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Robert Todd Carroll


 

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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 80

June 18, 2007
3,988 subscribers

"In the past our politicians offered us dreams of a better world. Now they promise to protect us from nightmares." --BBC

In this issue:

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

New items posted since the last newsletter:

  1. An article on Ham Land, Ken Ham's bible park in Kentucky. Ham may have been inspired by the so-called Creation and Earth History Museum built near San Diego, California, in 1985 by the Institute for Creation Research, which is still going strong. Ham Land is not the only recent entry into the religous theme park arena. The Big Valley Creation Science Museum recently opened in western Canada. Also, Armon Bar-Tur of Rutherford County, Tennessee, plans to open Bible Park USA, featuring "a working Galilean village," Noah's ark, and various other biblical exhibits. Bar-Tur says it will be a non-denominational theme park that aims to teach "cultural history." All these fantasy lands are being put forth as representations of real knowledge of the origins of the universe, our planet, and our species.
  2. An article on the potential harm from supplements, especially if they come from China (and they probably do).
  3. An article on media hype about a study on the benefits of vitamin D supplements.
  4. A reply to Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, who has posted on his website a critical response to my SD entry on the allegedly telepathic parrot called N'kisi. Skeptics will not be surprised that Sheldrake argues about as well as he does science. He's fond of the ad hominem and straw man, ignores the most important criticisms, and throws in a howler or two for good measure. My favorite is his claim that I revealed my ignorance of scientific methods by criticizing him for omitting 40% of his data (none of it supportive of his hypothesis, of course). According to Sheldrake, I should have known that it is common practice to omit data when subjects don't respond if the subjects are animals, autistic children, and "others who cannot be expected to respond to tests exactly like adult humans." If I were Christopher Hitchins I might say that arguing with Sheldrake is like shooting fish in a barrel or engaging in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. But I'm not, so I won't.

The following entries have been revised: electromagnetic fields, morphic resonance, NDE, and retroactive clairvoyance.

I updated the Nessie entry to include reference to the latest video of something moving in the lake. The shark cartilage entry was updated to include a link to a new scientific study that found the stuff does not help in the fight against cancer. The OBE entry now includes a link to a story about some New Age Australians who chanted and broke clay pipes over their dying companion whom they thought was on an astral projection trip. I also added a link in the cold and hot reading entries to a video of Rosemary Althea doing a hot reading (from Penn & Teller's Bullshit!). Finally, I updated the lunar effects entry to include a link to a BBC news story about a police department in Sussex that did its own three-month study (or something like that), unpublished anywhere (so we don't how it was done and what controls, if any, were used), that found a "rise in violent incidents when the moon was full and on pay days." There will be extra patrols, say the police in Sussex, on nights when there is a full moon. That should scare away the werewolves, at least.

Clarification

Regarding the components of the QLink pendant: A reader wondered:

What, pray tell, is a "zero-ohm" resistor. According to what I learned in electronics school there ain't no such animal. Even air has some electrical resistance. So does a straight piece of wire. For a "scientific" critique, this is a bad goof.

Ben Goldacre says of the "zero-ohm resistor":

This is simply a resistor that has pretty much no resistance: in effect a bit of wire in a tiny box. It might sound like an absurd component, but they're quite common in modern circuits, because they can be used to bridge the gap between adjacent tracks on a circuit board with a standard-size component.

In short, "zero-ohm resistor" is the name of a piece of wire, not a description of an electronic part.

Universities apart

One university, Princeton, allows a retired professor of cognitive psychology (Roger Nelson) to maintain a website advocating ideas the rest of the world considers lamely argued for and inane on their face: global consciousness and micro-psychokinesis. Both are argued for by statistical analysis of selective data from random event generators. Some might say that Nelson's website is a waste of university money. Princeton ought to be educating the public, not assisting the promotion of quack science. Before he retired, I would have accepted the argument that academic freedom protects Nelson's right to post whatever rubbish he wants on the university website, as long as he's not vulgar, libelous, or using the site for private commercial gain.

