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

From Abracadabra to Zombies


The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 8

August 1, 2008

"What is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?'' asked Monica Goodling, an aide to then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, of applicants for non-political jobs at the U.S. Department of Justice. (Quoted in a commentary by Ann Woolner)

In this issue

What's new?
The Skeptics' Circle
Santa v. Satan
The Skeptic's Toolbox
Psychic or Psycho Psychiatrist
Rising Religion
Scam of the Minute
Elementary Economics
Word for the day

What's New?

There are four new entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary: Dr. Dragon Dabic, Zeitoun, shyness effect, and Yellow Bamboo.

I've added four more installments to my review of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe. I realize that this book is nearly a decade old and that some of the material in this review appears elsewhere in The Skeptic's Dictionary. I held back posting the material as a unit while I was using Radin's book in a class I was teaching. Radin's book has many gaps and deceptions, but it is popular among devotees of the paranormal. I hope my review will deter some people from pursuing a wasteful career in parapsychology.

I've made two posts to Skeptimedia, one on organic food and the other on the precautionary principle.

Updates have been made to the following entries: climate change deniers, free energy, and creationism. Mt. Shasta's glaciers are growing despite global warming. Eric Krieg has identified Dennis Lee as the scammer behind Dutchman Enterprises. And all references to creationism as a theory have been removed.

A reader comment on the Inset Fuel Stabilizer was added.

reader comment

I don't understand the almost religious awe that has come over main Global Warming adherents. As science changes as new facts are discovered so should the global warming debate. Yet in the Skeptics Newsletter it almost sound as if anyone who questions Global Warming can no longer be considered a scientist. Excuse me but to question what is happening and form hypotheses is what scientists are supposed to do and as more scientific data comes out we are learning a great deal about the planetary climate cycles. Unfortunately, to mention these cycles appears to be taboo and those that do are labeled heretics of the Global Warming Church. Please restore true skepticism to your pages. A true skeptic must look at as much of the data on a subject as they can find. As the data comes in more and more Global Warming theories are being disproven.

Please explore the issue with an open mind as you have said we all should all other theories.

Thank you,
 JW Garner

reply: I don't know of any organized attempt at stifling climate change deniers. If you find it in my pages, then you are seeing things that aren't there. In fact, the American Physical Society even invited a climate change denier to debate the issues with a couple of scientists. Another denier saw this as evidence that the 50,000-member strong society had "reversed its stance on climate change." (See Myth of Consensus Explodes: APS Opens Global Warming Debate.) Another blogger replied with Global Warming Opponents Have Gone Bonkers!

Bob Park had some interesting comments on this issue in a recent What's New column:

Science is open. If better information becomes available scientists rewrite the textbooks with scarcely a backward glance. The Forum on Physics and Society of the APS [American Physical Society] exists to help us examine all the information on issues such as global climate change. There are physicists who think we don’t have warming right, I know one myself. It is therefore entirely appropriate for the Forum to conduct a debate on the pages of its newsletter. A couple of highly-respected physicists ably argued the warming side. Good start. However, on the denier’s side was Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who inherited his father’s peerage in 2006. Lord Monckton is not a scientist, his degree is in journalism and he’s a reporter for the Evening Standard, an English tabloid. Whatever it is that Viscounts do, he may do very well, but he doesn’t know squat about physics and his journalism suffers from it. Worse, somebody fed the media the line that Monckton’s rubbish meant the APS had changed its position on warming; of course it has not. Few media outlets took the story seriously.

Climate change deniers will have to argue their case. They should not expect to have the scientific community swayed by their claims just because the media are uncritical and uninformed on complex issues. There will be continued debate and, in the long run, the debate will be a sign of health and vigor, not stagnation and decay.

The Skeptics' Circle

The 92nd edition of the Skeptics' Circle is now up at The Lay Scientist. City of Skeptics will be hosting the 93rd edition. I don't know who is hosting the 94th (scheduled for August 28th), but I will be hosting the 95th edition at Skeptimedia, scheduled to come out on September 11, 2008. So, if you post something between August 28 and September 10, and want to be included, let me know by 9/10. Email me at SC95@skepdic.com

Next month's newsletter will be the 95th. To give synchronicity advocates something to chew on, the only thing I will post in the 95th newsletter is the announcement of the posting of the 95th Skeptics' Circle on 9/11/08. Some will notice that the sum of 11 minus 9 and eleven minus eight equals 5. And so on.

Santa vs. Satan

About a year ago, a fellow named Jake Kalish contacted me with a strange request. He said he was putting together a book of imaginary fights and asked me to contribute one. I agreed because I was to keep it short, it would be fun, and I could knock it off in an hour or two. I wrote a little piece about an imaginary fight between the biblical Adam and the incomparable Charles Darwin. I submitted it to Mr. Kalish and then forgot all about it until last month when he notified me that his book has been published: Santa vs. Satan: The Official Compendium of Imaginary Fights. I'll say only this about my contribution: the fight starts with Adam kicking Darwin in the balls. You'll have to buy the book to find out how Darwin responds.

