A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies


The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 3

March 11, 2007

May you die young at a ripe old age. --Irish blessing

 

In this issue

What's new?
Do artificial sweeteners make you fat?
Stupid quote of the day
Scum of the minute

An offer I could refuse
Pew survey on religious affiliation
Anti-depressant placebos

What's New?

Thanks to "Bud" there is a translation of my cold reading entry available in Hebrew.

I posted a letter (with my usual gentle, thoughtful response) from a fellow who is very critical of my views on UFOs, which he believes are described in the Bible.

Since the last newsletter, I added one new entry to the Dictionary: the Brain Gym, a pseudoscientific pack of rubbish that has met with international fame and fortune. I also posted my lecture notes on healing prayer and distant healing studies. These are from my course on Critical Thinking About the Paranormal.

I've also posted  reviews of two books I recommend: The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine by Anne Harrington and How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, M.D.

There were three new postings to the What's the Harm? blog. Two concern measles outbreaks due to the success of the anti-vaccination movement. The other is about South Africa's health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who says that medicines used by traditional healers should not be subject to clinical trials, and California's Democratic Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, who says that insurance companies should pay for acupuncture treatments.

There were also three new postings to the Skeptimedia blog. One explains why there are some subjects I won't write about. Another concerns pseudoscience and racism at CNN. The third and most important one concerns the government's settling the first test case of a child whose parents claim her illnesses are due to vaccines. It's a sad case but the evidence doesn't support the parents' belief that vaccines caused the child's many problems. I could understand why the anti-vaccine bloggers misstated the case but even the New York Times got it wrong: the child was not diagnosed with autism.

I revised the animal quacker entry to include disparaging comments from Monica Collins, the Dog Lady columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, on the reading Sonya Fitzpatrick did for her dog.

Finally, I updated a few files. A link to an article on how the media screwed up its reporting of an acupuncture study and fertility was added to the acupuncture page. I added a couple of links to articles by journalists about their experiences with psychics.

A link to the Center for Science in the Public Interest's press release on the fraud case against Airborne was added to the Frauds, Hoaxes, Conspiracies page. The product is just a vitamin and herbal supplement and is not effective in preventing or curing colds. Second-grade teacher Victoria Knight McDowell and her screenwriter husband Thomas Rider McDowell used to promise that their product would "boost your immune system." Now they are promising to repay $23 million to customers they defrauded. I also added links to two excellent blogs on this topic: Terra Sigillata and Respectful Insolence.

Links were added to the vitamin supplements page, one to an article on vitamin E and lung cancer, the other to a blog entry by Harriet Hall on a new study on glucosamine.

A link was added to the feng shui page to an article about a McDonald's restaurant in an Asian community that redecorated according to feng shui principles.

Links were added to two articles on exorcisms in Australia: one says the rise in paganism has caused the rise in exorcisms; the other says that exorcisms are more dangerous than paganism.

A link was made to Michael Fremer's response to James Randi's criticisms of Fremer's alleged abilities as an audiophile.

Other than that, things have been pretty quiet around here. Soon, I'll be off to Italy to investigate superstition in the Mafia. I hear that in that most Catholic of countries only about 25% still practice the faith. I'll let you know if things are really that bright in sunny Italy.

Do artificial sweeteners make you fat?

In the last newsletter, I ranted about scientists and journalists hyping stories based on small samples of rats. My example was the media hype around a five-week study of 17 rats: 9 were given saccharin-sweetened yogurt and 8 were given glucose-sweetened yogurt. The rats given the saccharine gained 8 more grams than the glucose group. Grand conclusion and news headline: artificial sweeteners linked to weight gain.

