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

From Abracadabra to Zombies


The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 12

December 15, 2008

"Extinguish all the warm feelings and prepossessions in favour of virtue, and all disgust or aversion to vice: render men totally indifferent towards these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions." --David Hume

In this issue

What's new?
Polls & woo
Life after death tour
Psychic ban lifted
Obama and science
Shermer explains the economy
A small victory over woo

Books to give any time of year

What's New?

New articles in the Dictionary include:

Jonathan P. Niednagel's truth-in-waiting that he calls brain typing;

sham acupuncture

moxibustion

Skeptimedia: Statistics and Medical Studies

What's the harm? Clergy in Nigeria abusing children

What's the harm: a team of psychics

new column

For the past six years or so, John Renish has edited most of what I've written for The Skeptic's Dictionary. Over the years, we've had a few thousand exchanges on hundreds of topics. I've invited John to share some of his knowledge in an occasional column. His first post is up and you can read it by clicking here. I'll probably have to double his salary again.

revisions

I revised the acupuncture entry. I try to make it clear that the evidence strongly indicates that acupuncture works as a placebo. In an attempt to be thorough, I was unable to keep it brief. The entry now has a table of contents with hot links to the various sections of the entry.

I revised the homeopathy entry to make it clear that the evidence strongly supports the view that homeopathic remedies are either ineffective or no more effective than a placebo.

I revised the alphabiotics entry to provide more details about this obvious flimflammery.

Reader comments were posted on the Q-Ray bracelet, inset fuel stabilizer, acupuncture, Sharia, stoning, and kabala.

updates:

A link to a story about Lord Drayson's claim to have a sixth sense was added;

Two paragraphs were added the radionics entry on the use of machines that allegedly measure and alter "frequencies" in the body;

Links to two books supportive of homosexuality and aimed at a Christian audience were added to the last newsletter;

A link to a story about the use of a psychic detective in Oregon was added;

I also added to my earlier commentary on the Bush administration's war on science;

The Aramaic version of abracadabra was added to that entry;

I added a link to John W. Farley's "The Scientific Case for Modern Anthropogenic Global Warming" on the climate skeptics page;

A link to an article in New Scientist about a 'placebo gene' was added to the placebo effect entry;

In the substance abuse treatment entry, I added a link to a story about an eminent French doctor who believes he has found not just a treatment for compulsive drinking, but a miracle cure;

Finally, I added a link in the feng shui article to Yau-Man "Survivor" Chan's blog about this ancient Chinese form of geomancy.

Polls and woo

I wouldn't have too much confidence about the accuracy of the latest Harris poll on beliefs in the supernatural and the paranormal. The participants were self-selected from the Harris Interactive website. Granted, the figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them in line with their actual proportions in the population. But there is no reason to believe that such a sample will be as representative as one randomly selected from the general population.

Some might find it amusing that 37% of those polled think the Old Testament is the word of God, but only 14% think the Torah is the word of God. Who knows what it means, then, when 47% of these folks say they believe in "Darwin's theory of evolution"?

The Life After Death Tour

That's what Allison DuBois is calling her latest dog and pony show. Just show up and she'll contact a dead loved one for you. I love this little gimmick:

Each venue has a very limited number of VIP tickets. Not only are these seats in the first few rows, they include a VIP pass for a pre-show meet and greet with Allison.

That's right. You can pay extra to show up early, provide her with little tidbits of information, and then sit in the front row and try to guess when she's talking about your loved one. She's coming to a hotel in Sacramento in December. VIP Tickets are only $150. Maybe I should go and find out how Tigger, our dead cat, is doing. Yes, cats have souls. James Van Praagh told me so.

Psychic reading ban lifted in Vermont

Until recently, the city of St. Johnsbury in Vermont had an ordinance that banned anyone from telling fortunes or attempting "to reveal future events in the life of another or by means of occult or psychic powers, faculties or forces, clairvoyance, psychometry, spirit-mediumship, prophecy, astrology, palmistry, necromancy, cards, talismans, charms, potions, magnetism or magnetized articles or substances, oriental mysteries or magic of any kind or nature; to undertake or pretend to find or restore lost or stolen money or property, gold or silver or other ore or metal or natural product; or to undertake or pretend to unite, or reunite or to find lovers, husbands, wives, lost relatives or friends." The ordinance covered just about every common trick of the trade. It was instituted to prevent fraud by characters like the members of the  Miller family.

The ban has been lifted but nothing should change since the ordinance was never enforced, according to the Town Manager.

