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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 81

3,976 subscribers
July 29, 2007

"It's an exciting time for a psychic to be working in television right now."* --Carla Baron

In this issue:

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

I revised my FAQ page to reflect changes in the kinds of questions I've been getting in recent years.

I had the sad duty of posting a notice about the sudden death of world-renowned skeptic Barry Beyerstein.

I posted a new article on Evaluating Personal Experience. (I plan to follow with an article on Evaluating Scientific Studies.)

Several entries were revised: paraskevidekatriaphobia, remote viewing, and quackery.

Several entries were updated: transcendental meditation, Bigfoot, Dianetics, chelation therapy, and Rolfing®.

Stupid Pet Stories

First, there was the story about a Chihuahua who took a bite from a rattlesnake and was credited with being courageous by the dog's owners because the snake didn't get to their 1-year-old grandson. According to grandma, the dog surveyed the situation and intentionally jumped between the snake and the boy in order to sacrifice himself to save the boy. Does this dog play Texas hold 'em, too?

(Now, if the Chihuahua had been driving a car and saw a bull terrier lunging for a child, stopped the car, and drove in reverse at the bull terrier, I'd say that dog did so to frighten the bull terrier and credit him with courage, foresight, and a few other attributes I don't usually apply to dogs.)

Then there was the story about the psychic cat published in a medical journal that attracted a lot of attention in the media.

Here are just a few of the headlines:

All the stories make the same basic claims: Oscar, a cat who lives on the third floor of a Rhode Island nursing home, seems to predict when a patient is about to die. He makes his prediction by curling up next to the patient and leaving after the patient dies. He has done this 25 times over the past two years.

The original story appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine. It's called "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat" by David M. Dosa, M.D., M.P.H.

Dr. Dosa is a geriatrician at a Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. In the article, Dosa notes that the cat sometimes curls up to a patient who doesn't die and leaves while the patient is still alive. He gives an example of Oscar curling up next to a patient who isn't on death's door and none of the staff panic, but when Oscar curled up next to a patient on death's door, the nurse called the family and the priest in so they could be there when the patient died. Dr. Dosa does not mention how many times the cat has curled up next to a patient not at death's door and left when the patient was still alive. He does mention in an interview that Oscar sometimes "makes mistakes." How does he know that Oscar isn't intentionally deceiving the staff on those occasions? How does he know that Oscar isn't killing the poor patients? After all, if Oscar can show relief that a patient is not dying, make rounds, survey and examine patients, and pause "to consider the situation," as Dosa thinks he does, why couldn't the cat also be a trickster or a murderer? Dr. Dosa apparently has made no attempt to identify any unusual differences in medicine, blankets, treatment, and the like of near-death patients that might attract the cat. He also hasn't considered the possibility that the cat is diseased and transmitting some sort of deadly micro-organism to some of the patients. If this cat is as clever as Dosa and the staff at this nursing home think (they've hung a plaque in his honor "for his compassionate hospice care"), then he might be practicing voodoo or reading auras.

Dosa concludes his kittenish article by noting: "After all, no one dies on the third floor unless Oscar pays a visit and stays awhile." That is not the same thing as saying that everyone Oscar visits dies shortly thereafter, but it is close enough to mislead a few journalists. Fortunately, the bloggers will pounce on this bit of illogic as if it were catnip. (Thanks to John Renish and Eric Durbrow.)

update: 1 Feb 2010: Skeptimedia: Psychic cat or clever doctor?

Finally, I have a stupid pet story of my own. For the past few summers, honey bees have been drowning in our swimming pool in fairly large numbers. Some days I might sweep up more than a dozen in the morning. In the afternoon, the bees appear to be dive-bombing us in the pool. My wife told a local bee expert about the situation and he said he doubted they were honey bees and he was sure they weren't coming to the pool to drink. She brought one of the dead bees into the study, photographed it, and sent a copy of the digital picture to the expert. The bee in question had been dead for several hours. About an hour after she photographed it, she heard a buzzing sound and the bee was walking around on a piece of paper as if he had had a late night at the pub. I remembered an old trick used with flies and thought maybe the same thing happens with bees. It turns out that both can be resurrected from the dead, but the process is slightly different. A fly breathes through tubules in the sides of its body. They can fill with water and immobilize the fly, but if they dry out the fly can recover. Bees don't have lungs, either. They breathe through a network of tracheas and air sacs. "Oxygen is vacuumed into the body through openings on each segment (spiracles) by the expansion of the air sacs, then the spiracles are closed and air sacs are compressed to force the air into smaller tracheas, which become smaller and smaller until individual tubules reach individual cells." Apparently, these tubules can be plugged up with wet hairs and the bee appears to be dead, but it can be resurrected by drying it out. I experimented with three of the "dead" bees that I found floating in the pool. It only took from five to ten minutes to raise two of the bees from the dead by moving them around on a piece of hot flagstone. The third did not recover. The two that recovered flew off. As no good deed goes unpunished down here, they will probably return next week to sting me in the neck.