The other university, University College London (UCL), removed the website of a professor of pharmacology (David Colquhoun) who dared to try to improve the public understanding of science by outing quackery where he found it. His anti-quackery blog is called DC's Improbable Science. I would agree with Ben Goldacre (of BadScience fame), who defends the quackbusting blog here, that this blog educates the public and is a great use of web resources. UCL should have been proud of Dr. Colquhoun and defended his right to call the claim that red clover is a "blood cleanser," gobbledygook. It was certainly appropriate for Dr. Colquhoun to criticize herbal medicine practitioner Dr. Ann Walker for proclaiming the health benefits of vitamin supplements without disclosing her work for a lobbying body for the supplements industry.

Fortunately, UCL soon reversed its decision and issued a joint statement with Dr. Colquhoun. If only Princeton University would see the light and announce that academic freedom does not require that they use university resources to support the tired and lame ideas of a retired professor.

Atheists apart: the Rational Response Squad and the Secular Coalition for America

I had never heard of the Rational Response Squad (RRS) until listening to a Skepticality podcast featuring Michael Shermer analyzing a Nightline "face-off" episode featuring Christians Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort versus atheists Brian Sapient (is that his real name?) and a woman who calls herself Kelly. (I should state up front that I have not watched this "face-off," so I will not comment on it.) The promo states that the issue is "Does God Exist?" It's the Christians vs. the Atheists. Comfort is a preacher and Cameron is an actor who heads a Christian ministry. The Christian team are amateurs, you might say, as neither of them has had any formal theological training. Apparently, the RRS are not trained philosophers or debaters, so it should have been a fair fight.

On the RRS website, Sapient is described as a "full-time activist, not employed, sustaining himself fully on any income generated helping people overcome theism and with related projects." A visitor to the website will quickly discover that he is not kidding. There are numerous appeals for financial support. I couldn't find out anything of interest about Kelly, except that she believes "atheists are completely vilified" and "people overwhelmingly agree it's OK to hate [atheists], because there's an absurd caricature of atheism out there."* That might be true in Muslim countries but here in the U.S. we've made some progress over the past several hundred years. Most atheists go about their daily lives here without fear that theists will kill them, burn down their houses, or steal their mp3 players.

Kelly and Sapient were interviewed by Swoopy on another Skepticality podcast, where they took issue with Shermer's characterization of their work as rather sophomoric and unlikely to change many minds. They seem to think that Shermer is too cerebral and intellectual. In fairness, the RRS does have an essay contest. I'd call that intellectual. I'm afraid that's about as nasty as it gets when atheists dis each other. Unlike Christians, we don't burn each other at the stake or threaten each other with eternal torture.

RRS also has a forums area and a chat area, which I imagine are very popular with young atheists, although they allow theists to participate as long as they follow the rules, which are too detailed to review here.

The most well known project of the RRS is the blasphemy challenge: people are challenged to post a video on YouTube in which they state: "I deny the Holy Spirit."  As a reward, the first 1,001 people who accept the challenge will be given a free DVD of The God Who Wasn't There. (Why wasn't it the first 666?) They also produce shows (in mp3 format), which can be downloaded from their website. The RRS website also posts alerts (with comments and video links) to such things as the debate between Al Sharpton and Christopher Hitchins (a preacher vs. an atheist who subtitled his latest book 'how religion poisons everything').

Not all atheists feel as put upon as the RRS squad, as is evidenced by the work of Lori Lipman Brown, lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for America. Brown, who was one of the more popular speakers at the last Amazing Meeting, was also interviewed on Skepticality (this interview can be heard on the same podcast as the interview with Sapient and Kelly). To hear Brown tell it, her atheism and representation of a coalition of atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and other nontheistic Americans, has not hindered her access to our representatives in Washington. She says she is now routinely contacted by representatives or their staff members for information and advice.

The Secular Coalition for America also had a challenge: "Find an Atheist, Humanist, Freethinker Elected Official." As most people now know, Rep. Pete Stark, a member of Congress since 1973, has openly declared that he is a nontheist.

