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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 78

May 3, 2007
4,019 subscribers

"...the more vigorous skeptical attacks on parapsychology are reminiscent of reaction formation" --Dean Radin

"Atheism is the religion whose belief about God is that there is no God." --Rev. Bill McGinnis*

"Shut up!" --Bill O'Reilly

Previous newsletters are archived at

In this issue:

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

I am read the riot act by Mary in defense of "the mineral doctor," Joel D. Wallach, and I respond in my kind, gentlemanly way, setting her on the path to truth and salvation. It is a hard lesson, but don't trust anyone, especially yourself.

The est and shamanism entries have been revised.

The Wicca entry was updated to include a link to a story about how the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs has changed its policy regarding the Wiccan symbol on tombstones.


The astrology entry was revised to include a link to a story about a study that has found that the time of year we are born really does affect the people we become, but this is due to how much sunshine a woman is exposed to during her pregnancy.

The Atlantis entry now links to a story about how Atlantis might actually refer to the Minoan civilization (as many before have argued) and that it was destroyed by a tsunami.

Finally, I added another item to the Mass Media Funk files: some comments on the work of two scientists on the evolution of the bacterial flagellum. Some hail it as knocking ID off its pedestal; others criticize it for being wrong. I see it as an example of the difference between science, which looks for answers when it has questions, and anti-science (like ID), which says STOP your investigation here because a miracle happened. (I realize the ID folks don't put it in those words, but that, in effect, is what they are saying.)

More on Losing Weight

In the last newsletter, I noted the UCLA study of weight-loss studies that found that most people who go on diets to lose weight gain weight in the long run. I failed to note that some people do lose weight. They are the ones who make a lifestyle change, usually including regular exercise.

The Magician in the Laboratory

In the last newsletter, I referred to "Randi's idea" that an expert in detecting deception be present during parapsychology experiments. Alex Tsakiris (whose podcast and website are called Skeptiko, but which should not to be confused with Sceptico, who really is a skeptic) ridiculed the idea when he interviewed D. J. Grothe. The idea of having an expert in deception is not original with Randi, however. The suggestion is made in the 1910 book Studies in Spiritism by Amy Tanner, who wrote:

If [the psychical researcher] is investigating physical phenomena, such as materializations, raps, etc., it is indispensable that he should have a knowledge of sleight of hand. In no other way can he be sure that he is not deceived....

In many cases eminent scientists have been deceived by palpable frauds, and some conjurers assert that they are especially easy to deceive because they are so confident of the trustworthiness of their senses....

A cynical man of the world with no trust in the average man, would be the best investigator, if he had some psychological training. (p. 5)

Tanner worked for G. Stanley Hall, who at one time was a member of the American Society for Psychical Research, and sat in on many experiments, including a number of sessions with trance medium Leonora Piper, whom William James called his "white crow." The stock complaint that defenders of the paranormal use to defend themselves against criticism-that their skeptical critics don't even read their works-can't be made against Tanner. She was on the front lines and started as a believer in Mrs. Piper's mediumistic abilities, but eventually settled on an explanation firmly rooted in worldly behaviors and mechanisms.

Speaking of Skeptiko with a k....His first interview was with Rupert Sheldrake, the Cambridge trained biochemist who gave us such useless ideas as morphic resonance. In case you are wondering why planes keep crashing in the same places and the same people keep getting robbed in the same banks, it's because of morphogenic fields that hold a memory of everything that has ever happened in those spaces. Through repetition, space has learned to repeat itself. This concept also explains why ever since the first golfer putted his or her ball in the hole that every golfer ever since has put his or her last putt in the hole. The holes have memories. Likewise, baldness is the memory in space and time of no hair there. Monkeys don't give birth to other monkeys because of monkey business or monkey genes but because of monkey memory in the air that has been there since the first monkey. But I digress. In the interview, Sheldrake announces that he is both a Lamarkian and a true Darwinist, while Richard Dawkins is not a true Darwinist but a neo-Darwinist (as if that were a bad thing). He thinks that real science is moving toward ideas like vitalism and dualism, which have been long abandoned by educated men and women. None of these claims evoked anything but praise from Tsakiris. Sheldrake also announced that he is the true skeptic and the skeptics of the world aren't true skeptics or we'd be inquiring into the paranormal as he is. In any case, Sheldrake has created a massive defense against all criticism, including a deceptive website called Skeptical Investigations, which has made it to my list of top bunk sites on the Internet. Tsakiris was "inspired by Skeptical Investigations." If you want to see what Sheldrake considers rigor, read his study on the paranormal parrot. It's a howler.Guess who's calling

