Table of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll


Newsletter Archives


logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 51

January 12, 2005

"God created blacks to make merry, whites to make money, Asians to make televisions, Latinos to make babies, and Indians to make rain" (The "wisdom" of Reggie White in a nutshell, summed up by Michael Shermer. White, a former NFL football player and evangelical preacher, died recently.)

In this issue: confessions of a book burner; psychic insecurity in Russia; dead men still writing and Kerry & the bishops revisited; what's new in The Skeptic's Dictionary and The Skeptic's Refuge; and some upcoming events.

My psychic powers proven wrong

From the frequent criticism of readers of The Skeptic's Dictionary that I don't provide a "fair and balanced" account of the topics I take up, I surmise that many readers ignore the introduction to the book. It is there that I announce that the SD does not attempt to provide a fair and balanced account but a skeptical counterweight to the abundant publications on the other side. At the conclusion of my introduction I write: "I believe it is highly probable that the only interest a true believer would have in The Skeptic’s Dictionary would be to condemn and burn it without having read it." I may have overstated the case, however. At least one true believer claims to have read the book twice before burning it.

I have read and re-read your infamous book, "The Skeptics Dictionary". But then it became clear to me that the book I purchased is rubbish and a waste of time. The book has many flaws and only shows your shameful ignorance on many subjects. It is also very misleading. I hope you will never write another know-it-all book again. I am very, very disappointed at my purchase.

P.S.  I burned the book.

I don't know why he admits that it took him two times through to discover the book is rubbish. I advised him to ask his friends to buy hundreds of copies for a massive bonfire and to be sure to notify the national press before lighting the match.

Protection Against Psychic Attacks

James Randi blurbed The Skeptic's Dictionary by calling it "first aid for psychic attacks." Now we find it reported that former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had a special “psychic security department” to protect him from psychic attacks. According to, Yuri Malin, a former KGB agent, "reportedly told UPI that that the Russian secret services had a special department to protect top Russian officials from malevolent scientists and extrasensory individuals, who might create devices that were capable of affecting human psychology."

The story is that the psychic security department was formed when a directional antenna was found in Yeltsin's office and it was determined that it had been put there "to exert a psychological influence on the president."

Malin claims that the cost of extrasensory security was $3,000 a month. For $2,000, however, a candidate could have an expert "bewitch the entire population of a town to make all people vote for him. The cheapest extrasensory service for assisting candidates during public appearances was $150 per hour." The Skeptic's Dictionary is only $19.95 and assuredly offers at least as much protection as any Russian psychic security agent. - not a reliable source, I know - has Malin also saying that President Putin has "no professionals in his team to help him struggle with the external psychophysical influence." According to Pravda, "The agents of the psychic security department were taking great care of Boris Yeltsin: they were meticulously watching over every little detail. They could not let a button of Yeltsin's shirt disappear: it was believed that extrasensory individuals could put the evil eye on the president with the help of any little thing that Yeltsin owned."

What century are we in?


Bryan Krofchok responded to my complaint about quacks claiming to channel books from famous dead authors.

A 1974 biography of Peter Fleming (James Bond creator Ian Fleming's older brother) contains the following:

``A year later there began a sequence of far stranger events connected with Ian which Peter was never able to explain. It started in October 1970, when he was approached by a man whom he described ... as `Mr A' -- a retired bank officer of seventy-three who lived in Hertfordshire. In a short, typewritten letter Mr A told Peter that he had some `unusual and I believe very pleasurable news concerning your late brother Ian' [who had been dead six years], and asked if he might come and have a talk. Peter, agreeing rather reluctantly, arranged a meeting for the following Sunday.

``When Mr A came he brought with him his middle-aged daughter Vera and a 60,000-word typescript on the cover of which was inscribed, `Take Over: A James Bond Thriller'. This, he explained, had been dictated by Ian to Mrs A (Vera's mother), who had died some three years earlier; Mrs A had transmitted its text from the spirit world to Vera, who had taken it down in longhand. Ian, he went on, was one of a group of authors who were anxious to carry on writing in the spirit world and so to prove to people on earth that life goes on `very pleasurably' (as one of them put it) after death. The other authors were Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Edgar Wallace, Ruby M. Ayres and Somerset Maugham; but when Miss Ayres later dropped out of the syndicate on her promotion to a `Higher Plane', her place was promptly taken by Bernard Shaw.''

