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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 63

January 6, 2006

"There are 400 times more bacteria on a desktop than on a toilet seat." -- Charles  Gerba, professor of microbiology

In this issue:

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

There are two new Dictionary entries: dolphin-assisted therapy and Cambrian explosion.

There's a new article on Rupert Sheldrake's phony skepticism page and, thanks to the Taliban, there's another addition to the What's the harm? blog.

Several entries have been revised: Our Lady of Watsonville, Gurdjieff, alternative science, Marfa lights, repressed memory therapy, and illuminati.

I posted a few new entries on my Mass Media Funk blog: Sylvia Browne, best stories of 2005, Judge Jones's ruling in the Dover ID case; and smoke & AMD.

Finally, the Dictionary, Refuge, and blog sites have all had makeovers. I hope they are easier to navigate.

Language and Framing the Issues

In my critical thinking courses, I spend two weeks each term on how language affects thinking. I go over well-worn expressions such as collateral damage to refer to innocent civilians killed in military attacks. And I go over a few of the latest doublespeak gems such as extraordinary rendition for outsourcing torture and intensive interrogation for such practices as "water-boarding" (the captive is bound and immersed in water until he nearly drowns). But using euphemisms or jargon to try to hide ugly realities is only one aspect of the attempt to control thought through the careful selection of words. Those who have followed the culture wars in the U. S. between the anti-abortionists who desire to restrict freedom and the pro-choice defenders of freedom (or between the anti-scientific creationists and the pro-science evolutionists) know that how the issue is framed is of utmost importance.

The framing issue has been popularized by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, in his book Don't Think of an Elephant. For those of us who were in college in the 1960s when liberal was a word packed with positive emotive content and conservative was something to be avoided, Lakoff's explanation of how the conservatives pulled one of the major flip-flops in word history is like a solar flare in a world full of dark matter. I don't need to retell the story here. Lakoff's book is very short and repetitious, and not difficult to understand. But one point he makes is relevant to the attack on science that has been going on ever since Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859: The creationists have controlled the public debate by controlling the way the issues are framed.

For example, despite the fact that 99.9999% of the scientific community considers evolution of species from other species to be a fact, the creationists have been very successful in getting the public to accept the notion that evolution is not a fact but just a theory. Two recent articles address this issue: David Morrison's "Only a Theory? Framing the Evolution/Creation Issue" and Lawrence Krauss's "Mind your language." Krauss, a professor of physics, argues in the December 3, 2005, issue of New Scientist that misusing the word theory plays into the hands of creationists. Morrison, an astrobiologist, argues in the November/December 2005 issue of Skeptical Inquirer that to debate "the theory of evolution" is a trap that benefits creationists.

Similar quibbles have arisen regarding the word believe.  Eugenie Scott has argued, according to Krauss, that we shouldn't use the word 'believe' in a scientific context because "it blurs the distinction between science and religion." Also,  parapsychologist Dean Radin chafes at the word belief when applied to his beliefs about the reality of psi. To him, having overwhelming evidence for a position means you don't have to say you believe. Faith requires belief, parapsychology doesn't.

It does seem awkward to speak of believing in electricity or believing in gravity-especially when one considers that people talk about believing that God is three persons in one being or of believing that Mary was a virgin and the mother of God. The word 'belief' is quite elastic and covers a vast range of options. Unfortunately, so does the word 'theory'. Krauss doesn't think string theory should be called a theory but a model or a paradigm, even though he admits that "the string enterprise has produced a very impressive body of theoretical work." Krauss would like us to restrict our use of 'theory' in science to what is "a logically coherent and predictive system that has been tested against experiment or observation. It explains observable phenomena and makes falsifiable predictions about them."

Krauss also thinks it's "incorrect" to refer to inflationary theory in cosmology. We should speak of the inflationary paradigm when we "describe the hypothesized growth of the universe soon after it began." Krauss writes:

Maintaining this semantic distinction is not merely contentious nitpicking. A key part of the argument made by those who wish to introduce religion into science classes is that evolution is "just a theory". By "theory" these individuals are referring to the common lay usage of the word, meaning a hunch or a guess, and not the more restrictive sense in which the term is normally discussed in science....When debating the nature of science with advocates of intelligent design, I am frequently confronted with the claim that string theory is no more scientific than intelligent design.

It's probably a mistake to get involved in this debate, but the mistake, in my opinion, is not with using the word 'theory' to refer to different kinds of things. The problem is one of framing. Evolution should be talked about as a fact and natural selection as a well-supported theory that explains, in part, how species evolved. Intelligent design is not a fact but a claim that some parts of evolution can't be explained by natural selection or any other scientific theory but can be explained by appealing to direct magical intervention by an intelligent agent or agents. The parts of evolution that can be explained by natural selection can also be explained by appealing to direct magical intervention of intelligent agents, of course. To do so, however, is to give up science and engage in metaphysics. To turn to metaphysical explanations instead of continuing to pursue a scientific explanation for some natural phenomenon is anti-scientific. A scientist doesn't give up when he or she comes to a tough problem. Giving up science is exactly what ID proposes. Whatever else one might want to say about string theory or inflationary theory, they are not anti-scientific. Neither abandons science by appealing to some otherworldly magic to explain away a tough problem.

