Robert Todd Carroll
about the newsletter
Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 4
June 19, 2002
(Past issues posted at http://skepdic.com/news/)
While revising the Skeptic's Dictionary (SD) for publication, I reviewed two books with similar topics: The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (Facts on File, 2000), edited by William F. Williams, and The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena - Mysteries and Curiosities of Science, Folklore and Superstition (Rough Guides Ltd., 2000) by John Mitchell and Bob Rickard, founder of Fortean Times. The former I found nearly useless, except for one article on the Wild Man of Borneo. As I approached puberty in the late 50s, I experimented with various hair and dress styles. My mother often told me I looked like the Wild Man of Borneo. I thought it was a figure of speech. Little did I know that in the 1880s an actor covered himself with tar and horsehair and posed as the Wild Man of Borneo in San Francisco's Barbary Coast district (Market Street). The civilized actor nearly died from the tar closing up the pores of his skin. Tar solvent saved him but ended his wild man farce. He then started a new career where people paid to hit him with a stick. This career allegedly ended when he foolishly allowed boxing champion John L. Sullivan to take a whack at him. His stage name seems fitting: Oofty Goofty.
Others have reviewed this alleged encyclopedia of pseudoscience, so I won't bother you with a lengthy commentary. I'll just mention that on the back cover it calls acupuncture, homeopathy, and therapeutic touch "serious practices moving forward into formal science." Yet, there isn't even an entry for therapeutic touch.
The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena, on the other hand, is worth reading, especially if you are a fan of Charles Fort or the Fortean Times. It's divided into twelve topics such as "Wild Talents," which includes entries on fire-walking, the stigmata, levitation, incorruptibility, and "miraculous provisions." The authors are unabashedly unskeptical, however, and really do believe in paranormal and miraculous explanations of things, despite the title. The value of the book--at least for me--is to see the wide range of weird things people believe in and their incredible gullibility. The book is also well-written and contains hundreds of reproductions of photographs and illustrations from the Fortean picture library.
I've added an exchange with an Australian Ph.D. on the enneagram and the social sciences.
Readers have wondered why I haven't put up entries on Spiral Dynamics ("Tracking the emergence of human nature since 1978"), Ken Wilber, and the MOLE Programmable Detection System (the latest incarnation of the Quadro Tracker and the DKL LifeGuard). I can safely say that the MOLE doesn't work. Sandia Labs tested it for explosives detection and it failed to perform better than chance.
As for Spiral Dynamics, the jury remains out on that one until I can study it more thoroughly.
Ken Wilber's publisher describes him as "perhaps the most comprehensive philosophical thinker of our times." That's not much of an endorsement, if you think about it. Perhaps he is. Perhaps he isn't. (Q. What is the difference between nothing and virtually nothing? A. Something.) Yet, I must confess that I don't think I've ever heard of Wilber before now. I did find an interview with Wilber that makes me wonder if I would be able to understand him should I ever read one of his many works:
I think I would have to believe in reincarnation to seriously claim that I will get around to reading him soon.
I received the following e-mail from someone I'll leave unnamed:
A reader from Nevada City, California, wrote about a little unscientific study he and a friend did.
comment: I'll leave speculation about hard-wiring to the evolutionary psychologists, and the psychologists can handle the assumption that women (and men) who seek New Age spiritual life-guides suffer from low self-esteem. But I will say that your little exercise confirms what any viewer of Oprah already knows. The focus on power and healing is right on the money. If you want to write a can't-miss book and appear on Oprah, write one called Healing Power or The Power of Healing or Power Healing, or some variation thereof. Amazon.com lists 476 books under "healing power."
What motivates people, especially women, to seek empowerment and healing through New Age spiritual movements? Maybe it's low self-esteem, but it may have something to do with what's available to them that requires minimum risk or investment while promising maximum fulfillment. If mainstream culture is debasing, demeaning, humiliating, weakening, sickening, threatening, etc., then alternative culture may look more promising, especially if promoted by cheery, feel-good, optimistic, confident folks who portray themselves as eternally happy and completely self-fulfilled.
In my first newsletter, I mentioned that the Japanese and Spanish translations of the SD have disappeared from the Internet. I was wrong. Sort of. Remember the WayBack Machine, mentioned in the last newsletter? I found an archived copy of the Spanish translation of the SD at the WayBack Machine. Also, Luis Alfonso Gámez of ARP (Society for the Advancement of Critical Thinking), the Spanish skeptic's organization, has contacted me about a group of volunteers ready to do a Spanish translation. So, we will soon have a full translation up in Spanish.
I also found an archived copy of the Japanese translation and posted it as well.
Since moving to Yahoo! Geocities last April 10th, there have been about 930,000 hits on SD html files, an average of about 13,500 per day. There have been about 60,000 hits on the Skeptic's Refuge (SR) html files, an average of about 850 per day. These stats do not include the hits on the Homepages, What's New page, and the Table of Contents page. Mass Media Funk is the most popular SR page. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® is the most popular SD entry, averaging over 400 hits a day. (Leroy: Velikovsky gets about 25 hits a day.)
Most of the traffic seems to be coming via Google.
Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press has convinced me that I have not been skeptical enough regarding the mass media. Those who have read my chapter on Sources in Becoming a Critical Thinker will probably find this hard to believe, but it is true. Buzzsaw validates many of the claims I make about the mass media, but even this hardened skeptic was sickened by some of these stories about trying to get stories published.
John Renish may now be blamed for any errors in the SD or SR. John is my new editor, another volunteer trying to keep me intelligible. I have been very fortunate to have had two others who gave of their precious time to read my work carefully, and offer corrections and criticisms. Richard Herren was my first editor. Rich drove me to find a consistent voice and to try to define my audience more clearly. He gave up a career in radio and went back to school to study computer science. Tim Boettcher was my second editor. Tim works in computer science and was relentless in finding even the smallest of errors, forcing me to be more careful and attentive to details. He once described himself as "a right-wing redneck, fanatical Christian fundamentalist." Given our fundamental differences, I was amazed that he would help me at all, much less do yeoman work editing for several years before moving on to more rewarding pursuits like traveling to Ireland and fishing in Canada.
John Renish described himself to me as a "retired technical writer and editor," but I have found that there is no such thing as a retired editor. Editors remind me of the sentiment attributed to Thomas Edison: I can't see anything without wondering how I could make it better. My thanks to John for taking on the burden of responsibility for all errors falsely attributed to me.
David Martin writes regarding the continuing threat of terrorism:
Thus, American Atheists, Inc. has set up a Secular Memorials page for "Atheists, Agnostics, Freethinkers, Rationalists, Humanists and others-of-no-religious-faith" who want to participate in official, but non-religious, remembrances for the victims of September 11th.
The next newsletter will be mostly a report on the CSICOP 4th World Skeptic's Conference.