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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 69

July 4, 2006

What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. -- James Madison

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

In this issue:

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

There is a new post on the Mass Media Bunk blog about how not to interview a psychic author.

I also updated the penile plethysmograph entry to link to a story about a recent court decision barring the use of this invasive device as a condition of a sex offender's release from prison. For some reason, one of the judges who ruled in this 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision thinks that the device makes it possible to probe a man's "innermost thoughts." Maybe Judge Noonan knows something we don't know.

I've also posted comments from readers on sleep paralysis and deją vu.

Independence Day

Today, we commemorate our nation's independence and separation from the British Empire. I'd like to commemorate as well the vision of independence from the tyranny of men who use God and religion to oppress others. That vision is expressed in both the Declaration of Independence and in the U.S. Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence mentions "Nature's God" and asserts that it is self-evident that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." The Founding Fathers and Framers were not establishing an atheist nation, nor were they anti-religious. But the Declaration wisely asserts that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." The doctrine that governments derive their just powers from God is rejected in our Declaration of Independence. The King of Great Britain might claim that he was owed allegiance because his authority came from God and that to disobey him was to go against God but such a claim would be deemed illegitimate.

A corollary of the consent of the governed concept is that no President of the United States gets his authority from God. He can pray to God. He can ask God to guide him. But he cannot claim we must obey him because he gets his authority from God.

The Founders did not establish an atheist nation but they did establish a secular nation, a nation whose power is derived from the purely secular notion of consent of the governed. They recognized the importance of religion and God in most people's lives and they wisely understood that only a secular nation could protect religious liberty. Had they established a state church, religious liberty would have suffered as it did in England and everywhere else where there is a state church.

The preamble to the Constitution asserts that "We the People of the United States" establish the Union. God is not mentioned here or anywhere else in the Constitution. Again, this does not make the Constitution an atheist document. But it does make it a purely secular document. God is not the source of political power, our Union, or our Constitution. Furthermore, there will be no religious test for any citizen or government official. Obviously, this does not mean that only atheists can be citizens or run for political office. It means that anyone can be a citizen or run for political office without regard for his or her religious affiliation. One expected consequence of this policy was that we would avoid the state-sanctioned religious persecution of minority religions that characterized England and most other countries. There would, of course, still be persecution (witness how the Mormons and other minority religions were treated in the 19th century). Another consequence of this policy is that even an atheist could theoretically become President of the United States. Don't laugh. This country has only been here for 200 years. I don't think we'll last as long as the dinosaurs did, but there is hope that sometime within the next millennium or two the supers will be able to practice in peace while the brights run the government. Granted, we have a few prejudices to overcome. For example, a recent nationwide poll found that 54% wouldn't vote for a Muslim presidential candidate and 37% wouldn't want a Mormon president. The bad news is that the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll didn't even ask participants if they'd vote for an atheist or a bright.

Finally, let's commemorate the First Amendment clauses that assert "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion [the separation clause], or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [the free exercise clause]." They continue to provide ample employment for writers, teachers, judges, and lawyers. As complicated as people have made these simple clauses, I think they (combined with the 14th Amendment) say (1) no laws can be made that apply specifically to religions and (2) no law can be made that prevents people from practicing their religion. Their purpose seems to have been to make sure no national church was established and that the many churches existing at the time would be protected from government persecution. I'm wrong, of course. They actually mean whatever the current majority on the U.S. Supreme Court says they mean.

Of course, the religious fanatics have never accepted the facts that God or Jesus was not named as the source of political power and was not named as the Protector of the Nation in the Constitution. They have declared victory anyway and continue to spread the false notion that this nation is a "Christian" nation not a secular nation that protects Christians and non-Christians alike. The religious fanatics have had their victories. Bibles are used at the swearing in of Presidents and other office holders or in courtrooms when testimony is about to be given or oaths are to be sworn to. "So help me God" and "God bless America" are familiar political phrases. Our currency says "in God we trust." Congress put "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. Athletic contests and military battles are preceded by prayers to Our Father or to Jesus.