David Morrison, on the other hand, thinks it is a mistake to talk about the theory of evolution. It's the wrong word, he says, not because it's the wrong word but because three quarters of Americans think that a theory is something vague and uncertain that hasn't been proven scientifically. Calling something a theory undermines its acceptance, says Morrison, because most Americans don't think of a scientific theory as "a systematic set of principles that has been shown to fit the facts, and has stood up against attempts to prove it false." Most Americans think a theory is just a belief, something accepted without proof, "an assumption, a suggestion, a hypothesis."

To Morrison, debating the theory of evolution with creationists "is a trap. It is letting our opponents frame the discussion to their benefit." Morrison also advises not debating evolution in a religious context. However, since the only ones who want to debate evolution are religiously motivated and identify evolution with godless materialism, that may not be possible. I find it interesting that Morrison thinks that since there is overwhelming scientific support for evolution, the failure to convince the majority of the public to accept evolution means that "we must be doing something wrong in discussing this issue with the public." Maybe we are, but we must also be doing something wrong in educating people if, after twelve years of compulsory education, fewer than half the population accepts evolution. In fact, most of Morrison's suggestions center around educational proposals, not just for the classroom but for the public forum as well. We should be promoting science not attacking religion, emphasizing the role evolution plays in such things as developing new medicines and reminding people of the shared interests of the various sciences in such things as deep time.

Morrison writes that "perhaps we should note that Darwinian natural selection is in many ways nature's equivalent to free-market competition." In my view, it is very unlikely that there is anything scientists can do to sugarcoat evolution so that those who see it as denying their religious views will be attracted to it. We need to do a better job of educating our children about evolution (and other subjects that deal with deep time, such as geology). The ID movement wants to prevent us from doing that. I think we have to see the ID folks for what they are: terrorists who are trying to blow up our science classes in the name of religion. They use every rhetorical trick in the book. What are you afraid of? What are you hiding? It's only fair to present both sides and let the children choose. Evolution is a theory in crisis. Many scientists think evolution has too many gaps to be true. Yada, yada, yada. This is a war that has to be fought on two fronts. One is through education, doing whatever we can to promote science and a better understanding of evolutionary biology and related sciences. The other is through exposing ID for the anti-scientific movement that it is. In the meantime, I'm going to continue to refer to the theory of natural selection and to the anti-scientific idea of intelligent design. That's how I choose to frame the issues, but being one person I don't expect that I'll have much impact.

If skeptics want to win this war, we might do well to imitate what the Republican conservatives did in the 1960s. They set up think tanks to attract conservative scholars whom they funded and encouraged. They didn't set up institutes to be run by the old guard. They funded scholarships to encourage conservative thinking and scholarship. They spent a lot of time on the issue of framing, by the way. If I were in charge of the future of skepticism, I'd be promoting skepticism among the next generation of journalists. I'd be funding dozens of shows like Nova, Scientific American Frontiers, Is it Real?, and Naked Science. I'd be offering scholarships and cash prizes to students and journalists who do research exposing fraud or identifying the harm done by superstition and irrational thinking. I'd be giving awards to those who do the most for uplifting the level of discourse and understanding regarding scientific matters. I would pay people to write pro-science stories for the mainstream press. I would hire writers to hound the media about their duty to educate people about the wonders of science and the dangers of magical thinking. I'd get Bill Gates to give me a billion dollars so I could hire David Morrison to find me a few dozen scientists willing to lecture to the public on such things as how evolution works in medicine and other fields where there are job openings. I might even encourage everybody working for skepticism to repeatedly juxtapose words like science and magical. I'd also encourage reference to the science-stifling idea known as ID, anti-science ideas such as ID, and ideas that discourage deep inquiry and scientific investigation such as ID. It only took the Republicans about thirty years to turn liberal into a dirty word. At the rate we're going, skeptics ought to be able to turn evolution into a positive mantra by the end of the next millennium.

further reading:

What the bleep do we know?

We may not know much but we know somebody's deceiving himself when he claims anyone can walk on water if only "you believe it with every fiber of your being." When he claims, as Masuru Emoto does, that thoughts can change the structure of water and he has the pictures to prove it, we know his faith is such that he should be able to walk on water. Yet, we don't wait to see him perform the stunt; we wait to hear the sound of one man splashing.

David Horne writes:

About a year ago, I saw the movie What the bleep do we know? in which the properties of "blessed water" were discussed. According to the movie, there is a museum somewhere in the U.S. or Canada that has an exhibit showing water before and after it has been blessed. Two pictures were shown, one before the blessing and one after. The picture of the water before the blessing revealed nothing special, while the picture of the water after blessing revealed a crystalline structure similar to that of a snowflake.

I could not believe this was true when I saw it, and I still don't believe it. But there the photos were, right in front of me. My question is, why would the director of any legitimate museum buy into or go along with this story, and, assuming that it really is just a hoax, what do you suppose is the true story or motive behind it?

