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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 10

October 21, 2008

"Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation." --John McCain (September 20, 2008)

[I tried to find an equally stupid remark from Obama, but the best I could come up with is a very lame list of petty mistakes and misspoken lines put up by one of his hard-pressed opponents. For those who don't understand why McCain's comparison to deregulated banking (which he thought was a good idea last month) is stupid or what health care providers would cut to increase their profitability, click here. Maybe this opinion piece will help you see that his remarks are stupid on other grounds as well.]

In this issue

What's new?
Priming, pareidolia, & apophenia
Hail to Hal
Group acupuncture
Cell phone hypochondriacs
Who joins the military?
Rupert Sheldrake stabbed
The SkepDoc's website
Mickey Mouse, agent of Satan?
Thinking caps
Scam of the minute

What's New?

Since the last newsletter: I posted a new entry on exploitainment, as well as the final four installments of a 13-part deconstruction of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe.

Skeptimedia hosted the 95th edition of the Skeptics' Circle.

What's the Harm? has two new entries: one on the death of a 16-year-old boy whose parents treated his urinary-tract blockage with prayer; the other on the abuse of reason by district attorneys who jailed the parents of an autistic child on rape charges based on the word of a practitioner of the pseudoscience known as facilitated communication.

Skeptimedia reported that a group of Brazilian UFOlogists were planning to open an institute to promote belief that aliens are here now. They planned to call it The Carl Sagan Institute. They now plan to name their institute after Galileo.* Complaints from Carl Sagan's widow and others led to the withdrawal of a proposal to name the institute after the late astronomer.

I posted the comments of a couple of U.S. Navy veterans on John McCain's service in Vietnam and some reader comments on nutritionist pseudoscience. Also, a Ph.D. in chemistry is astonished that I would find any fault with David Hawkins or his inane idea that applied kinesiology is a perfect lie detector.

The Urantia Book entry has been revised to make it clearer that this book was not channeled, but written (for the most part) by William Sadler, who borrowed from many, many sources. (For all the gory details, see the appendix to Martin Gardner's Urantia: The Great Cult Mystery (in the paperback edition, released in 2008).

Finally, several entries have been updated:

--the autism and vaccines entry: another study shows that the MMR Vaccine Is Not the Cause of Autism or Autism-Linked Intestinal Woes, despite Jenny McCarthy's claims;

--Matthias Rath: the man who claims vitamins can cure AIDS has dropped his libel suit against the Guardian;

--McCain's team provides answers to science questions: the Bad Astronomer is not amused;

--criminal profiling: I corrected the story about who it was that encouraged Ray Hyman to tell his palmistry clients the opposite of what the books on this pseudoscience indicated;

--pyramidiocy: added a link to NJMALHQ's blog on Nutty Pyramids;

--alternative medicine and homeopathy: added links to both parts of an article on strategies used by alternative practitioners to lure and convince customers of their effectiveness: posted on A Photon in the Darkness;

--Ayurvedic medicine: added a paragraph about dangerous amounts of lead, mercury, and arsenic in some of these herbal medicines;

--vitalism: added a link to a BBC radio program on the subject.

Priming, pareidolia, apophenia, and The German New Medicine

I'm often asked "what's the difference between priming, pareidolia, and apophenia?" (Actually, nobody's ever asked me this, but it seemed like a nice hook.)

A good example of priming comes from backmasking. What at first sounds like gibberish becomes a clear message after somebody tells you what to listen for. You've been primed to hear the message. Another example of priming comes from allegedly outraged parents and a talking doll: "Little Mommy Real Loving Baby Cuddle and Coo" doll from Fisher-Price. Some folks swear the doll mumbles "Satan is king" and "Islam is the light." Some might even hear "Palin is a terrorist who is perpetrating voter fraud."

An example of apophenia came to us from the Bible wingnuts who interpreted the Dow Jones dropping 777.68 points in a single day on the eve of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) as a message from YHWH. The nutters round this number down to 777 instead of up to 778, as any normal person or journalist would. They (the nutters) think 777 is "God's number" and the message was "repent" or something equally profound.

Finally, pareidolia, like hearing clear messages in gibberish, can occur with priming, but it isn't necessary. In pareidolia, some vague or ambiguous stimulus, like a stain on a wall or reflection from a light, is seen as a clear image, such as the Virgin Mary or Elvis. If the vague stimulus is then imbued with significance or meaning, as when it is seen as a sign from another dimension, pareidolia slips into apophenia. Some investigators might divide pareidolia into types: visual and auditory. One might even speak of tactile pareidolia, as when a man misinterprets a woman's accidental touch to mean she wants to know him in a Biblical way. This might also be called wishful thinking.

