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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 43

July 20, 2004

"The scientist who yields anything to theology, however slight, is yielding to ignorance and false pretenses, and as certainly as if he granted that a horse-hair put into a bottle of water will turn into a snake." --H. L. Mencken

In this issue: a few changes; Quantum Touch quackery; electric chairs for your health; the transit of Venus and the end times; more action on passive smoke; New Age Healer Meets the Skeptical Inquirer; Randi's Amazing Meeting 3 is in the works; the Skeptic's Toolbox; my talk in Dublin, Ireland; and a few words on advertising in the SD.

What's New?

Since the last newsletter, I posted comments on the efforts of a retired Air Force General and an attorney to get Southern Baptists to pull their children out of public schools because they have become too secular. I posted a link to an article about a psychic criminal. I posted comments on Rico, the new Clever Hans. I posted a note that The Scientist reported that The Journal of Reproductive Medicine has withdrawn from its Web site a September 2001 study that allegedly demonstrated the benefits of prayer on fertility treatments. I also posted comments on the Supreme Court's decision in the Newdow "under God" challenge. I updated the Atlantis page by adding a link to a BBC story about the discovery of Atlantis off the coast of southern Spain. And I updated the dianetics page to include a link to an article about how Scientologists are getting their beliefs into our public schools via pseudoscientific anti-drug programs.

Quackery of the Hour

This hour's award goes to Richard Gordon for Quantum Touch, which he calls a "breakthrough in hands-on healing."  He teaches folks how to focus and amplify their chi or prana. Gordon's gimmick is in "combining various breathing and body awareness exercises." You know you are dealing with a quack when you read such nonsense as "all healing is self-healing." Gordon promises results such as "spontaneous structural realignment" and claims to have cured a child's bowed legs in five minutes. What I don't understand, though, is Gordon's claim that all healing is self-healing yet "Quantum-Touch works wonders post-surgically, as well as on trauma, burns, and even poison oak." he claims that "One nurse told me that a physician asked her to stop using Quantum-Touch post-surgically since he could no longer predict how much pain medication to give the patient." Why not just skip the surgery and go right for the Quantum Touch miracle? Or, if all healing is self-healing, why is there any need for Quantum Touch?

Electric Chairs are Good for You

David Harrington of Fujisawa City, Japan, writes:

A number of people I know here in Japan swear by the effectiveness of a kind of electric chair widely sold and used here. Even my local senior center has a bank of them in the foyer, and they appear to be quite popular. Urged to try one, despite my thoroughgoing skepticism, I did so several times to please my hosts. I could feel nothing in particular, but admit to giving it not much of a fair trial, as it was only a spotty approach at best. Recently a dear friend who had been suffering from racing heart problems has experienced a total disappearance of symptoms upon undergoing "treatment" with such a chair. I realize that many factors might be involved which I know nothing about, as I have paid little attention to the details of this chair, and have had little interest in it till now. I would appreciate any information you might have run across about electricity being used for health purposes, as I am now often pestered to give it another try. This chair has a foot-rest and a head-rest which are claimed to provide the healing electricity in some way, although there is no feeling of an electric circuit being established. I am interested nowadays in this chair chiefly because it seems to be spreading among people I know, who make it difficult for me to ignore their claims! Any ammunition will be put to good use!

By the way, I find your work to be very helpful in dispelling so many of the dubious notions that we somehow acquire that "everyone knows"! Every time I read your site I find another clunker that I didn't know I had! (Graphology most recently.) I do my best over here with my adult education classes, but the Japanese are pretty resistant to a skeptical approach when it comes to matters of fate, luck, and going through the motions to ensure same. On the other hand, this is the best country in the world that I know of regarding toleration of various organized religions: An ordinary modern Japanese is born a Shintoist, marries as a sort of fake Christian, and dies a Buddhist--really believing in none of them! It's great! Legacy of WW II defeat and decline of "Emperor Worship", no doubt.

David, over here some states still use electric chairs to execute those condemned to death.* (There are six states that still use the electric chair: Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.) I'm glad to see the Japanese have found a less inhumane use for the device. Seriously, people have been claiming electricity as a panacea ever since it was discovered. The fact that you could feel nothing when you sat in the chair is a good sign, I would think.

