Table of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll


Newsletter Archives


logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 70

August 16, 2006

"In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see ["An Inconvenient Truth"]. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to." -- Roger Ebert

Previous newsletters are archived at Go there for subscription and feedback information.

In this issue:

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

There are two new entries in the Skeptic's Dictionary: rumpology and Emotional Freedom Techniques. I've posted a new essay called "Rumpology for Dummies" and a book review of Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

The sleep paralysis entry was updated to include a link to an article that connects this topic to paranormal experiences in Iceland. The psychic surgery entry was updated to include a link to a video of James Randi demonstrating how it's done. (For a list of all Randi videos online, try Google's new Video Search.)

There have also been several additions to the What's the Harm? pages, one on a psychic and two on bad medicine.

Psychic Detectives on TV: how do they affect paranormal beliefs?

Allison DuBois promotes herself as a psychic who has helped the police solve crimes. Her first book impressed Kelsey Grammar (Frasier Crane) so much that he produced a TV show ("Medium") based on the story DuBois tells of her weird abilities to talk to the dead, see the future in her dreams, and read people's thoughts. She is listed as a consultant for "Medium" and is described on the website for the program thusly:

Allison donates her time to missing/murdered persons and criminal cases for agencies across the country. She is contacted by law enforcement and families to help find missing and murdered people. Allison also assists in jury selection for District Attorney's Offices. Each of these is a means for her to give back to the world for being so blessed.*

An attempt to verify her claims about helping solve crimes for police departments was made by Ben Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer. The police denied she had worked with them.* This might explain why she was not consulted nor did she have any visions or psychic dreams that proved useful over the past year in her hometown of Phoenix where two serial killers have been murdering, shooting, raping, and robbing people. Eleven people have been murdered and sixteen have been wounded since the sprees began in May 2005. Psychic DuBois has probably been too busy to solve these crimes, as her schedule promoting herself, her book, and the TV show has been grueling.* Or perhaps she called in one of the more than 2,000 anonymous tips the police received.* Two men were arrested recently and charged with a number of these crimes. No mention was made in news stories of any psychics helping the police decide who to arrest.

We're also waiting for Carla Baron to solve the Ray Gricar case. Ray went missing on April 15, 2005, and police have no idea where he is or if he is dead or alive. He was the District Attorney of Centre County, PA. The 59-year-old Gricar was last seen in Bellefonte, PA, and possibly in Lewisburg, PA, wearing blue jeans, a blue fleece jacket, and sneakers. His vehicle, a red and white 2004 Mini Cooper was found in Lewisburg, approximately 60 miles from Bellefonte.

It's been over a year since Carla Baron said she was getting psychic visions about the case.* After it had been reported that police found cigarette ash on the floor of Gricar's car, Baron reported that she "believes someone leaned into the passenger side window of [Gricar's] Mini Cooper while smoking a cigarette to coerce Gricar from his car" and into another vehicle.*

Baron is the "official psychic spokeswoman for Court TV" and stars in a show called "Haunting Evidence." One episode featured the Gricar case; another featured the futile search for Tara Grinstead.* Viewers are told that

On "Haunting Evidence," which airs at 10:30 Wednesdays, [John J.] Oliver, along with psychic profiler Carla Baron and paranormal investigator Patrick Burns, is given an unsolved case. The three visit the locality where the crime took place and give their impressions. Their findings are turned over to the local police.*

The show is presented in such a way as to suggest that the paranormal investigators are working cold when they give their impressions, that they know nothing about the victims or the cases when they arrive in town to do their work. However, this is not true. Baron and her co-workers are in contact with lots of people involved in the investigation before they go on TV with their "impressions."* Needless to say, Court TV provides no disclaimer that would reveal how they actually get the information they present as "psychic impressions." If this program were presented as fictional entertainment, there would be less of a problem with Court TV's deception. However, Court TV tries to give the impression that they are giving us the facts in dramatic fashion. A critical thinker won't be deceived by this kind of program, but many others may find the selective "evidence" strongly indicative of paranormal ability and be persuaded to believe in psychic powers. Those who already believe may find that the program confirms their belief in the paranormal.

However, just what effect on belief such programs have is largely unstudied. One scientist who has studied this issue is Glenn G. Sparks, professor of communication at Purdue University. See his article (with Will Miller) "Investigating the Relationship Between Exposure to Television Programs that Depict Paranormal Phenomena and Beliefs in the Paranormal." Many of us assume there is a negative effect but we seem to be relying on intuition rather than hard evidence. Are most people who are attracted to such programs already strong believers in the paranormal? How many viewers are not good critical thinkers and are easily swayed to believe in the paranormal by watching such shows? Are TV producers being irresponsible by not presenting minimal disclaimers about the reality of their shows?

