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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 75

February 10, 2007

"A lottery is a tax on people who don't understand math." --Jamy Ian Swiss

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

Since the last newsletter, I've added three critical thinking mini-lessons: false dichotomy, false implication, and perception deception.

In honor of Darwin Day, I posted an essay on what Darwin means to me.

I also posted a review of highlights from the 5th Amazing Meeting and some comments on feedback I received regarding my 9/11 conspiracy and NDE articles.

The Matthias Rath, EFT, applied kinesiology, and mind control entries have been updated.

Several entries have been revised: sunk-cost fallacy, Randi $1,000,000 paranormal challenge, transcendental meditation, and NDE.

Alleged Psychic Alleges Many Have Her Rare Gift

Rosemary Altea was exposed as a devious, conniving hot and cold reader by Penn and Teller in their Bullshit! episode on "Talking to the Dead." She was shown doing four readings. She guessed right that two couples had daughters that had committed suicide. And she guessed right that a young white man wanted to connect with his deceased mother. She got nowhere with the fourth victim because she had no knowledge of who he might want to contact, if anyone. He was a large black man so she tried telling him that she saw a large black man trying to come through but he wasn't biting and indicated he didn't know who that might be. She got the young white man's mother because she was chatting up the audience before the show began and she asked him who he wanted to contact and he told her that he wanted to contact his mother. The camera crew got it all on tape. She does a great job of "forking" with this young man, however. She says something to the effect that his mother is very chatty but she gets no positive response from the young man so she quickly goes down another path and says "which is so unlike her." The young man's face indicates that that's more like it. And off she goes.

The two suicides were clearly not guesses. As Mark Edward noted in the P&T episode: Suicide is not something you want to be wrong about. In fact, Altea's agent brought both couples to the reading.

Recently, Altea appeared on Larry King Live to assist in the ongoing investigation into Sylvia Browne's misbegotten gift of oral dementia, prompting James Randi to write: "It was hilarious to see Altea squirming about while trying not to damn Browne too obviously. I'm sure she saw the wide-open position on the psychic roster that Browne was preparing to involuntarily vacate, and could easily picture herself in that cozy and very lucrative spot!"* Randi was referring to Browne's having told Shawn Hornbeck's parents, Pam and Craig Akers, that he was dead four years ago, when in fact he was and is still alive. Browne made her claim on the Montel Williams show on February 12, 2003. Shawn was recently found alive, living with Michael J. Devlin. Browne told the Akers that Shawn was "no longer with us" and that his body would be found beneath two large boulders that "seem out of place in that area." She said he was taken by a "dark-skinned man" who wasn't black but Hispanic and who wore dreadlocks and was "really tall." Devlin, a pizza parlor manager, is not dark-skinned, not really tall, and doesn't wear dreadlocks.

Altea told King that "Most of us, in fact, have some psychic ability, we have some instinct, some understanding of a connection beyond this world....I have a daughter. My beautiful princess. She is not psychic. I would not dream of teaching anybody to have psychic abilities because I can't. You have a natural ability or you don't." Then, she added: "...there are many, many people out there who have this incredible and beautiful gift -- and it is a gift....It is a very rare gift. And we have that gift and we treat it with respect."

Interesting. Many, many people - most of us, in fact - have this rare gift. Sounds like Madison Avenue trying to convince us that we can each be unique if we buy the same product.

(And, yes, Larry did say "I once interviewed the guy who invented ESP.")*

Psychic Museum Shuts Its Doors

Psychic nonsense may be the darling of American television, but in England there are small signs that the attraction is dwindling. Jonathan Cainer, who calls himself an astrologer, opened a Psychic Museum in Stonegate, York, in 2003. He is closing the doors in 2007 because he is getting only about 100 customers a week. He says he will reopen but he doesn't know when. "Although I'm in the prediction business," he says, "I don't believe you can make predictions about things you are close to."*

Right. It is much better to make predictions about things you know absolutely nothing about.

Embarrassment To Science Closing Down

Bob Park calls it "an embarrassment to science."* It may have been an embarrassment to Princeton University as well, but for the past quarter of a century several paranormal scientists have conducted ESP and PK experiments in the basement of the university's engineering building. At the end of this month, Robert Jahn's Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab will shut down. Jahn, now 76, used to make contributions to the science of jet propulsion. He gave that up for work that tried to find some small effect of the mind on random event generators. He  says that "If people don't believe us after all the results we've produced, then they never will."

