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Robert Todd Carroll


 

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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 53

March 11, 2005

"Men would never be superstitious, if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, or if they were always favored by fortune...." Spinoza

In this issue: some feedback; second-hand smoke again; Wisconsin DMV supports psychics; near-death experiences and suicide; Uri Geller; Osama Bin Ladin; Spanish translation of the SD; and a list of updates and new stuff in the Skeptic's Dictionary and Refuge.

Feedback

I open my Skeptic's Dictionary entry on the mineral doctor thusly: "Joel D. Wallach is a veterinarian...." A reader wrote to correct me:

"A day without a hamburger is like a day without sunshine." Dr Joel Wallach is a meat eater!

Please correct your book and site as a skeptic, why would you have this information incorrect? He is not a vegetarian!

____

James Taylor from Calgary, Canada, writes

In Canada we have a chain of bookstores called Chapters (we also have Indigo, but it is the same company). I went into Chapters the other day to find some James Randi material and found that they had none in stock. They did happen to have plenty of books (whole sections in fact) on alternative therapies, alternative medicines. They have no section pertaining to skeptical material or critical thinking. This was the first thing that irked me.

Things aren't much different here, James. But can we blame the bookstores for carrying the books that sell? Skepticism will never sell as well as true believer stuff.

What was worse I went to go look in the science and astronomy section and I found a book called "Dowsing: A Journey Beyond Our Five Senses" by Hamish Miller in the Science section! At first I thought maybe it was a book that helped to debunk dowsing but I was quickly disappointed when I picked it up to see that on the inside flap it talked about the "science and art of dowsing" and how you yourself could use this "scientific technique" to find hidden water in your own home. I quickly put down the book in disgust.

I had just the opposite experience. I found a copy of L. Sprague de Camp's classic, The Ancient Engineers, in the New Age section of Tower Books in Sacramento. Who knows what was waiting for me in the "science" section.

It is also unfortunate that I can only obtain skeptical material (at least in Canada) from online bookstores.

I hope James complained to the bookstore manager and explained why it's important to give people a choice. It's really the only decent thing to do in a free society.
______

A reader was very upset with the claim in my entry on repressed memory therapy that there is little scientific evidence supporting the notion that childhood sexual abuse almost always causes psychological problems in adults. I referred the reader to an article by Esther Giller, President and Director of the Sidran Foundation, which, according to its website, is "a nationally-focused nonprofit organization devoted to helping people who have experienced traumatic life events."

According to Giller, the research indicates that "about 1/3 of sexually abused children have no symptoms, and a large proportion that do become symptomatic, are able to recover. Fewer than 1/5 of adults who were abused in childhood show serious psychological disturbance."

I also referred the reader to an article in Psychological Bulletin (1993) by Kathleen A.Kendall-Tackett, Linda Meyer Williams, and David Finkelhor: Impact of sexual abuse on children: a review and synthesis. 113:164-180.

These facts, of course, in no way diminish the horrible damage done to children every day by sexual and physical abuse. Nor do they diminish the long-term damage, physical and psychological, done to victims of severe sexual abuse in childhood.

_____

Another upset reader admonished me for not having an entry on "love" in the Dictionary. He says he's from the Bronx, New York. That might explain his "accent."

I have enjoyed reading your website.

However I have found what I think is a flaw in your rather 'totalitarian' system of skepticism.

I notice that among your list of subjective beliefs and practices (some more dubious than others) you do not have an entry for 'love'. Love is, like the benefits of aromatherapy, or faith, entirely subjective; it cannot be objectively proven or tested: its occurrence is based entirely on the experience of the lover or lovers.

Love may be subjective but I'm not aware of any cranks or quacks claiming it can cure cancer or arthritis. Headaches are subjective, too, but I don't plan an entry on that topic any time soon, unless I get more letters like this one.

Now, I cannot imagine that you have never felt or been in love, and hence, must conclude that you are either a hypocrite or a fool, or both. If indeed, I imagine wrong, and you can truly say that you have never felt love (of any kind), or having felt it, dismissed it as untrue because unproveable, then I shall think you a monster.

Hypocrite, fool, or monster? That is the question. I'll only respond by noting that the writer's notion about dismissing love as untrue because unproveable is gibberish and has no meaning.

Now, one may very logically say (as I think it) that a lover's love is sufficiently proven by the beloved's love in return. But, to a true skeptic as yourself, I'm afraid that this does not pass muster.

The writer dismisses me a "true skeptic" but is that proveable? Even so, should he ask, I would pass him the mustard though he reek of pretentiousness and babbledygook.

