Robert Todd Carroll
September 28, 2006
Previous newsletters are archived at skepdic.com/news/ Go there for subscription and feedback information.
In this issue:
I've added two items to the Mass Media Bunk files on psychics. I've added two items to the Mass Media Funk blog: one on the IRS and religion, the other on astronomy (not the definition of a planet issue).
Finally, I added a new reader comment and response to the acupuncture entry.
I added another item to the What's the Harm? blog.
And I added the following to my FAQ page:
There may be no atheists in the holes at Fox News, but there are atheists among the ranks of the soldiers being reported on by those journalists brave enough to go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Atheists in Foxholes even has its own website.
According to Newsweek's Rebecca Phillips:
Phillips also notes that new military recruits can choose Atheist, Agnostic, or No Religious Preference for their dog tag identifications. There is also an atheist symbol, which resembles the symbol for an atom, that a soldier may have placed on his or her headstone in military cemeteries. (Oddly, there is no Wiccan symbol for Wiccans to place on their tombstones, should any die fighting for their country.) Says Phillips: "Officially, the Department of Defense considers atheism a creed like other faiths." This might explain a lot about the kind of logic used at DOD. Atheism is as much a creed as is disbelief in fairies, the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus are creeds.
By the way, when he was governor of Texas George W. Bush supported a ban on Wiccans in the military. His father didn't think atheists should be considered citizens or patriots. However, if you are a patriotic atheist and want to announce your disbelief to the world, there is a product line that has been created just for you.
Skepticality, the podcast of Derek Colanduno and co-host Swoopy, is back on the air. About a year ago, Derek suffered a stroke or, as he calls it, an "inner-cranial explosion." This temporary setback has been followed by the development of Derek 2.0 and the joining of forces with Skeptic magazine as its official podcast, providing Michael Shermer with one more media outlet to promote science, skepticism, and critical thinking. There is not a clearer, saner voice for science and skepticism today than that of Michael Shermer. The past two episodes feature Dr. Shermer talking about his new book Why Darwin Matters: the Case Against Intelligent Design and interviewing James Randi in the Bermuda Triangle. Shermer also talks about his book on the latest podcast of Point of Inquiry, the podcast of The Center for Inquiry.
The August 30th episode featured Phil Plait talking about how the issue of whether Pluto is a planet is not a scientific issue. It's a matter of convention, not discovery, as we say in philosophy. The controversy issued from the definition provided by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The IAU first proposed to define a planet as "a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet." The group rejected this definition and settled on this one: "a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit."
I was able to use these stellar examples of definition in my critical thinking class for a discussion on evaluating precising or restrictive definitions (which these are). A definition is supposed to make things clearer, so it is a bad thing if they muddy the waters. A good definition should also pass the Goldilocks Rule and be neither too broad, nor too narrow, but just right as to what it denotes. The first definition seems too broad to some because it seems to add from 3 to 50 more planets. The second definition was the one we discussed in my logic classes. The first condition eliminates all planets outside our solar system. So far astronomers have identified over one hundred extrasolar planets using who-knows-what-definition of planet. Some think the second condition might result in kicking out a planet or two that aren't really "nearly round" and that this, like the first condition, would make the definition too narrow. Finally, the expression "cleared the neighborhood around its orbit," while colloquial, might result in the elimination of a couple of planets besides Pluto. When a definition has only three conditions that individually and collectively violate the Goldilocks Rule, we can safely say it is not a very good one. Pluto, of course, doesn't care what we call it. It is what it is, no matter what we say.
No. 1: The "law of attraction" and other get-rich-quick schemes. Check out these ads: Get Rich #1, Get Rich #2, Get Rich #3, Get Rich #4, and Get Rich #5. What do they have in common? None of them tell you what you have to do to get rich quick. They do tell you that they are not MLM schemes. Another thing they have in common is that they all pay Google to list them when you search for "law of attraction." The Law of Attraction is a New Age belief that one's mental disposition attracts similar external circumstances and events. In other words, your mental intentions and attitudes draw people and things of like intention and attitude to yourself. On one level this is trivially true. We generally hang out with people who think like us and share our values and we avoid people who disagree with us on important matters and don't share our values. But a moment's reflection should reveal that this "law" lacks truthiness.