Dawkins and Delusions

Richard Dawkins has been criticized by several fellow atheists for not distinguishing among various religious believers. The distinguishing is appropriate, the critics say, because some religious folks are kind and gentle. Not all religious people are murderous terrorists or intolerant dogmatic absolutists who will allow no dissent or criticism of their absurd, irrational, or dangerous beliefs.

Dawkins also seems unconcerned that without religions, the world would be much poorer in literature, art, music, and architecture.

At least one critic thinks Dawkins doesn't know the difference between science and philosophy (Massimo Pigliucci of Skeptical Inquirer). What the critics say about Dawkins not distinguishing good from bad religion is true, but Dawkins's point, I think, is that all religions encourage irrationality and belief in absurdities, and they abuse the minds of children with impunity. Furthermore, most religions claim immunity from scientific scrutiny and criticism as they hide behind the claim that they are dealing with the transcendent world of supernatural beings and revelations. Whatever differences might exist between Quakers and fundamentalist Muslims, making one a preferable neighbor to the other, both are essentially irrational and wrong about their claim to be immune from scientific scrutiny. Furthermore, the defenders of theological or philosophical gabble encourage irrationality and the belief in immunity from criticism by supporting beliefs based on no more than the fact that they can't be proven to be logically impossible or that their statistical probability can't be mathematically calculated in any reasonable fashion.

In any case, Dawkins is too optimistic about humanity. The desire for a world without religion is a desire that can't be fulfilled. It's logically possible, of course, but it is so improbable as not to be worth contemplating. Human beings, for the most part, love their delusions. The consequences of loving our delusions are not always bad, however.

Some friendly critics of Dawkins are dismayed that he attacks all religions, thereby alienating liberal religionists who support such things as keeping creationism out of the science curriculum. I used to think that the support of liberal religionists was necessary to keep creationism out of the public schools. But the fact is that all the progress we've made here in the U.S. in keeping creationism at bay has been made in court with the Constitution as our only necessary ally.

However, only an inveterate optimist and true humanist like Dawkins could consider it a moral duty to oppose religion wherever and in whatever form it rears its irrational head. Most atheists, myself included, are content to snipe at some of the more absurd beliefs or egregious actions of religionists. Dawkins has made a much deeper commitment than most atheists are willing to consider. That commitment is due, in part at least, to his seemingly profound ignorance of the history of religions and their actual impact on societies over the last few thousand years. For the most part, religions have had a civilizing and humanizing impact on societies. A good analogy would be to compare the impact of religion to the impact of civil government on society. One might as well argue that we should abolish civil government because of all the wars, strife, rebellions, murders, and other great harms caused by governments, even so-called good governments with good intentions. Civil governments encourage deception and lying, theft on a grand scale, exploitation, torture, murderous invasions, etc. Maybe Dawkins should consider writing another book. He could call it The Democracy Delusion.

Fighting Deceptive Religious Groups

The British Center for Science Education (BCSE) says it has just one objective: keeping creationism and intelligent design out of the science classroom in publicly-funded schools in the United Kingdom. According to the BCSE, neither creationism nor intelligent design "has any scientific merit whatsoever and both are just fronts to allow extreme religious fundamentalists to proselytise in schools."

One of the tasks of this organization is to oppose deceptive religious groups that call themselves things like "Truth in Science" when, of course, the last thing such groups want is truth in science. What they want is to promote an ancient mythology in place of science. Defenders of science have been fighting such groups in the U.S. for years. We wish the BCSE all the success in the world.

Republicans Created Directly by God, poll says

A Gallup poll has found that the majority of Republicans (68%) in the United States do not accept the theory of evolution. Only 40% of Democrats polled don't accept evolution. On the other hand, 74% of weekly churchgoers also reject evolution. I don't know what percentage of weekly churchgoing Republicans do not accept that humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life.

Most Republicans and weekly churchgoers believe that God created the first humans out of clay by making little figurines and blowing life into them. Two-thirds of Americans believe "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." They believe in virgin births, gods becoming men, water being turned into wine, Holy Ghosts, invisible beings who have no beginning and no end, and a host of other similar notions, but they reject geology, biology, physics, and chemistry.