As many of you know, according to a number of studies the country is in the midst of an obesity epidemic. The situation is so bad that epidemiologists are predicting that for the first time in about a century, the average life span for Americans will go down. At the turn of the century, both men an women here could expect to live into their mid-forties. Now, life expectancy in the U.S. for both men and women is in the mid to late seventies. (My source for this information is Jill West, a registered dietician and a member of the University of California at Davis Health System. She and about a dozen other experts on various aspects of medicine, health, and aging are part of a mini-medical school put on by the University's Center for Healthy Aging. Not only did these experts volunteer their time, the university puts on the program free of charge as a community service. About 500 of us meet on Saturday mornings for six weeks to hear lectures that med students might hear, if they could get up early enough to make class. My wife insisted we attend and, as usual, she was right. I highly recommend that any of you doctors out there who are affiliated with University teaching hospitals start a similar program in your community.)

The evidence that this obesity epidemic is due in any large part to artificial sweeteners is not very strong. David Wrenn was kind enough to send me a link to an article that appeared in Medical News just a few days before the last newsletter was sent out. The article is about a meta-analysis of various studies on the issue: "Low-Calorie Sweeteners Are Helpful In Weight Control, Confirmed By Study." It's worth a read and does address the study on the 17 rats, though it mistakenly refers to 27 rats being in the study. The article concludes: "Suggesting that low-calorie sweeteners actually cause people to gain weight is an irresponsible direct application of rat models to dietary counseling and to public health."

Evolutionary psychologists seem to think that the obesity epidemic is due to the overabundance of food in our culture and the human tendency to eat whenever food is available, a tendency hard-wired genetically into the human species during hundreds of centuries as hunter-gatherers. I suppose we could disprove this claim by finding just one culture that has an abundance of food but no obesity problem. My guess is that if there is such a culture, it's small, the available food is not fast or processed food, the place has no bakeries or confectionaries, and mass media advertising does not exist. In any case, there are plenty of non-obese people in America who must have mutated because they don't seem to be struggling to keep from eating everything in sight that is tasty. I envy them and wonder if they were raised without television on a farm or if they have a genetic defect.

Stupid Quote of the Day

Those of you who read my Skeptimedia piece on the "science" of ghost hunters will like this one. Len Anderson, a ghost tracker from the Boston area,  investigated the grand ballroom of the Middleborough Town Hall. The digital camera that he was using malfunctioned.

"That's usually an indication of a presence," he said.

So, we can safely say that a malfunctioning camera is a sign of a ghostly presence, except when it isn't.

Scum of the minute

A recurring scam seems to pull at some hardwired heartstring or gullibility gene buried in the depths of our pre-simian evolution. The scam has made its way to the Internet, which isn't surprising. This ancient con works even though it seems so blatantly moronic that you'd think all potential marks would have been picked off by natural selection by now.

The basics are simple. 1) The con, attractive of course, announces that he or she has made millions by figuring out a "trick" behind real estate investment, buying foreclosures, selling classified ads, investing in stocks, or some other business the mark is likely to be aware of but know little about. 2) The con announces that instead of continuing to make more money using the secret trick, he or she wants to share the secret with you, a total stranger, so you can enjoy the wealth and freedom the con enjoys. 3) All you have to do is buy the con's secret for a small fee and you are on your way to telling your boss to stuff it as you sail off on your yacht toward that around-the-world cruise you so richly deserve. That's basically it.

The enterprise that has triggered this little diatribe is offered by "Jean" at http://3500weekly.com/. I'll get to Jean and her promise of great wealth for little work and investment (at the expense of Google, Clickbank, and eBay) in a moment.

First, I want to express my wonder that anyone would fall for this pitch. Is greed or need so powerful a driving force in some people that they will completely block out that little voice inside their head that should be asking 1) Why would a total stranger give up continuing to make tons of money using the secret trick she's discovered? 2) Wouldn't being successful at getting people to buy the secret mean that there's going to be great competition for the prize at the end of the rainbow? 3) Isn't it likely that this person isn't rich but plans to get rich by selling this so-called secret trick to lots of suckers like me?

What kinds of mental blocks must a person put up to be fooled by such promises? I realize that greed is a great motivator, but there seems to be something else at work here. I reviewed my review of three books on persuasion for an answer.

Robert Levine's The Power of Persuasion explains how people persuade other people to do or believe just about anything, from buying Tupperware to joining a cult....

