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Robert Todd Carroll


 

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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 42

June 7, 2004

Evolution "is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science and is not yet believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it was once believed."*  --Ronald Reagan

In this issue: A few updates; some book recommendations; evidence of another direct hit 250 million years ago; The Skeptic's Toolbox; The Scientific Evidence for the Paranormal; Pranks, Frauds, and Hoaxes from Around the World; Enlightenment Hoaxes; the Royal Navy hires some ghosthunters; the Swiss Bank Scam; and more on passive smoking.

Changes in The Skeptic's Dictionary and The Skeptic's Refuge

I updated the vampires entry. Thanks to Elizabeth Miller, author of Dracula: Sense & Nonsense (Desert Island Books, 2000) for noting that Bram Stoker did not base his vampire Count on Vlad the Impaler. He borrowed Vlad's nickname (Dracula) for a vampire character he had already conceived (and tentatively named Count Wampyr).

I posted another report on a study that failed to find a link between vaccines and autism. I've posted several such reports now.

I updated the Aleister Crowley entry to include a link to an excerpt from Alex Owen's The Place of Enchantment British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. The excerpt is Chapter Six, Aleister Crowley in the Desert.

I updated the lunar effects entry to include a link to an article from space.com about a recently published study that found no significant relationship between the full moon and epileptic seizures.

I posted some comments about Daniel Wirth and the possibility of fraud in an intercessory prayer study published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine.

I updated the alternative medicine entry to include a link to an article about a report on alternative medicine in Australia that found a large number of quacks in the business. What a shock!

I updated the astrology page to include a link to Ivan Kelly's response to the reviews in the Guardian and The Sunday Times of Percy Seymour's The Scientific Proof of Astrology (2004). (Ivan's response is posted on a great site: Butterflies and Wheels. Their motto is "fighting fashionable nonsense." Try it. I think you'll like it.) Seymour, for those of you who haven't followed this item, is a respected astronomer who also dabbles in the paranormal and astrology.

I posted comments from readers critical of my entries on Rolfing and Slick 50. I also posted some of my typically benign and carefully worded responses to those comments.

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Books

Edward Larson's Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory is one of the best reads I've had in a long time. This is history of science at its best. Larson doesn't get bogged down in all the minute details that polemicists love to focus on. Nor does he seem to have an agenda. He seems to present a fair and balanced account of the ups and downs of Darwin's theory (as well as of other theories of evolution) until a consensus is reached in the twentieth century when enough is known about genetics to seal the deal for natural selection. Seeing the intelligent design (ID) movement in the historical context of the scientific debate that has raged ever since Darwin may awaken a few fence-sitters to the philosophical/religious nature of ID.

Some of the fence-sitters might appreciate what Larson has to say about altruism, since it seems that many anti-evolutionists think that altruism shouldn't occur if Darwinian natural selection is real. They seem to think that since nature is cruel and wasteful, and genes are selfish and care only about replication, altruism shouldn't have evolved. "If nature selects solely for traits leading to an individual's survival or reproductive success, as classical Darwinism suggested, then self-sacrifice (except to aid one's own descendants) must have a supernatural source" (271). However,

[William D.] Hamilton proposed a purely Darwinist account for altruism by shifting the level of selection to the gene. Take social insects, he proposed. Because of the peculiar way they reproduce, female ants, wasps, and bees share more genes in common with their sisters (75 percent) than with their own children (50 percent) or brothers (25 percent). Thus, from the gene's point of view, female ants achieve greater reproductive success by aiding their sisters than their offspring...all sterile worker ants are female....(272)

Kin-based and reciprocal altruism are found in several types of social animals. It provides an enormous adaptive advantage (281).

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I also recommend Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction. Unlike evolution, where one hundred and fifty years of debate, observation, experiment, and argument have led to a consensus among biologists regarding neo-Darwinism (natural selection in light of genetics), the same can't be said for consciousness. Blackmore reviews dozens of theories of consciousness, each with its reputable proponents. Even though this is a textbook, I think it will have great appeal to the general reader. The exercises alone are worth the price of the book. She will have you asking yourself questions you've probably never thought of asking before. It is a shame she has quit her university post. One can tell by her enthusiastic writing that she loves to teach.