The RRS motto is: "Fighting to free humanity from the mind disorder that is theism." Some people might say that calling theism a mind disorder is an absurd caricature. My motto is "Never debate theists....unless you are trying to get publicity for your latest book or project." As far as I can tell, the Secular Coalition doesn't have a motto but they have a purpose: to engage public policy makers and the media on issues ranging from religion's influence on education and medical research to the privileging of faith groups by government.

Atheists, like skeptics, come in a variety of styles. We can be in your face, intellectually demanding, lighthearted and humorous, or politically engaging. Sometimes we can be all at the same time. I guess you could say: We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more!

Foundation For the Future

The Foundation For the Future, whose advisers include E. O. Wilson and Donald Johanson, was established in 1998 "to increase and diffuse knowledge concerning the long-term future of humanity." It does this by promoting public awareness of futures issues. Included in the foundation's activities are the sponsoring of seminars and workshops that focus on issues associated with the long-term future of humanity, the publishing of scholarly work, and the granting of various awards, including the Kistler Prize, which consists of a US $100,000 cash award and a specially designed 200-gram gold medallion seated in a leaded glass sculpture. It is named for Walter P. Kistler, originator of the award program and benefactor of the Foundation For the Future.

The foundation recently announced the winner of the first Walter P. Kistler Science Documentary Film Award. It must come as a shock to the bible theme park creators that the award did not go to Mel Gibson or Charlton Heston but to Thomas Levenson for his work on Origins, the 2004 PBS NOVA miniseries about scientific study and discoveries regarding the origin of our universe, our planet, and life as we know it.

Paranormal Weekly

Paranormal Weekly is a vid-cast for those who want to keep up with all the fantastic news from the paranormal world. It was recently announced that after a long hiatus the show is returning to the WWW. It promises to provide us with the latest in paranormal research, wild theories, and speculations from the trenches about blurry videos or photos, funny looking clouds, and strange noises coming from old buildings. New postings are scheduled to appear on each Wednesday, unless Wednesday falls on a Thursday, which can happen in woo-woo land if you're not wearing your tinfoil skullcap.

Vince Wilson, who will be bringing us the paranormal news, says the program was inspired by the In Search Of show that was hosted by Leonard Nimoy about a quarter of a century ago. That show, which I vaguely remember, presented investigations into pseudoscience and the paranormal. Despite the inspiration, Wilson says that his new show won't resemble Nimoy's very much. It will be more like a local newscast with stories about Bigfoot and ghosts.*

Radioactive toothpaste

While googling "radioactive toothpaste" in my quest to find the perfect gift for a certain someone, I stumbled on the following site: Radioactive Quack Cures. I was amazed at all the things that radioactive substances can allegedly cure. For example, radium laced suppositories can lead to "properly functioning glands," needed for "mental alertness and the ability to live and love in the fullest sense of the word."

For other gift ideas, see the website, which is part of the virtual museum of Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Collection.

Upcoming Events for Skeptics

There are ten upcoming events listed on the updates page. A few of the more important ones are:

August 9-13, 2007
Skeptic's Toolbox
"Changing Minds"
The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

University of Oregon at Eugene

September 7-10, 2007
European Skeptics Congress
"Threats to Science and Reason: Analysis and Response" Hosted by the Irish Skeptics Society

Dublin, Ireland

September 21-23, 2007

New Zealand Skeptics Conference
St Andrews College Christchurch

October 13-15, 2007
The Eleventh World Congress Center for Inquiry-Transnational "Scientific Inquiry and Human Development"
Beijing, China

November 17-18, 2007
Australian Skeptics National Convention
"The Use and Abuse of Scientific Data in the Environment Debate"

University of Tasmania at Hobart

Summer camps

It's not too late to sign up for Camp Quest West, the camp 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 camp is for girls and boys ages 8-17. It is affiliated with National Camp Quest, the first secular summer camp for youth in the history of the United States. 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 a.human@mindspring.com.

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

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