According to Levine, "it seems that most [persuaders] are reading from the same manual." The most important factor in most persuasion isn't the message, but the person doing the persuading and how he or she presents the message. "Research shows that three characteristics are related to persuasiveness: perceived authority, honesty, and likeability."  Research also shows that Americans identify authority not only with titles, but also with clothes and luxury cars. Furthermore, if a person is physically attractive, we tend to like that person and the more we like a person the more we tend to trust him or her. Research also show that "people are perceived as more credible when they make eye contact and speak with confidence, no matter what they have to say."

Not just anybody using any pitch whatsoever will cause the greedy to stop thinking critically. The mark has to trust the schemer. We don't trust people we don't like. So, the con artist has to be likeable. Being attractive, exuding confidence, having titles, and demonstrating conspicuous wealth are qualities many Americans associate with likeability. Appearing to share the interests of the mark also builds trust. Think of the people who have scammed others using their association in the same church or other organization as a way to build trust. So does association with stars or celebrities, as is evidenced by their use to sell everything from aspirin to Scientology.

Social creatures can't exist without trust and most of the time our instincts about whom to trust are probably right. In fact, most people in our society can probably be trusted most of the time. If the majority of people in a society can't be trusted, that society is doomed. Even so, a critical thinker knows that not everybody can be trusted and it behooves us all to have a good baloney detector so we can tell with a high degree of probability when others are trying to deceive us. In any case, regardless of whether it is your natural tendency to trust others, it is probably a good rule of thumb to usually trust them until they give some sign that they are not to be trusted. (There are exceptions, as when traveling in places known to be dens of criminal activity by well-dressed strangers or when a stranger, however dressed, appears uninvited at your front door.) What are some of the signs we should note that indicate the odds of deception are high? One sign is that the source is a commercial, an advertisement, or a sales representative.

Your baloney detector should go into red alert whenever someone is trying to sell you something. Why? Sellers aren't motivated to tell you the whole truth. They don't mention potentially harmful consequences of buying their product or service unless they're required to by law and even then they will try to word things so obscurely that you won't understand the danger. Sellers aren't motivated to tell you that most people don't get rich using their scheme. They are not going to remind you that there are many products similar to theirs that are a better value. Need I go on? I'll mention just one more thing, one I've ranted about in many places, including my Skeptimedia piece about the seller of the Q-Ray bracelet (Why woo always wins) and in my  Dictionary entry on Kevin Trudeau. People like Que Te Park, Kevin Trudeau, Silvia Browne, Benny Hinn, and Peter Popoff rarely get prosecuted or punished for their activities. If the deceivers of the world were sent to prison for ripping off their marks, maybe people would be more skeptical of similar people making similar claims.

Just one more thing before I get to Jean and her scheme for making thousands a month off Google, Clickbank, and eBay. We should never forget Bob Steiner's mantra: anybody can get taken. There is no foolproof method for detecting deception that the average person can use, at least not yet. Someday there may be some technology that anybody can use to ferret out the liars and cheats from the honest folk. (Few of us will attain the ability, or work under the conditions, of a Mark Salem or a Banachek, mentalists who have developed a very useful skill: they seem to be able to tell when people are telling the truth and when they are not.)

Now, on to Jean and her scheme. The first thing you see when you go to her website is a picture of an attractive lady with arms folded across her belly as she looks right at you. There is a large banner that reads:

Let Me Help You Make $5,000 or More Monthly with Google & Clickbank Using a Simple System Which I Will Create for You!

The fact that this is an ad that uses an attractive person who says she wants to create a simple system for you so that you can make lots of money should set off about five chili peppers in your obscenity bank. Why bother to go on to try to determine whether this is on the level?  I don't know, but I had one reader who wrote me about this scheme. He said he'd been scammed before in emails telling him he'd won the Google or Yahoo lottery. He didn't want to get taken again. He at least recognized that there was something fishy about Jean's pitch. Still, he needed reassurance that what looked like a false promise was indeed a false promise.

