Robert Todd Carroll
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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Issue # 5
July 3, 2002
(Past issues posted at http://skepdic.com/news/)
1) New entries in the Skeptic's Dictionary and The Skeptic's Refuge
I've restored a little essay on Golf and the Enneagram. I've posted some comments on Time Magazine's issue on Biblical prophecy and the end of the world, as well as some comments on a New Age purification ritual that killed two people, a report on a Brazilian medium who puts Van Praagh and John Edward to shame, and some comments on the "under God" phrase in the pledge of allegiance. I've also added three new entries: the Moses syndrome, papyromancy, and the sunk-cost fallacy.
I received the following request from a reporter for The News Tribune, a daily paper based in Tacoma, Washington, with a circulation of about 145,000.
The reporter replied:
According to Google.com, there are more than 3,000 links to skepdic.com on the Internet. On the Monday after the CSICOP International Skeptic's Conference, the SD Homepage had 3,010 hits, which is about double what we get on a typical Monday. Coincidence?
About 450 people attended the Skeptic's Conference in Burbank (June 20-23).
Paul Kurtz opened the conference with a short attack on the media for their role in promoting occultism. To combat the bunk that dominates the media, among other things, Kurtz is promoting Centers for Inquiry (CFIs). One of the other things these CFIs will do is promote secular humanism and apparently go on the offensive against religion, as well as astrology, parapsychology, UFO abductions, and other paranormal or pseudoscientific subjects. At 76, Kurtz does not mince words. "We indict the media," he proclaimed, for not doing enough to promote good science and for pandering to the public's desire for fantasy and escape. He calls for extending skepticism into all areas of human interest. He did note that he recognizes that he is not in the majority on this issue. I must say that the man has more energy and ideas than most people half his age. I happened to be walking behind him and Massimo Pigliucci on the way to one of the sessions and I could hardly keep up with his brisk pace.
On that note, I must share a bit of gossip. I overheard Pigliucci say to Kurtz about the Evolution and Intelligent Design session: "we kicked their butts" (or something to that effect). Kurtz was happy to hear the news, and I have to concur with the assessment. William Dembski and Paul Nelson were major disappointments. The latter tried to wear a smiley face and be upbeat, but the dour Dembski looked like a man who has just lost his family to divine intervention. More on these characters later.
For me, the highlight of the conference was probably the Harlan Ellison luncheon. Ellison was given an award for--as far as I could tell--little more than being a famous person who speaks his mind about nonsense. I'd never heard of him before now, and I'll never forget him, either. He's 67 but seems to have enough life in him for another seven decades. I won't bore you with the details or try to recreate his dramatic reading. Instead, I'll just report on an essay he didn't get published in Reader's Digest (RD) and an appearance he didn't make on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect.
RD wouldn't let him publish an article with the word Atheist capitalized. Ellison said fine as long as RD would lowercase jew, christian, buddhist, and a few other kindred words. RD refused and reminded him that he'd already been paid. He told them he hadn't cashed the check yet and he wouldn't if they refused to allow him to use whatever orthographical notations he desired. The contract gave him such control. RD refused to make the changes. Ellison tore up a $5,000 check. "See what I've suffered for you guys," he told the well-fed luncheon crowd of about 250.
Ellison has been on Politically Incorrect several times but when he was asked to go on and offer his opinion on weighty issues regarding terrorism, he called and told them he had nothing to say on the subject that was worth saying. So, he was backing out. This was the day before the show, which happens to be the same day he was told what the topic would be. He obviously had struggled deeply with this one. A few minutes in his presence and you will feel there is nothing this man could not discuss with wit and wisdom for at least an hour. As he kept telling us, "I don't do humility well." This was a moral issue, though he didn't use the M word.
A few days later, however, he did have an opinion on the matter. It was triggered by Jerry Falwell, who blamed the 9/11 terror on liberals, lesbians, abortionists, and atheists. This gave Ellison something to talk about at our luncheon. His opinion is that Falwell and Osama bin Laden were joined at the hip at birth, or words to that effect.
