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

From Abracadabra to Zombies


The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 5

May 9, 2008

"...ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."--Charles Darwin*

In this issue

What's new?

What if?

Scum of the minute

An alternative view

Book recommendations

Skeptic's Circle 86

What's New?

Since the last newsletter, I've added two new entries to the Skeptic's Dictionary: Richard Sternberg and non sequitur. Sternberg is one of the alleged martyrs for intelligent design being held up as a poster boy by an ignoramus named Ben Stein.

I realize that for a site that covers intelligent design, alternative therapies, and psychics, an entry on non sequitur reasoning is long overdue. Better late than never, as my mother used to say.

Several dictionary entries have been revised: Noah's ark, pseudoscience, and vitalism. The Noah's ark entry has been bolstered with material taken from the highly recommended Donald R. Prothero's  Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (Columbia University Press, 2007). The pseudoscience entry has been expanded in response to a creationist video I saw on YouTube that took all my comments on pseudoscience out of context and applied them to evolution. I now note how creationism does and evolution does not exemplify each characteristic of a pseudoscience. The vitalism entry has a new concluding paragraph relating energy medicine and the placebo effect to vitalism.

One of the fallouts of the Ben Stein Expelled movie on intelligent design is that some young creationists have had their Darwinian fallacies fueled with assertions that the acceptance of evolution inevitably leads to inequality, racism, and to such horrors as the Holocaust. I've posted the comments of one young anti-Darwinian, along with my caustic responses, rude challenges, and detailed explanations of Darwin's meaning in his chapter "On the Races of Men" in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.

My essay on the Templeton fund was published in the latest issue of The Humanist and is posted here.

There have been several new postings in Skeptimedia:

Evaluating Acupuncture Studies: Laughable vs. Dangerous Delusions (Acupuncture is a placebo treatment and, for the most part, an amusing deception.)

Free Speech and Free Trade: Regulating Psychics and Other Spiritual Services (Should the UK be held up as an example of how to regulate this ubiquitous fraud called 'psychic reading'?)

Bill Maher tries to one-up Ben Stein (He calls the Roman Catholic pope a Nazi and says he ordered bishops to try to stall on allegations of sexual abuse until the statutes of limitation run out.)

How safe are "alternative" therapies? (A new book says most of them are not that safe, but compared to what?)

The Ben Stein Conspiracy: Who is this idiot anyway?

What's the Harm? has two new entries: one on herbalism in Uganda and the other on unsafe abortions.

There have been numerous updates since the last newsletter:

Brain Gym: two YouTube videos added. I highly recommend that American journalists view the first one to see an example of how investigative journalism of idiotic ideas should be done.

atheism: link added to a story about Illinois Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), who interrupted atheist activist Rob Sherman during his testimony before the House State Government Administration Committee and told him: "What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it's dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God. Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon."

Rudolf Steiner: link added to a story about an Austrian Waldorf school with a measles outbreak (another chapter in the continuing story of anti-vaccinationism). As I was putting together the newsletter, there were reports that Contra Costa Health Services shut down an East Bay Waldorf School after an outbreak of whooping cough. Again, anti-vaccinationism seems to be at work.

placebo effect: link added to a very interesting study that was designed to tease out three elements of a placebo treatment. Some subjects were on a waiting list; others got "a therapeutic ritual (placebo treatment)," namely, acupuncture; and a third group got  acupuncture and "a supportive patient-practitioner relationship."

Dianetics: link added to a story about a raid in Belgium on the Church of Scientology where investigators were looking for evidence of extortion and fraud.

superstition: link added to a story about a baby born with Craniofacial Duplication. This rare disorder is seen by some as a miracle; some even believe the child is the reincarnation of a Hindu goddess.

vitamins: link added to an FDA press release about the recall of 12 dietary herbal supplements.

Q-ray bracelet: Superstitious belief, confirmation bias, and ignorance of the power of suggestion being what they are, it was only a matter of time before a new kind of magical jewelry would emerge in the free market. Read all about it.

chiropractic: link added to Harriet Hall's blog on chiropractic and stroke. (Just when you thought the only danger was to little children having their necks broken....)

electromagnetic fields: link added to a story about infant incubators whose EMFs cause a significant decrease in heart rate variability.

What if you woke up with a different brain?

This is not a philosophical exercise like trying to imagine what it is like to be a bat. None of us will ever know what it is like to be a bat. But any of us could wake up with a brain that has been so dramatically altered that others recognize we are not the person we were yesterday. You could have a chunk of metal explode through your brain, as did Phineas Gage, and find your personality and moral character change dramatically overnight.

Brain trauma is only one way you could wake up with a different brain. Your brain could gradually change until you have a full-blown psychotic break characterized by delusions of being possessed by demons.

What got me started thinking about this topic was an email from a young man (whom I'll call "Pat") who signed his letter "Someone who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia but might be possessed."

Pat began his letter by asking me what I would do if I found that I was not in control of my actions, thoughts, or the words I was speaking. What would I do if I began having hallucinations? Would I recognize them as hallucinations? Would I think I was possessed? Or would I diagnose myself "with some sort of mental disorder like schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder?" Would I believe I had a chemical imbalance in my brain?