And despite the fact that religions have universally been the enemies of freedom and equality, millions of Americans have been taught to believe that Christians didn't support and defend but rather put an end to slavery. We're also mistaught that Christians didn't support and defend the inequality of women and others but were solely responsible for bringing about the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I suppose that in one thousand years, when homosexuals and transsexuals are treated as full human beings, Christians will take credit for that, too.

So, on Independence Day 2006 I salute our Nation's Fathers for establishing a secular nation free from the tyranny of a state religion and free from the tyranny of any Articles of Faith that must be sworn to before holding public office. I salute them for their foresight in recognizing that the best way to protect religions and religious people from discriminatory legislation was to prohibit such legislation altogether. Though we should admit that it wouldn't take a prophet of much ability to recognize that religious fanaticism would be a significant problem in a democracy unless there was a built-in limit to restrict its natural tendency toward tyranny.

The New Theology: Coulteristics

Ann Coulter has turned philosopher of science and theologian in her new book Godless: The Church of Liberalism, which devotes four chapters (of eleven) to the wonders of creationism and the folly of evolution. Whereas her hero, President George W. Bush, divides the world into the good people and the evildoers, Coulter divides science into conservative science (creationism, intelligent design) and liberal science (what the rest of us call science). In her new theological treatise, Coulter unsheathes her rapier and uncoils her razor tongue as she does battle against what she understands to be Darwin's evil theory of natural selection. The result is sometimes fall-over hilarious, as when she thinks she (a lawyer and conservative celebrity) and her fellow creationists have discovered a simple but fatal logical error that no scientist has recognized over the past one hundred and fifty years: evolution is a tautology! Furthermore, according to Coulter's conservative theology (apparently lifted from Tom Bethell), this simple and fatal logical error was there in the earliest formulation of the theory of evolution.

Mathematician and the force behind EvolutionBlog Jason Rosenhouse notes that

Scientists are fully capable of jumping to conclusions, or arriving at incorrect theories from an inadequate supply of data. But it has never once happened in the history of science that a theory achieves mainstream status, only to fall apart when a clever outsider notices a simple logical oversight. That Coulter's and Bethell's formulation of evolution suggests it is tautological proves only that they do not understand the theory they are attacking....

Here's Coulter's version of her insight:

The second prong of Darwin's "theory" is generally nothing but a circular statement: Through the process of natural selection, the "fittest" survive. Who are the "fittest"? The ones who survive! Why look - it happens every time! The "survival of the fittest" would be a joke if it weren't part of the belief system of a fanatical cult infesting the Scientific Community.

The beauty of having a scientific theory that's a tautology is that it can't be disproved. Evolution cultists denounce "Creation Science" on the grounds that it's not "science" because it can't be observed or empirically tested in a laboratory. Guess what else can't be observed or empirically tested? Evolution! (pp. 212-213).

Coulter qualifies her inane observations by prefacing her remark with "As I understand the concept behind survival of the fittest...." To which James Downard of TalkReason responded: "Coulter has hit the nail squarely here: going by her 'understanding' of the matter is her problem. She does not understand it."

In case you are thinking of reading Coulter's masterpiece, consider Rosenhouses's warning:

The book contains four chapters dealing with evolution. In these chapters Coulter, well known for her right-wing polemics, attempts to portray evolution as nothing more than a sham science that serves as a creation myth for political liberals. Reading this material is a curious experience for anyone who knows some freshman biology. As with all anti-evolution writing, the arguments that are presented are not only incorrect, but also so confused that it is frequently difficult to discern what point Coulter thinks she is making.