Another highlight was the Educating Our Future session where Amanda Chesworth, director of The Young Skeptics Program, gave a nice plug to the Skeptic's Dictionary. The Young Skeptics is an Internet program only and provides materials for teachers as well as for young people. It is an ambitious project, and in my view, provides more hope for the next 25 years than does the push to create Centers for Inquiry around the world to combat the media.
The first speaker was Diane Swanson, author of 55 children's books on science and natural history. Those books, she said, were driven by the passion of love. The book she talked to us about, however, was her one book on skepticism and critical thinking in science: Nibbling on Einstein's Brain: The Good, the Bad & the Bogus in Science. That book, she said, was driven by anger at all the bad science being promoted by the media and in schools. Swanson set out not only to instruct children on good science, but to encourage them to think critically so that they can recognize bad science when they see it or hear it promoted in the media, by their parents, or by their teachers. She encourages children to be "Baloney Busters" and watch for bad science, to look critically at the media (especially advertising), and to detect "mind traps" to identify poor thinking.
Not all parents and teachers are thrilled at having their children become so inquisitive and thoughtful. She even has some critics who think she's putting down science by teaching children that even scientists make mistakes and occasionally engage in sloppy research. The children, on the other hand, are very receptive to her message, thanks to their seemingly natural curiosity and open-mindedness. Many of her teaching examples were aimed at 5th to 8th graders but a university professor sitting next to me remarked that they'd work with his students, too. I agree and had he not bought the last copy of Nibbling available at the conference, I'd be reviewing it right now for the Skeptic's Refuge. Swanson's use of humor and interactive teaching makes her task somewhat easier. For example, she involves the children in polls where they immediately recognize bias in selection or sample size, and gets them to think about some of the sillier pseudosciences by inventing some of her own. Rumpology is the science of personality analysis that is based on reading the lines on a person's rump. And zitology is the science of predicting how a teenager will turn out by reading pimple patterns. She tells them that a cross pattern means the teen will grow up to be a scientist.
The other speaker at the Educating Our Future session was Vicki Hyde, president of New Zealand Skeptics. She is also the managing editor of Sci Tech Daily, which she describes as "the best intelligent, informed science and technology coverage and analysis you can find on a daily basis, sourcing a huge range of great writers and excellent publications." Hyde replaced Don and Sandra Hockenbury on the program and only had two days to prepare her talk, so she must be forgiven if much of it was based on her brilliant essay "Raising a Skeptical Family." She also provided some well-received humor: the next time you throw a party for your New Age friends, offer them some homeopathic punch. (While you're at it, why not give a prize to the anyone who gets an active molecule?) On a more serious note, she wondered aloud why the reaction from the general public in New Zealand is so different when parents indirectly kill their child because of religious beliefs that prevent them from seeking proper medical attention from when parents indirectly kill their child because of their pseudoscientific beliefs. The former are generally supported against government intervention. On the other hand, when two vegans refused to give their infant vitamin B-12 supplements, an essential vitamin for maintaining the nervous system that no plant contains a significant amount of, and the baby died, the public supported sending the couple to prison. (My editor, John Renish, points out that in the US we prosecute parents who harm their children for religious reasons. They do likewise in New Zealand, but the public is not too sympathetic with the government, according to Ms. Hyde. I would add that despite all our religious jingoism, Americans are generally not very sympathetic to parents who harm children in the name of religion or anything else.)
I found it interesting that a person from New Zealand was only one to mention Michael Shermer, leader of the Skeptic Society and publisher of Skeptic magazine, whose headquarters are not far from Burbank. The conspicuous absence of the Skeptic Society vividly indicates that there is some bad blood between it and CSICOP. What a shame.
I had to leave for the airport before the question period began, but I wanted to ask why there is no Young Skeptic's section in the Skeptical Inquirer (SI). I did find out that it is not because CSICOP doesn't want to be accused of imitating Skeptic magazine's "Jr. Skeptic." Ken Frazier, editor Skeptical Inquirer told me that there is a year-long backlog of articles for the magazine, so there just isn't the space for something already being done by "a certain other skeptic's magazine." A separate publication for children is apparently out of the question, since CSICOP's current investments seem to be primarily focused on the development of Centers for Inquiry.