Beneath Jean's picture is the caption: Sit back and let me help you make money on the internet with a secret system that I use to make people big cash on the internet daily!

What a sweetheart! She's going to do all the work with her secret system and give me a heap of cash for her troubles. Unbelievable! Yes, it is.

In case the mark wants some evidence that Jean is legit, there is banner ad at the top of her page that tells you that her Internet secrets were featured in "the number one home based business magazine in the nation," Entrepreneur Magazine. Never heard of it? She's probably banking on your ignorance. She doesn't tell you what was said about her secrets in the magazine, however. I wonder why? Did she take out an ad in the magazine and count that as being featured in it? Did the magazine criticize her "program." I don't know and Jean's not offering any details.

When you open Jean's site, a window slides in from the left and plops down in the center of the screen. It says :

Do you want to Make [sic] $30,000 Monthly!

Subscribe Now [sic] and I will show you a new system created by my Son [sic] who gets paid an average of $30,000 monthly!

This Program ROCKS!

She must love her son to capitalize the word. Anyway, now we learn this is a family operation. Her son created the system and she helps people use it to get rich. Once you've filled in your name and email address the window vanishes and you can now read her letter to you, dated on the day you access the site:

Dear Friend,

No games, tricks, or schemes, I am going to personally help you make an excellent monthly income on the internet with the help of Google and Clickbank.

I've decided to share an Amazing Secret that is making thousands of people Rich  on the internet everyday with Google and Clickbank! I am not pulling your leg! I am physically going to work for you and do all I can to help you receive a monthly income from $5,000 to $10,000 month after month from a combination of Google and Clickbank!

I am going to show you a program that Google and Clickbank has opened to the public that is making a tremendous amount of people a lot of cash on a monthly basis, within 4-16 weeks from a system I have Mastered!

If you are not already familiar with Google's Adsense Program and Clickbank or you're aware of it but just don't know how to really profit from it, then you have come to the right place. I will do everything Step by Step to help you make thousands of dollars every month on the internet with Google and Clickbank.

None of the claims in the letter ring true with me except what she says in the last paragraph. If you are not familiar with Adsense or don't know how it works, you've come to the right place. I take this to mean, if you know how Adsense works, you know I'm full of rubbish.

I'm an Adsense affiliate and know something about the program. I'd never heard of Clickbank before but a check of their website advises those who are signing up to be an affiliate: "Accounts associated with network abuse (including unwelcome email, crossposting, mousetraps, or respawning windows) will be suspended without notice." Wikipedia defines mousetrapping as "a technique used by some websites (usually pornographic websites) to keep visitors from leaving their website, either by launching an endless series of pop-up ads—known colloquially as a circle jerk—or by re-launching their website in a window that cannot be closed (sometimes this window runs like a stand-alone application, and the taskbar and the browser's menu become inaccessible). Many websites that do this also employ browser hijackers to reset the user's default homepage." Is this Jean's "secret"? I have no idea.

Jean goes on. "Once you take me up on my offer and let me put it to work for you, you may decide to walk into your current employer's office and tell them you QUIT!!! Take my word on it!" But why would I take the word of a stranger who is trying to sell me something? Because Jean can be trusted. How do we know? It's her duty to make you rich, she says. "Now that I have figured out how to make people an excellent monthly income on the internet with Google and Clickbank, it's now my duty to prove to you this is Real! Note: I have seriously been pushed to reveal this hidden information that truly works, to the thousands of people interested in making money on the internet. I want to help others fulfill their dreams of financial freedom. I am giving to you what took me one year to learn....It's just not fair for people who have figured out how this is done to be entirely selfish or so afraid that if they reveal this secret, the market may become dangerously over flooded. IT'S NOT TRUE. There is enough business to go around for everyone to succeed."

Deep into the ad you find out that to take advantage of Jean's secret she's going to have to build several websites for you. Others would charge you $5,000 for this service, but not Jean.