Grieving vulnerable people don't attract vulnerable people; they attract vultures and vampires who take advantage of their grief. If you say that grief and greed are both negative so this example supports the law of attraction, then this law is impossible to test. It's too slippery to have any meaningful content if obvious contradictions to it are said to support it. When kindness begets not more kindness but resentment, a New Age defender of this "law" can always claim that the kindness wasn't genuine.
One of the main purveyors of this belief is Gary "Dancing Wu Li Masters" Zukav. According to Zukav:
The only people who are likely to be swayed by the above ads are people who have lost their ability to make good judgments about what's likely to be true and who are attracted to delusional promises of infinite riches awaiting them from some stranger who advertises on the Internet. The so-called law of attraction seems just the kind of law that such people might also find attractive. All I need to do is change my attitude and intentions and I'll attract money like a magnet. If it doesn't work, it's my fault because I didn't genuinely change my attitude and intentions. Sound familiar? What is it that the faith healers say about those that don't get healed?
No 2: The magic box that can convert plain copper phone lines into greased-lightning pipelines for data and video, four times faster than the most advanced fiber-optic cables. Madison Priest's beautiful lie.
No. 3. Holofiber® material modifies the spectrum of visible and
invisible light, interacting with certain wavelengths, and altering them
into energy. When Holofiber® is worn as clothing, or placed near a person
(in a bed sheet or pillowcase) it transmits the altered energy to the body.
No. 4. Kenrico, the ionizing showerhead. This thing uses "micro active ceramic technology, made from silicon and minerals." It helps to virtually eliminate bacteria, parasites, chlorine, dirt, odor, and allergens.
No. 5. This one also involves some feedback from Jim, who writes:
Jim's is actually one of the nicer letters I've received lately and he represents all the eternal optimists out there, some of whom have thrown their money toward Steorn, the latest in a long line of folks who have claimed to have come up with a way to get free energy. Unlimited energy with no harmful effects on the environment is the promise. Does it sound like wishful thinking? That's because it probably is. Their website says they have a way to provide energy that means:
"Always off the record." Hmmm. I wonder why.
The fifth Amazing Meeting of the James Randi Educational Foundation will be in Las Vegas next January 18-21. I will be joined by Diane Swanson and Ray Hall in conducting a workshop on critical thinking for teachers. Registration has already begun.
Some of you may have seen Diane Swanson at the 4th annual International Skeptic's Conference in Los Angeles four years ago. If so, you know that you do not want to miss this workshop. She is the author of Nibbling on Einstein's Brain: The Good, the Bad & the Bogus in Science and Turn it Loose - The Scientist in Absolutely Everybody. Both books are aimed at readers from grades 4-8. Diane has written dozens of books and hundreds of articles about nature and science aimed at young people. She is a much sought after speaker and presenter, and has won many awards for her writing.
Professor Ray Hall will be known to those who have attended the Sunday sessions, where papers are read by their authors on a variety of subjects. For many, the Sunday papers are the highlight of the JREF weekend because they are scholarly and educational and often represent original research. Ray is a physics professor at California State University at Fresno where he introduced a course on Science and Nonsense. I have known Ray for several years. He turned me on to a bit of questionable science and marketing that led to my article on the Inset Fuel Stabilizer. He's an engaging speaker and knows his stuff. We've swapped war stories about teaching critical thinking over the years and now we'll get to share those stories with a larger audience. I hope to see many of you there.
Russell Glasser is working on a counter-apologetics wiki called Iron Chariots, located at http://wiki.ironchariots.org. (A wiki is a website that lets visitors add, remove, and edit content.) This wiki site is intended to provide information on apologetics and counter-apologetics. According to the website, "Initially, we'll be focusing on arguments, Christian apologists, and Christian groups who practice apologetics. We will also talk about individual atheists and atheist groups. As the site expands, we'll address many more religions, arguments and issues." For a sample, I suggest you look at the entry on the anthropic principle.
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