According to Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center in Washington, similar laws are or were on the books in Nebraska, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Last year in Philadelphia, city inspectors shut down more than a dozen psychics, astrologers, and tarot-card readers after discovering a decades-old state law that bans fortune-telling for profit. Enforcement only lasted a few days, however. Also last year, Louisiana's Livingston Parish made soothsaying, fortune-telling, palm reading and crystal-ball gazing illegal. The parish has been sued by a Wiccan minister.

Some folks think that since all psychics are frauds,  their profession should be illegal. Others think it's not the government's job to decide whether predicting the future or consorting with spirits is fraud. I agree with them. Otherwise, they should shut down all the churches.

Obama and science

We're still waiting for president-elect Obama to name a science advisor, but we have reason to be hopeful after his recent appointment of physicist and Nobel laureate Steve Chu, instead of a political crony, to head the Department of Energy. Chu is director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Those of us who have watched the Bush administration relegate science to the role of handmaiden to ideology, are ecstatic. Wired Science ran the headline: Science Born Again in the White House, and Not a Moment Too Soon.

Dr. Michael Shermer explains the economic crisis: it's Clinton's fault

I'm glad somebody finally explained it to me. I should have known Clinton caused it, since he caused everything else that went wrong in the world until George W. Bush took over that honor. On his blog, Shermer writes:

The current economic collapse is due to a concatenation of natural business cycles, black swan contingencies, and government intervention into the housing and financial markets — most notably the Clinton administration’s drive to achieve an “ownership society” that forced Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to lower interest rates on high risk loans — which triggered the collapse of the housing and financial markets, and with them the rest of the economy.

And I thought it was a conspiracy by Kevin Trudeau to sell his new book Debt Cures "They" Don’t Want You to Know About. I should have known it was Clinton who sweet-talked the Big Three car makers to keep putting out those massive SUVs and giant trucks. Clinton no doubt is also behind the advertising campaign to convince Americans that they cannot live happily without a flat screen TV that fills half the room, no matter how large. Buy, buy, buy. That was Clinton's motto. I remember his face on the fifty solicitations a week I received to get instant credit no matter what. If it hadn't been for Clinton, the global economy wouldn't exist as an interdependent house of cards. It's hard to believe that one fellow could cause so much mischief.

I don't know what Clinton was doing with a contingent of black swans, but it may have offended some mighty spirit who decided that the punishment for all the theft and greed in the world would be to cut off the invisible hand of the market and dip it in hot pitch to cauterize the well-deserved wound.

Shermer also puts to rest the stupid notion that deregulation in the financial sector had anything to do with the economic collapse:

...the second-largest rate of growth in regulation [between 1980 and 2007] was in finance and banking, where regulatory spending increased from $725 million to $2.07 billion ... (in year-2000 dollars), nearly triple. And there is a cry for more regulation? Please!

If the cost of regulation isn't a sign of its quality, efficiency, and control, I don't know what is. Any fool knows that there's more than enough regulation to go around. In fact, it seems pretty clear that the purpose of multiplying regulations in complex areas of the economy is to have so many complex rules and multiple agencies to enforce them that the end result is the same as if you had almost no regulations. The opportunity for mischief is proportionate the level of complex regulation. The Big Boys can find their way around any labyrinth. The little guys and all the Joe-the-Plumbers of the world, without lawyers and accountants to figure out the loopholes, get the pink slips and the default notices.

All kidding aside, isn't it the kind of regulations, whether they're likely to bring about more good than harm if they are enforced properly, and the likelihood of abuse by both regulators and the business world that matters, not the sheer number of rules or how much money we spend on regulation? I can't imagine Shermer wants our government loaning hundreds of billions of dollars to banks and industries without some rules that will guarantee that the money is paid back, that the loans stimulate the economy (like those checks Bush sent to us last year), and that not too much of the money is stolen by the big corporations or simply left unaccounted for when all the chits are called in. If I understand his free market mind, I think he would oppose these bailouts altogether. The weak and incompetent fall by the wayside and the strong survive to build a brighter tomorrow, or something like that.

Shermer's latest book is on economics and is a panegyric to free market capitalism. Shermer's an atheist but he begins his hymn of praise to Adam Smith with a parable from the New Testament. Perhaps this is an inside joke. He even refers to Jesus as "the messiah." Matthew 25:14-29 is the story of a master who gives different amounts of money to several of his servants to hold for him while he goes on a trip. Two of them invest the money and double their funds. The servant given the smallest amount of money buries it. They all give their money back to the master, who then gives the money that was buried to the one he'd given the most money to, saying: "For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away." (Shermer mistakenly says that the messiah utters this piece of gibberish, when it is the master in the parable who says it.)