The collective subjective experience of two people does not objectivity make, as you will certainly agree. OK, what if the lovers are married and their two families are united in friendship, and society accepts them as husband and wife, and they have beautiful and intelligent children? Well, entire civilizations have believed in false gods, so that is not acceptable either is it?

You get my point.

No, I don't get your point.

So, do you have an answer for me, dear skeptic? Please include love in your list of 'debunked' phenomena, or admit that you are partial, and hence, not a true student of objectivity.

I'll admit no such thing, sirrah! Follow my advice: get thee to a nunnery!

_____

Jeff D. wants to know if I consider atheism a religion. He tends to think it is because he thinks atheism takes "the nonexistence of nonfalsifiable metaphysical beings/forces on faith." I referred Jeff to my entry on faith, where I argue that it is a mistake to assume that any statement that is not a scientific statement, i.e., one supported by evidence marshaled forth the way scientists do in support of their scientific claims, is a matter of faith in the same sense as religious faith in such things as the Virgin birth or the Trinity. On the other hand, I wouldn't consider theism a religion. And I can imagine atheists creating some sort of gathering place for rituals that they call a church and advocating some sort of naturalistic ethical doctrine. Such atheists might be said to have a church and belong to a religion (like the Scientologists and Raelians, for example).

Second-hand Smoke....Again

A reader asked me to comment on an article by somebody named Dr. Mason who says that "The largest and longest study (Enstrom & Kabat) followed more than 35,000 subjects for almost 40 years and found no significant risk associated with second-hand smoke. Similarly, the World Health Organization spent seven years at a dozen research centers in seven countries and came to the same conclusion." Dr. Mason asks "Why haven't we seen a decline in lung cancer deaths despite Draconian anti-smoking legislation?" I suppose the comment is asked for because in the last newsletter I claimed that Shermer is wrong to write "The fact is, there is no evidence that secondhand smoke causes cancer."

First, here are the actual conclusions from the Enstrom & Kabat study: "The results do not support a causal relation between environmental tobacco smoke and tobacco related mortality, although they do not rule out a small effect. The association between exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and coronary heart disease and lung cancer may be considerably weaker than generally believed." To interpret this study as saying that no significant risk was found to be associated with second-hand smoke is to come to a different conclusion than the authors of the study.

On the other hand, there is evidence that second-hand smoke causes cancer. It may be disputed. It may be underwhelming. It may be contradicted by other evidence. But there is evidence. More evidence was recently produced in California. No doubt it will be disputed and argued about, but that doesn't make it "no evidence."

Headline of the Week Award

The headline of the week award goes to AZCentral.com for their headline above a story on how the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles sent about 25,000 registration renewal notices to truckers that advised them to call the number printed on the notice, which happened to be the phone number of a "psychic service." (The printed number was one digit off the DMV number.) The headline read: Psychic service should have warned DMV

Near-Death Experiences and Suicide

On March 3rd I was interviewed by the Radical Reverend (Rev. Dr. Cheri DiNovo), who hosts a radio show in Toronto that is broadcast throughout Ontario as well as to the northern U.S. The topic was near-death experiences (NDEs). The main issue was what to make of NDEs. Of course, I maintained that while the experiences are real and significant, I don't think they provide much support for the afterlife hypothesis. It was mentioned that the fact that scientists and others have duplicated NDEs with drugs and electrical stimulation of the brain does not disproved the afterlife notion. I agreed but noted that faux NDEs do prove that having an NDE isn't conclusive evidence for life after death.

I mentioned the research that found that many people who have NDEs find them life-transforming for the better. Someone else on the program, however, claimed that something like 4% of those who have an NDE commit suicide. I wasn't aware of that and have no idea how the statistic was arrived at. While searching the WWW for some information about this claim, I came upon an NDE website that deals with suicide, but it collects data on people who try to commit suicide and have NDEs. Apparently, those who fail at suicide don't get the light at the end of the tunnel, nor do they enjoy a blissful, peaceful trip as reported by others who have had an NDE. The same WWW search led me to a page that claims that Melvin Morse, M.D. writes in his book "Transformed by the Light that "4% of normal adults and 2% of out-of-body experiencers claim they make watches stop." Rather than try to get more information about that statistic, I decided to stop my search and be satisfied with the knowledge that there is still a lot left out there to learn on some future cloudy afternoon.

Uri Geller

Somehow this guy keeps getting media attention. According to Click2Houston.com, the Amazing Kreskin, a mentalist with some understanding of hypnosis, has advised Michael Jackson's attorney not to call Geller to the stand to testify about what Jackson told him when Geller hypnotized him a few years ago. Kreskin advised Thomas Mesereau that Geller would hurt the case because it can be easily shown that people under hypnosis are able to control what they say.

