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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 9

August 19, 2002

Subscribers 1,087

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(Past issues posted at http://skepdic.com/news/)

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 Contents

      1)   A new book
      2)   New or revised entries
      3)   Movie review: "Signs"
      4)   Responses to selected feedback
      5)   News
    

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 1) A new book

I'm working on a new book, and you can help. First, let me describe briefly--very briefly--what I propose to do, and why.

Of all the criticisms I have received over the past eight years, two recur more frequently than others. One type of critic tells me I'm right about everything except (fill in the blank with the writer's pet belief). This critic often begins as a fan, who has written something like:

You are undoubtedly one of the finest writers that I have ever had the pleasure of reading, combining rapier wit with compelling content, and, most importantly, putting a rather more realistic slant on the charlatans, buffoons, and frauds out there.

You are an inspiration. Keep up the absolutely sterling work.

Then I gore one of the fan's oxen and am relegated to the ash heap of burned-out and biased dunces.

The other type of critic chides, chastises, admonishes, reproaches, rebukes, and otherwise expresses serious disapproval of The Skeptic's Dictionary (SD) for its one-sidedness. (I explain why the SD is biased toward skepticism in the Introduction.)  The new book will be a response to the second type of critic. The working title is Reasons for Beliefs. I propose to examine the strongest evidence and arguments provided by believers in such things as spirits, paranormal forces, energies that heal, etc., and contrast it with the evidence and arguments of skeptics. My goal will be to expose the fallacies, sophistries, and epistemological errors in the arguments of both sides, and to identify, wherever possible, those cases where the preponderance of evidence favors one side rather than the other. (I promise I will not simply reissue recycled materials and will probably end up offending as many skeptics as believers.)

Part of my research involves identifying major colleges and universities that have institutes or programs that focus on such things as "postmortem existence" (The University of Virginia), paranormal research (The Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society), or both (The University of Arizona Human Energy Systems Lab and The Bigelow Chair of Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas). I'm also interested in university presses that publish such materials (University of Virginia Press and The University Press of Kentucky). If you know of other universities or university presses that are doing this type of research or publishing, I would appreciate hearing from you.

There are lists of college and university courses devoted to debunking spirit or paranormal claims at CSICOP's Young Skeptics Site and at Michael Shermer's Skeptic.com  site (click on the "More" button under How to Create a Course in Skepticism). If you know of other such courses, I would also like to hear from you.

Finally, there are so many medical schools offering courses, programs, seminars, conferences, etc. on "complementary" or "integrative" medicine, that I don't require your assistance in identifying them at this time.

Thanks in advance to any of you who will help me in this matter.

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 2) New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

Since the last newsletter, I've

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3) Movie Review: "Signs"

I don't usually review movies, but M. Night Shyamalan and his movie "Signs" have aroused much more ire and praise than they deserve. I found the movie to be hilarious, but not one of the great comedies of all time. I certainly wouldn't bother seeing it again. But I got many good laughs, and I left the theater feeling I'd been well entertained.

Since the movie has been out for several weeks, I doubt if I am spoiling it for anyone by going into detail about certain features of the film. I'll begin by mentioning a couple of the things that made me laugh. First, the movie opens with music from an old Alfred Hitchcock film, the kind that reminds you of fingernails sliding down the blackboard while somebody skates over broken glass. One of the funniest scenes is the one where Mel Gibson (Graham Hess), Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess, Graham's brother), Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess, Graham's son), and Abby Breslin (Bo Hess, Graham's daughter), make contact with the evil aliens who are about to invade the planet. They intercept the alien's telecommunication on a baby monitor. Even more hilarious was the scene where Merrill explains his understanding of what it means for everything to have a purpose. He was about to kiss some girl, he tells his brother, when he realized he was chewing gum. He turned away to take out his gum, and when he returned for the kiss, the girl had thrown up all over herself. He now understood what it meant to believe there are no coincidences. He had been saved from a face full of vomit. (For those who like logic, one of Shyamalan's premises is the false dilemma that either everything has a reason or everything is random. The truth is that even so-called random variations in evolution happen for various reasons.)

Some other laughs include a moronic recruiting officer for the U.S. Army who thinks the aliens are making crop circles as part of a reconnaissance mission, and the alien "army" itself which consists of some dimwitted creatures that look like swamp monsters. These alien soldiers can't figure out how to get out of a locked room, or into a boarded-up house. The only weapon they carry is poison gas they can expel from their fingertips. This lack of weapons might seem like a good thing to some people, given all the violence in most movies these days. But this is definitely not a film you should take the kids to, unless you want them to be afraid for the rest of their lives. It'll scare the hell out of them, and they'll worry about the end of the world every time they hear some nitwit claim that the latest terrorist attack or foreign invasion is a sign, predicted in the Book of Revelation or by Nostradamus. Anyway, there is some violence. An alien gets a couple of finger parts chopped off, and Merrill uses his baseball bat to pummel an alien to death. But there are no long scenes with space ships firing on earth, or with buildings and people being blown to bits. More surprising, however, is that none of the farmers in rural Pennsylvania--where this fiasco takes place--seem to own so much as a BB gun. Shyamalan seems to like to imitate (plagiarize?) other film makers, so I wonder why he didn't duplicate the scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford), armed with a whip, faces a foe armed with a scimitar. Indiana pulls out his pistol and shoots his opponent.