Shermer interprets the parable to mean that "properly investing one's money ... generates even more wealth." The master says to the one who buried the money: "you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest." (Didn't the Jews have some kind of taboo regarding usury?) Of course, if the bank collapses, you don't get any interest. Personally, I think the story probably has another message, one related to the stories it's sandwiched between (the parable of the ten virgins and the story of the sheep and the goats). But even if the message is mainly about banking and not about the kingdom of heaven or something along those lines, I find it to be another in a long line of inane Biblical stories. Most servants who invest money given to them by their masters lose their investments, as Shermer knows. Jesus, were he who Christians think he is, would also know. Workers who invest their own 401k monies do significantly worse than those who have their retirement money invested for them by their masters. These days, of course, it doesn't really matter that much who was managing the money: 30%-50% or more has evaporated. We don't know what the master in Matthew's parable would have done had the miser put his money in the bank. He wouldn't have doubled his money by today's rates, that's for sure. Would he have been chided for not taking a greater risk instead of being thrown out and called worthless? Why isn't this master interested in what kind of investment his servants made? Doesn't he care if they invested ethically? Is the money all he cares about?

This parable might be seen as justification for eliminating the capital gains tax and the tax on interest or dividends. Only people who hold on to their money should pay taxes and their taxes should be given to people who invest their capital. In fact, they should pay more in tax than they possess, according to one reading of the parable.

Anyway, Shermer goes on to his own point about the "mind of the market." The servant who got the money that had been entrusted to the risk-aversive servant got more than he deserved. The master's reward was irrational. So is the mind of the market. Two of Shermer's favorite topics, game theory and evolutionary psychology, are connected to this parable and to almost everything else he has to say about the marketplace. Some readers may find these connections enlightening.

The parable of the irrational master begins the prologue to the book. Also in the prologue is Shermer's announcement that he is advocating a kinder, gentler form of social Darwinism than that of Spencer and those who applied what they understood as Darwinism to social theory in order to justify such things as "enforced sterilization of the mentally retarded in America, and to the Nazi eugenics program that gave rise to the Holocaust." Shermer defends a form of social Darwinism that sees human beings as primarily irrational animals, driven more by emotions that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years than by reason which has evolved over a much shorter period. This seems like a good picture of human nature to start with but I'm not sure it is necessarily true that length of time affecting evolution can be equated with strength of influence.

For those who read Shermer because of his history as the publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of such books as Why People Believe Weird Things, his book on evolutionary economics may prove less than satisfying. This is Shermer the libertarian, not Shermer the skeptic. About the only relic of his skepticism to be found in his latest book is the reassurance that we don't need religion to support our ethics and man is basically an irrational animal.

People are often irrational, don't often know what is truly in their own interest (and even when they do they don't always act accordingly), and there are too many liars and cheats among us to try get along solely on the honor system (the "invisible hand"). We need laws and regulations for our free economy. The debate is not whether to have a free economy or not, but where to regulate and how. Some of those laws and regulations are probably driven by our innate sense of fairness, but what is fair in the modern world is something we must use our rational powers to figure out.

Shermer claims that "markets are moral, and modern economies are founded on our virtuous nature." He thinks it is "our virtuous nature" that regulates markets. The bad apples are sociopaths, exceptions to the rule. We don't need too many rules because we've evolved to have an emotional aversion to unfairness, cheaters, liars, and the like. One is tempted to caricature his view of economic man as power ennobles and absolute power ennobles absolutely.

I would claim that markets are neither moral nor immoral. Despite the rhetoric about moral markets, Shermer says that "we need checks and balances and a society based on the rule of law within which markets can be both free and fair." He seems to recognize that, if left to its own devices, markets would be neither free nor fair. The invisible hand, apparently, isn't perfect or omnipresent. The difficult issue is, of course, where do we insert these checks and balances? Shermer doesn't tell us. One wonders: if humans are as inherently moral as Shermer thinks we are, wouldn't any kind of economy produce a lot of happiness and well being?

