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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 6

July 15, 2002

By the time most scientists have reached age thirty they are trapped by their own expertise. --Francis Crick

Subscribers 873

(Past issues posted at



      1)   We get mail
      2)   Recent additions or revisions to the Skeptic's Refuge or Dictionary
      3)   Books we're reading
      4)   News
      5)   Report on 4th World Skeptics Conference (Part 2)
      6)   Feedback
      7)   Need a good technical writer or editor?
      8)   The Amazing Meeting


 1) We get mail

Sometimes the mail puts me in a good mood, like the following from a fellow in Canada who tells fortunes over the Internet.

Good morning,

My name is Charles carter [sic]. I own the website, which has been selling automated fortunes and email readings for around 4 years now.

I am looking at your site now, and wonder if you would like to work together in a revenue sharing arrangement? For instance, when visitors from come to and buy readings, I would pay you a 25% commission. Essentially we would be splitting the profits down the middle, since our profit margin is roughly 50% anyways.

You will find that our readings sell very well. The only thing we lack these days are fresh customers. I think this could be a lucrative partnership for both of us.

Warmest regards,

Charles Carter

Comment: I think Mr. Carter lacks a few other things besides fresh customers. He's not psychic, for one thing. It wasn't morning when I read his offer. And I doubt very much that he was really looking at my site when he got inspired to share his money with me. His accountant must be ripping him off, if his profit margin is only 50%, since his product can't cost much more than nothing. Plus, he lacks a good warranty for his product. Here's what he promises:



 2) Recent additions or revisions to the Skeptic's Refuge or Dictionary

I've posted a book review of Into the Buzzsaw. I retracted the claim that David Copperfield lied about not using trickery to predict lottery numbers. I added a short piece on a study that showed that taking vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene supplements does not reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, or mental decline. I also posted a short piece on David Icke's latest venture, some comments on cryonics, and a note about Jesse Ventura's Indivisible Day. Finally, I added an update on Dr. Michael Newdow's attempt to get "under God" out of the pledge of allegiance. It turns out his daughter is a Christian being raised by her mother and that Newdow may have misrepresented her when he complained that

his daughter is injured when she is compelled to “watch and listen as her state-employed teacher in her state-run school leads her classmates in a ritual proclaiming that there is a God, and that our’s [sic] is ‘one nation under God.’ ”

If so, his complaint may have no merit and he may even have committed perjury. Whatever. He used his 8-year old daughter for his own purposes, which is behavior unbecoming a hero.


3) Books we're reading

I'm still reading Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. David Barash, who does work in evolutionary psychology, a field much berated by Gould, claims to have read the whole 1,400-page tome and hasn't much good to say about the experience. Barash says the book is "a platitudinous parcel of impenetrable ponderosity, regrettably but manifestly lacking in clarifying conciseness or concatenated cogency." (He was trying to be funny by mocking Gould's style.) I must admit that at times I've felt like I'm reading James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Also, I can't remember going to the dictionary so many times while reading a book. Worse, some of the words aren't even in my dictionary. Apparently, they're not in anybody's.

I report on the World Skeptic's Conference below, but here I must mention that I found it odd to hear Paul Kurtz and others compare Gould to Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan as a popularizer of science. Gould didn't write for the intelligent layperson. He wrote for the liberally educated academic. A writer doesn't usually sprinkle Latin and German phrases, allusions to operettas, references to obscure poets, etc., in works aimed at the mass market.


4) News

In the last newsletter, I mentioned Diane Swanson's invention of Rumpology (the science of personality analysis that is based on reading the lines on a person's rump) to engage young people to think critically about certain kinds of claims. According to Nick Tattersall of Reuters in Germany, Ulf Buck is a 39-year old Rump Reader from Meldorf. He's also blind, yet he claims he can read people's futures by feeling their naked buttocks. Buck says he spent many years training his fingers to do the reading, a practice he started on a small circle of friends but which has grown to include many prominent people, including a stockbroker who apparently invests depending on his butt bumps. Buck says that rumps "have lines like those on the palm of the hand, which can be read to reveal much about character and destiny. An apple-shaped, muscular bottom indicates someone who is charismatic, dynamic, very confident and often creative. A person who enjoys life. A pear-shaped bottom suggests someone very steadfast, patient and down-to-earth." And what about those whose rumps are on their shoulders?