If you're still questioning her motives, consider why she is so generous:

I like helping people make money on the internet as it makes me feel really good, plus Google rewards me when your [sic] start making money with them! This takes nothing away from you because Google also makes money when I help build your 300+ pages and people start clicking on the google [sic] ads from your site. So you see, it's a Win-Win Deal for You, Me and Google. As far as Clickbank goes, I just added them in for you as an added bonus even though they don't reward me for doing so!

What a humanitarian! But, in case you still don't trust her, she has some hard evidence for the skeptic: she has posted what she says are screen shots of her AdSense account, one which shows her making about a thousand dollars a day. She also posts AdSense reports for friends who are identified by numbers. Most of the numbers are too blurry to make out, except for the alleged amount earned. One, however, is clear enough to read. Friend #6 shows 19,339 page impressions, 520 clicks, and $100.62 Earnings for a single day. I just checked my AdSense account and today (March 7 at about noon) I have had 4,773 impressions, 53 clicks, and have earned $4.44. Yesterday, I had 12,764 impressions and 168 clicks. I earned $18.83. I must be doing something wrong. Or right. Jean doesn't say what kind of site she's going to open for you, but if it's pornographic and uses mousetrapping and respawning windows, you might not be pleased.

Jean also posts a copy of a check from Google to Friend #8 for $901,733.84. I suppose you are to drool over it and dream that you too will get a big check in the mail. Maybe Ed McMahon will deliver it personally.

In case you still don't trust her, Jean also provides a few glowing testimonials from alleged satisfied customers. (Would these people lie? Jean vouches for them and they vouch for Jean. Why so skeptical?) What is most interesting is that Jean does not mention how much you are going to have to pay her for her work. As a bonus, Jean has a link to another page where she will reveal her "credit secrets" that will show you how you can repair a bad credit check. A further bonus is a link to a page where she will reveal the secret to making tons of money on eBay. Jean has more secrets than The Secret! However, there is no link to buy Jean's secret. There is an "affiliate program" link that takes you to a page where you can download a few "free" books and buy advertising. (Offering something "free" to buyers is a common ploy, aimed, I think, at making the mark feel obligated. Social psychologists call this the reciprocity effect.) However, when you click on the link that reads Click Here for the Best Banner Adverting Deal on the Internet it takes you to another page that proclaims that an unidentified "I" will help you make $5,000 a month from Google free of charge. When you click on the Click here link, it takes you back to the page from which your started. I'd call this a circle jerk even if that's technically incorrect.

How does Jean make money? She has Google ads on her pages and makes some money from click-throughs. She sells banner ads. The allegedly free books have the name Michael Rasmussen listed as the author and the note that Jean and Michael Rasmussen are the source of the free books. (Is Michael the son she mentions? I have no idea.) These books are not available from Amazon, but you can click on Michael's name and be taken to a page with a pasted up letter testifying to his prowess as a Clickbank agent. The letter is signed by Jennifer Johannsen, Operations Manager of something or other. All you have to do is give him your email address. Michael and Jean swear that "We will NOT rent, trade, or release your information to any third party for any reason - ever. We respect YOUR email privacy and hate spam with a passion." This must be true since they vouch for each other.

I gave them my first name (that's all they wanted) and my email address. I finally got to the page where they ask me for money. It was a lot of work but finally I got to a page where I heard a voice message as I was reading it. The voice told me that I was being given incredible books and other stuff on e-marketing but that if I did not sign up right now the offer would not appear again. This is the old "hurry while supplies last, for a limited time only" pitch. Anyway, I was surprised to find that Jean's offer to build my web pages isn't mentioned and I'm asked to send Michael $19 with the advisory: "This is a one time offer and may be pulled at any time without warning."

I have to give Jean and Michael points for creating a labyrinth bound to confuse Internet tyros. Trust me, you can learn all about Google AdSense by going to the Google AdSense page and it won't cost you a penny. If you are not based in the United States, there is a dropdown menu with links to many other countries at the top of the page.