I have to admit that I find his views on economics and morality simplistic. In answering questions from the audience after addressing the Cato Institute, he stated that he didn't understand why there was such a fuss about immigration. When he needs workers to clear brush, he drives to the local Home Depot where Mexicans looking for work are standing about. He hires who he needs. According to Shermer, if too many people come across the border there won't be work for them and they'll stop coming. That's how a free market works, he says. You don't need walls or laws. The market will find its own level. Maybe, but I wonder how he explains that about 40% of the male prisoners in California are Latino. We know that Latinos make up about 40% of the population of the state and that not all of them are legal. Is it possible that some immigrants (not just Latino immigrants) might come to California for other reasons than to find legitimate work? Investors Business Daily reported in March 2005: "The U.S. Justice Department estimated that 270,000 illegal immigrants served jail time nationally in 2003. Of those, 108,000 were in California. Some estimates show illegals now make up half of California's prison population." The California Department of Justice reported in 1995 that 60 percent of the 20,000-strong 18th Street Gang in southern California is illegal. My point is not to point the finger at Latinos. I have the highest respect for those immigrants who come here to work and make a better life for themselves. My point is that not every immigrant comes here to work a legitimate job and to say that we don't need immigration laws because the free market will take care of things is simplistic.

In his blog explaining the current economic collapse, Shermer provides us with a bit of good cheer for the holiday season: "The good news is this: In time the economy will recover. It always does. Don’t regulate. Be patient." OK, but I admit I got a bit impatient when he gave all the credit for promoting the "ownership society" to President Clinton. To be fair, President Bush pushed the same agenda for nearly eight years and should be given some credit for his role in the current crash. I quote from the New York Times:

From his earliest days in office, Mr. Bush paired his belief that Americans do best when they own their own home with his conviction that markets do best when let alone.

He pushed hard to expand homeownership, especially among minorities, an initiative that dovetailed with his ambition to expand the Republican tent — and with the business interests of some of his biggest donors. But his housing policies and hands-off approach to regulation encouraged lax lending standards.

Mr. Bush did foresee the danger posed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage finance giants. The president spent years pushing a recalcitrant Congress to toughen regulation of the companies, but was unwilling to compromise when his former Treasury secretary wanted to cut a deal. And the regulator Mr. Bush chose to oversee them — an old prep school buddy — pronounced the companies sound even as they headed toward insolvency.

As early as 2006, top advisers to Mr. Bush dismissed warnings from people inside and outside the White House that housing prices were inflated and that a foreclosure crisis was looming. And when the economy deteriorated, Mr. Bush and his team misdiagnosed the reasons and scope of the downturn; as recently as February, for example, Mr. Bush was still calling it a “rough patch.”

The result was a series of piecemeal policy prescriptions that lagged behind the escalating crisis.

 

I think things are a bit more complicated than Shermer makes them out to be, but I admit that I don't understand economics. Is Bernard Madoff a sociopath or a model of success in the free market economy? Is the Federal Reserve run by sociopaths? Are Iceland's bankers a team of sociopaths, run by conscienceless men with no virtue?  How did Clinton, apparently the chief architect of the culture of acquisition, convince a group of about two dozen young, U.S.-educated financiers to take "Iceland on a Viking voyage of acquisitions, grabbing airlines, banks, mortgage lenders and securities traders from Texas to Hong Kong"?

If we're in such dire straits regarding unemployment, deflation, collapse of the equities market, and so on, why is our governor launching the Bank on California, a program to open starter bank and checking accounts for people who don’t currently use banking services? Is he planning on giving people money to put in this new bank? Won't this put the check-cashing folks out of business and shift the cost of check cashing to the taxpayers? Like I said, I'm totally confused by all this economic stuff.

But, let's move on. I also have a cheery holiday story to share.

Small victory

I received the following e-mail from Mario Di Maggio.

I'm happy to report that I have helped put a stop to the advertising of an 'ionic bracelet' in a UK magazine with a circulation of 1.4 million.

The UNISON Head of Communications certainly needs to be commended.

Mario was outraged that UNISON was advertising something like the Q-Ray bracelet, so he sent UNISON the following e-mail:

Dear UNISON official:

I was most disappointed to see in your Autumn 2008 issue of "U" magazine yet another full-page advert for the Ionic Bracelet scam. UNISON should be ashamed to be promoting this dishonest money-making racket amongst tens of thousands of hard-working and unsuspecting members - particularly in an issue espousing the virtues of the NHS!

As a paid-up UNISON member (no: 8912542), when I first saw this advert in "U" magazine in September 2007, I decided to act out of concern for all my fellow members being exposed to this swindle. I therefore ordered a bracelet for myself, tested it, found it wanting (no surprise there), and immediately wrote to the editor of "U" magazine.

I did not even receive a simple acknowledgement that my letter had been received.

Outraged that you are now (I hope naively) once again exposing thousands of unsuspecting UNISON members to further exploitation, I am this time copying in a number of UNISON officials other than the clearly unprofessional editor of your fine magazine.

Please can you put a stop to such daylight robbery of the members you are meant to be serving. Please show some professionalism and research such unscientific products thoroughly before you promote them to UNISON members!