Another howler is Tsakiris's defense of Sheldrake's work and siding with him on the notion that there is a vast skeptical conspiracy against parapsychology. Sheldrake is smart enough to realize that if there was any significant explanatory value in his theory of morphic resonance that the scientific community would have beaten a path to his door and hailed him as the Galileo he seems to think he is. Parapsychologists complain of persecution when scientists won't allow Sheldrake to present his astounding new work on telephone telepathy or hold a press conference at a scientific meeting. It's not persecution to demand a high standard of scientific work before you can present at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Nor is it persecution to oppose a presentation where critics are not allowed to comment on the flaws in the work being promoted to the press. As some scientists framed it: "The panel's lack of balance was like inviting creationists to address the prestigious meeting without an opposing view from evolutionary biologists."*

Trouble comes in threes to those who can't count, so here's one last howler: Tsakiris, like Sheldrake, pretends to be a skeptic. Tsakiris's latest interview is with Jeffrey Mishlove, whose book The PK Man is one of the dumbest books I've ever read. A grown man with a Ph.D. should have more understanding of human nature, sense perception, and testimonials, even by lawyers who sign affidavits, than this book shows. The interview is called "Blindness of Debunkers and Radical Skeptics." Believe me, these guys don't distinguish among skeptics. We're all debunkers and "radical" or "super" skeptics. If the psi defenders did consider any of us to be rational, sane, well-intentioned critics, you'd think they'd pay attention and respond accordingly. They don't. So, draw your own conclusion. Here's the blurb for Tsakiris's interview with Mishlove:

The same kind of blind unconsciousness that led the United States to launch an unprovoked war in the Middle East is the same kind of blindness people in the scientific community, particularly those that identify themselves as debunkers, radical skeptics[,] use to buy into the paradigm of materialistic consciousness.

In my neighborhood, we call this whistling in the dark with a red herring between your ears and your back to the facts while aiming your invisible lance at windmills on the horizon. I think a more apt analogy would be to compare Sheldrake, Mishlove, Radin, Gary Schwartz, and Tsakiris to the Muslims who were outraged at the Muhammad cartoons. We caricature your work because it's hilarious. Who else would spend twenty years asking people to try to affect random event generators with their minds? Who else would declare that the results defy chance by a zillion to one and think they've found evidence of a small psychokinetic effect? Who else would test parrots or dogs for telepathy and declare that critics of such research are like Cuvier in his rejection of the work of Spallanzani? Who else would come up with an unending list of rationalizations to dismiss fraud, trickery, deceit, incompetence, and error? Sure, Geller or Palladino cheated sometimes, but that doesn't mean they cheated all the time. Therefore, when we didn't detect them cheating, we are justified in concluding that they didn't cheat. With such logic, you wonder why we ridicule you? If anyone suggests that maybe a better conclusion would be that you missed the trickery and were deceived, you pound your chest and cry foul! We mock you because you seem to be suffering from some sort of infantile paralysis: you're locked into a worldview that might be charming in a child and you throw a tantrum if anybody tells you to grow up. Rational adults usually grow out of the magical thinking and superstitions of their childhood. Parapsychologists turn magical thinking into an art and call it science. They want scientists to show them some respect, but how can you respect a bunch of whiners who keep comparing themselves to Christopher Columbus and Galileo when more apt comparisons would be to the captain of the Titanic and to Blondlot or Benveniste? How can you respect someone like Dean Radin who does four tests on presentiment with mixed results and then does a meta-analysis and declares odds against chance of 125,000 to 1? (Entangled Minds, pp.166-168). In the end, as in almost all other parapsychological experiments these days, Radin produced a statistic that, according to some formula, is "significant." It begs the question to declare that such statistics are evidence of paranormal phenomena. As Jim Alcock says: you may as well claim the statistic is due to Zeus.