The relentless critic of astrology, Ivan Kelly, calls Buck's work asstrology.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

5) A report on the Fourth World Skeptics Conference
(held in Burbank, California, from June 20-23, 2002, and sponsored by CSICOP.)

The theme was Prospects for Skepticism - The Next Twenty-five Years

Part Two (Part One is posted)

First, a correction. I reported that Vicki Hyde, president of New Zealand Skeptics,

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.

In fact, her view is the exact opposite of what I reported. According to her, the

general public feeling and public/legal intervention in New Zealand in such cases has been much stronger and much more negative where people were claiming religious justification for their actions.

I apologize for the error and I don't blame the reader for being skeptical of the accuracy of  what follows. I have only two sources for most of this report, my notes and my memory, and they are both fallible, and, has just been demonstrated, occasionally totally unreliable. But here goes anyway.

Evolution and Intelligent Design

The above was the title of the session, but the first thing the audience saw was a very large overhead screen with the words Evolution vs. Intelligent Design (ID). Was this going to be a contest with a winner and a loser? If so, then we need no debate and should declare ID the winner. Why? Because 'vs.' implies they are competitors and the main point of the ID movement right now is to get people to believe that ID is a scientific theory that is in competition with natural selection. Claiming ID is a better scientific theory than evolution is a tactic used to deceive people into thinking it is a scientific competitor. ID is not a competitor with natural selection because it is not a scientific theory. ID is a metaphysical theory. Furthermore, it is a metaphysical theory that is compatible with, not contrary to, the belief in natural selection.

This was a session that never should have been. The focus should have been on why ID is not a scientific alternative to natural selection. Instead, it was on criticisms of natural selection by ID theorists with answers to those criticisms by defenders of natural selection, including Ken Miller, a Catholic biologist who was very effective.

The session began with a PowerPoint presentation on the history of ID by Massimo Pigliucci, an associate professor of botany at the University of Tennessee, where he is also a graduate student in philosophy. Much of his presentation is posted in an essay: "Design Yes, Intelligent No." Due to the poor quality of the sound system, I could hear or understand only about every other sentence. So, I won't try to report on his presentation. Pigliucci is very active in both the skeptic and secular humanist movements, and is the author of  Tales of the Rational:  Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science (Atlanta Freethought Society, 2000).

Wesley Elsberry, a graduate student with an interest in bottlenose dolphins, set the stage for the contest by asking aloud why bother with ID when there are so many real problems to be faced? I understood his answer to be that the ID people are already having an effect on science education, and science education is critical to how we will deal with these problems. Elsberry noted the political nature of the ID movement, which is fundamentally an anti-evolution, anti-science political movement masquerading as a movement concerned about good science and fairness to minority viewpoints in science. He recommended that everyone read "The Wedge Document," which outlines the ID defenders' concerns with the rise of 'materialism' and how to stop it. I put materialism in quotes because the ID people identify it with more than just the rejection of spiritual substances. For them, the concept also entails atheism, determinism, immorality (or, at least, amorality), utopianism, and naturalism. Their understanding of naturalism entails the notion of atheism, as well. I'll only note here that most of the Founding Fathers were not Christian fundamentalists and advocated naturalism. Science is only possible by assuming that we can understand the workings of nature using only our natural minds and allowing only explanations in terms of natural forces. But such a belief does not require a further belief that there is no God who created these natural minds and forces, either directly or indirectly.

While I'm on the subject of using terms in unnatural ways, the greatest howler from the ID people on this front is their misunderstanding of the term 'empirical.' Paul Nelson demonstrated this misunderstanding when he claimed that a statement could be changed from empirical to non-empirical simply by negating it. He doesn't distinguish between a claim with empirical content, e.g., "the sun was created by God," and an empirical claim or statement of fact, e.g., "the sun is made of helium." Both of these examples have empirical content, but the former is a metaphysical claim and no empirical test can be made of it. The latter is not a metaphysical statement and an empirical test can be made of it to determine whether it is true.