For more information, go to http://www.jakekalish.com/.

The Skeptic's Toolbox

Once again I will miss the annual conference hosted by CSI fellows Ray Hyman, Jim Alcock, Wally Sampson, and Lauren Pancratz at the University of Oregon. In honor of Barry Beyerstein and Jerry Andrus, both of whom died last year and were traditional fixtures at the conference known as The Skeptic's Toolbox, the topic this year is your wonderful brain. Joining the panel this year will be Barry's daughter, Lindsay.

We're all invited to join the CSI hosts and "explore the ways in which the normally and the abnormally functioning brain can lead us astray and create cognitive illusions." The blurb for the meeting reads:

The very same processes that enable our brain to be so dramatically successful are frequently the same ones that lead us into error. Epilepsy, drugs, damage, and stresses can cause the brain to function in ways that lead people to believe they have experienced or witnessed something supernatural or paranormal. But although dramatic errors and anomalies of experience often result from the malfunctioning brain, many cognitive errors and illusions occur when the brain is functioning normally.

The event will be held next weekend, August 7-10, 2008, at the University of Oregon at Eugene. For more information go to http://www.skepticstoolbox.org/2008-schedule.html.

I have attended a couple of these Toolboxes and can attest to their value. Nowhere will you be able to work with such a star-studded cast in such intimate surroundings and work on your skeptical skills at the same time with a group of highly intelligent, critical thinkers as your fellow students.

Psychiatrist claims paranormal powers

The story from MarketWatch says that Dr. Colin Ross can send a beam of energy from his eyes that will create a sound in an audio speaker. Ross has a website  but it is for his institute of psychological trauma. I could not find any reference to his energy eyes there. The story claims that Ross has authored over 135 scientific papers and 18 books, "many of them dealing with psychological trauma and multiple personality disorder."

The story says that Ross has applied to the JREF to be tested in the million dollar paranormal challenge. He plans to use his winnings "to develop scanning equipment for medical use and to carry out research on therapeutic uses of human energy fields."

I have no idea whether Dr. Ross is doing this for the publicity. I assume that if he is sane, he does not believe he can make a sound come out of an audio speaker by looking at it. He is quoted in the article as saying: "Once this energy is identified and captured, as I have done, then it can be studied and used for many applications in medicine and other fields." If he really said this, then I can only conclude that the man is a liar or deluded. One of Dr. Ross's books, by the way, is called The Great Psychiatry Scam. The cover of the book shows a bunch of pills flying out of the hand of a person, presumably a comment on the trend in psychiatry to prescribe medications for the mentally ill. The enlightened, I suppose, heal their patients by manipulating human energy fields.

update: Ross must have truly lost it. He was scheduled to appear on Coast to Coast last night. The blurb for the interview says, among other things, that according to Ross his "ability ... is related to the sense of being stared at [and] could be harnessed to turn on and off appliances." This is encouraging news for people who don't have any limbs.

Religion on the rise

You can see it in the bookstores. My local Borders has a larger section for religion than for science. Newspapers and magazines have more and more columns and features on religious issues. Television programs with angels, ghosts, spirits, and other occult themes are more popular than ever. The success of several atheists in selling their books is probably as much due to the rising interest in all things religious as it is to a surge in non-theistic sentiment.

The Washington Post (not the religion-owned Washington Times) teams with Newsweek and features an online publication called "On Faith." A recent column was written by Dr. Wendy Martin of the University of Ottawa, whose Ph.D. is in the sociology of religion. She addressed the issue of the supernatural on television.

The research shows four common themes regarding people who watch these "spiritual' shows:

1. The shows provide an "opportunity to explore alternative spiritual views." 2. The shows "provide explanations for mysterious phenomena" that science can't answer. 3. "Viewers assert that the God images offered on television are more accessible and plausible that the ones they believe exist in institutionalized religions." 4. The shows give viewers "an opportunity to think about morality and immortality."

Martin thinks that television both reflects and creates these viewpoints.

This research makes viewers of "spiritual" shows seem like curious investigators of deep philosophical issues who are looking for simple stories to appease anxiety. The viewers aren't looking for the truth but for answers that can provide some satisfaction in removing uncertainty and provide some hope that despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there is a reason for everything and eventually good people get rewarded and bad people get punished. For many people, these "spiritual" shows are a substitute for science and philosophy, which is too bad. Science and philosophy are fine, they seem to think, as long as they support religious fantasies. If things keep going this way, we may eventually elect a president who doesn't care about science and gets his or her religion and policy intel from cartoons and TV dramas.

reader comment:

This week, I followed a link in the Volume 7 No. 8 edition of the Skeptic's Newsletter, the one to Dr. Martin's article on the supernatural on television. From there, I followed other links eventually leading me to a "Pew Report" that claimed that "21% of American atheists believe in God or a universal spirit, 12% believe in heaven and 10% pray at least once a week."