The concept of survival of the fittest, however, isn't that difficult to understand. First of all, it should be noted that the expression was coined not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer, whose views on social and political matters are strikingly similar to those espoused by Coulter. Spencer, in fact, were he alive today, would fit right in with the pundits at Fox News. One reason nobody takes Spencer seriously any more, while Darwin is considered one of the greatest minds ever, is that Spencer's logic is occasionally on par with Coulter's (see pp. 139 ff. of Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism). Another reason is, of course, that Spencer, like Coulter, got most things wrong.

Second, in Darwin's theory those creatures with traits favored by their environment tend to reproduce more offspring than those less favored. No individual or species is more "fit" than another and none can claim special status because of their alleged "fitness." Of course there is more to Darwin's theory but what are the odds that Coulter has got the rest of the theory correct? Mark Perahk posted the following on The Panda's Thumb:

One third of Ann Coulter's latest bestseller, Godless: The Church of Liberalism, is devoted to raking "Darwiniac cultists" over the coals for promoting what she is certain is the false science of evolution. Unfortunately her roasting process was hampered by the fact that she forgot to get her fire lit first. Compulsively addicted to secondary sources, Coulter fails to comprehend even those, and exhibits consistent laziness when it comes to checking whether her meagre tinder could ever ignite.

Coulter may not understand science but she certainly understands branding and marketing. I've heard and seen her on TV a few times and I've seen the photos she uses for her book jackets. My first impression was that she was talking outrageously because that's what many people find entertaining these days. I assumed she dressed and groomed herself like a teenage vamp because to do so is good packaging for her product. In some ways, I guess you could say that she's the American dream come true. Even so, I wouldn't read her expecting to learn anything useful about evolution. For that goal, I would turn to a book by someone who understands what he's talking about: Henry Gee's In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life.

Gee is Chief Science Writer at Nature. You won't find any mention of "survival of the fittest" in Gee's book, but you will find a discussion of what Darwin called "the struggle for existence," the competition for food and mates among the many various offspring of parents of every species. You'll find a description of how this competition leads to organisms being suited to their habitats and how, over unimaginable stretches of time, gradual changes result in new species (along with extinctions and stable populations). But most of all you will find a discussion of how good science works by posing testable hypotheses. You'll be reminded that the next time you see or hear the expression "gone the way of the dinosaur" you should recall that those creatures roamed the earth for something like 150,000,000 years. You'll rethink what you think you know about species and adaptations. You'll also learn a great deal about cladistics and cladograms and why it's pointless to look for missing links. Hint: the answer has something to do with Deep Time and the necessarily sparse fossil record.

The Baby Whisperer - Will it never end?

I received an email from Stephen Netherwood of the UK to inform me of an exciting new television series featuring a man who can telepathically communicate with babies. The show is called "The Baby Whisperer" and stars Derek Ogilvie. Neither Ogilvie, the producers of the TV series, nor Guardian writer Yvonne Roberts (who wrote a credulous piece about the show) seem to have any understanding of the processes of subjective validation and cold reading. I predict the show will be as popular in the UK as are the many TV shows in the U.S.A. featuring ghosts, psychics, and psychic detectives. (In case you haven't heard, a new show called "Psych" premieres at 10 p.m. Friday on USA. It stars James Roday as a guy who helps police solve crimes by his "psychic" abilities, only he's faking it. I hope the show is as good as the concept!) Someone should notify Paul Kurtz, however. In the latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, editor Kendrick Frazier writes that "Paul sometimes argues that no one is interested in the paranormal anymore." I wish it were so, Paul, I wish it were so.

Scams of the Minute

One-fourth of the dishonor goes to Life Technology T for their imaginative array of alternative medical devices, including such "metaphysical tools" as the Grail StoneT. This doodad retails for a mere $100 and can be used for "healing and personal transformation." Using it may be dangerous to your health, however, because it "can take the organism quite some time to adjust to all of the new hyper dimensional information being received and if the process occurs too rapidly it can cause minor discomfort for the user." In other words, the only kind of personal transformation it's good for is reducing the size of your bankroll.