Well, I never heard from Jean, even though I sent her my email address. I did hear from Michael, though, but he didn't send me the promised free books. In fact,  he didn't even mention them. But he did send me the following note:

Bob, this email contains an important update about the Sky High Auctions product. I just negotiated some extra bonuses for you, as well as a special discount (everyone else will have to pay more, but not you). Read this entire email right away.

What a swell guy. I haven't given him a dime yet and he's already working hard for me! He then proceeds to a very long pitch with three links to this Sky High Auctions page. Each pitch can be reduced to the following one:

This isn't some crappy "eBay for idiots" guide. This is a comprehensive video course that contains the combined wisdom of 15 of eBay's top powersellers. These guys do a combined 11 million dollars per year. I don't know about you, but I'd say that they're worth listening to.

That's right. He wants to sell me a video course that will show me how to make a ton of money on eBay. And even though Jean allayed my fears that if everybody followed her advice the competition would be stiff and we'd be reducing our chances of making tons of money, Michael says he has only 19 copies left of this video course. He claims he made only 75 copies to begin with! The page includes a bunch of testimonials and a YouTube video of a picture of two wankers and a talkover about how they are making tons of money on eBay. Finally, Michael offers to take some real money from me: the program costs $167.

The thing is, Michael, I couldn't sleep last night so I got up and turned on the TV. Guess what? Some swell-looking fellow is telling an attractive lady that he has found the secret to making tons of money on eBay and he'll sell his program for some ridiculously low price because he just likes to help people. I forget his name, but it wasn't Michael. He, too, had several folks give their testimonials. One guy says he's used the secret system for only three weeks and has already made $175,000. I think his name was Bill or Joe.

These scummers are banking on not just greed and trust, but on ignorance as well. Some of you are probably thinking that I mean stupidity, not ignorance, but I don't. To think that only stupid people get scammed (and, of course, we're not stupid so we can't be taken) is wrong and a defense mechanism. Sure, some people who get conned are people with low cognitive skills who are taken advantage of by unscrupulous thieves. Anybody can get taken! The ignorance these folks bank on is the lack of knowledge regarding advertising laws and the sociological facts regarding obedience of those (or any other) laws. You've probably seen the ad (I think it is for some diet product) in which a nice looking lady says "We couldn't say it on TV if it wasn't true!" That's not true. You can say things that aren't true on TV ads. It's illegal to mislead people and defraud them, but very few advertisers are prosecuted for this crime.

Years ago a famous TV personality, Danny Thomas, did TV commercials for Instant Sanka Coffee. He was asked one time if he drank it himself. "Hell no," he said. "Have you ever tasted it?" Squeaky clean Pat Boone, he with the smooth voice and white clothes who used to baptize people in his southern California swimming pool, got into trouble for doing commercials and ads with his lovely daughters. They were claiming that their perfect skin was due to using some facial cream or acne medicine, which they did not need or use. The people who testified to how much money they made in real estate on the infomercial with former TV Highway Patrolman Eric Estrada were actors who were paid to give their testimonials.

The simple rule is: don't go to advertisements or commercials for information. Or, don't trust people who are trying to sell you something, no matter how trustworthy they seem. Are ads always false and misleading? No, of course not. But you are wasting your time trying to ferret out the truthful ones from the deceivers.

Finally, if you want to learn about making money on eBay, Clickbank, or Google, contact them directly or talk to people you know who have experience with the program you are interested in. For info on eBay, click here. For info on Clickbank, click here. Let me know if you make $5,000 a month. I'll pass on your secret.

An offer I could refuse

I know I said I'd never heard of Clickbank. It slipped my mind that recently I got an offer from Steven to sell a product called Diceology. Here's the email:

The reason I am writing to you is because I was at your web site and was wondering if you'd be interested in earning some extra money. I think what I have will fit in nicely with your customer base and not be any conflict of interest.

I have spent the last 25 years of my life developing a new form of divination called Diceology. I have just released a series of 6 books on the subject that are currently being sold through Clickbank. The set sells for $35.95 and offers a 70% commission on each sale, or about $25.

I honestly believe that with a strong promotional campaign, that I am going to be undertaking myself, this can be a huge seller.

