dTable of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll


Newsletter Archives


logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 64

February 16, 2006

"I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." --Stephen F. Roberts

Previous newsletters are archived at skepdic.com/news/ Go there for subscription or feedback information.

In this issue:

AOF (Atheists and other freethinkers) Meeting in Sacramento

I'll be talking at the next AOF meeting on Sunday March 12 at the Sierra 2 Community Center, 2791 24th Street, in room #10. The meeting starts at 2:30 PM. The talk will be rather informal. I'll be discussing how The Skeptic's Dictionary website got started and how it evolved to what it is today. I'll bring along a few copies of the book for sale.

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

Since the last newsletter the following activity has occurred:


  • A print translation of The Skeptic's Dictionary is out in Russian by Роберт Т. Кэррол.
  • My publisher, John Wiley and Sons, has been approached by Laetoli regarding a print translation in Spanish.
  • The Slovak translation online has been revamped by Vlado Luknar; it is now housed at http://slovnik.skepdic.com.
  • Herman Boel has posted several dictionary entries in Dutch.

New Entries in the Dictionary:

Revised entries:

Updated entries:

New blog entries:

Mass Media Bunk

Mass Media Funk

What's the Harm?


Dave Hitt responded to Newsletter 61, in which I admitted I was wrong to have supported Penn & Teller's claim that the EPA report that claims that 3,000 people a year die from lung cancer because of secondhand smoke was bogus. "When it comes to secondhand smoke," writes Mr. Hitt, "I'm afraid that you've been taken in by one of the biggest scams since homeopathy." He writes:

I'm very surprised you put any faith in the EPA study that started this whole thing. First off, it was a meta-analysis, the very easiest type of study to fake and manipulate.  That alone should make you sit up and take notice.  But there are far, far more problems with the study:  There were 34 studies on the effects of SHS [secondhand smoke] available at the time. The EPA cherry picked 11 of them, including one that wasn't finished....So, in short, they ignored 2/3 of the data. 

You are poisoning the well with your comment on meta-analysis. Any kind of study can be faked and manipulated. So what? The fact that the EPA did not include all studies that were done on SHS is not proof of manipulation or cherry picking. Not all studies are created equal. Anyone doing a meta-analysis on any subject has to evaluate the quality of the studies and make a judgment as to which studies should be excluded. Some studies are poorly designed; some are very small. Some are double-blinded; some are not. Some are well documented; others are poorly documented. And so on. To prove manipulation, you need to show that most of the 23 studies not included in the EPA meta-study were excellent studies that should have been included. To say the EPA "ignored" 2/3 of the data is to distort what happened. Some data should be ignored because it was not properly obtained or the samples were too small. There are many other reasons why some studies should not be included in a meta-analysis.

Mr. Hitt continues:

In spite of that, they were not able to find any statistically significant connection between SHS and lung cancer.  So they changed their confidence interval from 95% to 90% - in essence they doubled their margin of error.

The 95% confidence interval is arbitrary. The most commonly used P-value in the social sciences and medical studies is P<0.05, where there is a one in twenty chance that the result is a statistical fluke. This standard can be traced back to the 1930s and R. A. Fisher. There is nothing sacred about this standard. Technically, this has nothing to do with "margin of error," but it does double the chances from 1 in 20 (or 5%) to 1 in 10 (or 10%) that the result is a statistical fluke.

Mr. Hitt continues:

After the Congressional Research Service lambasted the study, A federal judge with a history of siding with the government on tobacco issues issued a 92 page ruling outlining all the fraud in the report.  92 pages!

This is completely irrelevant to whether the EPA study is in fact fatally flawed. As is the following.

A while ago, Covance labs did a study where non-smoking subjects wore portable air pumps that "breathed."  They discovered that people who live and work in smoky environments inhale the smoke of about six cigarettes *per year.* Oak Ridge National Labs repeated the study, and came up with similar results.  Considering that smokers usually have to smoke tens of thousands of cigarettes per year for a decade or two before it sickens them (and it only sickens some of them) does it make sense that the tiny amount of smoke inhaled by bystanders would result in killing so many of them? 