The last electric cure-all that I recall being marketed over here was the Stimulator, which was marketed as a device that would send an electric current into acupressure points to relieve pain. The device was actually a modified gas grill igniter. Some 800,000 of these gizmos were sold between 1994 and 1997 with the help of national TV infomercials featuring celebrities like daredevil Evel Knievel, basketball star Bill Walton, and actress Lee Merriweather. A judge ordered Paul M. Monea to refund the $82 price to all the customers who bought one. The device didn't work. What a shock! At least with the electric chairs in bank lobbies, one can relax and enjoy the lack of feeling anything while getting a subjective lift, even if it is only temporary.

Once again I recommend Barry Beyerstein's little article "Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work."

Venus Transit and Catastrophe

Kerrie Dougherty sent us an article from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation about a Chinese alarmist, Geng Guoqing, known as "an expert on natural calamities," who claims that the recent transit of Venus across the face of the Sun may lead to disastrous flooding along China's Yellow River. It seems that Geng has compared historical records going back 2,187 years and found "a clear correlation" between Venus transits and major floods along the river's middle and lower reaches. Never mind that China has a "flood season" every year and that in the first nine months of last year the flooding caused nearly 2,000 deaths in China. It seem that there are too many scientists these days who leap from correlations to theories about causation.

Geng has a theory that "Venus blocks part of the Sun's radiation that should have been transmitted to Earth" and this causes climatic disturbances across the globe, according to a Mr. Guo, a researcher at the Special Committee on Natural Calamities Forecasting under the China Geophysics Society. I'm no astronomer, but my guess is that the amount of radiation blocked by Venus was insignificant. So, even if fluctuations in solar radiation could cause climatic disturbances on Earth, the transit of Venus wouldn't hurt a fly on this planet.

I checked out Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy page but could find nothing about fears of worldwide disturbances, though Phil did have links to a page by someone who wonders whether the transit could be a sign that the Antichrist is on his way and to a page of a group desperately seeking any excuse to celebrate Oneness.

(Update: Phil says I shamed him into writing a brief piece on the transit of Venus and flooding.)

More on Smoking

Larry Lynch writes:

I just finished your newsletter that dealt with smoking, among other subjects.

There is another issue that hasn't been addressed concerning smoking in addition to the health and economic issues. Does one person or group have the right to foul the air, body, clothes, and space of another person? In an enclosed environment, i.e., bar, restaurant, car, etc., smoke smell sticks in one's hair and on one's clothes. Both have to be washed to remove the smell. The smell is offensive and has a cost for removal. Does the smoker have the right to deposit this smell on others? He/she can't spit, urinate, or defecate on others. Can he/she blow smoke on others? Is the nonsmoker's only alternative to choose to go elsewhere?

I think most of the non-smokers would agree with Larry. What was upsetting to many of us was not the ban on smoking in public places but the use of a very weak scientific study to defend the ban. It would have been more honest to have argued along the lines listed in Larry's comments (except for the part about spitting, urinating, or defecating on others, which I believe is protected behavior under the First Amendment) than to have pretended to have strong scientific evidence that 3,000 people a year were dying of lung cancer from inhaling secondhand smoke.

New Age Healer Meets the Skeptical Inquirer

Karla McLaren's article "Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures," published in the May 2004 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer has been posted on the CSICOP website. Karla has been bouncing ideas off me for the past year or so and gives an interesting account of  how an educated, intelligent New Age healer views the efforts of skeptics to debunk and enlighten.

Amazing Meeting 3

Join James Randi and Richard Dawkins in Las Vegas, January 13th to 16th, 2005, at the Stardust Resort and Casino, as The James Randi Educational Foundation hosts the Amazing Meeting 3. The focus will be on the public understanding (or misunderstanding) of science.

Speakers include Michael Shermer, Julia Sweeney, Penn & Teller, Joe Nickell,  Banachek, Brenton Ver Ploeg,  Jamy Ian Swiss, Frederik Pohl, Rick Maue, and many others.

Special events and workshops will also be available. Check for the latest information at

I attended the first two Amazing Meetings and would not miss this one. Register early.

Skeptic's Toolbox

And don't forget the Skeptic's Toolbox at the University of Oregon in Eugene, August 12-15, 2004. What a faculty!: Jim Alcock, Barry Beyerstein, Ray Hyman, Loren Pankratz, and Wally Sampson. The focus is going to be on "the unconscious" according to the latest research in cognitive science, social psychology, and neuroscience.

The Scientific Evidence for the Paranormal

I hope to see some of you this Thursday, July 23, in Dublin at the Davenport Hotel for my talk on "The Scientific Evidence for the Paranormal" sponsored by the Irish Skeptics.


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