Robert Todd Carroll
April 4. 2006
Previous newsletters are archived at skepdic.com/news/ Go there for subscription and feedback information.
In this issue:
I updated Holocaust denial entry to link to a press release about an arson attack at the offices of The Holocaust History Project (THHP), an organization that has been in the forefront of confronting Holocaust denial online. The pareidolia entry now includes a link to Merchandising God: The Pope Tart by Karen Stollznow. Medium now links to an article about John Edward's latest TV tour. Sťance now links to a BBC article on a TV show that featured a sťance with the spirit of John Lennon. Uri Geller now has a link to an article that chronicles how Geller brings bad luck to those he tries to help. Chiropractic now has a link to a TimesOnline article about a study that found chiropractic worthless. Acupuncture links to a Guardian article critical of a TV show that fawned over acupuncture. And the psychoanalysis entry now has links to a recent cover story on Freud from Newsweek and an article by Frederick Crews critical of that article.
There are also blog additions on the 9/11 conspiracies, the latest healing prayer study, a new thimerosal study, the war on science (featured in the Skeptic's Circle # 31), and the President of Bulgaria honors a psychic.
Finally, on St. Patrick's day I was a guest columnist for James Randi's Online Newsletter, Swift. Randi reports that he is making slow but steady progress and will be back at the helm soon. That is good news.
A person identifying herself as an Associate Producer working on a show for NBC News Productions wrote me:
I was feeling grumpy, so I replied:
Unsurprisingly, I never heard back from her. While there are some television programs that make an effort to engage the viewer in critical thinking about the occult and the paranormal, they are still rare ("Naked Science," "Nova," "Is it Real?," "Mythbusters," "Scientific American Frontiers," and the like). Apparently, this NBC show on remote viewing won't be one of them.
In August 2005, the British medical journal Lancet published a meta-analysis of 110 homeopathic studies that concluded there is no convincing evidence homeopathic treatments work any better than a placebo.* The latest issue of Skeptic magazine has a brief note about the Lancet article and accompanying editorial (in Lancet) that recommended that physicians inform their patients that they're wasting their money on homeopathic medicines. It turns out, however, that Lancet and Skeptic don't understand homeopathy. If they did, they would realize that it can't be tested the way science tests real medicines.
Here is how one defender of homeopathy puts it:
Each person in a clinical trial would have to be individually fitted for just the right remedy for that unique individual. So, for a trial with 50 subjects in the experimental group, there would have to be 50 different remedies developed. Our controls would be diagnosed for their individual remedies and treated ever-so-kindly, just as those in the experimental group, except that the controls will be given a placebo. We would not tell the 100 subjects in our double-blind randomized trial which group they were in.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that if you brought in 50 different homeopaths to develop the remedies, you'd probably end up with 50 different remedies for each subject in the trial. I think we'd have to bring in several homeopaths (not 50, but maybe 4 or 5), just to reduce the chances that any effects measured were due to the manner of the practitioner.
I'd like to infect our subjects with a cold virus and measure something objective (like how many times an hour they cough, sneeze, or blow their noses). Of course we can't test the homeopathic remedies because of the allegedly unique nature of homeopathy, but we can test homeopathy. If we get statistically significant fewer coughs, sneezes, and nose blows from the experimental group than from the controls, then we can say that homeopathy works. Well, maybe not. [Folks, I have my tongue planted firmly in my cheek on this one. The true believers in homeopathy will always come up with some ad hoc hypothesis to rationalize the failure of their beloved dogma.]
