Robert Todd Carroll
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Skeptic's Dictionary NewsletterIssue # 8
August 6, 2002
Increasingly when reading newspapers these days, I'm reminded of Mencken's old saying; "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats." Instead I go read The Skeptic's Dictionary. Keep up the good work! --Jon Henrik GilhuusSubscribers 1,013
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(Past issues posted at http://skepdic.com/news/)
1) First, an apology. Some of you received three copies of the last newsletter. I found several double-subscribers, but no triple-subscribers. The mailing list has been stripped of duplicates. I am sending this newsletter out as styled text only. Previous issues have been sent in both styled and plain text. I hope this eliminates any duplicate or triplicate mailings. However, the change may cause problems for some e-mail readers. Please let me know if it does. I apologize for the inconvenience.
A reader asked why I don't have an entry on Stephan A. Schwartz, a paranormal investigator who claims to have evidence for remote viewing, psychic archaeology, energy medicine, precognition, and a few other items debunked frequently in my writings. Please remember, I have a full-time job, personal and family interests, and I do the "Lord's work" part-time, as a hobby. Here is a short list of some of the other notables that readers think I should debunk, but that I have ignored due to lack of time, rather than lack of interest:
I get many "but it works!" letters like the following:
I actually bought and installed one of these Fuel Atomizer 2000's. I run it on a Toyota V6 truck with larger tires. My MPG went from 19 to 22 with a best of 24 MPG. I've had it for 2 years with no problems. I don't care about the "they" in the companies [sic] statements. I just wanted more miles per gallon.... I got it.Comment: The truck in question is a 1992 2WD. According to fueleconomy.gov, it should be getting 22 mpg (assuming the plugs are clean and gapped properly, the timing is set right, the tires are good and inflated properly, and the driver accelerates properly). My guess is this truck driver would still get 22 mpg even if he took off the Atomizer. I asked the writer if he'd also had the truck tuned or got new tires (or changed the inflation on his tires) when he put in his Atomizer, but he didn't reply.
Sometimes, I get a really detailed version of the "but it works" letter, such as as this one from "G.J.".
I think this pendant is something like the EM-Power Disk. I found a company called Harmonics International that has many fine harmonic products, but no Bio-Balance Disk. The founder of the company doesn't mention subjective experience, however. She says her stuff works because of "quantum physics, bio-resonance and photon technology." We've heard this before about New Age energy, but you should decide for yourself after reading her nifty explanation of healthy waveforms in acrylics.
I also found a company called HarmonicInnerPrizes, which says it "dedicates itself to bringing LIGHT into the world through high quality nutritional supplements, assisting in the facilitation of the advancement of human consciousness on our planet." (How can I ridicule such nobility!?)
Back to G.J.'s letter.
Where to begin? Let's start with the easy stuff. In the introduction to The Skeptic's Dictionary, I assert that I don't claim to be objective and that my purpose is not to provide "balanced" accounts. My aim is to give the best skeptical arguments. The other side is easy enough to get from thousands of sources.
Next, one thing I have tried is yoga. In fact, I've read the Autobiography of a Yogi and was once a follower of Paramahansa Yogananda. That was over thirty years ago, but I have fond memories of the experience, even though it was a brief one. I enjoyed the chanting and meditating more than the Masses, hymns, and sermons I was used to. Yoga and meditation can be very relaxing and can benefit some people for that reason. But so can a lot of other things.
Now, to the serious stuff. I've written about the pragmatic fallacy, self-deception, the placebo effect, and the logical fallacy of post hoc reasoning, including the regressive fallacy, so I won't belabor those points. I will, however, comment on the author's claim that subjective experience is considered worthless evidence by "Western" thinkers, and that "Eastern" thought is based almost entirely on subjective experience. A single visit to a physician, East or West, will disprove these claims. The first question you are likely to be asked is "How are you doing?" or "Where does it hurt?" Subjective experience is essential to diagnosing illness, but it isn't the final word. Objective tests are essential, too. You may feel great but if your blood pressure is 180/95, you are not doing too well. Furthermore, India and China did not build nuclear weapons by relying almost exclusively on subjective experience. However, if I woke up in a hospital and complained of severe chest pains and somebody in a white coat handed me a Bio-Balance Disk pendant and said, "Here, wear this and you'll feel better in no time," I'd know I was in some New Age clinic in the West.
I was going to stop with G.J.'s letter, but another "it works" note came in just before press time, and I'd like to share it with you.
Comment: I'm glad to be of service. Our motto is: We Can Help Anybody, If You Let Us.
One of the more common queries I get is the Explain This! query. How do you explain this ice circle, huh? How do you explain this scar on my leg, huh? How do you explain accurate psychic predictions, huh? How do you explain those six lights in the sky, huh? Most of those who send me Explain This! mail want to know how I can explain something that doesn't seem like coincidence. The following e-mail is typical of this type:
Comment: I don't know why anyone thinks that skeptics should be able to explain everything, or why anyone should think that there must be a paranormal or supernatural explanation for anything that seems strange to them. I'm sure most skeptics have had some pretty uncanny experiences. We may be at a loss to explain them, but we don't therefore jump to the conclusion that there must be something paranormal or supernatural going on.
For example, some time ago I was editing the file "backmess.html" on reverse speech. To my surprise, the sd.gif was reversed! (This is the text graphic in the upper left hand corner of every page on the SD that says "The Skeptic's Dictionary.") That's right. I'm working on the reverse speech entry and one of my images is reversed, and it shouldn't be. At first I thought that somebody may have hacked into my files and played a little joke on me. Of course, it could have been a message from the spirits. The first thing I did was check to see if the gif image was a new gif. It wasn't. I checked several other files and none of them had a reversed image. Even more uncanny was the date of last alteration: 9/11/01. It took a few minutes, but I finally figured out that I had inadvertently clicked on the "flip horizontal" icon on the Front Page pictures toolbar! I liked the result so much, I've left it that way on the reverse speech page, although I did have to give the gif file another name.
5) Weird Stats
The movie "Signs" seems to have led to an increase in hits on the crop circle page. Typically, in a two-day period, that page would get about 54 hits. On August 2nd (the day "Signs" was released) and 3rd, the page got a combined 778 hits.
Walter C. McCrone Jr. died on July 10, 2002 at the age of 86.
On the bright side, my agent, Ted Weinstein, received a query from Temas e Debates (Bertelsmann Group) in Lisbon, Portugal, about publishing The Skeptic's Dictionary. We received a similar inquiry several months ago from the Italian publishing company Avverbi. The English edition from John Wiley & Sons should be out next spring.
Finally, Godless Americans plan to march on Washington, D.C. next November 2. Their Web page says they are going to meet in the Nation's Capital to protest the marginalization of atheists. Sounds like a capital idea. Unfortunately, this atheist has a prior engagement: Boston College plays Notre Dame, and NBC is televising it.
Feedback: if there is anything you would like to see added to the next newsletter, let me know. I make no promises except that I will consider all ideas. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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