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Young Earth

Here's a story you won't find at Dinosaur Adventure Land (the young earth creationist theme park mentioned in the last newsletter): Signs of Crater Linked to Mass Extinction Said Found. The journal Science reports that some scientists think they have found evidence of a 250 million-year-old crater off the coast of Australia known as the Bedout High. Core samples show a melt layer like that which forms when a meteor crashes into earth. And material from the core samples dates to about 250 million years ago, a time when 90 percent of the planet’s marine life and 80 percent of life on land had gone extinct.

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Skeptic's Toolbox

CSICOP has announced the dates and topic for its next Skeptic's Toolbox. The topic is going to be "the unconscious" according to the latest research in cognitive science, social psychology, and neuroscience. The dates are August 12-15, 2004, at the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR. The faculty are the same great folks who put on the workshop that I raved about last year: Jim Alcock, Barry Beyerstein, Ray Hyman, Loren Pankratz, and Wally Sampson. Throw in Jerry Andrus and his wonderful world of illusions and you have the makings of another don't-miss program. I've sent in my registration. What are you waiting for?

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The Scientific Evidence for the Paranormal

As I mentioned in my last newsletter, I've posted my course outline for Critical Thinking About the Paranormal and the Occult. The course will examine the evidence and arguments in Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe and Gary Schwartz's The Afterlife Experiments, among other things. I've prepared a PowerPoint presentation that critically examines Radin's claim that “Scientists have essentially proven that psi exists.” I presented a version of this talk to the Sacramento Skeptics and will be presenting a revised (a very, very revised) version of the talk in Dublin, Ireland, on June 23rd. I'm being hosted by the Irish Skeptics, which pleases me greatly but which would probably have my father, my grandmother Kennedy, my great-grandmother Kelly, and my great-great-grandmother Dugan all turning in their Catholic graves. If you're in Ireland on the 23rd, stop by the Davenport Hotel at 8 PM.

Pranks, Frauds, and Hoaxes from Around the World

I've been asked about getting a copy of my talk at the CSICOP conference on Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias presented last October. Look for it in an upcoming issue of the Skeptical Inquirer.

Enlightenment Hoaxes

Enlightenment hoaxes are generally benign hoaxes meant to enlighten people by first deceiving them and then revealing the deceit. (I got the name from Jose Alvarez who explained the goal of his continued use of the Carlos hoax in one word: enlightenment.) I've given a couple of talks where I compare the value of such hoaxes with other methods that skeptics use to cast doubt upon paranormal claims. Some examples of enlightenment hoaxes are the Steve Terbot hoax (Bob Steiner), Michael Shermer's psychic for a day, Ian Rowland's Primetime appearance where he used cold reading techniques to appear to get messages from the dead, and Project Alpha. How effective are such hoaxes? That is one of the questions I explore in my talk. I also note that not all skeptics are in agreement on the ethical justification of playing with people's emotions by pretending to get messages from dead relatives. Joe Nickell, for instance, questions this practice. My view is that even the morally questionable hoaxes had to be done to demonstrate the claim made by skeptics that there are non-paranormal ways to get the same effect as John Edward, for example. Until somebody actually did what Ian Rowland and others have done using cold reading techniques, the claim that so-called mediums are using cold reading techniques remains empty. I am well aware that the common response to such hoaxes is the same refrain that true believers have been bellowing since the first fake psychic was exposed: Just because he can cheat doesn't mean he does. Or, just because you caught him cheating, doesn't mean he always cheats. Nothing Ian Rowland does can prove that John Edward is a phony. But the claim that anyone good at cold reading can get the same results is testable and, in my opinion, should be tested even if it upsets a few people.

Now, to the point for mentioning all this. A live TV hoax of a séance using a ouija board by illusionist Derren Brown became one of the most complained about shows in history, according to BBC news. More than 700 complaints were lodged, most of them before the show even aired on Channel 4. During the show, Brown assembled 12 students and told them he would be contacting the deceased using a Ouija board. They were told that the house they were in was the scene of a mass suicide. His goal was to show how easy it is to convince susceptible people that séances make contact with spirits. According to Brown's website, the complaints came "mainly from Christians who felt that such a show would usher in demonic forces." Here is his commentary on the complaints:

One doesn't want to attack anyone's personal beliefs, but having been a Christian myself, I remember how wonderful it was to decide one was 'offended' by something: Such a feeling allows one to hold one's head up high when one might feel otherwise outcast, and to bewilder others into a kind of apologetic stupor. Certainly much more rewarding than trying to take an objective look at the 'offending' matter....