In other news, Geller has offered to remove a "cursed stone" from the English town of Carlisle on the Scottish border and put the stone in his back yard where he will perform an exorcism on it with his pendulum. In case you haven't been following this story, here's a brief synopsis. In 2001, a "Cursing Stone" was installed in a city museum. The stone is inscribed with some sort of 16th century curse against highway robbers or some such bad people. Some folks in Carlisle have noticed that some bad things have happened to the town since the stone was installed and are convinced that the stone has something to do with the town's "bad luck." (Apparently, nothing bad ever happened in the town before 2001. One wonders what possessed them to install the cursing stone, given their long history of serene, celestial bliss.) According to CNN.com, one of the bad things that has happened is that the local soccer team "dropped a league," whatever that means. CNN reports that Geller claims that the "Domesday book records an ancient healing centre in my village and all the ley lines (alignments of ancient sites) converge on my garden."

Yes, this is the 21st century and England is supposedly an advanced industrial society. Of course, this cursed cursing stone could all be a publicity stunt to try to interest tourists in visiting Carlisle. Stay tuned and I'll let you know if the good people of Carlisle give the stone to Geller, who says it's a work of art and he'd like to keep it in his garden.

Osama Bin Laden

In case you're wondering why remote viewers haven't located Osama Bin Laden, wonder no more. Osama has a cadre of psychics who have created a protective shield around him. How do I know this? I read it in an article on EMediaWire.com about Ed Kovacs, a remote viewer and "practicing clairvoyant." Kovacs has written a novel (Unseen Forces) based partly on Stargate, the U.S. government's 20-year program to investigate the value of using psychics for spying. (One reviewer describes the book as "Indiana Jones on steroids.") The government claims it found that even if remote viewing isn't completely bogus, it is of little or no use for spying. So, the government disbanded the program - or so we're told. Some (like George Hansen) think the disbanding of the program was a hoax, which would mean that our government is still wasting money on psychics who are not powerful enough to break through the psychic barrier created by Osama's psychics.

The Spanish Translation of The Skeptic's Dictionary

For the past few years I have posted a link to The Wayback Machine's web archive of the Spanish translation of the Dictionary. The translation was done voluntarily by several university students. I lost contact with them and feared maybe something sinister had happened. Not to worry. They were just caught up in their studies. Now they're back. I heard from Gerardo FernŠndez, one of the original translators, who tells me that the group has its own website and I can remove the link to the archived version. The address is http://dicc.ciberesceptico.org/.

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

Updates

  • The inedia entry, to include mention of another inediate, Hira Ratan Manek, who claims to live on sunlight and water...just like a flower; and
  • The repressed memory therapy entry to include some references to the claim that it is not true that childhood sexual abuse almost always leads to psychological problems in adulthood.

New stuff

  • A review of a review of the independent movie about the Indigo children by P.M.H. Atwater, L.H.D., Ph.D. (Hon.) that is really a promo for Atwater's latest book The New Children and Near-Death Experiences;
  • A note on a scientific study published by the British Medical Journal that compared St. John's wort to Paxil for treating moderate to severe depression;
  • A lovely rant on a RedNova.com article on the Global Consciousness Project;
  • A link to a worthy interview with playwright Arthur Miller;
  • A note on a chupacabra that wasn't - it turned out to be a mummified ocean skate;
  • A note on the second meeting of the Skeptic's Circle, which will lead you to, among other things, a pile driving contest on Michael Behe's op ed piece in The New York Times; for more info about the Skeptic's Circle click here;
  • A roaring rant on ABC's fulsome panegyric to the quack faith healer Jo„o Teixeira de Faria, who goes by the name Jo„o de Deus (John of God);
  • A benign rant about the Bush administration's continued abuse of science that concluded with a facetious remark that "we shouldn't forget that it is President Bush who plans to send men to the moon and Mars to investigate the man in the moon and the face on Mars." I had three readers who demanded I reveal my source for this claim! One claimed he couldn't find any evidence that Bush "has ever said anything about the 'man in the moon' or the 'face on mars'." Another wrote: "Do you honestly believe that those are the reasons he wants to explore Mars and the moon? These claims are silly, baseless (since you post no evidence), and irrelevant to your posting. Just the facts, please." Some people have no sense of humor.
  • A note on Richard Wiseman's latest work on how suggestion affects belief in the perception of psychokinetic metal bending;
  • A new entry on the Archaeoraptor hoax;
  • A new entry on Reiner Protsch and what some are calling the German Piltdown;
  • A new entry on the Ten Commandments;
  • A note on another scientific study that found no evidence of a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism; and
  • Comments on a tawdry piece on psychics from Australia's Sunday Telegraph.

That's all for this month!

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