If grown men and women want to spend their entire lives chasing after psi, let them. I have no interest in hounding them out of the lab. But when their work gets reported in the mass media and they ask the government for grant money then expect me and many other critics to read and evaluate their claims and methods. If we find them lacking, we will not hesitate to say so and provide details. If the best response a parapsychologist can come up with is to call us "super skeptics" and claim that we are suffering from some sort of psychological pathology, then please continue to wallow in pathetic self-pity, circle your wagons, and pat each other on the back for being courageous for taking the road less traveled. But don't be surprised when the world continues to yawn as you announce another great achievement and declare that anyone who says otherwise is stopping scientific if progress could be measured by how far back in time you think we need to go to find the correct paradigm for science to work under.

If you think I'm exaggerating consider this from Valerie Richardson of the Washington Times:

Many people claim expertise on psychic phenomena such as telepathy. But few can boast top-notch scientific credentials. That's what separates Rupert Sheldrake from the New Age pack. A botanist who earned a doctorate in biochemistry from Cambridge University and later studied at Harvard University, Mr. Sheldrake has earned an international reputation for applying scientific method to quasi-scientific subjects. Mr. Sheldrake spoke over the weekend at the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology [ACEP] conference at the Westfields Conference Center in Chantilly, winning a standing ovation from the crowd of 350 and demonstrating why he's the world's foremost go-to guy on all things paranormal.

ACEP? Energy Psychology? Where would I be without Google?? According to the ACEP website, energy psychology is:

a family of mind/body techniques that are clinically observed to consistently help with a wide range of psychological conditions. These interventions address the human vibrational matrix, which consists of three major interacting systems: . Energy pathways (meridians and related acupoints) . Energy centers (chakras) . Human biofield (systems of energy that envelop the body).

This, my friends, is what is called frontier medicine. My views on energy medicine are no secret. The energy psychologists use a paradigm that might have been popular in the second millennium BCE. They do not use terms like 'vibration' or 'energy' in the same way that physicists do. These New Age PhDs and MDs shun conventional medicine in favor of the conceptual equivalent of rattles, drums, and incense. In addition to Rupert Sheldrake, the featured speakers at their conference were Christine Page, M.D., and Sai Maa Lakshmi Devi. Dr. Page writes on her website:

The holographic reality in which we have lived for thousands of years is dissolving as the Great Shift in consciousness starts to take its effect. Despite the opportunity for a more unified and peaceful future, many will resist the change clinging to the old paradigm having become disspirited and out of touch with the pulse of their soul. However, change is inevitable.

This is a moment to remember that we're the Ones we've been waiting for. We are the ones whose consciousness will create the holographic reality for a whole new world. To achieve this, we must remember who we are, calling in all parts of ourselves which have become separated and integrate them into the heart, the vessel of transformation.

If you had trouble making sense out of her gibberish, you can take a seminar and she'll explain it to you along with why 2012 is important, where the Heart of the Great Mother dwells, and how to build wormholes and portals to multidimensional universes while stepping into the Cauldron of the Dark Goddess.

I don't know if she got a standing ovation or not from the energy doctors, but she seems to have outSheldraked Sheldrake for ideas on the fringe of useless metaphysics. The final featured speaker at the energy doctors' conference doesn't even claim to be a scientist. Her Holiness Sai Maa is described as an enlightened one who can help you transform and awaken. She pours her spirituality straight, without pretence at science. As one website puts it: "Honoring the many paths that connect us to God, Sai Maa teaches Oneness, Wholeness, Truth and Love. Whatever our tradition, Sai Maa guides us to a deeper understanding and being of that which we choose." She's the one-guru-fits-all-faiths guru and even advertises her holiness on MySpace.

Is this the paradigm that will lead us into the twenty-first century? Or is it going to take us back to our pre-scientific past? If the energy doctors, parascientists, and New Age gurus want to chase their vibrational holographs, let them. But they should not expect to dine at the same banquet table as the scientists who leave ancient metaphysical ideas, like vital energy, with the shamans and mystics. Next year, I suggest that ACEP invite Mary Lynch to be their keynote speaker. She's the poster girl for energy medicine.