I don't believe in devils or demonic possession, but would my disbelief have any effect on how I would interpret the voices in my head?  I believe that mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder involve chemical imbalances with neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, or norepinephrine. They involve some sort of brain malfunction. ['Imbalance' seems to be a catch-all term to cover a variety of problems, including quantities of chemicals, reuptake, binding, transport, interaction, and who knows what else.] Would this belief have any effect on how I would experience auditory hallucinations? Those who know me would know I was hallucinating, but would I know? If I figure out a logical way to tell the difference between hallucinations and 'real' perceptions, would I be able to apply what I now know  when I am in an altered state?

Pat reminded me that I could not prove I wasn't possessed, nor could I prove that my inability to control my actions, words, or perceptions was due to a chemical imbalance. Furthermore, if I could not be persuaded to accept that I was hallucinating, and I was drugged by doctors who know I'm delusional, it is possible that I might recognize that the only way I can get the doctors to stop giving me the drugs is to pretend the drugs are working and deceive the doctors into thinking I do not hear voices and do not believe I am possessed. I might be able to convince others I am not possessed even when I might "know" I am.

I cannot imagine my brain being taken over in this way. It is disconcerting to realize I have no way of knowing what influence my current knowledge and beliefs would have in such a situation. I would hope to have enough contact with my former self to understand that as real as the demons seem, they are being produced by my brain.

About the same time that Pat emailed me, I looked at a video presentation given by Jill Taylor at TED. the blurb for the talk was, well, enthusiastic:

Consensus among TED’sters is that this may be the most memorable and important TED Talk ever. It was certainly the most talked-about presentation among those at TED2008.

Taylor is a neuroscientist who went into the field because her brother is schizophrenic and she wanted to help discover what causes this brain disorder. Soon, however, her talk shifts away from neuroscience and her concern for understanding the brain so that she might make some sort of contribution to the understanding of schizophrenia. Most of her talk is about her own brain. She had a stroke several years ago and it affected the left side of her brain. She lost the ability to speak and it took several years of rehabilitation to recover this ability, but she says the stroke gave her this great feeling of peace, tranquility, and oneness with everything. Her description of this feeling reminded me of the description Ramachandran gives of a temporal lobe epilepsy patient whose grand mal seizures seem indistinguishable from ecstatic mystical experiences. Taylor interprets her stroke experience as opening up a portal to peace, serenity, etc., etc., that anyone can experience if they just shut off their left brain and let the right brain take over.

Frankly, I was appalled at her naive interpretation of her stroke experience. She might as well have been Timothy Leary talking about taking LSD. Yes, it does give you this wonderful feeling of enlightenment and it sounds soooo cool, but really, wouldn't a brain scientist recognize this perception is a result of  her brain malfunctioning? Apparently not. Both Leary and Taylor interpreted their experiences as opening up brain channels to some sort of higher functioning. Their brains weren't malfunctioning but suprafunctioning. They were functioning above and beyond the call of duty as laid down for them by our evolutionary history.

Did Taylor believe in this warm, fuzzy, spiritual stuff before she had her stroke? Did those prior beliefs play a significant role in how she interpreted her experience? If so, then perhaps if I had a similar kind of stroke I would interpret it as nothing but my brain being out of control due to a serious disruption in neural connections. If not, then it's possible that no matter what I know and believe right now, tomorrow I could become a spiritual person or one seeking an exorcism. The only consolation I have in thinking about this possibility is that that person wouldn't be me. I can say that today, but would I say the same thing tomorrow if I have a stroke tonight or wake up pushing Satan off my chest?

I honestly don't know.

In any case, I agree with Hume and the Buddhists that the self is an illusion. It is an emergent property of various brain processes and when the brain goes, the self goes. So, if I were to have a stroke and lose my sense of self and then later regain my sense of self, I would not think my self had been absorbed into the All-Soul and then spat back out. Taylor called losing the sense of self 'nirvana,' which I take to mean she liked the experience very much. In the end, though, the description of the feeling seems clearly related to sexual/religious ecstasy and that may be why the folks at TED found her talk so exhilarating.

I think I understand why both the feeling and the idea of the feeling are attractive. Nirvana is the loss of self and the sense of self is a necessary condition for suffering. If Pat lost his sense of self instead of gaining an array of voices to haunt him, he would not be miserable. On the other hand, if Taylor's ego had been completely vanquished she would not have been able to make the telephone call that may have saved her life.

Depending on how miserable one is, the loss of self might seem to be bliss in comparison. When a group of doomsday cult members walk around singing and smiling as they await the end of the world, they might seem blissful but it should be obvious that their joy is measured by their belief that all their suffering will soon be over. The promise of bliss that many religions make is, unfortunately, the promise to end the misery and suffering of this life by ending this life altogether.

What would you do if your brain began telling you that Wayne Bent is not the Messiah because you  are? Would your present set of beliefs protect you from such a delusion?