In conclusion, Mr. Hitt writes:

Here's something you might find amusing: I wrote to some of the leading nicotine nannies, both organizations and individuals, and asked them to name three people who have died from SHS.  Considering their claims that it's killed over a million people over the past twenty years, they should be able to come up with a short list.  (Consider how long the list of people who have died as a result of smoking would be.)  None of them could.  Only one of them really tried, and the information he gave me was fraudulent.  And you'll find his name on that EPA report. http://www.davehitt.com/2004/name_three.html I realize this isn't really the way statistics work, but I thought the results were both entertaining and provided a good insight into the nanny mindset.

Requesting the names of three people is cute, but the fact that these organizations can't name three is irrelevant to whether anyone has died from SHS. (Logicians call this the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam.) Can you name three people who died in the Spanish American War? Is that relevant to whether the claim is true that many died in that war?

Evolution Sunday

Last February 12, a Sunday, was the 197th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. (I tried to find something amusing to say about these two great men born on the same day under the sign of Aquarius. The first site I googled brought up this gem:

Aquarians ... fall into two principle types: one shy, sensitive, gentle and patient; the other exuberant, lively and exhibitionist, sometimes hiding the considerable depths of their character under a cloak of frivolity.

P. T. Barnum lives! Something for everybody! Seriously, though, it may interest some of you to know that about 450 Christian churches in the U. S. celebrated the work of Charles Darwin on his birthday with programs and sermons aimed at emphasizing that biological evolution is compatible with the Christian faith. Christians, these churches proclaim, do not have to choose between religion and science. Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, organized the event. Two years ago, Zimmerman initiated "The Clergy Letter Project." He encouraged clergy across America to sign a letter supporting both evolution and an allegorical interpretation of the Genesis account of creation. More than 10,000 clergy have signed up. According to the Los Angeles Times, Evolution Sunday "has drawn participation from a variety of denominational and non-denominational churches, including Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Congregationalist, United Church of Christ, Baptist and a host of community churches, including at least 16 congregations in Illinois."

The "Clergy Letter" states:

We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Such an idea is anathema to some fundamentalist Christians (like Ken Ham) and to some atheists (like Richard Dawkins).

I don't agree with any of these folks. I don't think there is such a thing as "religious truth" that complements science. There are two versions of this that I'm aware of and I don't accept either one. Besides the view expressed above that the Bible has all kinds of "religious truths" that are expressed through allegories, there is the view that Eastern mystics and quantum physicists have hit upon the same truths and that ultimately science and mysticism are one.

Also, I don't agree with Dawkins that religion is evil and that science, especially evolutionary biology, implies atheism. [Dawkins was featured in a British TV program about the three Abrahamic religions that was titled "The Root of All Evil?" He says he argued against the title and that the question mark was a concession to his concerns. Nothing is the root of all evil, he said in an interview on a Point of Inquiry podcast.] Dawkins apparent contempt for most religious people is about as rational as the Iranians renaming Danish pastries Roses of the Prophet Muhammad. He's right that there is no need to posit any kind of god to account for the universe. And Ham is wrong to claim that there is no way to reconcile the Bible with science except by claiming that science is wrong in almost everything it says and must be revised to fit a rather absurd literal reading of some ancient Jewish texts.

I argued at the first Amazing Meeting that atheists, agnostics, and believers who accept evolution will have to work together to defeat the creationism/intelligent design forces that are systematically working to arouse fear, uncertainty, and doubt about evolution. Many skeptics seem unwilling to accept the fact that many rational, intelligent people accept both evolution and religion. Not all spiritual people are Luddites who use their wit to try to make the 21st century fit into a three-thousand-year old corset. Atheists aren't the only ones who care about science being polluted by literalist religionists; many people of faith don't want to see ancient Jewish literalism brought into the biology, physics, or astronomy classroom. Lumping together all people of faith, as Dawkins and many other skeptics do, alienates potential allies. It is highly unlikely that people of faith are going to respect atheists if atheists stereotype them as morons willing to die for ancient fairy tales.

Psychic Guru's Prayer Book

John Edward's long-awaited book on his special technique for praying the rosary has hit the bookstalls. The former ballroom dance instructor and current pipeline to the dead tells us how to get the most out of our rosary beads. What a swell fellow. Read all about it in the National Catholic Reporter.