There was going to be a part II to this rant but, unbeknownst to me, Mary Carmichael and Ben Radford wrote it for me. You can find it in the latest issue (May/June) of the Skeptical Inquirer under the title "Secrets and Lies." It's about Rhonda Byrne, Oprah, and a host of New Age "energy healing" gurus who connect quantum physics with ancient mysticism to produce a promising alchemical brew for gaining control over a seemingly uncontrollable world. You, too, can access esoteric knowledge, magically change your life, without doing any heavy mental lifting and without leaving your computer screen or your chair. When you realize it doesn't work, just move on to the next scam and put your faith in it. Meanwhile, real magic is going on in your back yard, if you'll just take the time to observe it. Before anyone writes in to remind me that Sir Isaac Newton dabbled in alchemy, had twenty different Bibles that he read diligently to uncover the secrets of the universe, including the year the world will end (I think it's 2060 or something like that, so get ready), etc., etc., remember that we honor Newton today for the scientific ideas he got right or close to right, but we do not honor him for his mystical, theological, or occult notions. Instead, we wonder in vain about what he might have accomplished had he not wasted so much time on theology and mysticism.

2007 Skeptic's Toolbox Program Announced

If you'd like to be part of a small group whose discussion sessions are led by renowned scholars and skeptics, this is the program for you. CSI (formerly CSICOP) has been sponsoring this annual event at the University of Oregon since 1989. The theme this year is "Changing Minds" and will explore subjects like persuasion techniques, advertising, brainwashing, conversion, propaganda, and the ethics of behavior control. Ray Hyman will be joined by Loren Pankratz, Jim Alcock, and Barry Beyerstein. Jerry Andrus usually shows up with his wonderful array of visual illusions. Wally Sampson is also one of the faculty for the program. The cost is only $374 for the workshop and room and board, and the Saturday night banquet. The workshop by itself is only $159.

The CSI people are genuine adults who have outgrown the fantasies of their childhoods. There will be no deference to woo-woo in their explorations. They will not ask you to leave your critical sense at the door, either. Nor will they expect you to believe that the vast majority of scientists are bigoted ignoramuses, whilst a small band claiming that superstition and magical thinking should drive science are the real scientists and skeptics. If you're craving some intellectual stimulation, the Skeptic's Toolbox serves up large helpings at no extra cost.

Alcock and Beyerstein will also be presenting in Dublin, Ireland, next September at the European Skeptics Congress.

59th Skeptic's Circle

Skeptical bloggers link together for the 59th time! It's a free-for-all and it's all free at Pooflinger's Anonymous. If you're skeptical and you write, consider joining in. If you don't write, enjoy what others have written and give thanks that the rational, skeptical community of bloggers keeps expanding. The 60th edition will be hosted by Infophilia (not to be confused with infomania, which is a disease worse than killer weed).

Lynne Kelly to Visit the U.S.

One of Australia's leading skeptics, science writer/educator Lynne Kelly, announced in an interview with Derek of Skepticality that she will be visiting the U.S. this summer. Check out her website for contact information and listen to the Skepticality interview to hear about her latest book, Crocodile: Evolution's Greatest Survivor. Kelly is the author of The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal and the creator of Tauromancy.

Critical Thinking Scholarships

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has announced that it will award up to $10,000 in academic scholarships this fall. Scholarships in amounts of $5,000, $2,500, $1,500, and $1,000 will be awarded. For details, see the JREF scholarships page.

Speaking of Randi....the first article I read in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer is by Massimo Polidoro and describes another of Randi's magical moments when he deceived an arrogant talk-show host and defender of Uri Geller's paranormal powers. Read the article and discover that there is more than one way to do magic.

Only the Religious May Discriminate

Yesterday, the House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on the Head Start reauthorization bill. Paragraph one of the bill prohibits discrimination, but paragraph two exempts religious groups from paragraph one!

(1) The Secretary shall not provide financial assistance for any program, project, or activity under this subchapter unless the grant or contract with respect thereto specifically provides that no person with responsibilities in the operation thereof will discriminate with respect to any such program, project, or activity because of race, creed, color, national origin, sex, political affiliation, or beliefs. ``

(2) Paragraph (1) shall not apply to a recipient of financial assistance under this subchapter that is a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society, with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.

The Bush Administration wants paragraph 2 in the bill, but it was not allowed by the Rules Committee.* The White House issued the following statement:

The administration believes that such provisions should be applied to all federally funded social service programs so faith-based organizations may operate on an equal level with every other organization competing to provide services.