Given these alleged facts, it is not likely that the American public is too upset over allegations by a former surgeon general that the Bush administration puts politics above science. Even though this complaint has been made many times against the current Republican administration, it is unlikely the American people care, since the majority apparently think science is rubbish anyway. As White House press secretary Tony Snow put it: "... there is certainly nothing scandalous about saying to somebody who was a presidential appointee, 'You should advocate the president's policies.'"

Why does the Washington Post bother to write this kind of twaddle?

A surgeon general's report in 2006 that called on Americans to help tackle global health problems has been kept from the public by [William R. Steiger,] a Bush political appointee without any background or expertise in medicine or public health, chiefly because the report did not promote the administration's policy accomplishments, according to current and former public health officials.

The report described the link between poverty and poor health, urged the U.S. government to help combat widespread diseases as a key aim of its foreign policy, and called on corporations to help improve health conditions in the countries where they operate.

What part of "My president right or wrong!" don't these journalists and government scientists understand? And why are some people complaining about Texas governor Rick Perry's appointment of anti-evolutionist Don McLeroy to the position of chairman of the State Board of Education? Don't people realize that science doesn't matter when it comes to education? What matters is that our children is learning and that no child be left behind to learn. What matters is loyalty to the proper ideology. Whiners should love it or leave it. Remember: reality is just an agreed upon delusion and science is a liberal plot to lead our people into poverty and atheism. Not really, but sometimes it seems like I'm surrounded by people who think this way. (Check out this cartoon, Kansas Classrooms: Science has been cancelled because your parents prefer to believe in magic.)

The Anointed One

A self-anointed defender of the Christian faith runs a site called He seems to want to remain anonymous, so we'll just call him SuperGuy. He mocks logic, science, and atheists but condemns those who mock him. His opening salvo is a bit of twisted logic in which he claims that atheism violates laws of nature and that miracles contradict the laws of nature, but he fails to conclude the obvious: atheism is a miracle!

I won't bore you with too many details but SuperGuy's favorite types of argument are begging the question, false dilemma, and the argument to ignorance. How do you explain this, huh? he asks repeatedly. He assumes you (the atheist/scientist) can't, so he seems to think that his hypothesis about the invisible guy in the sky who has no beginning, a mind, and unlimited magical powers is thereby supported. This type of argumentation occurs all too frequently among defenders of the supernatural and the paranormal. The arguer's hypothesis is Y. The arguer assumes that an opponent can't explain X and that it's either X or Y. The arguer then concludes that Y is true.

SuperGuy better hope there is no judgment day for incompetent theologians or he may end up suffering eternal torments for his misguided efforts. (Thanks to Scott Lusher.)

Phil Jordan, Nancy Grace, and the Keystone Cops

Phil Jordan is a former mortician who fancies himself a psychic detective, thanks to his own deluded impression of himself and to the encouragement he's been given by several people in law enforcement. Like other psychic detectives, Jordan relies on taking credit where credit is not due, blowing his own horn loudly with bravado and hyperbole, and the wonderful psychological illusions emerging from subjective validation that sometimes lead members of the media and law enforcement to make bad judgments about the ability of alleged psychics.

Jordan is in the news again because a production crew for Cineflix in Toronto interviewed him recently for "Psychic Investigators," to be broadcast this fall on A&E in the U.S. and also in Canada and Great Britain. A&E must be desperate. The case Cineflix is interested in happened in 1988. Talk about a cold case. It involves the stabbing and beating death of 74-year-old Rose T. Swartwood in Elmira, New York. In November 2005, talk show host Nancy Grace had Jordan on to discuss his work on the case with former detective Mike Mucci, who admits that he didn't work on the case. Mucci says that he got his information about a year-and-a-half after the crime had occurred from a jailhouse informant who said that he had spent time in the county jail with an inmate who had claimed he had killed the woman in Elmira and gotten away with it. Mucci and his partner, a Sgt. Patterson, called in Jordan and showed him pictures of Swartwood and a bunch of mug shots. Good police work would let Jordan have the mug shots and report back later on his impressions. But Mucci and Patterson stayed with Jordan while he went through the photographs. Why is this protocol unacceptable? Because two of the photographs were of suspects known to Mucci and Patterson. Jordan picked out just those two, but we have no way of knowing whether he was inadvertently tipped off by the police officers' body language, eye movements, intonations, positioning of the photos, etc., like a clever horse. Nancy Grace, who has no low opinion of herself either, failed to mention this and admitted to being amazed, though skeptical, at Jordan's feat. Even though the officers gave Jordan pictures of the victim, Grace and the officers expressed amazement that Jordan said the victim wore a loose cocktail ring. He said he could see her twirling her ring on her finger. Nobody asked to see the pictures again. Jordan may have sensed the victim wore a loose ring by using his eyes as he looked at her picture or it could have been a lucky guess. In any case, it is certainly not unusual for an old lady to wear a ring that is too big for her.