Unfortunately, the Educating Our Future session was held concurrently with the session on Paranormal Around the World. The only thing I know about that session is that Paul Kurtz was challenged during the question period about the goal of setting up Centers for Inquiry (CFIs) in other countries and how well the Centers were received in the US. Richard Cadena, a member of the Australian Skeptics, claimed that skeptics in Australia and New Zealand had some serious concerns about the merging of humanism and skepticism. One report I have says that Kurtz did not take the criticism well and responded rather forcefully.
According to Cadena, some long-time members of CSICOP subsequently apologized to him for Kurtz's forceful response, given that it was raising a topic that is of concern to some skeptics at all levels. Members from the local US groups, groups in other countries, fellows of CSICOP, and even members of the executive council of CSICOP have concerns about the apparent merging of humanism and skepticism, according to Cadena. I wasn't there, so I can't comment on the unpleasantness, but I do know that the conference was videotaped and that copies should be available from CSICOP.
Frankly, even after reading the 8-page brochure given to attendees, I am not sure exactly what the relationship is between the Center for Inquiry - West (in Hollywood), CSICOP, the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH), and the National Media Center (NMC). Whatever it is, they plan to have classes, do research, produce videos, have conferences, set up an Internet media hub, among other things. The CFI in Buffalo, where CSICOP is located, "triggered the longest sustained growth in size, reach, and impact that the humanist and skeptical movements have known," according to the brochure. There seems to be even greater expectations for the CFI - West facility. The immediate goal is to raise $3,243,000. Donations may be given to either the CFI, the CSH, or CSICOP. More info is available from James Kimberly at email@example.com
I know this may come as a surprise to some of my readers, but despite my atheism and my incessant criticism of certain religious beliefs, I believe that some of the best skeptics and critical thinkers are theists. For example, I recently received an e-mail from a World Trade Center survivor of 9/11 (104th floor of building two) who is a devout Catholic but who attended a New Age voodoo fest in Miami called the Wise Women Weekend. It featured Marianne Williamson and Rosie O' Donnell, and a host of other New Age priestesses. She thinks it should have been called "Cunningly Clever Self Important New Age Spewing Snake Oil Saleswomen Weekend." She's concerned about scams that are being perpetrated in the name of helping victims and survivors. (The program was supposed to be a benefit for Victims' Services Center.) And why shouldn't theists be just as concerned as atheists or agnostics about scams, claims of the paranormal, and pseudoscience? The concern of some is that CSICOP will alienate theists if it brings secular humanism and skepticism under one roof.
The first session of the conference was Don't Get Taken, which is also the title of a book by one of the featured speakers, Bob Steiner. One of the themes of the Don't Get Taken session was to combat the myth that people who get taken are all stupid or greedy or both. "Anybody can get taken at any time," Steiner reminded the crowd. He gave a warning that reminded me of something David Hume wrote about: we tend to believe people if they project confidence and not believe people who hesitate in their speech or give any indication that they are not absolutely certain about what they're talking about. Yet, what scientific study has ever shown that there is a significant correlation between confidence and accuracy?
Richard Lead of the New South Wales Australian Skeptics talked about investment scams that dupe the best and the brightest. He attributes their gullibility to wishful thinking. I think that's only part of it. I think many people who get scammed in investments get conned by the confidence of the scammer and by deluding themselves into thinking that because they have been so successful in the past in making investments and in reading people, they can always tell a good deal when they see one. They trust their own instincts more than the advice of a skeptical accountant because those instincts have served them well in the past. They haven't had the bad experience of being conned or the good experience of having taken a critical thinking course where they would learn how easy it is to con intelligent people because of this self-delusion.
