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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 71

September 28, 2006

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research. --Steven Wright

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

I've added a new dictionary entry on Emotional Freedom Techniques, another New Age healing program. There's a new entry on woo-woo, too.

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).

 I've revised the entries on chiropractic, New Age psychotherapies, magnetic therapy, and the Q-Ray bracelet.

I've updated four entries: medium, psychic, Uri Geller, and the face on Mars, which now has one of the latest high resolution photos of the Cydonia region and links to more such pictures.

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:

Q. Aren't you a hypocrite? You criticize others for making money from their schemes and ideas but you're doing the same thing by selling your book and other products on your web pages.

A. I don't criticize anyone just for making money. I criticize ideas and schemes and note, where possible, how much money people are spending on these ideas and schemes. I don't begrudge anyone an honest living. Where I think someone is making a dishonest living, I won't hesitate to indicate that. I also think it is worthwhile to note that skepticism is not where the big money is. Publishers are much more eager to publish books with occult, supernatural, or miraculous claims than they are to publish skeptical books. Websites on occult topics far outnumber the skeptical websites. The market, in other words, favors the other side. Many people have noticed this and are taking advantage of it. Some of them might have less than noble motives for pushing their particular brand of woo-woo. This is a minor point but worth noting. I wouldn't dwell on it.

Atheists in foxholes

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:

In the past several years, atheists have organized letter-writing campaigns against Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw, Bob Schieffer (who issued a public apology) and other news anchors for repeating the "no atheists in foxholes" cliché on TV. And on Veteran's Day 2005, several dozen atheist veterans paraded down the National Mall bearing American flags and signs reading "Atheist Veteran--We Shared Your Foxholes!"  

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. thinks it knows who the top ten atheists in America are. However, if you are into lists you might prefer Famous Dead Nontheists.

Skepticality is back!

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.

Scams of the Minute

No. 1: The "law of attraction" and other get-rich-quick schemes. Check out these ads: Get Rich #1, Get Rich #2Get 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:

Each personality draws to itself personalities with consciousness of like frequency, or like weakness. The frequency of anger attracts the frequency of anger, the frequency of greed attracts greed, and so on. This is the law of attraction. Negativity attracts negativity, just as love attracts love. Therefore, the world of an angry person is fill with angry people, the world of greedy person is filled with greedy people, and a loving person lives in a world of loving people.*

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.
This energy sent to the body by Holofiber® helps the body's cells to be better oxygenated. Good for diabetics and people with skin problems.

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:

I read your negative web page shooting down Better World Technologies and the possibilities they offer for alternatives to the "status-quo".

You have not yet even given yourself or others a chance to observe the new technology (especially the Hummingbird Motor and the Sundance Generator) and make an intelligent and informed decision as to whether or not it is valid. Better World Technologies is only one of several companies around the world currently refining such a device and preparing it for public validation. Steorn Technologies in Dublin, Ireland is another. They have already proven that the technology works. The technology used in such motors and generators is not new at all and DOES NOT violate the laws of physics. New contradictions have historically been and are still being discovered today to what scientists have thought were "laws" written in stone only to find out that they were mistaken.

You probably work directly for a company affiliated with any one of many oil, gas, or electric companies who simply do not want to see ANY alternative technologies interfere with their precious "fat cow" profits based on old, outdated, and environmentally damaging technologies. These companies have pumped billions of dollars into keeping alternative sources of energy OFF the market and have even gone as far as murder to do so. That is a well known dirty fact about the "old school" energy industries.

You are just one of many negative, pessimistic, and close-minded "nay-sayers" and should just just go bury your head in the sand. You should be ashamed of yourself for spewing such garbage on the internet.

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:

....never having to recharge your phone, never having to refuel your car. A world with an infinite supply of clean energy for all.

Our technology has been independently validated by engineers and scientists - always off the record, always proven to work.

"Always off the record." Hmmm. I wonder why.

TAM5 critical thinking workshop

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.

A New Wiki

Russell Glasser is working on a counter-apologetics wiki called Iron Chariots, located at (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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