And in case you have no idea where to begin your research, please read this detailed article about an equivalent scam ionic bracelet being sold in the USA: http://skepdic.com/qray.html.

I certainly hope the quality of future advertisements in "U" magazine is raised to equal the admirably high standards of other UNISON services.

Yours sincerely

Mario Di Maggio

Mario received the following response from Lucie Hyndley, Head of Communications at UNISON:

Dear Mr Di Maggio,

Your various emails sent to UNISON officers have been passed to me. I am sorry that you appear to have emailed the magazine and not had a response. I was not aware of this email until now. We have had a vacancy in the Editor position for some time, but your mail should still have been picked up, so I do apologise that you have not had a response.

I understand your concerns re the Ionic bracelet advertised in U magazine. We have now cancelled this advert, and there has been a complaint made to the Advertising Standards Authority about some of the claims made for it.

We do tread a fine line with advertising in U magazine. Printing and mailing 1.5 million magazines four times a year is a very expensive business and is paid for by our members subscription money. So we are always looking to ensure we provide good value for money and one of the ways we try to do that is through paid commercial advertising in U magazine. This raises some £600,000 per year (although this is still a small offset against the cost of the magazine), so it is an important element of balancing the budget.

Particularly in the current climate, advertising can be difficult to secure, and we also have an arrangement not to take any adverts which are commercial competitors for UNISON affinity service suppliers.

In short, we look to take paid advertising which is not offensive to our readers, does not compete with affinity suppliers, and does not conflict with UNISON’s political and ethical positions. This can be difficult to achieve. Judgments about ads can also be a thin line to tread. Ads for vitamin supplements or homeopathic remedies for example might seem less immediately offensive, but equally would probably not stand up to scientific test. In the end the judgment has to be around the specific claims made, and/or the feelings of our readers. On the basis that we have had complaints and that the ASA is examining the claims made, we have decided not to run this advert again.

Please be assured that there is no intention to exploit UNISON members, merely to try and manage the magazine budget sustainably. As I say, we have cancelled this ad now and I hope this answers your concerns. We really do value readers’ and members’ views on all aspects of the magazine and will continue to try and ensure we meet the expectations of our members,

Best wishes,

Lucie Hyndley
Head of Communications UNISON

That's my holiday cheer for 2008.

My cheer was quickly dashed when I received the following email while preparing this newsletter:

Thank you for allowing me to voice my opinion. I am one of many who wear a Q-Ray and don't know what I will do if they ever stop making them. I am a hairstylist and actually was introduced to them by a client who is a golfer. She as well was introduced to them by a fellow golfer. It had trickled down from many that way. We were not enticed by infomercials or false claims. We were told by actual human beings who had worn them and were convinced for whatever reason, be it mind over pain or whatever you want to call it, but it had worked for them.

I am one of those people with musculoskeletal disorder you mentioned and you may not believe it but I work (with the bracelet on) 10 and 12 hour days! Cutting, coloring, and perming hair, non-stop most of the time without even taking a lunch break. I do this 4 days a week. I had been told I would need to quit working soon and started medication. The medication is to help me function better, but the bracelet has helped tremendously with the pain. Everyone I know who has purchased a Q-Ray after my testimonial has been happy with them! I tell them it may or may not be for real, but if it is psychological it is fine with me...whatever works! I personally think it has to be for real. How could it fake out that many people in just my circle of friends, family and clients?

I don't know. Maybe they've all started taking medication, too. I've heard that the bracelet works better if you're also taking pain medication, but why spoil the magic with a rational explanation?

(Note: I wrote to the hair dresser that I have a suggestion. Why not try a little experiment. Keep a pain diary for the next four weeks. During the first week, at the end of each day rate your average pain for that day on a scale of 1-10, with 1  being "nearly pain free" and 10 being "excruciating pain." Take your medication and wear your bracelet the first week. Then go a week without your medication, but wear the bracelet. The following week go without your bracelet, but take your medication. Then go a week without either the bracelet or the medication. If she does the experiment and responds, I'll provide an update.)

Books to give any time of year

In addition to the books I recommended in reviews this year (How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, M.D. and The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine by Anne Harrington), I also recommend the following reads that didn't get reviewed this year:

A Fine Balance

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters

Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Irrationality

Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless

Them: Adventures with Extremists

Magic and religion, their psychological nature, origin, and function

Women Aren't Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon

I've also started listening to audio books and recommend the following:

Freakonomics

The Sociopath Next Door

I Am America (And So Can You!)

I'm currently processing:

Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Kicking the Sacred Cow

* AmeriCares *

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