I'm on Brown's side and hope I get a chance to see him perform someday.

Ghosts in the Hangman's Closet?

The British Royal Navy has allowed a group of folks calling themselves paranormal investigators to "scientifically" examine a hangman's cell at Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth, the Royal Navy's largest naval base. According to the Scotsman.com, the cell is allegedly haunted. The team of experts, including a couple of psychics, found proof of the haunting. They not only measured a change in temperatures (which would be proof enough for me), they also found evidence that spiritual beings are rampant in the place. They'll undoubtedly file a full report with the Queen in due time.

Old Twist on the Nigerian Bank Scam

I realize that just by mentioning this scam many subscribers will not get this newsletter because the AOL filters will find it offensive. Nevertheless, I must tell you about the revival of a variant of this virus, the Swiss Bank Scam. I recently received an e-mail telling me of my good fortune ($14,000,000 is all mine). It came from someone calling himself (or herself) Sylva Tommel, Ph.D. with an e-mail address at tommy7o@uymail.com

Sylva identifies himself as a member of Independent Committee of Eminent Persons (ICEP), Switzerland. He claims that "ICEP is charged with the responsibility of finding bank accounts in Switzerland belonging to non-Swiss indigenes, which have remained dormant since World War II." Most belonged to Holocaust victims, I'm told. Here's the pitch.

The Claims Resolution Tribunal (CRT) handles processing of all claims on accounts due non-Swiss citizens. A dormant account of ORDNER ADELE with a credit balance of 35,000,000 US dollar plus accumulated interest was discovered by me. The beneficiary was murdered during the holocaust era, leaving no WILL and no possible records for trace of heirs.

Being a top executive at ICEP, I have all secret details and necessary contacts for claim of the funds without any hitch. The funds will be banked in the Cayman Island, being a tax free, safe haven for funds and we can share the funds and use in investment of our choice.

Due to the sensitive nature of my job, I need a foreigner to HELP claim the funds. All that is required is for you to provide me with your details for processing of the necessary legal and administrative claim documents for transfer of the funds to you.

All I have to do to collect my share of the stolen loot is provide my name, address, and telephone number. A numbered account will be set up in my name in the Cayman Island. And to relieve me of any concern I might have, Sylva writes in caps: THERE IS NO RISK INVOLVED. I feel better already.

The really tricky part about this scam is that the mark is told

You can find additional information about unclaimed funds through the internet at the following websites:

www.swissbankclaims.com

http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/europe/9902/09/germany.holocaust/

www.avotaynu.com

www.icheic.org

www.livingheirs.com

www.wiesenthal.com

I'm sure some people will go to these sites and think, hey, this might be legitimate after all. I'm not psychic but I predict that this scam has netted and will continue to net a few victims worldwide.

Anyone wishing to collect my share is welcome to it. Write to tommy7o@uymail.com Let us know how things work out.

Secondhand smoke (passive smoking, ETS or environmental tobacco smoke)

Jasen writes:

I am a casual reader of the Skeptic.com newsletter, but an article regarding Penn & Teller's Bullshit episode regarding the risks of passive smoke caught my eye. As a non-smoker and a rational thinker I was forced to admit that the evidence of the EPA studies is damning to any case that passive smoke contributes measurably to the prevalence of lung cancer. However, this conclusion brings into question other statements made regarding the practice and toxicity of tobacco smoke in general. If one were to believe the experts in the medical industry, my physician for example, one would believe that the practice of smoking has a negative impact on the health of the smoker. Many physicians believe that this habit leads to a greater probability of disease onset such as lung cancer, emphysema and certain types of heart diseases.

So am I to believe now that on the one hand exposure to high concentrations of tobacco smoke in the smoker's lung leads to increased risk of disease, while on the other that same smoke at lower concentrations in the air does not increase the risks of the same diseases?

comment: It's not just the concentration, Jasen, but the depth of inhaling, the amount  of inhaling each day, and the number of years of inhaling that differentiate the smoker from the passive smoker.