A couple of issues ago, Skeptic ran an article by Marshall E. Deutsch, a cholesterol contrarian who argued, among other things, that cholesterol is not a major player in the heart disease game. Deutsch goes way beyond my claims in suburban myth #71 that too much animal fat and cholesterol in the diet promotes atherosclerosis or heart attacks. My point is that it is not established by consensus science that diet will cause atherosclerosis which will cause coronary heart disease (CHD). I do NOT claim that atherosclerosis is not linked to heart disease. Moral of the story? Cholesterol and atherosclerosis are not the only causes of heart disease; having low cholesterol does not mean you are exempt from atherosclerosis or heart disease. (Although, if you are generally healthy, CHD is uncommon at total cholesterol levels below 150 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)*). Not eating animal fat and cholesterol does not mean you are exempt from atherosclerosis or heart disease. And, eating a diet with a good amount of animal fat and cholesterol does not necessarily mean you are promoting atherosclerosis or heart disease. There are lots of other factors that need to be considered: your past health history (do you have heart disease now?), your family history with cholesterol levels and heart disease, do you smoke, are you grossly overweight, do you exercise, etc.
Deutsch and his fellow cholesterol contrarians, Uffe Ravnskov and Joel M. Kauffman, make some extraordinary claims about cholesterol, one of which appeared in the most recent issue of Skeptic [vol. 12, no. 2] without any comment from an editor or medical person. To wit, Mr. Kauffman writes: "Cholesterol is highly protective against cancer, infection and atherosclerosis" and "high TC [total cholesterol] and LDL levels are beneficial at all ages." These are extraordinary claims and could be deadly, if taken seriously. It is hoped that no reader will throw away his or her cholesterol-lowering medications after reading these claims. Kauffman's source for this outrageous claim is Ravnskov, a man who is not averse to distorting data if it serves his purposes, and whose paper is titled "High Cholesterol May Protect Against Infections and Atherosclerosis." Note the word "may" and note the absence of the word "cancer" in the title of this paper.
I have dusted off my annotated copy of Ravnskov's The Cholesterol Myths and in the future will be commenting in some detail about his arguments.
Robin Edgar writes:
These and many other exciting claims about the moon are made in the book Who Built the Moon? by Christopher Knight and Alan Butler. Did God put the moon and sun in their spots in the heavens for our benefit? Maybe. Maybe not. Did God put the tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis here for our benefit? The eye of a hurricane as seen from a satellite resembles a gigantic "Eye of God," wouldn't you say? But, I digress.
The moon formed about 4.5 billion years ago.* The model most consistent with the evidence is that it formed from an impact with Earth (the Big Whack).* Billions of years ago, the moon was much closer to Earth. There would have been no "Eye of God" during a solar eclipse, just a very dark sky. And the moon is moving away from us at a very slow rate (about 4 centimeters [1.6 inches] a year (Plait, Bad Astronomy, p. 191). Our sun will burn out in about 5 billion years, but before it does it will get very large and the moon will be much smaller as seen from Earth. However, there won't be anyone here to see a relatively minuscule moon pass in front of a relatively huge red giant. Strange design.
It has been taught for centuries by clergy of many faiths that intercessory prayer works. Many people are convinced that their prayers for the health and well-being of others have been answered. Yet:
Even those who defend prayer research concede that such studies are difficult. For one thing, no one knows what constitutes a ''dose" of prayer: some studies have tested a few prayers a day by individual healers, while others have had entire congregations pray together. Some have involved evangelical Christians; others have engaged rabbis, Buddhist, and New Age healers, or some combination.
A major problem with such studies is that the first thing many people do when they are ill or scheduled for surgery is ask others to pray for them. Maybe the prayers of some people are more powerful than those of others. We could easily misinterpret the data. As Galton noted in 1872 when he did his statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer that found that monarchs lived a few years less than the average member of the gentry: maybe it would have been worse if everybody in the kingdom had not been praying for them on a daily basis, given their heavy responsibilities.
Another problem concerns the mechanism by which prayer might work. Some researchers contend that prayers' effects -- if they exist -- have little to do with religion or the existence of God. Instead of divine intervention, they propose things like ''subtle energies,'' ''mind-to-mind communication'' or ''extra dimensions of space-time'' -- concepts that many scientists dismiss as nonsense (Carey).
Another problem is the same one we've seen with the ESP and PK experiments: researchers assume that "not due to chance" is logically equivalent to "my hypothesis is supported" (Alcock). As with the psi studies, there is no known mechanism by which healing prayer (HP) might occur and as with them, if HP were really occurring then no controlled study would be possible. There would be no way to control for the effects of supernatural interference or subtle energies in any study.