Sparks, who studied how television shows in the 1990s influenced people's beliefs in UFOs and alien abductions, says of the many TV shows with paranormal and supernatural themes: "This is a great form of entertainment, but it can be harmful when people are unable to sort out what is real and what isn't....For example, watching these shows could encourage people who can least afford it to start spending money on psychics....Also, teenagers' belief systems are still forming, so they are more susceptible to being influenced by these shows."*

He also suggests that parents talk to their children about what they are watching but one wonders what good it would do, since many of the parents are probably believers and may not have very good critical thinking skills themselves.

Jason Colavito, on the other hand, thinks skeptics who criticize such TV shows may be doing more harm than the shows themselves. In a recent opinion piece in Skeptic magazine (vol. 12, no. 3), he writes that he considers any warnings about the reality of "supernatural fiction" to be misguided. His view is that skeptics who issue warnings about such programs "often engage in uncritical and fallacious thinking that undercuts their rationalist message." Such skeptics, he thinks, run the risk of insulting audiences and giving the impression of an "elitist, condescending attitude that gives the skeptic a bad name." Complaining about such programs reinforces "an image of skeptics as self-appointed elitist priests guarding the temple of reason," according to Colavito. Maybe so, but I have no regrets for having criticized "Medium" and for taking to task a journalist who did a fawning interview with Allison Dubois. I think Colavito might be more offended by my critical comments than any non-skeptical viewer of the show, but I may be deceiving myself.

Colavito also complains that skeptical critics of supernatural fiction argue that supernatural dramas shouldn't exist. He doesn't cite any examples, though he mentions Joe Nickell by name and cites a critical article Nickell wrote about the lies that have been told to promote several psychics, including Allison DuBois of "Medium" fame. But Nickell doesn't call for a ban on supernatural TV programs. There may well be skeptics who have argued for banning supernatural or paranormal themes from fictional works but I have not run into them yet.

Colavito is very critical of Dr. Sparks. As far as I know, Colavito has not done any empirical studies of the issue. His opinion piece in Skeptic leaves me with the impression that he thinks that most people can handle lies about the paranormal and the supernatural in fiction and that skeptics do more harm than good by criticizing such shows. Part of his argument is based on the fact that H. P. Lovecraft was a skeptic and materialist who wrote supernatural fiction and he himself (Colavito) is a skeptic who loves Lovecraft's work (and other high quality supernatural fiction). Neither was corrupted by it. Still, I find it a mighty stretch to link criticizing shows such as "Medium" to the claims that there can't be good literature or TV with a supernatural theme and that such literature or TV should be banned. Frankly, as a teacher I consider it a duty to criticize programs or books that falsely imply that the paranormal events depicted in them are true.

On this issue, I trust Sparks more than I trust Colavito. I agree with Colavito that good critical thinkers don't need warnings about the reality of the TV they watch or the stories they read. But how many good critical thinkers watch TV? especially supernatural TV? In any case, we don't really know what, if any, specific effects all this unreality TV is having on the beliefs of viewers. I think we're justified in assuming that most children and teenagers, and a significant number of adults, do not have highly developed critical thinking skills. We may try to educate our students in such skills, but we do not know what, if any, effect we are having, aside from the occasional self-report. This is an area that needs to be studied and professor Sparks is one of the few people who is doing this kind of research. [For Colavito's response, see below.]

I certainly don't want to ban "Medium" and I'm not too worried about appearing as an elitist for criticizing NBC for misleading its viewers about Allison DuBois's alleged paranormal feats. In any case, fictional programs vary from those that are clearly presented as pure fiction to those that are fictional but claim to be "based on a true story" (whatever that might mean) to those that are clearly presented to be fact when they are really fiction (such as Court TV's "Haunting Evidence"). The reinforcement effect of such programs on each other is hard to calculate, but it seems safe to say that for non-critical thinkers the fictional aspects of "Medium" are given a boost toward believability by the hard-sell promotion of psychics on Court TV and programs such as Larry King Live.

For what it's worth: I watched one episode of "Psych" (the fictional TV program about a fake psychic detective). I enjoyed it. If I watched TV regularly, I might watch more episodes; but I don't, so I won't. Will teenagers and others who watch such a show tend to become more skeptical? Will this show lead to a spate of admittedly fake supernatural fiction? Stay tuned.

