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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 73

December 5, 2006

"Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty." --Bertrand Russell

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 new entries on superstition, maternal impressions, and Lobsang Rampa. There are revised entries on glossolalia and incorruptible body.

The Mass Media Funk pages now include entries on Phil Jordan, psychic detective without a clue; Pastor Ted "I'm a deceiver and a liar" Haggard; and A&E at Penn State to chase ghosts.

I updated the following pages: the Mozart effect (to include some new research data from Daniel T. Willingham's article "Brain-Based Learning: More Fiction than Fact," in American Educator. Fall 2006); the Loch Ness "monster" (to include mention of Leslie Noč's study of fossils that make it absolutely certain that Nessie is not a plesiosaur); the hollow Earth (to correct an erroneous claim, noted by an astute reader, that the Raymond Bernard who promoted the hollow Earth nonsense was not the same one who led the Rosicrucians); Zecharia Sitchin (to include specific references to some of the outrageous claims made by Sitchin and to clear up some things not meant to be taken literally); and PEAR (to include a note on the transmogrification of this entity).

I removed the Joe Firmage page. Firmage is now the CEO of ManyOne Networks and a founder of the Digital Universe Foundation. (In case you are wondering, I've removed entries before. Two I remember removing are on economics and evolutionary psychology.)

Finally, I've posted a book review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion.

TAM 5 & our Critical Thinking Workshop

There's still time to sign up for The Amazing Meeting 5, the annual festival of reason and magic put on by the great people at the James Randi Educational Foundation. As part of the festivities, on January 18, 2007, from 1-5 pm, Diane Swanson, Ray Hall, and I will be putting on a critical thinking workshop.

Diane Swanson's science and nature books have been guiding teachers at the grade 4 through 8 level for many years. But high school and college instructors trying to bring critical thinking into their classrooms will find the exercises she recommends can be applied almost without modification to their classes.

Ray Hall brought a new course into the curriculum at California State University Fresno called Science and Nonsense. He's developed several critical thinking exercises for the course, which he will share at the workshop. Ray is also currently chairing a committee that is examining all the critical thinking courses being taught at CSUF and will offer his insights on ideas such as a mandatory core curricula for critical thinking courses and ways of assessing outcomes of these courses.

I'll describe my 30-year adventure of moving from teaching formal logic to practical logic to informal logic to critical thinking. I'll also share my experiences in writing a general critical thinking textbook and in developing a course that applies critical thinking skills to scientific studies on telepathy, psychokinesis, healing prayer, and spirits communicating with mediums.

Diane, Ray, and I will be around for the entire weekend for informal discussions. The JREF Amazing Meetings are friendly affairs and we hope to see you there and talk to you.

Feedback: truth and faith

One reader didn't  agree with me when I wrote in the last newsletter that "Truth is truth. There is not a truth for reason and a truth for faith."

You're wrong....Your first mistake is to say that accepting a faith-based explanation "is to abandon reason and admit that irrationality is as good as rationality as a basis for belief." The plain fact of the matter is that when you dig deep enough into truth you get to a point where rational explanation does not go. We don't have the facts, or we don't have the perceptive capabilities, or we don't have the depth of understanding to say precisely what is true. That's when the only available answers come from a matter of faith. So it's not always a question of "either rationality or faith". Sometimes one fails and you need the other. Imagine trying to function with one arm of understanding tied behind your back!

Bob Carroll replies: I never claimed that it's always a matter of either rationality or faith. I claimed that it should never be a matter of faith, when by faith we mean the kind of irrational belief in such things as the Trinity, which theologians claim are "above reason" and not subject to rational criticism. It should never be a matter of faith when faith means my belief can't be wrong because it is backed by an inerrant book. I specifically warned the reader not to take faith to mean probability or trust. I made it clear that I was referring to the kind of irrational appeal some religious people make that they think protects them from rational criticism. It seems obvious that one person plus one person plus one person equals three persons and therefore three distinct beings, not one being. To claim that one shouldn't criticize this position because it is held on faith and is "true" even if the rational understanding can't grasp it, is to speak nonsense.

I have no idea what the reader means by the "plain fact" that when you dig deep enough into truth you hit a point where rational explanation does not go. For example, it's true that I'm either a father or I'm not a father. Where am I to dig to find this level where rational explanation doesn't go? If the reader is trying to say that there are some things we don't understand, I agree. But he's wrong to claim that when we don't understand something the only available answers come from faith. Look at the history of science. There have been countless instances where scientists lacked understanding of something and didn't fall back on an appeal to irrational faith. Instead, they used their reason to try to figure out what the truth is and many times they discovered it! When reason fails to understand something, one is not then given a free ticket to claim whatever you feel like and say you believe it on faith! If the reader thinks that there are some things reason cannot penetrate, I agree, but it doesn't follow from the fact that reason can't understand something like the Trinity that we have to believe it on faith. We don't have to believe it at all, any more than we have to believe that some squares are round. Some people might believe things because they're absurd. I think a person should be ashamed and embarrassed to believe anything they claim can't be understood by anyone.