Nelson claimed that Bertrand Russell says on p. 585 of his History of Western Philosophy that the argument from design is an empirical argument. Well, the argument is analogical and has empirical content. That is true, and David Hume showed before Paley was a twinkle in his mother's eye what happens when you take the analogy seriously. If you are reasonable you must conclude that the creator is an animal or a vegetable of some sort.

The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable than it does a watch or knitting-loom. Its cause, therefore, it is more probable, resembles the cause of the former. The cause of the former is generation or vegetation. The cause, therefore, of the world we may infer to be something similar or analogous to generation or vegetation (Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion).

However, when we ask for empirical proof of some proposition, we generally will not accept an argument from analogy as the kind of proof we're looking for. Analogies may have empirical content but that quality does not put them on par with arguments that can be empirically tested.

Frankly, I don't think it is profitable to debate people who equivocate. (Dembski, for example, argues that ID is 'falsifiable,' but he uses the term differently than Popper did. But that is another story.) If the other side uses terms in Humpty Dumpty ways--words mean whatever they want them to mean--you can neither defeat them nor learn anything of substance from them. For example, Dembski exemplifies one tactic of the ID folks. Until every part of every organism can be shown to have evolved independently, evolution is not proved. There are many organisms whose parts can't be shown to have evolved independently, such as the bacterial flagellum. According to Dembski, this proves that those parts had to be put together by an intelligent designer and did not result from natural forces unguided by some superior intelligence. Instead of simply replying that Dembski is begging the question since he is assuming there is no possible explanation for millions or billions of parts of organisms in terms of natural selection, opponents like Ken Miller go on to show that scientists have already explained most of the parts of the flagellum in terms of natural selection and there's good reason to think that only time is needed to explain the rest. It is not difficult to see the endless nature of this pathway. The fact that natural selection has not or cannot explain every part of every organism is irrelevant to whether ID should be of any interest to anybody. ID has no scientific research program; all it has is an attack force that tries to find weaknesses or flaws in evolutionary theories. The incorporation of ID into biology has very little prospect of leading to more knowledge or discoveries in the field. ID is a metaphysical blanket, not a scientific program. And even if we admit that the flagellum was designed by an intelligent being or beings, not only does that not tell us much about the nature of that intelligence, it does not imply that anything else in the universe has been affected in any way by that intelligence. For all we know there might be some alien intelligence that has designed seven things and the bacterial flagellum is one of them. The speculative possibilities are endless here, but none of them is likely to add any measurable progress to scientific knowledge or methodology.

Nevertheless, as Dembski pointed out, a majority of people believe in design. In Ohio, 59% said they wanted ID taught in the schools along with evolution. The ID people have a political/religious agenda and part of it is banking on manipulating a sympathetic and ignorant (not stupid) public. The Discovery Institute, the money and muscle behind ID promoters like Dembski and Nelson, calls itself a center for the renewal of science and culture. It's not. It's an anti-evolution, anti-science group, whose main interest is in promoting a literalist Biblical view of creation. The ID people are doing a good job of making the public think they are doing science, and the fact that scientists are debating them about whose science is better provides them with more evidence that they offer a legitimate alternative to scientific theories of evolution. Every attempt by scientists to refute the ID people is taken by them as proof that what they are doing is science, since scientists are trying to falsify their claims! The ID people are very clever, but they are not very honest. They pretend to do science when their goal is to criticize one particular scientific theory. They are not up front about their main goal, which is a religious and political one. They claim that whether God is the designer they have in mind or whether they believe the earth is only 6,000 years old is irrelevant to ID. They're irrelevant to the general theory of an intelligent designer, but they are not irrelevant to the majority of people who believe in design (including Dembski and Nelson) and who are being duped into thinking that ID should be taught with evolution as a matter of fairness and scientific completeness.