Many skeptics have criticized "Signs," saying that Shyamalan is exploiting the public's gullibility regarding crop circles and aliens. I don't think so. The crop circles and aliens are just props that frame the central theme, which is what John Hick calls "soul-making," and what many theologians refer to as a crisis of faith. Graham used to be a Protestant priest, but he lost his faith because his wife was killed when Ray (played by Shyamalan) fell asleep at the wheel, hit her with his two-thousand pound vehicle as she walked along the side of the road, and pinned her against a tree, nearly cutting her in half. Anyone who has read the book of Job will find Graham to be of little interest as a character. He's a dim bulb surrounded by night lights. He is proof that not all still waters run deep. This man is as shallow as a puddle after a heavy fog. He regains his faith when his son, who has asthma, doesn't die from an alien's poison gas because his lungs were closed due to his illness. This restores Graham's faith in his God, the same God whose plan includes sending the dumbest aliens in the universe to scare the hell out of earthlings, killing a few unlucky creatures who don't have asthma in the process. One good deed and all is forgiven. Graham puts on his black suit and white collar once again, ready to inspire his congregation to.....to what? One can only guess, but it is difficult to imagine him doing much more than passing on mundane drivel to an appreciative congregation.

The crop circles turn out to be navigation guides for the invading alien force. When thousands of them occur nearly simultaneously around the world, it becomes obvious that they are not likely part of a global hoax. They're used by Shyamalan to scare people, as are the aliens themselves. There is no attempt to explore, in any meaningful way, either crop circles or aliens.

I suppose the "deep" message of the film is that even if all crop circles made so far are the work of hoaxers, that doesn't prove that they can't occur as the work of aliens who might use them for navigation. And, just because it might seem that your wife died a senseless death doesn't prove that it really was senseless. (As Graham's wife is dying, she tells him to see and to tell Merrill to swing away. Graham first thinks these messages are the result of random firings in a dying brain, but later he connects them to his life near the end of the movie and sees their significance.)

In the end, the aliens retreat and go away. Their swamp men with single digit IQs were no match for the clever folks on earth, especially when earthlings discovered that water is lethal to the invaders. Why creatures intelligent enough to figure out how to get here, and who seem so skilled at reconnaissance, would choose a planet to invade whose surface is 70% water (poison to them), would be a great mystery if this weren't a Hollywood film. If the aliens came from another solar system, they would have overcome some obstacles a bit more trying than getting out of a locked room or getting into a boarded-up house. Outside our solar system, the nearest star is Alpha Centauri, which is about 4 light-years, or 24 trillion miles, away. Traveling at one million miles an hour, it would take more than 2,500 years to get here. To get here in twenty-five years would require traveling at more than 100 million miles an hour for the entire trip.* Our fastest spacecraft, Voyager, travels at about 40,000 miles an hour and would take about 70,000 years to get to Alpha Centauri.

A number of critics have called Shyamalan the next Steven Spielberg, but I can't figure out why. Maybe it's because he has a knack for getting publicity and making profitable movies. It certainly can't be because they think Shyamalan has even a glimmer of Spielberg's originality. Although Spielberg's "Minority Report," a much better film than "Signs," was pretty shallow, too. Not only did "Minority Report" have a dumb (and-they-all-lived-happily-ever-after-because-most-paying-customers-like-it-that-way) ending, it failed to explore the issue of clairvoyance in any significant way. (For those who haven't seen "Minority Report," it concerns the use of clairvoyants, called "precogs" for their precognitive gift, a fortuitous consequence of their mothers being drug addicts while pregnant with them. They are drugged by the police and kept alive in a tank, where they are hooked up to monitors that allow detectives such as John Anderton (Tom Cruise) to detect crimes before they happen, and arrest pre-criminals and put them away before they commit their crimes.)

In conclusion, I don't think Shyamalan exploits the crop circle craze so much as he exploits the widespread fear that we are living in the end times. Just how frightened many people are became apparent to me after 9/11. Before 9/11, The Skeptic's Dictionary was getting just under 500,000 hits a week (including hits on graphics files). The week of 9/11, we got nearly 4 million hits a day, most of them on the Nostradamus page. (These days we average over 120,000 hits per week on html files.)

4) Responses to selected feedback

The letter below exemplifies my point about fear of the end times.

This may sound silly to you, but it is very serious to me. I told my parents that I might need a psychologist, or something like that, after watching things like the Learning Channel's "Doomsday Special," (or something like that). Shown two years ago, it stated that some Native American guy claimed that his "spiritual guide" told him that the United States would flood between 2002 and 2004. Also on this series, it claimed there is some Peruvian legend that our tools shall take revenge on us on December 2012. The last one sounded kind of silly, but on the Internet, some guy claims to have traveled to that year, and to have seen utter destruction.