Second, proving that one $20 bill is counterfeit doesn't prove they all are, and in the same way, the fact that some faith leads to incorrect beliefs doesn't mean faith always leads to error. Einstein had faith in his vision of how the universe was constructed, well before he could prove it mathematically or see it proved experimentally. Hefner had faith he could sell girlie magazines well before he printed the first one. Columbus had faith he'd find something of value by sailing west from Spain. It's a big mistake to throw out the baby of truth with the bathwater of faith.

Bob Carroll replies: I never claimed that faith leads to incorrect beliefs or always leads to error. Again the reader does not heed my warning not to understand irrational faith as meaning the same as probability or trust. To say that Einstein had faith in his vision of how the universe is constructed is to use 'faith' in a completely different way than to say "I believe in God not because the evidence supports my belief but because I have faith. In fact, I don't care what the evidence is or what it seems to support or refute. My faith is unshakeable." People who say such things then expect the rest of us to stand back in admiration and say, "Well, then, since you believe so strongly we won't bother you about your position and we will show our respect for your belief by not remarking on how asinine it is." The reader's metaphors might be compelling were it not for the fact that he's equivocating on the key word in the debate: faith.

Third, limiting yourself to rationality is like a colorblind person pretending the whole world is in black and white. Or an adult pretending there are no cell phone ring tones that only teenage ears can hear. There is ample evidence of things occurring that no scientist can explain. Cats do turn up at their owners new doors, years and thousands of miles away from where they lived before. People do mention the name of a friend they haven't thought of for years, and who then calls an hour later. Sure, some things which are claimed to be unexplainable CAN be explained. But not all of them. Is it smart to pretend these events do not occur? The rational thing is to accept the irrationality of the universe in certain situations. Maybe that irrationality is only apparent, and will yield to further study or fact finding. We can't be sure. But to pretend there is no world out there beyond the beam of your tiny flashlight (of rationality) is to beggar your human experience.

Bob Carroll replies: The reader confuses rationality with being able to explain everything. Again, just because a rational explanation for something isn't available doesn't mean that you are free to make up whatever superstitious story you want, imagining whatever paranormal or supernatural entities or energies you feel like in order to account for the event. Furthermore, it isn't necessarily the case that whatever reason can't explain is being driven by irrational forces. To assume, as this reader seems to do, that faith adds color to an otherwise black and white world is to be misled by one's own clever analogy. The irrational faith that I address adds nothing of value to human experience. On the contrary, I consider it degrading to believe anything simply because "it's a matter of faith." A better analogy than tones us old folks can't hear would be to compare reason to looking through Galileo's telescope and faith to the refusal to look because you already know what's in God's heaven.

More feedback: no criticism, please

Another reader comments:

I have always wondered something about skeptics and believers. Why does each believe what they are saying and always going out of their way to insult each other? Can't people just have their beliefs without someone trying to discredit them? I say, so what if they're wrong or delusional. And if people want to believe their story then so be it, let idiots follow idiots. Skeptics are absolutely insane, I mean, who else goes out of their way to discredit something they don't believe in. If you don't believe then fine, live your life and move on I say.

Anyways, I am one of the ones who do not believe so readily, but look for other resources before I make up my mind. When it comes to the paranormal, I would say I am a skeptical believer. I say some things may be possible like UFOs and Bigfoot but who knows. Until there is positive proof either way I'm on the sideline reading and enjoying these stories. Getting an expert to refute someone's story is worthless because you can find any expert in any field who will deny either view. You can also get a different expert in the same field to support the same view. So basically experts are useless and to quote them is a waste of time.

Bob Carroll replies: This writer is an example of the kind of person I wrote about in the last newsletter who might have the ability to think critically but won't because he doesn't have the disposition to inquire, be challenged, and gain as much factual knowledge as possible.

Notice how the writer quickly goes from the issue of skeptics and believers insulting each other-a practice which serves no good purpose-to the issue of not saying anything about each other. He says it is insane to discredit anyone's belief, no matter if it is wrong or delusional. Nonsense. No parent, no teacher, and no rational person (skeptic or believer) should live by such a rule. Parents who don't correct the errors of their children aren't fulfilling their duty to nurture and protect their children. Teachers who don't care whether they teach the truth or lies or whether their students know the difference between truth and falsity are not fulfilling their duty to teach the truth. Does this writer really believe that truth doesn't matter, that anyone's opinion is equal to anyone else's? Maybe he thinks he has a "right to his opinion" and that means nobody else has a right to challenge him. If so, he's wrong. He neither has a right to his opinion, except in the inane sense that he can believe whatever he wants, nor does anyone else have a duty not to challenge him whenever he speaks. Why did he write me? Just to let me know what he thinks? Did he really think he could write me, call skeptics insane, and then require that I not respond? Why would I care what he thinks about anything? Why wouldn't I respond to his views, especially since they are wrong? The writer reminds me of some of my critics who think they have delivered a death blow when they announce that I have just expressed my opinion. They see no distinction between an opinion and an opinion backed by evidence and argument.

What the writer wants is the freedom to believe whatever he wants and say whatever he wants without anyone else responding. What politician wouldn't love to have a nation of such passive believers? He seems to be trying to wrap himself in a cloak of invincibility by telling the world "you can't criticize me." How do you ever expect to learn anything if you aren't challenged?