Rational Police Frustrate Irrational Citizens

Some police departments won't use psychic detectives and that really irritates some folks in New Zealand. Like many countries, New Zealand has a television show devoted to psychics. On "Sensing Murder" several mediums claimed they were getting good vibes about a twenty-year-old case: the disappearance of a young woman, Luana "Laverne" Williams. They claim they sensed the body is buried near McClaren Falls. Police won't investigate, however, because the police do not consider spirit woo woo to be "evidential." Psychic intuitions are "not considered a creditable foundation for investigation."

Coincidentally, the site the psychics identified is one the Williams family suspects is where Luana is buried. Apparently, Luana's younger sister Melanie is psychic and had a vision of "a bridge and water" similar to one experienced by a psychic on the show. Detective Warren Gerbich was not impressed, however. "A bridge and water, that's New Zealand ... Everything is close to a bridge and water."

According to the Bay of Plenty Times, members of the Williams family are "frustrated police did not take psychic visions more seriously." Citizens of the Bay of Plenty should be proud that their police require evidence, witnesses, and other credible data and do not take seriously the confabulations of misguided souls who think they have "the gift." Bravo, detective Gerbich.

Amazing Meeting IV

I and some 800 others attended the fourth annual Randifest, aka The Amazing Meeting IV or TAM4 at the Stardust in Las Vegas from January 26-29. By now most of you have probably heard that James Randi underwent bypass surgery a few days later. It will likely be several months before he is back running on all 16 cylinders. (Check the JREF page for updates on his condition.) To honor Randi and all the work he has done on behalf of critical thinking and rationality I challenge my readers to match my modest $100 donation to the annual fundraising drive of the JREF. I'd like to get at least 100 people to match my donation. Who's going to be first? Send your check to the James Randi Educational Foundation, 201 S.E. 12th St., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316-1815, U.S.A.

Because of a flight schedule problem, I missed the Sunday program, which is usually one of the best parts of the educational segment of the amazing meetings.

The evening entertainment was exceptional. If you are in Vegas, don't miss the hilarious and magical Mac King show or the sideshow act of  Todd Robbins.

Christopher Hitchens started things off on Friday morning with a talk on Thomas Jefferson's views on religion and liberty. That was followed by Michael Shermer reading his mini-book, The Soul of Science, about how we can find spiritual meaning and purpose in a scientific worldview. Murray Gell-Mann followed with a rambling account of his many years dealing with Presidential advisory committees. The stifling of science that doesn't fit with political agendas is common practice, though the current administration may seem unique in finding religious or moral motivations to drive its political agenda which in turn drives its science agenda. (For an example, read Phil Plait's rant about George Deutsch and censorship at NASA.)

Stanley Krippner, the parapsychologist who once studied the ability of people to telepathically read other people's dreams in the Maimonides dream studies, gave a talk on the AIDS pandemic. His focus was on how AIDS is spreading rapidly in Africa and how it is difficult to be optimistic when some African nations are fighting aids with garlic and herbs, while the U.S. won't give money to anybody whose AIDS sex education program isn't restricted to just advising abstinence. If condoms are part of the program, no aid is given by the U.S. The previous Pope would have agreed with the Bush administration policy.

Next, Randi took the microphone and reminisced about his experiences testing the French chemist Jacques Benveniste, who went wacky over homeopathy and the ability to send homeopathic patterns over phone lines to energize water via the Internet. Randi revealed that this story and a few others are part of a new book he's working on that is tentatively titled A Magician in the Laboratory.

The last speaker of the day was Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. She seconded Murray Gell-Mann's contention that the politicization of science is not limited to Republicans or conservatives. Democrats have done their part to restrict liberty, deny academic freedom, and undermine civil liberties. She talked about the Dover case and warned that the war on the intelligent design (ID) front is not over yet. But the defenders of science and reason are making progress.

[In California, Wisconsin, and Ohio good things are happening. In Lebec, California, the school district was advised by a lawyer that they could teach ID as long as they called it a philosophy class.  Apparently, the lawyer didn't make it clear to the school board that they would have to teach some other things in such a class if it were to pass constitutional muster. Americans United for Separation of Church and State brought the course to a halt by challenging the school district in court and getting the district to agree to stop teaching the course. A public school may not advocate ID and gear the entire class to trying to show how ID explains some biological things better than natural selection does. You might get away with a non-science class that teaches about ID and other similar notions such as the Räelian notion that life on Earth was created by aliens from another planet or the Sitchinian notion that gods from the planet Niburu, which orbits our Sun every 3,600 years, arrived on Earth some 450,000 years ago and created humans by genetic engineering of female apes. To round out the curriculum for such a splendid course in alternative gibberish, one would probably want to include the account provided by the Scientologists that 75 million years ago Xenu, a galactic ruler from the Galactic Confederacy, brought billions of people to Earth and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Rather than annihilate these people, however, the bombs fused their souls with bodies. The rest, as they say, is pseudo-history.