Finally, it would be interesting if the prayers of one group seemed to work against the prayers of all other groups. Maybe then we would know who the true God is. Perhaps we should have a worldwide prayer study, pitting all religions and energy healers against one another, to determine the true religion. My hypothesis is that if they all fail to produce a statistically significant result, then no god or subtle energy exists. I expect an episode of South Park to take this up before any scientists do, however.
There is good news, however, for those who stay healthy enough to go to church: you'll live longer. A new study says so and more. If you stay healthy enough to exercise you'll also live longer. And, even if you don't go to church or exercise, you'll live longer if you take your statins. Who said life isn't fair?
A reader who wishes to remain anonymous writes:
As my talking monkey used to say, hypocrisy knows no religious boundaries.
Another reader writes:
I agree that this is not simply a free speech issue and yes, I have seen the cartoons and was not outraged.
Another reader, Doug, writes about the comments made by me and a reader in the last newsletter:
Doug raises some valid points that need addressing. Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal has been a supporter of the kind of Islamic education that, for lack of a better word, might be called fundamentalist. Wahabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia, is anti-Israel and it nurtured three-fourths of the 9/11 suicide hijackers. One of the beliefs of fundamentalist Muslims is that heretics, infidels, and apostates should be killed. By now the story of Abd Al-Rahman is well known: He converted to Christianity from Islam and was held in an Afghan jail awaiting trial on this criminal offense that is punishable by death. He was arrested after police found him with a Bible. At the time of this writing he has been released, declared mentally incompetent, and exiled to Italy. (Apparently, if he converted to Christianity while mentally ill, he would be spared.) I quote senior Cleric Faiez Mohammed: "Abd Al-Rahman must be killed. Islam demands it. The Christian foreigners occupying Afghanistan are attacking our religion" (Sacramento Bee). This cleric is considered a "moderate" because he opposed the Taliban! Clerics who are trying to incite the people to tear Abd Al-Rahman to pieces, should a court not execute him, may also be considered moderates compared to the Taliban.
This is not an isolated incident. A teacher was beheaded by the Taliban this past January for teaching girls.* Last April a woman was stoned to death on the word of her husband that she had committed adultery.* It was only a few years ago that an Australian man was sentenced to 16 months in prison and 300 lashes because his wife was convicted of stealing.* Blasphemy will get you a life sentence in Pakistan.* Muslims in several parts of the world still sentence people to death by stoning for adultery.
I'm not saying that the Saudi prince advocates stoning or tearing people to pieces or that Harvard and Georgetown would put together a program that advocated the kind of fundamentalist Islam now rampant in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and other places around the world. But what is the likelihood that the programs developed with his money are going to tell the whole story of Islam?
It is true that Christianity at one time had a large antisemitic faction that persecuted and killed heretics, infidels, and apostates. But those days are gone, not that certain people (e.g. Pat Robertson) don't publicly lament that fact. Most religions today have reinterpreted their holy scriptures to accommodate a position of tolerance for other religions. Islam stands alone as a major religion that continues to have a significant element that calls for war against and murder of anyone who is deemed to offend its teachings.
Will Georgetown and Harvard take the prince's money and tell the truth about Islam? I don't know. But I wouldn't touch his money because of his association with fundamentalist Islam, which is hatefully intolerant and a threat not only to freedom of religion but to peace on earth. He once gave $27 million to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. He also gave the Council on American-Islamic Relations $500,000 to distribute The Meaning of The Holy Quran, "a uniquely anti-Semitic version of the Quran with hatred so blatant the book was pulled from the shelves of the Los Angeles public school system."* The majority of Muslims are probably not anti-Israel and not hatefully intolerant, but they are not rising up in indignation at those who are. The news media is not going to cover tolerant Islam; it is going to cover intolerant, outraged, violent, suicide-bomber, terrorist Islam. Perhaps these university programs will combat the news media portrayals. But ask yourself whether you think the prince expects an unbiased, independent, fair and balanced portrayal of Islam to be presented. My guess is that he wants Islam to be portrayed in a good light, as a religion of peace and progress because it would be good for business.*
Then again maybe I'm overreacting and the prince is just a nice guy who wants to help Americans understand that not all Muslims are terrorist fanatics who hate Israel and freedom. And maybe Harvard and Georgetown just want to do their part to spread the good word.