This group of wizards also sell the SolcodeT, a homeopathic product "prepared using The Solis MethodT," which, we are told, "introduces the toroidal power of implosion (livingness), adds orgone energy, incorporates phi harmonics, tensor fields, sonics and ultasonics [sic], visible and invisible light spectrum energy and, most crucially, incorporates specific healing frequencies within the elixir during preparation." One of the healing frequencies is 528 Hz and is said to be good for transformation, miracles, and DNA repair. It's also a C note on a major musical scale. You can get a 10 ml vial for $30.

Let's see, if one gallon equal 3.79 liters and there are one thousand ml in a liter, then there are 3,790 ml in a gallon. Therefore, I'd need 379 vials to get a gallon of this stuff. In other words, these guys are selling water for more than $11,000 a gallon!  As Ken Williams pointed out to me: they trust nobody will do the math.

Equally worthy of dishonorable mention is the College of Medical Intuition (in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada) and its founder Dr. Marilyn Parkin. Her doctorate is in "energy medicine" and she learned her intuitive healing from Carolyn Myss, who has a doctorate from Greenwich University in Intuition and Energy Medicine. Greenwich University was shut down by the federal government of Australia in 2002; its branches in Hilo, Hawaii, and Mill Valley, California, were shut down in 2003.

Parkin says she learned about "energy blocks" in the body at a seminar about a decade ago. Soon she was having visions and pinpointing blockages in friends and relatives. "I'm very scientific in my thinking," she says.* Her scientific thinking has led her to branch out from energy blocks to emotional blocks, chakra assessment, and energy balance. According to Parkin, everybody is sending out energy that is packed with information about health. Medical intuitives know how to receive and interpret these telekinetic packets of information.

Parkin says that energy medicine:

is the art and science of working the natural subtle energies of the body to empower the individual to align with health, vitality and well-being. Eastern cultures have long recognized these energies, and more recently Western medicine is adopting this premise.

She fails to mention two things, however. One, scientifically educated persons in Eastern cultures no longer adhere to vitalism. Two, many in Western medicine used to believe in vitalism, but it is no longer a popular position among the scientifically literate.

Parkin does mention, however, that you need absolutely no medical training to become a medical intuitive.* How comforting is that?

For a scientific analysis of how energy medicine healers deceive themselves and others, read "Social and Judgmental Biases that Make Inert Treatments Seem to Work" by Barry L. Beyerstein.

Our next award goes to all those quackmasters selling products that will lower your body voltage. EMF Safety Superstore's Deep Sleep Sheet heads the list of these vital products. It's a "special low conductivity sheet for your bed." You need this "to keep your body electricity neutral and keep body voltage at a minimum." Trust them. This is good for you. It will result in rest that is "like sleeping in the cool summer grass, cradled on Mother Earth herself!" The Deep Sleep Sheet includes a 6-foot ground cord and installs easily. According to these folks, an electrically neutral state during sleep "can help reduce anxiety and restlessness, promoting a deeper, more relaxing sleep." It can even enhance your dreams!

If you are wondering what "body voltage" is, one fellow describes it thusly:

An external electric field will induce an electric field within our bodies. In this sense, our bodies act as antennas picking up fields from electric blankets, alarm clocks, power lines, and just about everything connected to a source of electric power, whether it is switched on or not.*

But you need not worry because the quackmasters have all kinds of products to save us from the wrong amount of body voltage. Unfortunately, they're not all on the same Tesla coil regarding the optimum body voltage. While the EMF Safety Superstore advises us to keep body voltage at a minimum, the Holistic Health Shop claims that "your overall body voltage needs to be as high as possable [sic] ... to maintain optimal health" and "to stay healthy you must eat the foods of the highest electrical values." To find out the electrical values of different foods you need their bio-energy meter, which sells for $140.