(The double dictation from Ian to Mrs A to Vera strikes me as particularly amusing.) The story goes on for 3-1/2 more pages, with Peter described as being both skeptical and fascinated by the incident. Some excerpts:

``It would be hard to imagine anybody harder-headed than Peter in matters of this kind, or anybody less easily impressed; and indeed, as he read some pages of `Take Over', his scepticism built up rapidly, for he saw that although the book made use of the traditional Bond apparatus -- M, Universal Export, Miss Moneypenny and so on -- its style and execution were nothing whatever like Ian's.'' ...

``At the beginning of November 1970 the spirit authors began to transmit `Tales of Mystery and Imagination': in the next two months Edgar Wallace wrote five, H. G. Wells and Ian two each, Conan Doyle and Somerset Maugham one each: a total of 30,000 words. Later, Maugham began sending a full-length novel. All this work was, as Peter put it, 'tosh' -- crude, devoid of literary merit, and all almost exactly the same. In November, after asking Peter's permission, Mr A submitted `Take Over' to Jonathan Cape, who not surprisingly rejected it.'' ...

``But the most striking fact, as Peter pointed out, was that in a period of scarcely nine months `some form of intelligence' had caused Vera to copy out, in her mother's handwriting, a 60,000-word book, some 30,000 words of short stories, and thousands more words of `service traffic'. As anyone who has tried to produce a book will know, the sheer energy needed to put 100,000 words on paper is enormous, and it was very hard, in this case, to discern whence the momentum could have emanated. Had Vera been otherwise unoccupied, the feat -- for someone with no literary background or inclinations -- would have been remarkable enough; as it was, she had a full-time job, a house to run and an ailing husband (who died in February 1971) to look after.''

What I didn't realize until just now is that Peter apparently submitted an article to the London Sunday Times about the incident in Spring 1971, which was published as their main feature of the week.

Proof once again that there is nothing new under the sun. However, Nathan Hall has found an author who has one-upped the channelers of famous dead people. Nathan refers to David Wilcock's book The Reincarnation of Edgar Cayce? Wilcock claims he is Edgar Cayce. In language reminiscent of Gary Schwartz or Dean Radin, Wilcock says he found that he "was born on the one day of 127 years where his astrological planetary configurations exactly matched Cayce's, with odds of 300,000 to one."


Jose Cabo wrote to defend the Catholic bishops' position opposing Kerry and advising that priests deny him the Eucharist.

I think you make a mistake in your last newsletter (number 50) when you talk about Kerry and the Catholic hierarchy. Moral high ground or not (I think whether the attitude of the bishops is self-righteous or not is irrelevant when it comes to the facts) Kerry did go against fundamental Catholic doctrine when he supported abortion. Consequently, he had no right to present himself to the electorate as a faithful Catholic. I would even guess that most Catholics saw through his facade. He looked like a total religious hypocrite. It's, of course, unfortunate that a profession of religiosity is so important in American politics, but that does not justify Kerry's feigning allegiance to a creed he obviously does not share. The issue of abortion is serious. If one thinks --as the Roman Catholic church does--it equivalent to murder, they cannot simply "agree to disagree" and be tolerant of the opposite view. The same goes for fox-hunting in Britain or bullfighting in my own country, Spain.

The fact that the Catholic bishops behaved poorly in the sex abuse scandal does not, however, mean that they cannot be right in criticizing Kerry-- I think ad hominem or tu quoque arguments are not valid in this case.

Kerry doesn't "support" abortion. He supports the right of a woman to have one if she chooses. The fact that he doesn't think it is right to make a law that would impose on the rest of Americans his own personal moral belief is something I admire and others despise. To me, it is the bishops that look like hypocrites.

I don't think it is fair to characterize Kerry as feigning allegiance to Catholicism simply because he doesn't' want to cram his creed down our throats in the form of laws that impose what Catholics believe on all Americans. It's not Kerry that needs moral lessons; it's the bishops. They whine and gnash their teeth about the millions of innocents slaughtered in abortions while they abuse thousands of the living and protect priests who do the same. When women and children were dying in indecent conditions while pursuing illegal abortions, where were the bishops? Legal abortion may be bad but illegal abortion is worse.

Jose responds.