At least the writer recognizes the fallacy of irrelevant appeal to authority. Unfortunately, he draws the wrong inference and concludes that experts are useless. Experts are useless if you don't want to be challenged and if you don't want to learn something new. If, on the other hand, you are interested in gaining knowledge, experts are wonderfully useful if you know how to use them properly.

Science Theaters, Cafes, and Podcasts

Remember those romantic stories of Paris and cafes where intellectuals and artists hung out to explore the mysteries of the soul and the universe? There was no television. People actually went to lecture halls to hear leading scientists, artists, and philosophers discuss ideas. Psychologist Richard Wiseman and science writer Simon Singh have brought science back to the lecture hall, sort of, with their traveling "Theatre of Science." The performance is described as

A heady mixture of mind-blowing optical illusions, a live lie detection polygraph demonstration, a two-minute explanation of the Big Bang, gambling scams, and comedy. The New York performances also explore the remarkable anatomy of top contortionist Delia Du Sol, as she demonstrates impossible body bends and squeezes into a tiny Perspex cube. The climax of the show involves generating six foot long bolts of lightning between two specifically constructed coils, with one of the performers entering a coffin-shaped cage and absorbing the full force of the lethal strikes. With the audience seated just a few feet from the lethal sparks, there is no room for error.

This sell-out show has been staged to rave reviews in London's West End and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

For those who prefer their science served in a more intimate setting, there are science cafes, places where

for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.

Cafe Scientifique is a forum for debating science issues, not a shop window for science. We are committed to promoting public engagement with science and to making science accountable.

Science cafes are located in the UK from Falworth to St. Andrews.

In the U.S., San Francisco has something similar called Ask A Scientist. If you're in the Bay Area and are not going to be in Las Vegas at The Amazing Meeting, you might consider dropping in at The Canvas Gallery, 1200 9th Ave (@ Lincoln), San Francisco, on Michael Eisen; Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and Adjunct Asst. Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, UC Berkeley.

Ask a Scientist is an informative, entertaining, monthly lecture series, held at a San Francisco cafe. Each event features a speaker on a current topic, a short presentation, and the opportunity to ask all those burning questions that have been keeping you up at night. No tests, grades, or pressure.just food, drinks, socializing, and conversation about the universe's most fascinating mysteries!

Finally, in addition to the science podcasts mentioned in Newsletter 65, I'd like to recommend another one produced by two high-energy college students who broadcast just down the street from me from the campus of the University of California at Davis. Kirsten Sanford and co-host Justin Jackson have entirely too much fun exploring science news and doing interviews with scientists on This Week in Science - the Kickass Science Podcast. These podcasters enjoy themselves, so if you don't like listening to people having fun, you won't like this one. I'm also enjoying another young person's science podcast: Brain Food by Kyle of Ontario, Canada. These young science enthusiasts are a reminder that the future is in good hands.

Noreen Renier: psychic loser

Her website says she's a psychic detective. To skeptics that means she's either deluded or a fraud or truly gifted. If you call her deluded or a fraud, however, you might get sued. In fact, she's the only psychic ever to win a libel case. It was in 1985 against John Merrell. Renier was awarded $25,000 by a jury and both Renier and Merrell signed an agreement not to further disparage each other in the media. In her 2005 memoir, A Mind for Murder, however, Renier devotes two chapters to calling Merrell a liar and expressing how devastated she was by his challenges to her psychic claims. Instead of being grateful to Merrell for the money and the publicity, Renier apparently is still bitter about the affair. Either that or she was desperate for material to fill out her life's story. Now Merrell has returned the favor and won a lawsuit against Renier for violating the terms of their agreement not to badmouth each other in public. A website registered to Anita Merrell at the domain continues the battle and explores some of the more fanciful claims Renier has made about her alleged abilities over the years. It is worth a read just to see how alleged psychics work the media and how the media and some law enforcement officers are complicit in making them look as if they do have psychic abilities.

For more information on Renier, the reader should also read Gary Posner's articles.

And to fully understand how alleged psychics are able to deceive themselves and others into thinking they have paranormal powers, read my entry on subjective validation.

Another one turns to dust

Another psychic has turned to dust. Last July 31, Eddie Doherty, "known throughout Britain for his psychic powers,"* died but not all of his psychic friends got the message. He believed he had received many messages from dead people, but apparently he isn't sending too many messages to the friends he left behind. They've been calling his wife, whom he left about five years ago after 22 years of marriage because she interfered with his work at his Friendship of Love & Light Spiritual Church. Margaret Doherty says: "I've told them to contact him direct because he isn't on the mobile any more. You would have thought they would have been aware of something like that in advance." Then again, maybe Eddie's antennae were geared for receiving, not sending.

A rare appearance

I've agreed to speak to the Bay Area Skeptics on Monday, January 29, 2007, at the Dimond Branch Library, 3565 Fruitvale Avenue, Oakland, California, from 6:30 to about 8 PM. All are welcome. I'll be talking about The Skeptic's Dictionary and why I bother to promote critical thinking in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad.

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