I can't fault Ken Miller's presentation, which was dazzling. He clearly won the battle with Dembski. And he got Paul Nelson to admit he's a Young Earth believer. But, as long as skeptics and scientists meet the ID folks on their terms, the ID folks win the war, even if they lose all the battles.

Fringe Psychotherapies

I was looking forward to this session, since New Age therapies is a special interest of mine. There were few surprises, however. Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist from Emory University (who teaches a course on Science and Pseudoscience in Psychology) opened the session with a mixed message. On the one hand, we should all keep an open mind on new therapies, even if their rationale seems faulty. On the other hand, there are some four to five hundred different psychotherapies and the vast majority have not been researched or have very weak supportive evidence. He named some of the usual suspects: FC, NLP, EMDR, and TFT. He also named a few I'd never heard of: Emotional Freedom Technique, Buddha psychotherapy, palm therapy and the Sedona method. Since, as Lilienfeld himself noted, the majority of fringe therapy practitioners do not make use of empirically supportable interventions, one wonders how open our minds should be to these practices, especially since some of them can clearly be dangerous, even fatal. Granted, some quackery might prove to be efficacious, but I think there are very good reasons for paying closer attention to what people are doing in the name of helping others. Lilienfeld himself provides some of the main reasons for being very scrupulous in examining fringe therapies:

  • they can undermine public confidence and trust in the mental health professions
  • they can lead individuals to forgo demonstrably effective treatments
  • they can cause harm to clients
  • they can eat away at the scientific foundations of mental health professions

Lilienfeld also addressed the issue of why these therapies are so popular among practitioners. He listed the desire to provide a quick fix for psychological problems, the fact that the therapies can appear to work, the increased availability of misinformation from sources such as the Internet (how about from peer-reviewed journals, as well?), and the fact that many Ph.D.s in clinical psychology are inadequately trained in critical thinking and scientific methodology. This latter point was also brought up by Carol Tavris, a social psychologist cited often in the SD, who asked the question "How have so many mainstream Ph.D.s lost their way in clinical psychology?" Dr. Tavris railed at how many rely on unvalidated tests, do no empirical testing of clinical observations, don't recognize confirmation bias or seem to know about iatrogenic diseases, and don't know the basics of critical thinking and scientific methodologies. According to Tavris, there has always been a gap between the clinical psychologists and those who do empirical research. Now, she says, there is a war between them.

Tavris also claimed that the rise in popularity of fringe therapies has been due to the increased number of people going into the helping professions. She spoke of the "pathologizing of everyday problems." She seems to think that the oversupply of therapists has led to the increased demand for therapy. Therapists are brought in to help with all kinds of problems even though there is little evidence they really can help. She noted that it seems impossible to keep up with all the new therapies. It seems like a losing battle, she said, this Sisyphian task of pushing the boulder of knowledge up the hill of ignorance. But as Stephen Jay Gould once said to her, think how much further down the hill we would be if we didn't try.

One would think that the American Psychological Association (APA) would be keeping a close eye on the surge of fringe therapies, but according to Lilienfeld the APA isn't much of a watchdog. APA journals accept ads for these therapies. The APA gives continuing education credit for workshops in such things as calligraphy therapy and Jungian sandplay therapy. (He's presented these claims before in "Pseudoscience in Contemporary Clinical Psychology: What it is and what we can do about it" (The Clinical Psychologist, Volume 51, Number 4, Fall 1998).)

On the positive side, Lilienfeld noted a new special interest group he belongs to called Science & Pseudoscience Review in Mental Health. He also said that the APA has stopped giving credit for Thought Field Therapy workshops and some progress is being made by the APA Society of Clinical Psychology. He also said that CSICOP has a new subcommittee devoted to fringe therapies. Finally, he announced a new journal, The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, published by Prometheus Books. One full article of the first issue is available on-line: "Separating Fact from Fiction in the Etiology and Treatment of Autism: A Scientific Review of the Evidence," by James D. Herbert, Ian R. Sharp, and Brandon A. Gaudiano.