I'll conclude with links to two versions of the life of Muhammad. In version 1 Muhammad is a saint. In Version 2 he is a brigand and violent warmonger. Which version will be taught at Georgetown and Harvard? Which is the "true" version? This is not just an exercise in contrast. It's a very real problem. We in California recently witnessed a controversy over proposed changes in middle school social science textbooks. The proposal angered Hindu groups that had been lobbying to change the way their religion is taught in our public schools. (Our sixth graders are required to study ancient Hinduism, among other religions and cultures.) Two groups, the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation, vehemently opposed the proposals. The critics claim that Hindus are being portrayed negatively ("as worshipping talking monkeys and burning widows") and that their culture was being portrayed simplistically. Others responded by asking why should history be rewritten to make us feel better? Certainly, factual inaccuracies should be removed from the texts. The point is that any attempt to teach any religion in a secular setting is going to be controversial simply because there are very few religions that don't have several sects that conflict with one another in fundamental ways. Dan Dennett might want to reconsider his proposal to require the study of the world's religions in public schools. If implemented, it could lead to World War III.
1. Read Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell.
2. Read Leon Wieseltier's review of Breaking the Spell in The New York Times Book Review.
3. Read James Brookfield's review of Wieseltier's review.
Question: Is Wieseltier's argument a straw man? Is Brookfield's argument a straw man of a straw man?
Dennett's book calls for a scientific study of religion. Wieseltier's review begins with this paragraph:
I've read Dennett's book but gave up on Wieseltier's review after reading this paragraph because it is so nonsensical that it seemed unlikely that it would be worth my time to read further. The place of science in human life is certainly as much a scientific question as is the place of religion in human life. Even questions about the value of science or religion are scientific questions. Should we value science or religion are philosophical questions. And scientism is not a superstition. It's a philosophical position and definitely in the minority these days. Scientism may be wrong or false, but it is not a superstition, much less one of the dominant superstitions of our day. If you want an anthology of contemporary superstitions, read the Bible, not Dennett's book. Lastly, anyone who has actually read Dennett's book and thinks it is an example of scientism (or reductionism) doesn't know how to read or is making up the claim for polemical reasons.
James Brookfield did read Wieseltier's whole review and I found his analysis so interesting that I read the entire thing. According to Brookfield, Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, is a "crass defender of American imperialism and a member of the Project for a New American Century, which argued for an invasion of Iraq from the time of the group's inception in the mid-1990s." But, even imperialists can do proper book reviews. However, choosing Wieseltier to do the review for The New York Times raises some questions, says Brookfield:
Interesting accusation, but irrelevant to the quality or accuracy of the review. What follows, however, is a hatchet job of the review by someone who has read the book and the review and provides an explanation for how an intelligent person in a position of some responsibility could publish a review in the prestigious Times when the review's first paragraph would have gotten an "F" on a graduate student paper if it continued in the same vein to the end.
It appears that the Russian translation of The Skeptic's Dictionary was done by someone who did not like my comments on Freud. I received a letter of concern from a social psychologist at the University of Nizhniy Novgorod. He says he "bought the Russian edition of the Skeptic's Dictionary and began to read it with great pleasure. But when I reached the entry on Psychoanalysis I was shocked. It was not YOUR entry." Apparently, the Russian translators or editors excluded my critical remarks and turned it into a panegyric. Here is one small example. In the entry, I write: "The scientific evidence for this notion of unconscious repression is lacking, though there is ample evidence that conscious thought and behavior are influenced by unconscious memories." The translator deleted "The scientific evidence for this notion of unconscious repression is lacking, though", which proves the old saying about something being lost in the translation.
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