Yes, you can tell me that I am some delusional loser, and I know that any of these events are highly unlikely, but there is always a "chance" that this might happen. Where do they come up with this stuff anyway? In my opinion, they should ban these things from television - forget "freedom of speech" - because young people, like I was at the time - 12-years old, might become seriously worried. This is an age when hormones do strange things to the brain, and I still worry if this were to happen. Why 2012? Why so close? I want to live a life! I want to get married. I couldn't care less if there were an afterlife - I want to DO GOOD WITH MY LIFE! I don't want to die at some assigned date.

My only comment is that it's too bad there isn't a Hell for people who harm children or fill them with fear.

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Brent J. Murphy alerted me to Akashic University (AU), a virtual university that offers courses in such things as remote viewing, intuition, intuitive medicine, workouts for the soul, and astrology. In case you're interested, AU gives no college credit or grades for classes, and keeps no transcripts.

I wonder why, if remote viewing is real, the psychics who claim to have this power haven't located Bin Laden or his body. Nor have they located Jennifer Renee Short, the 9-year-old girl whose parents were murdered last week in Virginia. If this power were real, kidnappers wouldn't stand a chance.

Intuitive healers make some incredible claims. Below are some examples taken from the SD entry on intuitives:

Some, like Rachel Kohler, claim that their abilities allow them to make accurate diagnoses over the telephone. Some, like Linda Salvin, prefer the radio or the Internet, for their healings.

Some, like Judith Orloff, claim they can diagnose mental illness intuitively. She calls her ability "second sight" and has written some books about it.

Some intuitives call their work "science" and name their chicanery after themselves, such as the Barbara Brennan Healing Science. Barbara claims she can do Astral Healing, psychic surgery on your aura.

Some, like Dr. Carolyn Myss (she has a doctorate from Greenwich University in Intuition and Energy Medicine), have abandoned healing for less dangerous and more lucrative endeavors like giving lectures and workshops, and writing books. (Her web site says she's booked for the next two years.)

My intuition tells me that Akashic University has found a lucrative niche in the occult market.

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Dan from Australia writes regarding the maker of the magical pendant discussed in the last newsletter:

"Harmonic Products" may well be the Australian outfit that makes a number of magic-aluminum objects, including the "EMPower Modulator." I reviewed the Modulator a little while ago.

His review is worth the read, if you're interested in pseudoscientific panaceas and how they're marketed to a gullible public and press.

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5) News

On August 6th, I was interviewed by Perry DeAngelis of the New England Journal of Skepticism. The interview should be in their fall newsletter.

On August 15th, I was interviewed by Rainer Kayser for an article he is doing on conspiracy theories for a newspaper in Germany.

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Jon Henrik Gilhuus notified me that the town council in Telluride, Colorado, has hired a shaman in a desperate effort to improve relations among its members. The shaman, being a wise man, found that the council chamber was full of negative energy. He then held a "smudging ceremony," which included the burning of imported menthol to get rid of the negativity. Kool.

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Rob Beeston of SkepticWeb.com has a new Web site called DangerousIdeas.net. The site is devoted to answering a question often asked of skeptics: What's the harm? (in believing--fill in the blank with some paranormal, occult, superstitious, or pseudoscientific notion). Rob proposes to collect stories that show how such beliefs have led directly to not only loss of money, but to loss of lives as well.

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David Martin sent us a link to a story about an alleged psychic who claims that a Pennsylvania law that makes fortunetelling a third-degree misdemeanor doesn't apply to him because he's a real psychic. The law, he says, only applies to fakes. The law does say that it is an offense to pretend to tell fortunes or predict future events. The alleged psychic says he's innocent because he wasn't pretending. Furthermore, he has many witnesses who will attest to his psychic powers. He's been in the business for fifteen years and has built up a small following, including a local constable. The arresting officer, who went undercover to catch his prey, wasn't impressed with his reading. "That's because he had his mind made up that I was a fraud," said the alleged psychic. "What qualifications does the police officer have to determine whether I'm a true psychic?" Let Judge Judy decide.

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Corrections: Greg Griffeth noted that in the last newsletter I confused 'capital' and 'capitol.' (That's what I get for adding things after my editor, John Renish (whom I thank again and again), has made his corrections. For those who are interested, I quote the following from an excellent Web resource, Garbyl's Writing Center:

capital, capitol Frequently confused or misspelled. Capital is a city, the seat of government. Do not capitalize: Olympia is the capital of Washington. Capital city is redundant. Capital also refers to money. Capitol is the building in which the U.S. Congress or the state Legislature meets. Capitalize U.S. Capitol and the Capitol when referring to the building in Washington, D.C., and do the same when referring to state capitols: The Washington Capitol is in Olympia. Capitol building is redundant.

Of course, if I had enough capital, I wouldn't care about being redundant.

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 feedback@skepdic.com

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