If you are interested in seeing a preview copy of the main book, I'd be happy to send it to you. Just reply to this email. Then if you are interested in promoting it after reading the preview copy, send me another email and I will send you the affiliate link to do so. You will have to sign up with Clickbank in order to promote this.

The Diceology page has the following disclaimer:

This product is for entertainment purposes only. No claims are made as to the accuracy of any forcasts [sic] made by the user of these methods. The user accepts all liability from any actions taken based upon the forcasts [sic] made. No income or life style changes are guaranteed by the use of these methods.

I can't figure out whether Steven is joking about Diceology or about the user accepting all liability. It certainly wouldn't be any more of a conflict of interest for me to sell his product than it is for me to allow those Google ads for psychics that pop up on some of my pages. The people who click on those ads help pay for the maintenance of my website. If a person can read what I have to say and still seek the advice of a psychic,  I might as well make them pay for it. Nice rationalization, don't you think? Or, how's this: why should the gullible be deprived of their right to seek the help of a psychic? If they don't click through from my site, they'll click through from somebody else's. (In my defense, I did turn down an offer of 1,000 British pounds ($2,000) from a fellow who runs a psychic hotline site in the U.K. He wanted a banner ad on my psychic page and didn't care that my page is a skeptical page.)

The Pew Poll on Religious Affiliation

The results of the largest survey of religious affiliation in America were published late last month and found a that most Americans are Christians but many aren't satisfied with their churches. People aren't moving in and out of religion, but they seem to be moving to and fro among the many gathering places for those who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Only 1.6% admitted to being atheist and 2.4% said they are agnostic. Compare these stats to those of a worldwide survey in 2000 by the Gallup polling agency that found 8% do not think there is any spirit, personal God, or life force. Another 17% were not sure.

I've looked at the methodology of the Pew survey and think this is about as good as it gets with these kinds of inquiries. I was especially interested in how they worded their questions. I find no problem with the following (though some might quibble over not allowing atheist to overlap with agnostic, Catholic, or Jew):

What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular? INTERVIEWER: IF R [respondent] VOLUNTEERS “nothing in particular, none, no religion, etc.” BEFORE REACHING END OF LIST, PROMPT WITH: and would you say that’s atheist, agnostic, or just nothing in particular?]

One press release from a skeptical organization tried to paint a rosy picture for non-believers by emphasizing the fact that 16% do not affiliate with any particular religion. That's more unaffiliated folks than Catholics, the largest U.S. religious group. Sorry, but I don't see any light at the end of this tunnel. Only 4% of American adults identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. We truly are in a Dark Age here in the U.S. of A.

I found it interesting that only 56% of Catholics and 31% of Jews consider religion very important in their lives. Compare that to the numbers for Jehovah's Witnesses (86%), historically black churches (85%), Mormons (83%), Muslims (72%) and Evangelicals (79%). An overview and summary of the survey is provided here.

Anti-depressant placebos

A study by the Associated Press has found anti-depressants in the water supplies of many American cities. The good news is that other studies have found that anti-depressants are ineffective, so they shouldn't harm us if we don't know were ingesting them. Of course, this is bad news for those lawyers and their clients who have blamed Prozac for the bad behavior of some mentally ill person. Remember Joseph Wesbecker? He killed eight people and wounded 12 before shooting himself. His relatives went on the Donahue show (and the Larry King show and Geraldo) claiming that Prozac made him do it.

A more important issue has emerged in the debate over the efficacy of anti-depressants, though, and that is the ethics of not making public the results of clinical drug trials.* Ben Goldacre has the story. Well, he has the story for the U.K. Will the U.S. Congress follow suit and require drug manufacturers to make their results known on a timely basis? Or will they ignore the issue at the urging of Big Pharma or do what they often do, write a prescription for a placebo?

p.s. Dr. Goldacre will be appearing at the Amazing Meeting 6, June 19-22, 2008, Flamingo Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas. Trust me, I got this from the Amazing One himself.

* AmeriCares *

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