I also recently read and enjoyed Night Summons (St. Martin's Press, 1996) by Anita Gentry, a colleague of mine at Sacramento City College. Dr. Gentry's mystery novel has a central figure who is based loosely on Charles Tart. (She worked in the typing pool at UC Davis when Tart was in the psychology department there and witnessed a lot of academic pettiness, jealousy, resentment, intellectual theft, and maltreatment of disliked colleagues.) There are paranormal themes in the book and, while Gentry may not be of the caliber of Lovecraft, she is a competent and intelligent writer. I don't understand why one would think that criticizing some supernatural TV shows or books implies that all shows (or books) with paranormal or supernatural themes are equally flawed and should be banned. Gentry told me that she researched the paranormal for her book and did not find anything to persuade her to become a believer. I suspect that Gentry and Lovecraft are not unusual creative artists in using themes that do not jibe with their personal beliefs.

reply from Jason Colavito:

First, I understand that you feel that I have stretched the evidence by implying skeptics want supernatural television banned. Here I must concede that no one skeptic has advocated banning all supernatural TV; however, every supernatural television show has had at least one skeptic complain about it. The cumulative effect therefore is the impression that the skeptical community opposes supernatural television. This is not dissimilar to the cumulative effect of "psychic" shows you claim to be influencing regular folk's beliefs about the paranormal.

However, I must take exception to your depiction of my brief opinion piece. At no point did I say that skeptics should not speak out against paranormal programs masquerading as true. In fact, in my article I specifically wrote: "First, Medium, along with Ghost Whisperer on CBS, are both based on supposedly true stories. Skeptics are right to attack these programs for falsely claiming some kind of truth." My complaint was specifically with the idea that supernatural television programming is dangerous and therefore unsuitable for broadcast even as fiction, a view that is implied more than explicit in skeptical writings-but an impression that skeptics I have talked to agree is evident in their attacks. After all, what does it mean to say that a program is "dangerous" if not that one opposes it?

Energy Medicine Quackery

A reader who recently watched a TV program about eleven dimensions, parallel universes, and strings of energy vibrating at different frequencies, wondered why when energy medicine folks jabber on about such things our crap detectors light up, but when physicists do it we remain calm and consider such ruminations the fair play of scientific minds exploring ideas that may put a crack in the cosmic egg and help us better understand the universe we live in. I surmise the reader saw NOVA's "The Elegant Universe."

I should begin by noting that not everybody in science is happy with using the word "theory" in the expression "string theory," which is what the NOVA program is about. Lawrence Krauss, a professor of physics, argues in the December 3, 2005, issue of New Scientist that "string theory" is a misleading expression and it would be better if it were called a model or a paradigm rather than a theory. Krauss admits that "the string enterprise has produced a very impressive body of theoretical work," but he would like us to restrict our use of the term '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." As I wrote in an earlier newsletter: "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."

So, why should energy healers be treated differently than physicists when they talk of vibrations and energies? The physicists are proposing models to solve theoretical problems and explain observations. They don't take their models for physical or biological reality. They don't claim they can manipulate entities they recognize may not even exist. The physicists who speculate about tachyons, for example, don't set up shops selling takionic beads and water that can raise your IQ and make you run faster. The quacks do that.

Energy healers are anti-scientific, despite their apparent attempts at empirical testing of their claims. They are not going to devise tests that could disprove their beliefs. What tests they do are designed to prove what they already "know in their hearts to be true." Nothing would ever convince them to give up their beliefs because their beliefs are not based on sound scientific principles but on preconceived metaphysical commitments. The future will find the energy healers doing the same thing they have been doing for centuries. The future of string theory is uncertain. It may eventually be rejected by most physicists as being unfruitful or it may find its way into the introductory textbooks in the 22nd century.

Hearts and Minds

The failure of U.S. strategy to invade Iraq and win over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people is now apparent. It is the rare invader who is welcomed with open arms. In any case, maybe what we should have done in Iraq is set up day camps for the children. We might have followed the example of the Christian Camp and Conference Association. They claim their programs reach 6 million kids a year (Newsweek, July 17, 2006, p. 9). They have a "science" curriculum that instructs the children on the beauty and wisdom of Young Earth Creationism and the folly of evolution. The hope is that the kids will go back to school and when they hear of evolution they'll say, "Oh, that sounds goofy!"

In previous newsletters, I've promoted two secular summer camps: Camp Inquiry and Camp Quest. My guess is that those programs combined might reach a few hundred kids a year who, when they hear the stories about blowing into a clay model to create a living person and making another person out of a human rib, will say, "Oh, that sounds goofy!"

