in January.

The conference is being heralded as the "International" conference on Creation Science (I know, I hate that oxymoron too), and I plan to have myself and a few of my students do some serious disrupting during the 5-day liefest. I know that our efforts will be of little effect, but it is hard to sit back while these jokers are making inroads into the private, religious school-system (which is expanding at an alarming rate under the leadership of the most deeply conservative government we've had in my lifetime).

Anyway, thanks for your efforts - just thought you might like to know.

I don't know what you mean by "seriously disrupting," Laurie, but I hope you and your students simply plan to ask some serious questions. For example, Why should religious dogmatism be taught in science class? Would the creationists like evolutionists to teach science in their churches?

And this from Jack Guest:

I have to confess that somewhat cynically I did a search for 'love' on your site and was almost surprised that there wasn't a listing for 'love'. Surely it's about as important notion as one could have, and I daresay there are a number of sceptical arguments against many common conceptions as to what 'love' is? E.g. Arguments along the line of 'love is a purely biological/evolutional construct to aid in furthering the species etc. etc. Curious to hear your thoughts.

Jack must have some other book in mind because mine does not claim to have skeptical arguments about every important subject under the sun. In The Skeptic's Dictionary you will not find me discussing weather prediction, forgiveness, global warming, the migration of geese, anger, stupidity, picture framing, the battered woman's defense, utilitarian versus deontological ethical systems, nor beekeeping. Nor zillions of other important issues. Why? I don't know. It has never occurred to me to write such a book. I have chosen to restrict myself to topics on the paranormal, pseudoscientific, supernatural, and occult. I have found it necessary to include many entries on philosophical and psychological topics in order to help readers see (1) how human reasoning can fail us and (2) why so many people believe things for which either there is little or scant evidence or there is strong evidence against. I have not tried to respond to every questionable claim made on any subject under the sun. Nor do I plan to start now.

As for love...I think there is love pouring out of every page of The Skeptic's Dictionary.

***

This from Keith Livingstone, an Australian Christian chiropractor:

I liked your article on placebo, and as a born-again Christian chiropractor I guess our world views might be slightly different. However, I am an Australian born-again Christian chiropractor, so I'll have a beer or talk with anyone.

Some of your information on chiropractic is a bit outdated.

I am a Governor of the Australian Spinal Research Foundation, a chiropractic-funded research body that sponsors multi-disciplinary research into aspects of functional neurology. It interests me that you don't have medicine listed under your list of skeptic subjects. Noted Australian science broadcaster and author Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, the Julius Sumner Miller Fellow at the University of Sydney, refers to medicine as an "art, not a science".

According to Dr David Eddy, Professor of Health Policy at Duke University, North Carolina, only 15% of medical interventions are supported by solid scientific evidence, partly because only 1% of the articles in medical journals are scientifically sound and partly because many well established treatments have never been assessed at all.

Professor Eddy's interest in this area began some years ago when, as a cardiothoracic surgeon, he became progressively concerned about the evidence to support the treatments that he and other doctors were using. Beginning with glaucoma, he searched published medical literature back to 1906 and could not find one randomised controlled trial of the standard treatment. The same analysis was done for other treatments with similar findings. In short, most treatments were simply handed down from generation to generation!

Reference: Smith, R. "Where is the Wisdom... ? The Poverty of Medical Evidence". British Medical Journal. (1991) 303:798-799.

Keep up your interesting work; I'll read anything too, and I like your writing!

Keith, if I'm ever back in Australia, I'll take you up on that beer. In the meantime, take a look at this Bunk page where I correct Professor Eddy's claim:

http://skepdic.com/refuge/bunk8.html#myth3

Also take a look at "The evidence for evidence-based medicine" by R. Imrie, and D.W. Ramey at

http://www.seanet.com/~vettf/CTiM.htm

In my FAQ, I respond to your concern about "medicine":

Q. Why do you criticize "alternative" medicine only? Why don't you have entries that are critical of the questionable claims, practices, and errors of medical science, such as vaccination or circumcision?

A. To expect me to be as skeptical of medical science as I am of naturopathy, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, therapeutic touch, aromatherapy, etc., is unreasonable. It is not because they are fallible that I am skeptical of these "alternative" health practices, but because they are based upon false or questionable assumptions and generally do not follow scientific methods to establish beliefs. It does not follow from my criticism of "alternative" health practices that I think conventional medicine is flawless. I do not criticize alternative health practices because their practitioners err or misdiagnose. I criticize them because I believe their methods are fundamentally unsound and incapable of weeding out error.

Furthermore, "alternative" practitioners often do not care that their methods are unsound because they deceive themselves into thinking that what they are doing is justified because "it works," i.e., they have seen the results (confirmation bias) and they have a lot of satisfied customers (the pragmatic fallacy). These fundamental human tendencies are common in pseudoscience, but are guarded against by scientists by requiring specific logical and scientific tests of causal claims.

I do not believe that conventional medicine is infallible. I would criticize conventional medicine if it were fundamentally flawed, i.e., if it were based upon metaphysical or false or questionable assumptions. There may be specific procedures which most medical doctors follow or recommend which turn out to be harmful or useless. Nevertheless, I would not reject all medicine because of errors by medical doctors. It would be foolish to reject science because of errors by scientists.

See my dictionary entries on the following:

alternative health practices
placebo effect
confirmation bias
pragmatic fallacy

***

News

The first visuals from the Spitzer space telescope have been released by NASA. They are spectacular!

Check them out.

***

As most of you probably know by now, a "ghost" has been caught on film at Hampton Court Palace.

We thought Richard Wiseman put this one to rest, but apparently not.

Wiseman had this to say about the latest ghost sighting at Hampton Court: "It is either a publicity stunt by the Palace, which I doubt, or it is a member of the public thinking they were being helpful by shutting the doors."

***

Nostradamus turned 500 on December 14th. I did an interview with Ed Butler of BBC radio for a program commemorating the event. Anybody in the UK hear it?

Nostradamus

***

The Skeptic's Dictionary will be one of the sponsors of the Darwin Day celebration in Sacramento, which will be held on February 7, 2004. The featured speaker this year will be Taner Edis, author of The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science.

I hope to see some of you there. Look for me at the book table. More later on exact times and place.

Darwin Day

***

Finally, I had a link on my Frauds and Hoaxes page to CNET's Top Internet Hoaxes. The CNET page vanished into cyberspace. So, I did a search on CNET for "hoaxes" and was taken to a page which announced that there are great deals on "hoaxes" at eBay. I'm sure there are.

Frauds and Hoaxes

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