Gina Green, whose paper on facilitated communication in Skeptic is a classic in the area, spoke on fringe therapies for autism (there are at least two dozen, she said) and spoke of the many 'tortured theories' of what could be so but have little evidence in their support. She mentioned three theories that have been proved to be harmful for the treatment of autism: facilitated communication, auditory integration training, and intravenous immune globulin therapy. Few therapies have shown significant positive results, but one of the best is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). It involves working with children from age 3 for about 3-4 years.

Green noted the harm that celebrity media personalities can cause when they pose as investigative journalists. Case in point: Diane Sawyer, whose 1992 Primetime Live (ABC) program "Free from Silence" touted facilitated communication as a miracle cure. This uncritical piece is still being marketed. (Green tried to show a video of the Sawyer program, but  like many other presenters found that the AV equipment didn't work very well. We saw the video but heard no sound.)


Steven Jay Lynn presented some of his findings from his work on hypnosis. One of his experiments involved comparing some people who were hypnotized with some people who role-played being hypnotized. The subjects were supposed to recall some event from childhood and then have their parents corroborate their memories. The parents corroborated 21% of the memories of those who were hypnotized, but they corroborated 70% of the memories of the role-players. So much for hypnosis enhancing the accuracy of memory.

In a shocking new development, Dr. Lynn claimed that research shows that the least risky procedure to find out what a person remembers is simply to ask him or her what they remember! He advises using hypnosis only for things like pain control and not for recovering memories. Finally, he claims that using guided imagery is just as risky as hypnosis regarding the problem of suggesting beliefs to the client.

Medical Claims

A related session featured several presentations on medical therapies, especially 'alternative' or 'complementary' medicine. I heard only Dr. Stephen Barrett talk, since I attended most of a concurrent session on The Investigators. Furthermore, I only heard part of Dr. Barrett's talk. He reviewed various consumer protection forces: licensing, accreditation, continuing education courses, legislation, hospitals, the media, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and the Internet. In Barrett's view, the Internet is the most powerful of the protective forces. He certainly puts his money where his mouth is: He runs eight Internet sites  whose purpose is "to combat health-related frauds, myths, fads, and fallacies." In addition to Quackwatch, Dr. Barrett runs Chirobase, Dental Watch, Homeowatch, MLMwatch, Nutriwatch, Consumer Health Sourcebook, and the National Council Against Health Fraud. He has a ninth site under construction: Internet Health Pilot. What some fear about the Internet, Dr. Barrett welcomes: information without filter. He sees the Internet as a means of organizing victims. Anyone who has been seriously harmed by a health scam is invited to write him at He posts a list of Victims Case Reports. He also sees the Internet as an opportunity to provide a source for the media and others seeking good health-related information, as well as an opportunity to correct erroneous information being provided on the Internet and elsewhere. Such a project depends upon establishing a reputation as a source of accurate, reliable information, something which Dr. Barrett has done quite nicely over the years.

[In the next issue, I'll review the session with Marvin Minsky, the Urban Legends session, the Investigators (my favorite session), the Awards Banquet, and the National Media Center luncheon.]

6) Feedback

Shortly before and after the last newsletter the number of subscriptions increased from about 5 a day to about 25 a day. I polled those who subscribed after I'd sent the newsletter and found quite a few heard about it from Bob Drudge's, which he modestly calls "the single best source for facts on the Net." It is the most comprehensive I've seen and well worth a bookmark.

7) Need a good technical writer or editor?

Contact John Renish. He has been editing my work lately and I can attest that he is very good. According to John, retirement has not turned out to be like the brochure and he would like to get back to work (part-time or contract) as a copy editor or technical writer or editor.

8) The Amazing Meeting

Mark January 31-February 2, 2003 on your calendars if you can be in Ft. Lauderdale that weekend. The James Randi Educational Foundation is putting on a conference that will feature Michael Shermer, ex-Scientologist Dan Garvin, magician Jerry Andrus, stargazer Jack Horkheimer, Phil Plaitt, and others. Randi has queried me as to my availability and I have let him know that I am available to speak, but nothing firm has been set about me joining such fine company. Stay tuned.