I don't know what the true story behind this hoax is but one unlikely scenario would be that the photo of the unblessed water was taken at room temperature and the photo of the blessed water was taken after the temperature had dipped below the freezing point. Another unlikely scenario would be that the photo of the blessed water was taken after the water had been exposed to an electric field (See "As hot as ice," by Zeeya Merali, New Scientist 24/31 December 2005). The most plausible scenario is that one photo is of water at room temperature and the other is a photo of a snowflake.

The only reputable museum that would show such an exhibit is the Museum of Hoaxes.

Faking photographs has been going on since the beginning of photography. "Spirit" photos appeared as early as 1856. Some photo hoaxes by kids have duped grownups who should have known better. But many grownups won't give up the magical thinking of their childhood.

What motivates people to believe that words or thoughts can change the molecular structure of water or that if only they have enough faith they can walk on water? Why do some people believe in transubstantiation, in the power of holy water to heal, or in other mysteries? Why do some people spend their entire lives searching for things that others believe don't even exist? Why do some people claim to have the answers to these questions and that they'll gladly share them with you for a small fee? Why does a man who lost both arms in a fire thank God for miraculously saving his life but doesn't blame God for the loss of his arms? How can people who have survived a plane crash in which hundreds of others have died say with a straight face that God blessed them but did not curse those who perished? I say blame it on the brain. We're not truth-seeking creatures by nature. Our beliefs have many functions, but being accurate is not high on the list of requirements for a functional belief.

Neal Armstrong walked on the moon but some people on this planet believe that the moon landings were faked. A few folks believe that schools are encouraging critical thinking by teaching students to quit thinking when ideas conflict with their interpretation of a passage in a book they hold sacred. A young Mormon girl drives for ten hours to be home with her family for Christmas and dies in a car wreck ten minutes from home; her father tells a reporter that he believes she must have sensed she was going to die and that's why she drove home. Some scientists think that God likes to play "catch me if you can" or "hide and seek." That's why He puts coded messages in the Bible, DNA, bacterial flagellum, galaxies, or mathematical constants.

Why is magical thinking so popular? You might find an answer by studying the perceptual and cognitive biases Ivan Kelly and Geoffrey Dean call the hidden persuaders. For a more in-depth understanding of these biases, I recommend four books:

Scam (scum?) of the minute

Scott Kennedy is a Kevin Trudeau clone, selling a supplement made of seaweed and other sea plants. His base is the infomercial, where he hawks his product under the name of Sea Vegg. This powerful stuff, he says, "contains a full spectrum of organic (photo-synthetic) vitamins, trace minerals, lipids, plant sterols, amino acids, omega 3's and 6's, anti-oxidants, growth hormones, polyphenols, flavenoids, and much more. It also contains powerful Fucoidan, Laminarin and Alginate compounds which studies suggest are anti-biotic and anti-viral."

It is a well known fact that vegan fish are the healthiest animals on earth. You never hear them cough or complain of constipation or a runny nose.

Kennedy suggests that his supplements can remove toxins from the body. He fails to mention these toxins by name, however. Nor does he explain that the body has its own ways of removing toxins, if need be. In any case, he is very careful not to make any specific claims for his product's power to remove toxins. He says he's "found pretty extensive evidence that Sea [sic] vegetation contains compounds which bind with and remove toxins from the tissues of animals and humans." He calls sea vegetation "the keystone of the food chain," which is true if we're talking about fish. Not that there is anything essentially bad about seaweed or other sea plants. But to claim that we can't get the nutrients we need from food grown on land so "we must turn to the rich vegetation of the sea" to get necessary nutrients is a fathomable fable.

Kennedy suggests in his infomercials that Sea Vegg will reduce sickness, decrease our dependency on physicians and pharmaceuticals; decrease diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease; and reduce a contributing factor to much illness: obesity. He runs through a litany of bad habits that many people have, all irrelevant to taking his supplements. Who falls for this kind of appeal? Probably those who fall for Trudeau's appeal: those who think there is a cabal of physicians, pharmaceutical firms, and government agencies whose goal is to keep us unhealthy by hiding from us such vital information as that we should eat less and exercise more if we want to lose weight. Or perhaps these are the folks who think there is some magic pill we can take that is (a) "natural" and (b) will allow us to continue with our bad habits but (c) will make us healthy and help us live longer without drugs or surgery.

Here's a beautiful quote from one of those selling Kennedy's product:

One of the Earth's greatest treasures lies beneath the seas and lakes of the world. Research has proven that the waters of our oceans contain some of the richest known sources of mineral elements. The moving forces of nature, through rain, erosion and rivers, has brought all the valuable vitamins of the earth to the sea floor. (

Those processes have brought a lot of other yummy things to the sea floor, but I'd probably be wasting my breath to mention them.

A new blog

Evolve or Die is the name of Bill Rozell's blog. Check it out.

See you in Las Vegas?

I hope to see some of you January 26-29 at the Stardust in Las Vegas for the James Randi Educational Foundation's Amazing Meeting 4.

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