Another day-camp model we might have used in Iraq is the one used in Brattleboro, Vermont. This one is "dedicated to promoting inner peace, wisdom, and physical well-being through meditative arts, sports, yoga and other activities" such as dowsing, astrology, alchemy, and dream interpretation.

With luck we could have brainwashed an entire generation of Iraqi kids and have avoided all the bloodshed. Does that sound goofy?

Did you take your antioxidants today?


That belief was challenged five years ago by David Concar in an article he wrote for New Scientist. This idea, he said, is not wrong but is very optimistic.

Our bodies produce free radicals all the time as cells convert oxygen and food into chemical energy. Free radicals can damage DNA and cell membranes in ways that might lead to ageing. Virtually all organisms have natural antioxidants and enzymes to stop this happening. Supplement these with antioxidant vitamins or drugs that mimic the enzymes and you will slow down ageing. This is the theory that underpins much of today's multibillion-dollar trade in vitamins and anti-ageing supplements.

The catch is that no matter how hard you try, you'll never eliminate all the free radicals. Even if you could, it might be harmful-our bodies need a certain number of free radicals to maintain their immune defences. Besides, the body's inbuilt defences against free radicals may be so good they're hard to improve on....

And there are other signs that boosting defences against free radicals is not the key to eternal life. Two of the most important enzyme defenders are superoxide dismutase and catalase. Flies engineered to make more of these enzymes live at most 10 per cent longer and some even have shortened lives. When the same mutation pops up in human superoxide dismutase it leads not to a longer life but to the nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ("Forever Young," September 22, 2001).

We now know that the view that antioxidant supplements are the key to eternal life is not just optimistic, it is wrong. Still, despite the fact that there is a preponderance of evidence indicating that for most people vitamin, mineral, or antioxidant supplements are either useless or harmful, millions of people spend billions of dollars every year on such products. Evidence of the uselessness of these supplements is not likely to harm the companies who profit from selling hope in a bottle. As the editors of New Scientist write: "The idea that antioxidant pills are a short cut to good health is too ingrained in popular consciousness to be dislodged overnight by mere evidence" (August 5, 2006).

Medical doctors and others often promote these products with claims similar to the following from Dr. Andrew Weil, who sells a complete 30-day program of antioxidants and multivitamins that costs a little over $1 a day:

Weil Nutritional Supplements Weil Nutritional Supplements are based on stringent scientific research. Current valid studies (published in peer-reviewed scientific journals) are the basis of our formulations. All products are designed, selected, and approved by Dr. Weil and a team of physicians and researchers who are experts in the fields of nutritional supplementation.

For optimum health, take your supplements every day.

Weil is not lying about the stringent scientific research and published studies over the past fifty years, but he is not telling the whole truth. For example, scientists have found that free radicals (chemical compounds with unpaired electrons that stabilize themselves by oxidizing other molecules) are very destructive and are associated with many diseases. Lisa Melton notes:

Free radicals are an unavoidable hazard of being alive. We live in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and radicals, particularly reactive oxygen species (ROS), are natural by-products of respiration. "One per cent of the oxygen we consume turns into ROS," says biochemist Barry Halliwell from the National University of Singapore. "It doesn't sound like much but humans are big animals and we breathe a lot. Over a year a human body makes 1.7 kilograms of ROS." Exposure to X-rays, ozone, tobacco smoke, air pollutants, microbial infections, industrial chemicals and intensive exercise also trigger free radical production....

Scientists had known for a long time that people whose diets are rich in fruits and vegetables have a lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, stroke and certain types of cancer - the very diseases that are associated with free radical damage....Fruits and vegetables are a rich source of antioxidants that can neutralise free radicals by donating electrons to them.

Green plants are full of antioxidants for good reason. They are especially vulnerable to oxidative stress since they produce pure oxygen during photosynthesis. To protect themselves they manufacture an assortment of potent antioxidants.

And so a hypothesis was born: dietary antioxidants are free-radical sponges that can stave off the diseases of old age. (New Scientist, August 5, 2006)

Numerous early studies found support for the hypothesis, but these studies were done in the lab with chemical compounds rather than in the field with subjects taking supplements. In the lab, chemical antioxidants are great neutralizers of free radicals. But, over the past 15 years, studies of people taking antioxidant supplements have not found support for the claim that taking these pills does anybody any good. In fact, some of the studies have found the supplements to be harmful.