It seems that the only universal moral rule these days is "thou shalt be non-judgmental". Ironically, such relativism is ultimately self-defeating, because it assumes tolerance itself to be an absolute value. Real moral relativists are probably as nonexistent as Bigfoot. So maybe it's time for a re-evaluation of such a belief. Perhaps the respectful thing to do is not to "tolerate" our neighbor's moral code (as if we were simply putting up with a household pest) but to take him to the debating arena and engage in polemics, vigorously if necessary. How else are we to find out whose moral arguments are better? Beliefs, after all, are there to be tested, not to be "respected".

I'm not denying that on most issues we can and should probably just "agree to disagree". But there are other issues which do not admit such a civilized compromise.

Abortion is one such issue.

No it isn't. Why should any particular view on the issue of abortion get a free pass? Why shouldn't proponents of whatever viewpoint have to argue their cases before the court of public opinion?

It's disingenuous to tell someone it's okay for them to believe abortion is murder, so long as she respects the right of others to have abortions, just as it would be dishonest, in the context of the death penalty debate, to tell abolitionists that they must respect the opposite view and allow executions to go on as usual.

This has nothing to do with what we are talking about: the bishops maintaining that unless a politician supports their political belief--yes, the position that there be a law forbidding abortion is a political belief--he should suffer religious consequences. The issue we're debating isn't whether there should be toleration of opposing moral views, but whether a man who has never aided anyone in having an abortion and has never advocated that any woman have an abortion, is obligated by the tenets of his religion to oppose a law that would give women the right to choose whether to have an abortion.

(After all, the lex talionis is probably better than private vengeance). I'm not advocating persecution of anyone, but I believe that in such cases an outcry is preferable to tolerance and silence. Should the principle of not imposing our beliefs on others through legislation justify allowing the ancient Indian institution of sati (or sutee) or the practice of female circumcision in the case of Sudanese Americans? I don't think so.

Again, the issue we're debating isn't the toleration issue.

The bishops may be wrong about abortion (science may be able to tell us one day the exact moment when a fetus becomes a person) but their argument must stand or fall on its own.

Science can never tell us when a fetus becomes a person. That is a social, political, and ethical issue. But again, the issue isn't whether the bishops are right or wrong about abortion, but whether they are right in claiming that no Catholic is entitled to the privileges of his religion if he does not oppose a secular law forbidding any and every abortion.

Even if the bishops are guilty of hypocrisy, that doesn't mean they should remain silent. We cannot use the bishops' behavior to avoid addressing the substance of their claim. If an elderly German politician questioned the morality of Hiroshima and an American colleague responded by saying "look who's talking... your people engineered the Holocaust", that would still be irrelevant to the original issue.

In my view, almost everything you are bringing up in this discussion is irrelevant to the original issue. You think the "substance" of their claim is that Kerry is supporting murder by not opposing a secular law forbidding all abortions. Neither Kerry nor anyone else who supports the right of a woman to have an abortion is supporting murder. Nobody supports murder.

Abortion is perhaps the most divisive issue in American politics today. In the 1860s it was slavery. Imagine for a moment that Abraham Lincoln, when asked if slavery should be abolished, had answered this: "I believe all men are created equal. It is an article of faith for me. I would never have slaves, and I would not tolerate that practice in my family. But since I am the president of all Americans, slave-holding or not, and I don't want to impose my beliefs on anyone, I will not abolish slavery. If anyone believes in his conscience that slavery is morally permissible, I won't stand in his way". Wouldn't he have alienated Yankee sensitivities and lost much of the Yankee vote? I think he would. Likewise, I think Catholic voters perceived that Bush was defending the Catholic viewpoint on abortion better than Kerry.

I really don't know what Catholics were thinking. They may have preferred Bush because of his position on abortion. They may have preferred him for other reasons. I still maintain that moralists don't get a free pass just because they identify something as "murder." I'm sure some Catholics or others consider masturbation by males to be "murder." There are probably a few ayatollahs who would stone to death as murderers any girl who menstruates. Again, though, the issue we're debating isn't toleration of opposing moral views, but the moral hypocrisy of Catholic bishops.