I imagine that you already have heard of this, but it was new to me. I just had to comment to someone that it seems obvious that the "Pew" survey is flawed from the start if the groupings are made based upon the questionee's understanding of category definitions rather than allowing their beliefs to determine which category to place them in.

Specifically, I mean the Atheist category, but others apply as well. If I claim to be an Atheist, but say I believe in God, then my comments don't belong with Atheist comments, but perhaps with "unaffiliated (but misguided)". Similarly, if I say I'm a Moslem, but think Jesus was the son of God, along with all the other Christian beliefs, am I not a confused Christian?

Of course, this kind of flaw, in my mind, calls the entire "study" into question.

Just venting, G. Kingman

update: Allison DuBois, the alleged model for the TV show "Medium," will star in her own show, "Soul Evidence," on the SciFi channel. Supposedly, Dubois and some other psychics will work together to solve crimes. Let's hope they do better than the FBI.

As Ingrid Diaz notes: at least DuBois doesn't have the word 'psychic' in her title. "Soul Evidence" is a working title. I think it's pretty clever.

Scam of the minute

By now every one of you has received an e-mail that alleges it has been sent to inform you that something is wrong with some account you have and that you need to contact Citibank, Capital One, Bank of America, PayPal or the like to straighten it out. The general rule of thumb to avoid be scammed by "phishers" is Never give out personal information unless you initiate the process.

A quick way to determine whether an e-mail is really from your bank, credit card company, Pay Pal, etc., is to do a rollover with your mouse of the address the phisher wants you to click on. The sender's address can be manipulated easily, so if you look to the window where that address is displayed it may well look like a legitimate inquiry. For example, the latest phony e-mail of this type that I received was allegedly sent from Bank of America and the sender's address was displayed as onlinebanking@alert.bankofamerica.com, which looks legitimate. Bad grammar, poor punctuation, and an obvious lack of familiarity with your native tongue are also signs of phishing. Here's a copy of the pitch:

Because of unusual number of invalid login attempts on you account, we had to believe that, their  might be some security problem on you account. So we have decided to put an extra verification process to ensure your identity and your account security. Please click on sign in to Online Banking to continue to the verification process and ensure your account security. It is all about your security. Thank you, and visit the customer service section.

If you do a mouse rollover on the "sign in to Online Banking" you will see that the URL you are contacting does not belong to Bank of America but to some scammer in Germany with deficient English skills: http://madrid10.worldbone.de/bankofamerica.com/

That address may lead to a page saying there is an error. The phisher has now accomplished what he set out to do. By clicking on that address he may be able to get information from your computer or even slip something malicious into your computer, depending on your security.

Elementary economics

General Motors reported a $15.5 billion dollar second quarter loss, while Exxon Mobil reported a record $15.6 billion dollar net income for the same period. Apparently, it's not the increase in demand that has led to higher prices at the pump. Classical economics tells us that it must be the decrease in supply that is the problem. My neighbor thinks that the only thing that is keeping him from paying $2 a gallon for gas is the liberal coalition that is preventing Exxon Mobil from drilling in Alaska and off the California coast. I told him that Norway has more oil than we do and the people there pay $10 a gallon for gas. Yah, but they're socialists, he replied. Under capitalism, that won't happen. End of economics lesson.

reader comment:

Your lesson in economics was correct. More drilling for oil won't have a large effect on the world's supply of oil and the world price. However, more domestic oil would have an important positive effect on our balance of payments.

Norway has a large positive balance of payments and a strong currency. We have a large negative balance and a continually weaker dollar, effectively raising the price of oil in dollars. Anything that reduces our negative balance of payments will reduce the dollar price of oil along with the price of other commodities.

Marvin May, (retired assoc. prof of finance at UCLA)

callipygian

I went 63 years before seeing or hearing this word, used by my erudite editor, John Renish, in an email to describe one of the actors in the latest Indiana Jones film. I thought it a fine word and told him that I would try to work it into the next newsletter. That was a couple of newsletters ago. I'm sorry, John, but I just can't think of a tasteful way to refer to anyone as callipygian without getting myself in trouble. Another failure I'll have to live with.

reader comment

I am an avid subscriber to and reader of The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter and was amazed to find in Vol. 7 No. 8, which I just received, that a man of your years, experience and knowledge was not, until now, aware of the word "callipygian."

I would have thought that you were surely familiar with the 1960s "Vikki Dougan song" by the vocal group The Limeliters -- a paean immortalizing one Ms. Vikki Dougan who achieved her 15 minutes of fame by appearing in public in a backless dress which was cut so low as to -- in the words of the song -- reveal her "callipygian cleft" prompting that wonderful vocal group to pose the musical question "Don't it get chilly when the tail wind blows" (or words to that effect). Unfortunately, I am relying on my memory, so am at present unable to quote the lyrics in their entirety.

Dick Christian

* AmeriCares *

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