His support came not from the university or the government, but from private parties. He collected more than $10 million over the years from the likes of his friend James McDonnell, a founder of the McDonnell Douglas Corp. McDonnell also funded the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research at Washington University that was bamboozled by James Randi, Steve Shaw (a.k.a. Banachek), and Mike Edwards from 1979-1983.

Jahn attracted a few scientists to his work, but none of Princeton's 700 or so other professors joined his lab. His group didn't get anything published in prominent science journals, though one editor did say he'd publish Jahn's work if he could telepathically communicate it to him.*

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

South Africans spend more time at funerals than they do having their hair cut.* About 1,000 people a day die of AIDS in that country, which has more than five million people living with HIV.* About two million South Africans have already died of the disease. In other words, about one-fourth of the population either have HIV or have died from AIDS. There are two main groups in South Africa fighting the AIDS epidemic. Unfortunately, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the Treatment Information Group (TIG) spend much of their time accusing each other of trying to spread AIDS and kill people. The TAC, led by Zackie Achmat, fights an uphill battle to get anti-retroviral drugs to those who test positive for HIV. Every medical establishment in the world accepts the evidence that antiretrovirals are beneficial. However, the TIG, led by Anthony Brink, Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the health minister of South Africa, think the drugs are designed to kill people and they recommend things like garlic and beetroot to build up the immune system and fight off AIDS.

Brink has recently put his legal background to work in bringing a charge of genocide against Zackie Achmat. He filed a 59-page indictment with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands.

I haven't read the indictment but Ben Goldacre (who writes the Bad Science column for the Guardian) has and here are a few of his comments:

Brink "respectfully submit[s]" that the international criminal court should punish Achmat with "permanent confinement in a small, white, steel and concrete cage, bright fluorescent light on all the time ... warders putting him out only to work every day in the prison garden to cultivate nutrient-rich vegetables, including when it's raining"....

....Achmat should be forced to take his HIV medication ("which he claims to take") and it should be "pushed if necessary down his forced-open gullet with a finger, or, if he bites, kicks and screams too much, dripped into his arm".

And how will this forced administration be possible? He should be, white barrister Anthony Brink respectfully submits, "restrained on a gurney with cable ties around his ankles, wrists and neck ... until he gives up the ghost on them, so as to eradicate this foulest, most loathsome, unscrupulous and malevolent blight on the human race, who has plagued and poisoned the people of South Africa".*

No doubt the ICC will give Brink's indictment the treatment it deserves.

Meanwhile, South Africa must endure Mbeki for at least two more years. In his recent state of the union address, he devoted just one paragraph of his 18-page speech to the issue of HIV/AIDS, saying the government would intensify the campaign against the pandemic and improve treatment, prevention and care.* How reassuring that must sound to his subjects. Mbeki spent most of his speech talking about crime, even though twenty times more people die of AIDS than are murdered in his country.

The Health Encyclopedia That Isn't

Doesn't this sound like a sweet e-mail?

I browsed through your website and found it useful. I would like to make a contribution by suggesting some websites for addition to your web links collection.

Her suggestions? Each of them involved going to a site called, which is little more than a portal for thousands of advertisements squeezed around bits of information. If you want health information, don't go to See your physician.

The Best of the Science Blogs - 2006

The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006 is now available from Lulu. Read all about it at

Summer 2007 camps - it's never too early to plan ahead

Camp Quest West is for girls and boys ages 8-17. It is affiliated with National Camp Quest (Ohio), the first secular summer camp for youth in the history of 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. The 2007 camping dates will be July 8-15 and will be held at Camp Watanda, about 70 miles north of Sacramento in the California Gold Country.

Camp Inquiry 2007, also for secular-minded kids, will meet July 12-17 twenty miles south of Buffalo at the Empire State Lodge within the Camp Seven Hills property in Holland, New York. The camp is for children in age groups 7-12 years and 13-16 years, along with Junior Counselors 17 years and older. For more information contact Amanda Chesworth at

Both camps emphasize activities that encourage critical thinking and an understanding of science.


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