So, Jordan didn't help solve any crime. He validated mug shots under questionable conditions and mentioned a ring being twirled. For this he gets credit for being psychic by a couple of police officers, a talk show host (who used to be a prosecutor), and Roger Neumann, a writer for the Star-Gazette. Newmann reports that Jordan told the police that the man who did the killing had a homemade tattoo on his left shoulder. "It was a name, Jordan said, but he could not read it." Did he see the tattoo in the mug shot? In any case, tattoos, homemade or professional, are not uncommon on inmates. When Jordan said he could not read the name, he was given extra credit because one of the suspects had a blurry tattoo. Patterson found Jordan "absolutely astounding" but one wonders what skill Patterson has at cold reading and subjective validation. Did he inadvertently give information to Jordan, who then fed it back to him? We'll never know because the documentation for this "psychic feat" is very poor. One hopes that the evidence used for conviction of the two suspects was of a much higher caliber.

Scum of the Week

The award goes to Harold "Hob" Danforth, of Crestone, Colorado, for claiming the spirit of a woman missing for about three months has told him that she can be found in a lake not too far from her home in Plainfield, Illinois. According to the Joliet Herald News,

Danforth says the information Stebic's spirit gave him is "100 percent true." He said he has been "deeply involved" in the psychic and spiritual community for more than 60 years "channeling and recording the insights relayed to him by spirits including JFK, RFK, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, James Hoffa, Timothy McVeigh, Marilyn Monroe, Laci Peterson, Princess Diana and numerous (deceased) members of his extended clan."

Will County Sheriff's spokesman Pat Barry had this to say about psychic involvement in police matters:

I spent 20 years in investigations and I've yet to hear of a psychic getting a conviction; I've yet to hear of a psychic leading to anybody in jail," he said. "The problem (when a psychic claims to know what happened) is the focus of an investigation will turn to what a psychic said. It gives the victim's relatives false hope. They'll go to the media with the claims and complicate the investigation.

Barry cites a personal example for dismissing psychic phenomena from investigations. He remembered a time in the early 1970s when he was investigating a burglary at the home of a well-known local psychic.

"I called her up to ask, 'Who did it?' I figured she would know," he said. "She got mad and hung up on me."

The Invasion of the Mind Snatchers

Ft. Lauderdale, home of the James Randi Educational Foundation, may soon find itself inundated with paranormal airwaves. The Paranormal Awareness Radio Show and its host, Bill Metz are seeking a south Florida radio station to broadcast the show. Metz has guests booked through February 2008 to discuss such exciting things as ghosts, UFO's, cryptozoology, and "the mysteries of the world." I'm sure these guests will elevate the level of discourse on these subjects to heights that even Art Bell or George Noory could not match.

You bet your afterlife!

Bookmakers have accepted Ross Hemsworth's £100 bet that he can prove the existence of the afterlife beyond a reasonable doubt by the end of the year. The bookmakers took his bet with odds of 10,000 to 1.* My bet is that their million pounds is as safe as Randi's million dollars. Hemsworth is living proof of the old adage: a fool and his money are soon parted but the publicity sometimes makes it worthwhile.

Barry Beyerstein (1947-2007)

I can add little to the fine tributes already posted regarding one of the leading lights of the skeptical movement, Barry Beyerstein, who died of a heart attack on June 26th at the age of 60. His death was sudden and unexpected. Barry Karr noted that "Barry was a tireless defender of science. An activist who has been a staple in the media, television, newspapers, public forums for decades." He was scheduled to teach at a workshop in Oregon in a couple of weeks, the Skeptic's Toolbox, and at the ECSO congress in Dublin in September. He traveled and lectured all over the world for CSI.

Paul O'Donoghue of the Irish Skeptics wrote: "We have lost a great man at a tragically early age. He had so much more to contribute and we will miss his leadership and example." Well put, Paul. Barry was kind and supportive, and I learned a lot from him. He was a voice singing in the wilderness, a friend of reason, and a gentle foe of superstition and magical thinking.

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