When one nutter leads another to interpret a vague stimulus as a clear image sent from another dimension to convey an important message, all three phenomena occur in what might be called the unholy wingnut trinity.

The above message has been brought to you for no particular reason and should not be taken too seriously except by those who have no sense of humor. On the other hand, it might be noted that the aberrations we mention here are clearly related to the very important human trait of detecting patterns. The examples we've given are small-scale wrong turns on the path of life. There are numerous examples of grand-scale wrong turns described in The Skeptic's Dictionary. There are many more wrong turns that neither I nor any other skeptic will ever have the time to completely catalogue, but one that deserves to be mentioned is The German New Medicine.

Dr. Ryke Geerd Hamer went from suspecting a causal link between his wife’s death and his own cancer with the shooting and eventual death of their son, Dirk, to a full-blown practice of medical quackery that claims all diseases are due to conflict and shock. From there he went on to invent a treatment for cancer and other diseases called conflictolysis. It is reported by critics that over 140 cancer patients have died despite this treatment and nobody has been cured. Also, you won't find anything in the scientific literature in the way of controlled studies or other scientific methods of testing and evaluating Hamer's claims. Scientific tests evolved in the evidence-based world and are a way of avoiding self-deception and of determining whether apparent patterns are illusory.

Hail Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack

The night of my return home after four weeks on the road in Italy, Ireland, and South Bend, Indiana, I watched the last of the presidential debates. I felt sick to my stomach as I listened to Obama and McCain promise to give away the store if elected. They've got more plans and lies between them than there are atoms in the universe. They must think we are total morons. Have they no shame? They're going to create millions of jobs and give tax reductions to everybody or almost everybody. Not long ago, Obama was talking about raising the capital gains tax. McCain wants to cut it in half. Now Obama says he wants to cut it to zero. Given what has happened in the past few months and the Bush administration's fix-it plan, conjured up in less than a week and putting the wolves in charge of the den, won't these plans encourage people to take what's left of their money and run away from any investments? Is there any language in the bailout that deals with mortgage fraud? The next president of the U.S. supports the Bush plan. How can anyone believe Bush's people know what they are doing? If the past is any indication of the future, their plan will primarily benefit their wealthy corporate buddies. McCain, the anti-earmark maverick, voted for the plan even though it has earmarks!

Worse, in the last debate neither candidate mentioned that he'd uphold the Constitution of the United States in contrast to the current office holder. I'd like to hear at least one of the candidates say that he is at least a little bit disturbed at the elimination of due process by the Bush administration. [Obama promises that, if elected president, he would review the constitutionality of all the laws and executive orders passed while George W. Bush has been in office.]

Lucky for me, my cynicism was somewhat appeased when I returned to my routine of exercising while listening to a skeptical podcast. I had several to choose from, as they'd been piling up for the last month. I chose to listen to Swoopy of Skepticality interviewing Hal Bidlack.

I met Hal at the first Amazing Meeting in Ft. Lauderdale in 2003. I gave a talk on the anti-science crusade of religious fundamentalists just after Hal did his Alexander Hamilton performance and just before Randi closed out the evening. Talk about being lost in the shadows! I've heard Hal speak several times at Amazing Meetings and was very pleased to hear he was thinking about running for Congress as a Democrat in the 5th District of Colorado, a traditional Republican stronghold. Well, he's not just thinking about it. He's doing it. I urge everyone to listen to Swoopy's interview of Hal. It will make you proud to be an American and hopeful that our nation may soon return to sanity and decency. Visit his website. I won't tell anyone how to vote but I will tell you that if Hal Bidlack were running for president in this election, he'd get my vote.

In case the reader is wondering what I was doing in Italy, Ireland, and South Bend for four weeks, you could say that I was studying the mythologies of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Jews, and Christians as manifested in art and architecture over the past 2,500 years. I also caught a Vivaldi concert in Venice performed by costumed ladies and one gentleman, all wearing powdered wigs. I walked between the Greek temples at Paestum, visited the Roman Colosseum and Forum, and stood face to face with some of the greatest paintings and sculptures ever created, including the Davids of Michelangelo and Donatello, as well as Botticelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus. I spent a day in Ravenna in the glory of some of the greatest mosaics on earth. I even stood beneath the overblown Biblical cartoons on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Nothing compared, however, to the natural beauty of the Dolomites, Lake Como, the hills of Tuscany, the coastline from Tellaro to the Cinque Terre, and the rolling hills of Valencia Island in county Kerry. The trip to South Bend was a return to the campuses where my wife and I went to college and met 45 years ago. My maternal grandmother was born in Italy, my father's and my wife's father's people came from Ireland several generations ago. You might say that this was a trip to return to our roots. Unfortunately, the world economy collapsed while we were fiddling.