Our last award goes to the QLink pendant and Airwave Headset, guaranteed to "neutralize the EMF stress effects from computers, cell phones and other electronic devices." (This pendant is not to be confused with the Q-Ray bracelet that will balance your yin and yang ions.) That these ridiculous products are available is not shocking. That the wife of the British Prime Minister wears such a device, as does Oprah Winfrey is a bit more revolting. Oprah wears a Philip Stein Teslar watch that allegedly "harnesses the body's own electromagnetic energy field to repel the negative effects of energy electromagnetic fields given off by cell-phones and other electronic devices."

Fortunately, we need not worry about the spread of these ideas and devices because, as Paul Kurtz says, nobody's interested in the paranormal anymore.

Super camps for brights

There is still time to register for Camp Quest, the summer camp for young secular humanists and freethinkers (ages 8-17). Here's a list of five locations and dates for this year's activities:

July 15-21, 2006 - (California)
July 15-22, 2006 - (Ohio)
July 23-30 (Minnesota)

July 23-29 (Ontario, Canada)
August 13-20 (Michigan)

Camp Quest was the first secular summer camp for youth in the United States. Camp Quest was specifically designed for children of agnostics, atheists, brights, freethinkers, humanists, Unitarians, or whatever terms might be applied to those who maintain a naturalistic, not supernaturalistic, world view.

Also, there is still time to register for Camp Inquiry, a summer camp for kids from 7-16 years to be held in Holland, New York, from July 12th - 17th, 2006. Camp Inquiry is sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and its Affiliate Organizations and is not affiliated with Camp Quest.


CSICOP is sponsoring a nationally syndicated radio program hosted by Rick Wood at Audiomartini. Go to the website and you can listen to the first broadcast, featuring Joe Nickell debating a member of the Shroud of Turin Research Project.


Tony Bellows has corrected my comment in the last newsletter that Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus was about attempts in the 18th and 19th centuries to prove Jesus never existed: Tony writes

The Quest of the Historical Jesus was not ever about "attempts to prove that Jesus had never existed"; it was about attempts to examine to materials about him with a fair degree of scepticism and construct what each of the authors discussed was a "life of Jesus". They all thought that Jesus existed, but the existing documents could not be taken at face value, and they had to reconstruct what he was really like.

What Schweitzer argued was that their versions of Jesus (as per their reconstructions) didn't exist; they were mythopoetic lives; they were like people peering into a deep well and seeing their own reflections; their Jesus was almost a copy of themselves. His conclusion was not that Jesus did not exist, but that Jesus was mistaken about his future, and that he will forever remain "a mystery and a stranger to humanity".

Tony is correct. Here is an example  of the kind of analysis Schweitzer did (from his chapter on Bruno Bauer):

The question which has so much exercised the minds of men-whether Jesus was the historic Christ (= Messiah)-is answered in the sense that everything that the historical Christ is, everything that is said of Him, everything that is known of Him, belongs to the world of imagination, that is, of the imagination of the Christian community, and therefore has nothing to do with any man who belongs to the real world.

The world is now free, and ripe for a higher religion in which the ego will overcome nature, not by self-alienation, but by penetrating it and ennobling it. To the theologian we may fling as a gift the shreds of his former science, when we have torn it to pieces; that will be something to occupy himself with, that time may not hang heavy upon his hands in the new world whose advent is steadily drawing nearer.

Thus the task which Bauer had set himself at the beginning of his criticism of the Gospel history, turned, before he had finished, into something different. When he began, he thought to save the honour of Jesus and to restore His Person from the state of inanition to which the apologists had reduced it, and hoped by furnishing a proof that the historical Jesus could not have been the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, to bring Him into a living relation with history. This task, however, was given up in favour of the larger one of freeing the world from the domination of the Judaeo-Roman idol, Jesus the Messiah, and in carrying out this endeavour the thesis that Jesus Christ is a product of the imagination of the early Church is formulated in such a way that the existence of a historic Jesus becomes problematical, or, at any rate, quite indifferent.*

For more discussion of the historical existence of Jesus question, Michael Collins recommends George A. Wells's Did Jesus Exist? and Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle website.


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