Scum of the minute

Dr. T. Simoncini wins the award for his claim that cancer is caused by a fungus that can be cured with baking soda. You have to have the sodium bicarbonate applied by catheterization, but the good doctor promises no side effects except perhaps an occasional arterial belch.

An alternative view on alternative medicine

An experiment of sorts has recently concluded in Northern Ireland, said to be the home of  the UK's largest contingent of prescription drug users. The BBC reports that a pilot program, dubbed The Get Well Scheme, allowed GPs to refer patients to complementary therapists with the National Health Service (NHS) paying for the treatment. The BBC reports on a few anecdotes and those only from satisfied customers, but as long as there are countless potential NHS customers who are ignorant of evidence-based medicine and the placebo effect, the scheme could save lots of money, reduce the use of prescription drugs and their side effects, and produce a lot of smiles on the faces of formerly depressed ladies who now drink homeopathic brews instead of taking Prozac with their morning cups of tea.

The BBC produced a documentary on the program. "Get Well Northern Ireland" looked at a group of people who attempted to give up their prescription drugs in favor of acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, aromatherapy, or reflexology. The patients suffered a variety of ailments, including chronic pain and depression. The Get Well Scheme aimed to see if alternative therapies could help them as well as save the government money. I think we knew the answer to that question long ago. If by help you mean get people to give up their anti-depressants and feel elated after acupuncture or a massage of their feet, the answer is a qualified 'yes.' You will save money as long as the homeopath or reflexologist doesn't charge more than the pharmacist. (For some patients, of course, it would be much cheaper to lose weight and do specific exercises rather than see a chiropractor every week for the rest of your life.)

So, why are skeptics opposed to providing so-called complementary therapies to patients? The main reason is that there seems to be something unethical about knowingly giving people placebo treatments even when the outcome is a satisfied customer. Maybe we need to get over our ethical qualms and think more practically. We will always have an abundant supply of potential customers willing to try therapies shown to be nothing but placebos. Many of these folks will throw away their crutches (figuratively speaking, of course...well, at least for the most part). So why not take advantage of their ignorance and willingness to take the path marked "not evidence-based"?

One concern might be that some of those being treated with placebos require evidence-based treatments in order to survive or recover. Fine. If all patients are seen by physicians trained in evidence-based medicine, the seriously ill can be fast-tracked to real medical treatments and the merely depressed or those with chronic pain can be sent to the alternative wing. A simple weed-out question about willingness to try "complementary therapies shown to be effective for some people" on the admission form would separate the knowledgeable from the ignorant. Skeptics need not be forced into therapies they consider rubbish. If the patient doesn't seem to be suffering from any serious or life-threatening disease, send her to the alternative clinic for further evaluation as to what placebo might work best. I expect that such a program would have many success stories like that of Michelle McConnell, who was a participant in The Get Well Scheme. She suffered from anxiety and panic attacks and had a near-death experience in the hospital. She was disabled to the point that she was unable to leave home for months. She got acupuncture. "She began to feel better after just one session." What more proof do you need?

The only problem I foresee is that you are probably going to have some patients like former nurse Marie Vaughan. She has been diagnosed with breast cancer, a highly treatable form of cancer with a good success record. But she turned down chemotherapy in favor of  high levels of vitamins, minerals, and hope. There is the chance that the cancer will go into remission on its own but the odds are that it will not. The evidence is already in that vitamins, minerals, and hope won't cure cancer. However, even if the medical professionals know that her best chance of survival is with chemotherapy, it is her choice. It would be unethical for medical professionals to try to persuade breast-cancer patients to take vitamins and pray, rather than undergo chemotherapy, just to save the NHS some money. But, if the patient prefers an inert treatment, she should be given an inert treatment. Although I think it would be unethical not to tell such a patient that there is evidence that high doses of B vitamins might make her cancer worse.

Northern Ireland's Health Minister Michael McGimpsey is now assessing the results of The Get Well Scheme. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, I am being treated by tongue acupuncture for a severe case of tongue-in-cheek syndrome.

Book recommendations

I am too lazy to write up reviews of two books I'd like to recommend, so I'll just mention them and give brief descriptions.

Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland is an informal survey of the many affective, perceptual, and cognitive biases that prevent or at least seriously hinder us from thinking and acting rationally. By informal I mean that it is not full of footnotes or tedious references to the studies mentioned. The book is divided into many short chapters, each dealing with a different kind of problem for rational thinking and decision-making.

Ever since I read Robert Levine's The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and Sold, I thought of adding a dictionary entry on the anchoring effect. After reading Sutherland's book, I finally put up the entry. I soon received an email recommending Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Ariely, a behavioral economist, has a great discussion of not only the anchoring effect, but of many other sources of irrational thinking. Ariely's writing style makes his book a pleasure to recommend to anyone who enjoys a good story, good science, and learning about what drives human behavior at the same time.

Skeptic's Circle No. 86 at The Skepbitch

The 86th edition of the latest rants and ruminations by skeptics from around the world is now up and running at Karen Stollznow's Skepbitch site.

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