In Wisconsin, state Rep. Terese Berceau, D.-Madison-backed by 13 professors from the University of Wisconsin-introduced a bill that would ban the teaching of ID and creationism in the state's public schools. The bill stipulates that "any material presented as science within the school curriculum" must be a testable scientific hypothesis and describe only natural processes and be consistent with "any description or definition of science adopted by the National Academy of Sciences." Berceau said her bill is "designed to promote good science education and prevent the introduction of pseudoscience in the science classroom." William Dembski, a leading proponent of ID, commented that the proposed legislation is "a clear sign that we [the creationists] are winning....[F]or materialistic evolution to require legislation to preserve its monopoly will in the end be seen as heavy-handed and self-serving...."* This legislation has little chance of succeeding but it does have symbolic value: it announces that not everybody in this country is kowtowing to the religious right.

Meanwhile, a majority of members on the Board of Education of Ohio voted to remove that state's "model biology lesson plan," which was considered an excuse to teach ID. Several years ago, Ohio singled out evolution as needing "critical analysis" in science classes. The Discovery Institute, the main political force behind the ID movement, has hailed the Ohio approach, probably because their main goal in pushing ID is to discredit evolution. In December 2003, the Ohio board adopted standards requiring that 10th graders be able to "describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." The standards specifically state that "this benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design." The point of the standards, however, was the same as the point of ID: to confuse people about evolution. Some other states have adopted similar standards.

The Dover case, the quick action of Americans United, the proposal in Wisconsin, and the removal of the anti-evolution standard in Ohio are bright spots for those who want to see a future where our children are taught real science in the biology classroom and not some watered-down version created out of fear of offending certain religious sensibilities.]

After Strossen's talk, a panel discussion ensued on the topic of "Science in Politics and the Politics of Science." Journalist Leon Jaroff (Time magazine), scientist Carolyn Porco ("she cut her teeth on the rings of Saturn," says Liam McDaid), and Penn Jillette joined Strossen, Randi, Shermer, and Murray Gell-Mann on the panel. About the only thing I remember from this panel was a discussion over whether the government should even be in the business of funding science. Maybe we'd be better off if we returned to the days when wealthy gentlemen funded their own projects or had patrons to help them out. There was doubt expressed that even Bill Gates could fund space exploration and other costly endeavors. Others weren't so sure and were skeptical of the skeptics.

One of the great things about the Randifest is the people you meet. I met several readers of The Skeptic's Dictionary (and was pleased to see that The Skeptic Society booth had copies of my book for sale). One of those I met up with was David Federlein, who was acting as a correspondent for the Skepticality podcast. Derek Colanduno, who is recovering from some serious bleeding in his brain, was not cleared for flying in time to make the Randifest. He and co-host Swoopy stayed in Atlanta while David interviewed several people at TAM4 for later broadcast. (Click here to download the interview I did with David.)  I also talked with-though very briefly-Ray Hyman, Jim Underdown, Ben Radford, and the SkepDoc (Harriet Hall). Ray was just hanging out but Jim and Ben gave talks on Sunday, and Harriet, I assume, skewered Marshall Deutsch's paper on cholesterol phobia.

Saturday's session started off with Richard Wiseman giving a very lively talk on the psychology of perception, including a presentation on illusions and the power of suggestion in producing meaningful backwards messages in such things as pop songs. I got to meet him and thank him in person for his generosity in sending me copies of papers he's presented or published in the field of parapsychology. One of his recent papers was done jointly with Marilyn Schlitz at Dean Radin's Institute of Noetic Sciences in northern California as well as at Wiseman's lab in England. The goal was to see if there would be any difference in outcome of a staring experiment when conducted by a skeptic (Wiseman) or a believer (Schlitz) in their respective labs. They found no difference in the very well-designed and tightly controlled experiments. She wasn't psi-conducive, but maybe Wiseman is so skeptical his psi-inhibitory power affected Schlitz. Neither found significant evidence for the staring effect that Rupert Sheldrake has argued for. It is unfortunate that these kind of joint studies are rarely conducted.