Lead also mentioned the Concorde fallacy (also known as the sunk-cost fallacy or "throwing good money after bad"). When people make a hopeless investment, they sometimes reason that they can't stop now, "otherwise what we've invested so far will be lost." This is true, of course, but irrelevant to whether one should continue to invest in the project. Everything you've invested is lost regardless. If there is no hope for success in the future from the investment, then the fact that you've already lost a bundle should lead to the conclusion that you should withdraw from the project. You keep investing, not because you hope for success eventually. In fact, you know you can't succeed, but you keep investing anyway. The behavior is simply irrational. It may have something to do with a pathetic attempt to delay having to face the consequences of one's poor judgment. The irrationality is a way to save face, to appear to be behaving like a rational being, when in fact you are acting like an idiot. For example, it is now known that Lyndon Johnson kept committing thousands and thousands of US soldiers to Vietnam after he had determined that the cause was hopeless and that the US could never defeat the Viet Cong.
Another speaker, Richard Schroeder, gave a very interesting talk on "faith-based investing," i.e., using a Wall Street brokerage firm. He calls Wall Street "the biggest scam out there," robbing investors of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. He mentioned that hundreds of studies have concluded that the market is completely unpredictable. He may be right, that the market is about as predictable as a random walk, and he may have the studies to prove it, but the current scandal regarding the dishonesty on Wall Street and among major corporations and their accounting firms will probably have more effect on eroding investor confidence. I should add if Time Magazine is correct, fear that the world will end soon will also have a major impact on investor confidence.
Finally, Ray Hyman, whose writings have been a source of major inspiration for me, was a surprise speaker at the Don't Get Taken session. (Hyman's essay on cold reading is one of the classics in skeptical literature.) Like Bob Steiner, Joe Nickell, Richard Wiseman and Charles Wynn, Hyman is a magician and accompanied his talk with real magic. The magic is a reminder of how easy it is to be deceived and to mistake appearance for reality. It's a very effective tool. The big difference between being deceived by a magician and being deceived by a con man or woman is that we expect to be deceived by the magician. Hyman's talk focused on the psychology of deception, with the Three Card Monte as his model of the con. Hyman noted that this con, like all others, depends on social trust. As long as people tend to trust one another in a society--a sign of a healthy society, I would think--the con can flourish. (So, maybe what is happening in corporate America with all the fraudulent accounting that is going on is a sign that overall our society is pretty healthy!)
Paul Kurtz concluded the session with another pitch for the Center for Inquiry (CFI). I grant his notion that the media are mostly concerned with titillating and entertaining. After all, that is where the money is! The mass media are not very concerned with informing or educating the public about science and pseudoscience. He is absolutely correct in claiming that the media are advertising-driven industries that promotes a fantasy world built on false promises of happiness, wealth, beauty, youth, and virtual immortality. Yet, I wonder if these CFIs CSICOP is promoting would do better to put more emphasis on education. I certainly don't oppose the goal of providing a counter-force to the media, of entering into competition with the pap that passes for substance in Hollywood and New York. But I would try to do more to teach people to be critical readers and viewers. Most people are conned or deceived not because they're stupid or greedy, but because they have not been taught to think critically. They don't know how to be skeptical enough. They don't know how to watch television, read a newspaper or magazine, or view a movie as a critical thinker. They don't know whom to trust and whom not to trust. Or, they're taught critical thinking skills in a haphazard way, which leads them to trust the wrong people. Too often, we trust the "altruists," who try to convince us that their only goal in life is to make us happy, get us riches, help us stay young, be beautiful or live forever. In short, I would put more money and support into programs like the Young Skeptics and into training teachers to teach critical thinking skills to children. I would also put more emphasis on using the Internet to provide some of this educational material. Of course, I'm revealing my own biases here, and it is apparent that Dr. Kurtz and I have different philosophies regarding tactics for promoting skepticism and combating belief in "whoppers" (as Marvin Minsky refers to weird beliefs that have little or no evidence supporting them).
(end of Part One)
In the next issue of the SD Newsletter I will report on a disappointing evening with Marvin Minsky, an impassioned defense of the Internet by Stephen Barrett, the luncheon promoting the Center for Inquiry - West, the Awards Banquet, and the sessions on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Fringe Psychotherapies, Urban Legends, and The Investigators.