Maybe I should finish the review of Shermer's The Mind of the Market that I started to write a few months ago. He really thinks there is an invisible hand keeping greed and corruption from becoming endemic in any sector of a free market economy. I'm not saying that the government is going to resolve this crisis any better than just letting market forces run their course, but I can't believe anyone could now make a strong argument that some sectors, especially the financial sector, don't need strong regulation to keep disasters like the current one from happening.

Community Acupuncture

How would you like to join a group of people in a room while an acupuncturist treats you all, charging a modest, sliding price scale for the group treatment? Not your idea of health care? Too bad, because apparently it’s "a trend that’s growing exponentially around the country," or so says some hype writer for New Hampshire public radio. We have group prayer, group confession, group baptism, so why not group acupuncture or homeopathy? Another cost-cutting measure brought to you by somebody you don't know and probably don't need to know.

Cell Phone Hypochondriacs Psychomatics

Cell phones can cause real pain to "electrosensitive" individuals, even if there is nothing electromagnetic in the "phone." Researchers at the University of Regensburg have found that people who claim to be "electrosensitive" to the point of feeling pain when they use a cell phone, feel the pain whether the phone is real or fake. Hmm. What does that indicate?

Who serves in the military today?

You might be surprised. If you're interested, read this article by Stephen J. Dubner. As a bonus, you get to see how outfits like the Heritage Foundation can mislead with accurate statistics.

Rupert Sheldrake stabbed at conference in Santa Fe

Rupert Sheldrake was stabbed last April in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was presenting at the 10th International Conference on Science and Consciousness. His assailant is apparently a deranged 34-year-old ex-laborer from Yokohama, Japan, who has been jailed since April 2 for the attack. Kazuki Hirano says that four or five years ago he became convinced that his thoughts were being controlled by someone using mental telepathy. He says that he began to feel hypnotized while he was homeless in the Camden Town district of London and that a man named "Doctor Tony" told him that Sheldrake was conducting experiments in mind control on the homeless. After reading about Sheldrake on the Internet, says Hirano,  he came to believe "Doctor Tony."

Hirano is scheduled to go on trial in late October for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Sheldrake plans to return from England to testify at the trial.

The SkepDoc has her own website

You can visit her site at http://www.skepdoc.info/

Is Mickey Mouse an agent of Satan?

Sheikh Mohamed al-Munajid, a Muslim cleric who is a former Saudi diplomat in the United States, said last week that mice are "agents of Satan" and should be killed. "Sharia (Islamic law) calls for the extermination of all mice. That includes the rodents as well as 'the famous cartoon mouse'," he said. The voice of reason, Suad Saleh, a woman preacher who hosts a popular television program on fatwas (religious edicts), responded that Munajid's ruling "tarnishes Islam's image."

"An edict should be based on knowledge, logic and reason," she said. "Yes, mice should be killed when seen, according to Islam's teachings. But it is illogical to deal with a cartoon character as a live mouse and kill it." Yes, and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? And will my amputated limbs be restored in the afterlife along with my first two wives?

A Thinking Cap for Non-thinkers

The Mail--I know, many British readers have stopped reading already--had an article about an amazing cap that can send electric currents to the wearer's brain, thereby improving creativity and proofreading ability, and curing schizophrenia (according to one astute reader of the Mail). Need I say more? (There's even some quality hogwash about unleashing the idiot savant within all of us.)

Scam of the minute

The winner this minute is the BodyTalk System. You probably didn't know that all your physical problems are due to weakened energy circuits in your body that need to be re-synchronized. Yes, it's true. And BodyTalk System provides the therapy that will allow your body to heal itself "as nature intended."

I won't bother you with all the scientific details. Suffice it to say that biofeedback (a subtle muscle-testing technique) is used to locate the energy circuits that need repair. A corresponding body point is then touched by the patient while the BodyTalk therapist taps the patient on the top of the head. This "stimulates the brain center and causes the brain to re-evaluate the state of the body’s health." You learn something new every day! Soon your unbalanced body will be have its energy balanced and you will be "greatly improved."

Who doesn't want to be greatly improved?

* AmeriCares *

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