Daniel Dennett followed with a talk about his new book on religion, Breaking the Spell. He's spent the last two years studying religion as a biological entity. His talk was very interesting and suggestive. Is religion an adaptation that has benefited the survival of the individual by promoting the survival of the group? Is it a fluke, like a parasite that leads us to irrational behavior? I've started the book and can say that after several chapters I haven't found it to be the page-turner that Darwin's Dangerous Idea was. (On this subject: I found Robin Dunbar's recent article on religion, "Beyond Belief" in New Scientist (January 28-February 3, 2006), to be very interesting. Dunbar's thesis is that religion "acts as a kind of glue that holds society together." He realizes that this is not a revolutionary hypothesis, by the way.)

Carolyn Porco gave a very informative and interesting talk on Saturn and what we've learned from research such as that done on the Cassini mission. She noted that NASA was born in politics and has always been at the beck and call of politicians. She lamented the fact that the media reported on NASA's probe arriving in the outer solar system but 24 hours later it was right back to the love life of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie or the latest musings of Oprah. There seems to be a ho-hum attitude on the part of the media and the general public regarding space exploration, which is strange given the enthusiasm for fantasy shows such as Star Trek.

The highlight of the program-judging by attendance, audience reaction, and the length of the line at their book signing table-was the arrival of the Mythbusters: Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, and Kari Byron. They were as interesting and entertaining in person as they are on their popular Discovery Channel television program. There was some debate on whether they are teaching a new generation of young people to love science or to love blowing up things, not that the two are completely incompatible.

Next up was Paul Provenza, a comedian whose specialty is promoting atheism and poking fun at an array of religious beliefs. In my opinion, this performance would have been better presented in the evening as optional entertainment. Not everybody who attended was an atheist, and while I enjoy blasphemous comedy any time of day or night, not everybody does.

Provenza's show was followed by Ellen Johnson's presentation on the life and struggles of Madalyn Murray O'Hair for separation of church and state. Johnson is president of the American Atheists and is involved in the struggle to obtain equal rights for atheists. O'Hair won the court case that ended organized prayers in public schools, an achievement for which she was demonized by politicians and the press. It was refreshing to be reminded of how easy it is to demonize someone or some group and why we shouldn't look for help from the media. When the forces of oppression start steamrolling over people, it is usually groups like the American Atheists or the American Civil Liberties Union who come to the rescue.

I found it amusing that Ellen Johnson didn't know the JREF is an organization of skeptics. One of the more hilarious moments of the weekend came when she asked "are there any skeptics here?" I thought I heard her say that a skeptic is someone who believes in Bigfoot and such people aren't worth arguing with.

The last presentation of the day was a talk by Hal Bidlack. He told the audience that he used to pray for his atheist wife when she was dying of cancer. He stopped praying the day she died. Hal defended some sort of Deistic belief, though I'm not quite clear what it is that he believes. I'd call him a hopeful agnostic, but it's not clear what he's hoping for. It doesn't seem to be immortality and it doesn't seem to be Providence. But he doesn't consider himself an atheist. His talk was mostly personal and was very moving. He was in the Pentagon on 9/11 and watched as the roof collapsed on people he knew. Soon afterward he got word that his wife had cancer. He described his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. But there was little to discuss when he was finished. How can you discuss or question a man's feelings? That fact made the following panel discussion awkward, to say the least. Many thought it unnecessary, including the panel coordinator, Jamy Ian Swiss. The topic was "Can a skeptic believe in God?" The answer, of course, is 'yes.' So, what were the panelists going to discuss?

The panelists included Julia Sweeney, Daniel Dennett, Randi, Bidlack, Paul Provenza, Michael Shermer, Ellen Johnson, and television pundit Karen Russell (daughter of the Bill Russell). This panel might have been shelved in favor of a talk by Karen Russell on what it's like being a six-foot-two black woman atheist in a world run by short white men on the religious right.

PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD! Tell your friends and foes about The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter. Remind them that the newsletter is FREE.

Support our work! You can purchase your copy of The Skeptic's Dictionary online from Amazon.com or from your local bookseller. The perfect St. Patrick's Day present!

Web skepdic.com

Click to order from Amazon