In 1992 researchers at the US National Cancer Institute set about testing beta carotene. They recruited more than 18,000 people at high risk of developing lung cancer, either because they smoked or had been exposed to asbestos, and gave around half of them beta carotene supplements. The trial was supposed to run for six years, but the researchers pulled the plug two-thirds of the way through after discovering, to their surprise and horror, that those taking supplements were faring worse than the controls. Their lung cancer rate was 28 per cent higher, and the overall death rate was up 17 per cent. (New Scientist, August 5, 2006)

One of the most popular antioxidant supplements is vitamin E. According to Melton, almost nobody was taking vitamin E supplements in 1990. After two large studies involving more than 127,000 subjects found that those with a diet high in vitamin E were significantly less likely to develop cardiovascular disease sales jumped. "By the end of the decade an estimated 23 million US citizens were knocking back daily doses."

On the back of these positive results, other researchers set up large studies using vitamin E supplements. The results, however, have been almost universally disappointing. Only one experiment - the Cambridge heart antioxidant study (CHAOS) - found a positive effect, a 77 per cent reduced risk of heart attack. Several others found no protective effect and one even concluded that vitamin E increased the risk of heart failure.

It is true, however, "that people eating diets abundant in vitamin C, vitamin E, polyphenols and carotenoids are less likely to suffer heart attacks, vascular disease, diabetes and cancer. One explanation is that these people have a generally healthier lifestyle - they exercise more and smoke less, for example. For now, no one knows for sure." It could be the antioxidants, but it is clear that ingesting them by supplements is not beneficial.

The American Heart Association website states:

At this time, the scientific evidence supports a diet high in food sources of antioxidants and other heart-protecting nutrients, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts instead of antioxidant supplements to reduce risk of CVD [cardiovascular disease].

The US Department of Agriculture says spinach and berries are good for you and lists red beans and nuts as having the greatest antioxidant capacity among a number of common foods. Pecans, for example, rank very high as an antioxidant, a fact which pleases the National Pecan Shellers Association. Unfortunately, the only way I like pecans is in pecan pie, which is not a particularly healthful way to ingest this nutritious nut.

Scams of the minute awards

Today we give an award to The Harmonic Translation System which, we are told on their website, "represents a major advance in the field of electronic medicine, going far beyond radionics, EAV and Rife type technology. Harmonic Translation refers to the translation of biologically active information into synthesized frequency shifts in sound, color, geometry and electromagnetic signals." The main shift, however, will be the money from your pocket to theirs. Nevertheless, their marketing department has hired top copy writers in an attempt to capture in mere words what this amazing device can do. For example, "The Harmonic Translation System is ... to the healing arts what the word processor is to writing. Effective medicine is key to success in all healing modalities. The ability to create the needed medicine quickly and easily makes for a quantum leap in effectiveness. This is an instrument that is adaptable, and can function equally well in any complimentary [sic] modality." I am sure it can function just as well as all the other junk this outfit sells.

For those desiring something more lofty than quantum leaps in effective healing, there is Ulrich Bold's evolutionary astrology. For a mere $20 you can get a tape and learn about "the soul's evolution and its core dynamics for the current life relative to abilities, potential, fears and karmic issues coming from experiences of previous lifetimes." Sounds very useful. I've been troubled by karmic issues ever since I lost my first tooth. Ulrich promises that a "holistic and deep understanding for one's current life can be embraced through Evolutionary Astrology. It provides insights into 'who you are' and 'why you are the way you are'. Thereby individual orientations for your daily life and resolutions for your problems support your further evolution and growth." What it doesn't do is help one communicate in crisp, clear language.

Is our children learning?

Once again the Kansas state school board has a majority of noncreationists. Elections last month left the creationists in a 6-4 minority and inspired Lawrence Krauss to write an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled "How to Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Illiterate." The battle, professor Krauss claims, "is not against faith, but against ignorance." Unfortunately, sometimes it is impossible to tell the difference.

The Amazing Meeting V

The James Randi Educational Foundation has announced its lineup for the 2007 Amazing Meeting to be held at the Riviera in Las Vegas January 18-21. The theme is "Skepticism and The Media." Some of the usual suspects will be there: Randi, Michael Shermer, Hal Bidlack, Phil Plait, Jerry Andrus, Penn & Teller, and Jamy Ian Swiss. Banachek returns, as do Christopher Hitchins, Eugenie Scott, and Richard Wiseman. Various media folks will also be presenting. I will be conducting a workshop on teaching critical thinking with Diane Swanson and Ray Hall. Ray will also be handling the Sunday morning presentation submissions. For information on submitting a paper, click here.


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 or from your local bookseller.


Click to order from Amazon