Since I have seen physical evidence to suggest that the practice of smoking is damaging to the lung tissue of the smoker (the lung tissue comparisons are quite an obvious tell of this damage), I must question the motives of those seeking to defend the public practice of such a destructive habit. The fact that economic gain even enters into this question puts further doubt onto the objectivity of one making a defense out of negating the relevance of the EPA study. The facts remain quite plain. Tobacco smoke destroys lung tissue. This is not a question, supposition or hypothesis that is to be debated. It is a fact that is irrefutably found to be true in the biopsy or autopsy of smokers. So the question is can that same damage can be done to those in the vicinity of the poisons exhaled by that smoker? The laws of gas expansion state quite clearly that particles in the air will spread evenly until equilibrium is achieved unless acted upon by another force. Given this understanding of physics one can safely say that the gases and particles exhaled by the smoker will dissipate through a large area rather quickly until they are acted upon by some force (gravity, etc). I see no mention of these basic physic's principles in the negating observations mentioned and I find this peculiar to say the least. How is it that a particulate mixture trapped in the air can be harmful going into one lung, but not the next? Two answers come to mind and again, I find these suggestions conspicuously missing from the pro-smoker's repertoire.

1. The concentration of poisons is less when the smoke is exhaled (dissipated into the air) 2. The lungs are different (some are susceptible to lung disease and others are not regardless of concentration)

Either of these being the case, begs the same argument. Why are we opposed to controlling a harmful practice's effects on those who do not wish to participate in that practice?

The bottom line here to me is that I did not see any of these questions being explored by opponents of the ban. Rather the issues were the financial impact that bans have on bars, restaurants, etc. These are entirely unrelated phenomena. We are not studying whether the ban should be in place or its effects. We are studying if, when, and how smokers are a hazard to public spaces because of their use of a substance known to cause lung tissue damage. The financial health of a bar is a moot point here.

Lastly, I must say that it is irresponsible of those pushing this ban to use studies that fall apart under scrutiny to justify their opinion, but it is equally irresponsible of the "right to smoke" peddlers to justify their opinions by the negation of said study and some irrelevant issues about financial hardship complaints of business owners. Simply because there is no statistical significance found in one study, does not mean that the variables in question have been concretely understood. I am an advocate for more detailed and more accurate studies of these effects because in the end we may find that there is a specific condition that must be met first in order for smokers to be hazardous to public health. If we understood that condition, we may yet find a compromise for both parties thus bringing to rest this issue in an equitable manner for all concerned. Unfortunately, it is the issues that I see being debated which are irrelevant to the facts. An individual does not have the right to threaten the group. Therefore, what we should be studying is if the one is truly a threat to the many. If so, the one has no rights. If not, the many have no case against the one.

Jasen raises many interesting issues. I don't intend to get into a debate over the merits of smoking or of smoking in public places. When I brought up the issue of passive smoke, it was in the context of checking up on a claim made by Penn and Teller that there is no scientific evidence that passive smoke causes lung cancer. I found that P & T are correct. [I NOW (OCTOBER 29, 2005) REALIZE P & T WERE WRONG. SEE RETRACTION IN NEWSLETTER 41.] Furthermore, I found that the health agencies that warn against the dangers of passive smoke all base their claim on the questionable 1993 EPA study mentioned in the last newsletter. My concern was with finding out who is telling the truth. This, however, now leads to the question as to why the EPA either lied or distorted the truth, and why so many other health agencies went along without questioning the EPA's argument. I agree that issues such as the cost of the ban are red herrings. [I NO LONGER CONSIDER THIS STUDY QUESTIONABLE. THE LYING AND DISTORTION HAS COME FROM THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY AND ITS CRONIES IN THE REPUBLICAN PARTY WHO HAVE INTRODUCED STANDARDS WHOSE AIM IS TO PROTECT SUCH INDUSTRIES FROM THE COSTLY EFFECTS OF REGULATIONS RATHER THAN TO PROTECT THE HEALTH OF AMERICAN CITIZENS. THE STUDY IS QUESTIONABLE ONLY TO THOSE WHO USE THE STANDARDS ADVOCATED BY THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY AND THEIR REPUBLICAN ALLIES BEHIND SUCH THINGS AS THE DATA QUALITY ACT. (SEE CHRIS MOONEY'S THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE). I ADMIT IT: I WAS DUPED.]

I also mentioned that a California legislator had proposed a bill that would make it a crime for any adult to smoke in a car when a minor is present. That bill is now dead. However, we now have Assembly Bill 1808, which would ban smoking on all California state beaches. Stay tuned.

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