In other words, religions that discriminate against groups of people should be allowed to do so, otherwise they won't participate in the programs. This administration has its own brand of logic. Another classic sophistry is its explanation as to why it doesn't count casualties from roadside bombs in its calculations to determine whether the "surge" is working: the enemy would win.*

Theocracy After ID

Many of us were wondering what would be next. In the beginning, the theocrats wanted a state religion and a nation explicitly founded "under God." They got "in God we trust" on our currency instead and eventually slipped "one nation, under God" into a pledge of allegiance to our flag and Republic. They had kids praying in school for many years, until that was declared unconstitutional. They created "creation science" and offered it as an alternative theory to evolution that ought to be taught in biology classes. That, too, was declared unconstitutional. They created "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution for our children's biology classes, but Judge Jones saw through that ruse and it, too, was declared unconstitutional. It looks like the latest ruse is to introduce the Bible to our public school students by offering it as literature.

The Georgia state legislature overwhelmingly passed a law last year that allows state-funded Bible classes to be taught in public schools. The Georgia state board of education approved curriculum in March for teaching the Bible in Georgia's high schools. So far, only a few of the state's 180 school districts have seen the light and have agreed to offer classes in the Bible. Muscogee County is one of the vanguard that will be offering classes in both the Old Testament and the New Testament next fall. The state requires that Bible classes be taught "in an objective and non-devotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students."*

Despite the fact that it should be easy to justify teaching the Bible as literature in a nation whose founders were European, there is a great trepidation about this experiment. Will lawsuits follow? Will the Georgia tactic be declared unconstitutional? Defenders can ask how can you fully understand history, art, literature, music, etc., without some knowledge of the Biblical stories that inspired them? Critics like the First Amendment Center, a Washington D.C.-based civil liberties group, think that the "chances of it being unconstitutional are pretty big and the pitfalls are huge.'' The First Amendment Center is not opposed to studying the Bible or other religious texts in public schools, but a spokesman for the group claims that Georgia isn't likely to give teachers enough guidance to know the difference between academic study and spiritual teaching. The civil rights group is not going to oppose the Georgia law but it plans to monitor how it is implemented.

Fear of being sued for violating separation of church and state may be keeping most school districts from jumping on the Bible wagon.

Wouldn't it be ironic if educators in this country started demanding more instruction in art history in order to get religion into the public school curriculum? Who could object to students spending their time mulling over the illustrations of the Bible carved into the stone and pieced together in the colored glass of Chartres Cathedral?

Atheist Whiners

There seems to be little reason for atheists to be whining about being treated as second-class citizens these days. It is true that not that long ago George Herbert Walker Bush stated that he didn't think atheists could be considered citizens or patriots because this is "one nation under God." Twenty years ago, most journalists in this country would not take Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1919-1995) seriously. Today, those who want to force prayer on us are looked at as the losers. Atheists have no trouble getting their books published and publicized, even if the books are hostile to religion. In addition to the works of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris that hit the charts not that long ago, there are several new books that are getting fair play in the marketplace. Vic Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist is ranked #164 at and Christopher Hitchins' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is at #5. Nica Lalli's personal memoir of living as an atheist, Nothing: Something to Believe in, isn't as popular but would there have been any market for such a book twenty or thirty years ago?

George Bush seems to work well with the godless Karl Rove, which just goes to show that The Decider was right: the human being and the fish can coexist peacefully.

Scam of the minute

This minute's prize goes to the folks who are selling the Magnetic FuelSaver, who have taken a page out of the Inset fuel Stabilizer's book. With this gizmo you can increase fuel efficiency from 8%-60%! Plus, it works in magical ways: it will "increase the internal energy of the fuel" and cause "specific changes at a molecular level." With this magnet, the "molecules fly apart easier, join with oxygen easier and ignite easier." How is this possible? you might wonder. Not by morphic resonance. Not by the law of attraction. Not by quantum entanglement. But by ionization. You probably knew that, though, didn't you? This is the same process that brought us the laundry ball! If the fuel is ionized, it

acquires a 'charge' and molecules of like charge repel each other, this makes fuel dispersal more efficient. Then if you charge the air to the opposite polarity, then the fuel and oxygen combine far quicker than 'normal'.

This technology is all scientifically tested and validated, even if the English isn't. To install:

Place the unit in the air intake of your vehicle in just a few minutes and no requires maintenance!

Sounds illiterate but expensive. If you hurry, you can get one from for only $69.95. Supplies are limited, of course, to suckers on hand.

Bob Carroll
May 2, 2007

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