The analogy between abortion and slavery is a false one. About the only thing they share in common is the divisiveness you note. Who knows what rationalizations the Catholic bishops of the 19th century might have come up with to deny communion to an abolitionist candidate. There is no doubt that a slave is a living human being, even if the law denied him or her full personhood. To kill a slave unjustly is always the killing of a human being unjustly, whether the law calls it murder is irrelevant to its moral heinousness. The heart of the abortion issue is when to grant the embryo or fetus the status of personhood. But even if that status is granted, it does not follow that every abortion is an unjustified killing. We allow killing in self-defense and do not consider it murder, even if the one we kill is entirely innocent of malicious intent toward us, such as a mentally deranged person who has no idea of what she is doing. Some abortions are done to save the life of the mother, that is, they are killings in self-defense. The fact that an embryo is present in the womb doesn't give it an absolute right over the life of its host. Even if it is granted that every abortion is the killing of a human being, that doesn't make every abortion murder any more than every killing in self-defense, war, or execution of criminals is murder.

This is the last I have to say on the matter, so those anti-abortionists who are firing off your missives should cease immediately. Your letters may be read, but they won't be printed nor will I respond to them.

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

New Items



  • out-of-body experiences, to include a link to "Out of body experiences and their neural basis" by Olaf Blanke;
  • altered states, to include data from and a link to a study by Pehr Granqvist of Uppsala University, who found that exposing the temporal lobes to weak magnetic fields had no discernable effects (contrary to what Michael Persinger found);
  • anthroposophic medicine, to include a link to an article about the misguided use of mistletoe to fight cancer;
  • electromagnetic fields, to include a link to an article about potential damage from cell phone use;
  • skeptical essays, to include a link to Ken Miller's "Finding Darwin's God"
  • suburban myths (updated all external links);
  • Bigfoot to include a link to the paperback version of Daegling's Bigfoot Exposed;
  • psychics to include to a link to Leon Jaroff's Time piece on psychic predictions, which reports on Gene Emory's CSICOP piece on the high failure rate of psychic predictions in 2004 (but we already knew that, didn't we?);
  • chiropractic to include a link to a news story about the resistance being put up by medical faculty at a proposed college of chiropractic for Florida State University;
  • Noah's ark to include a note warning the reader that the piece mocks the story and should not be taken as an attempt at Biblical scholarship or interpretation;
  • electromagnetic fields: I removed an example of lower scientific standards in courtrooms than in labs. The example was based on newspaper stories that I now know were misleading. The media reported that Judith Richardson Haimes sued Temple University Hospital, claiming that a CAT scan had caused her to lose her psychic powers. It was reported that she won a large verdict. Later it was reported that the amount was reduced to $1 by a judge. The facts that were not reported at the time are that Haimes told the doctors she was allergic to iodine dye, but it was used during the test anyway. She had an immediate adverse reaction and developed severe headaches and this prevented her from working as a "spiritual advisor," i.e., psychic (she was an aura reader). Her husband wrote a book about it in 1991 called Judith.
  • Amway: I removed a link to a web site that had provided a very fair and thorough analysis of one of Amway's schemes known as Team of Destiny. Apparently, the Amway lawyers got involved and the author of the site took it down because of a lawsuit.
  • Ramtha to include a link to an article by Michael Shermer and a response from Stuart Hammeroff about the movie "What the bleep do we know?";
  • exorcism to include a link to an article about a new Vatican university course on Satanism for priests;
  • crystal skulls to include a link to an article that claims an "Aztec" crystal skull in the British Museum was manufactured in Germany in the 19th century.

Upcoming Events

The airlines have cut fares. That should make it easier for some folks to attend the Amazing Meeting 3 this week in Las Vegas. Headliners include: Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Penn & Teller, Julia Sweeney, Banachek, Joe Nickell, Jerry Andrus, Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman, Liam McDaid, Randi (of course), and many others. Unfortunately, due to illness, I have had to cancel my trip to what has been for me a highlight of the year for the past two years.


Darwin Day celebrations will be held throughout the world next month. Check with your local humanist or freethought group for activities in your area. The Skeptic's Dictionary is a proud sponsor of Darwin Day Sacramento (Feb 12, 2 p.m.), where this year the featured speaker will be neuroscientist Dr. Leah Krubitzer, a Professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Neuroscience at U.C. Davis.


In May, The Skeptic Society is sponsoring a mind-fest on Brain, Mind, & Consciousness. The event, hosted by Michael Shermer, will be held May 13-15 in Pasadena, CA. Speakers include: Susan Blackmore, V. S. Ramachandran, Michael Chrichton, James Randi, Mark Edward, and several distinguished neuroscientists, psychologists, and other scientists.


You can purchase your copy of The Skeptic's Dictionary online from or from your local bookseller. The perfect way to start off the new year! And, suitable for burning!


Click to order from Amazon