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Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge

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January 17, 2003. A visitor to the circles of stones that cover the ground in parts of Alaska and the Norwegian islands of Spitsbergennear might think that Andy Goldworthy had been there. How could natural forces create anything so specific, yet so improbable? Mark Kessler of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, think he has the answer to that question.

The patterns result from the interplay of two mechanisms: lateral sorting, which moves soil towards areas of high soil concentration and stones toward areas of high stone concentration; and squeezing of stone domains, which causes stones to move within linear piles of stones and lengthens these lines of stones.

Is it really possible that Nature could appear to be governed by intelligent design, yet actually be governed by unconscious mechanisms? What a concept!

January 17, 2003. Roughly one out of every 20,000 people operated on in the U.S. leaves the operating room with a medical tool or supply mistakenly left sewed up inside them, according to the results of a study published in last Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine. Actually, that statistic is the one I extrapolated from an extrapolation found on the CNN site that says there are 1,500 patients leaving with sponges or instruments in them and that is out of some 28,000,000 operations. The NEJM study actually only "included 54 patients with a total of 61 retained foreign bodies...and 235 control patients." The risk of taking home a little extra increases for "fat" (CNN) or "higher mean body-mass index" (NEJM) patients and for those who have emergency surgery.

January 10, 2003. Silver scams are spreading like gold dust among the alternative health community, according to
[thanks to David Martin]

January 9, 2003. There is some hope, after all. Tribune Media Services, owner of WGN superstation and the Chicago Cubs, has fired James Van Praagh. Not really. But they have announced they are not going to do any more new programs for his show Beyond with James Van Praagh, in which he claims to get messages from the dead before a live audience. Donna Harrison, a Tribune executive, said: "We were hoping this...would have the broad-based appeal that would make it viable in today's highly competitive daytime environment. Unfortunately, the marketplace was not as responsive to 'Beyond' as we had hoped...."
[thanks to Barry Karr]

January 8, 2003. In today's, Janet McDonald, a black woman from the projects in Brooklyn who grew up to be a lawyer and writer living in Paris, writes about her feeling of being ripped-off by alleged psychic Sylvia Browne. She tries to answer the question "Why do smart people do dumb things?" McDonald was led to Browne by Larry King, the greatest promoter of quack psychics in America.
[thanks to Siobhán Silke]

January 2, 2003. Famous astrologer Syndey Omarr died today. A Leo, his own horoscope for today read: "Get work done early; check records, correct any mathematical error. Later you beat the odds, much to the astonishment of experts. At the track: Choose number 4 post position in fourth race." He was 76. The cause of death? Complications from a heart attack.
[thanks to John Farley]

December 20, 2002. San Francisco may become the first major U.S. City to ban psychic fraud. An ordinance outlawing deception by psychics to defraud clients has been proposed by Supervisor Aaron Peskin. Apparently it is currently legal to tell a person her money is cursed and that you will bury it for her even though you intend to keep the money for personal use. The new ordinance will not ban psychics (of which there are now 105 in the city, according to SFGate), tarot card readers, astrologers, etc. but will charge them $500 for a license. The city will deny a license to "convicted swindlers and thieves." The ordinance is not aimed at discouraging "legitimate, modestly priced psychics, seers, tarot card readers or sellers of fortune cookies," said  Peskin.

December 14, 2002. Gary Schwartz might deserve the nickname "bulldog." He has responded to Ray Hyman's critique of his so-called "Afterlife Experiments" with a snarling, biting attack on Hyman's motives (he wants to disprove anything he doesn't believe in), method of arguing (he is selective in his presentation of evidence against Schwartz), and his understanding of what Schwartz claims (he didn't claim to prove life after death). Hyman's article, "How Not to Test Mediums," is published in  Skeptical Inquirer (Jan-Feb, 2003). Schwartz posted nearly the entire article with his responses on the Internet. He calls his post "How Not to Review Mediumship Research: Understanding the Ultimate Reviewer's Mistake."
[thanks to Leroy Ellenberger by way of Marcello Truzzi]

As I said in my last newsletter, the University of Arizona at Tucson should be ashamed of Schwartz's work, which is not deserving of the attention it is getting. I take an interest in his work, and that of other spirit scientists such as Raymond Moody and Charles Tart, because they are cut from the same cloth as that of the intelligent design (ID) folks, who are out to destroy science as we know it. They think that science should be about proposing and testing all hypotheses, not just naturalistic ones. To them, science is not natural science, but is much broader and includes theology and philosophy.

For example, Schwartz writes:

When the total set of findings are considered, the simplest and most parsimonious explanation that presently accounts for the largest amount of the data - including the extraordinary observations or "dazzle" shots - is the survival of consciousness hypothesis....

....I have made the statement that the survival consciousness hypothesis does account for the totality of the research data to date. Of course, this does not make the survival hypothesis the only or correct hypothesis - my statement reflects the status of the evidence to date, not necessarily the truth about the underlying process. This is why more research is needed.

At first glance, these claims might appear quite reasonable, but examined closely their subversiveness becomes apparent.

It should be admitted that the spirits of the dead might be sending clipped messages to various mediums, including James Van Praagh, John Edward, George Anderson, and even Sylvia Browne. It may be true that these messages can be seen for what they truly are only when they are validated by others who are able to find significance in the clipped messages and attest to their accuracy. It may be true that when mentalist Ian Rowland duplicated the work of mediums who get messages from the dead (by using cold reading techniques) that he was actually getting clipped messages from spirits unbeknownst to him. It may be true that even if thousands of mentalists could duplicate the performance of Schwartz's stars and produce "breathtaking" results, that would not prove that the mentalists weren't getting messages from spirits, nor would it prove that Schwartz's stars are getting their results by cold reading techniques rather than because of spirit communication.

It is always possible that everything we observe or do is directly influenced or caused by supernatural beings. That is, it is logically impossible to prove that spirits can't be causing everything. No observation or experience could disprove this hypothesis. There is nothing logically contradictory about it, either. It is safe from ever being proved false. Most philosophers would not stop there, but would also point out that such a hypothesis can never be proved to any degree of probability, either. Why? Because alternatives to it, such as the hypothesis that there are no spirits influencing anything in the natural world, are cut from the same epistemological cloth. Only if observation and experience could be used to favor one hypothesis over the other, could we reasonably conclude that one is more probable, and therefore more plausible, than the other. What Schwartz and the ID folks believe is that we can use science to determine when one metaphysical hypothesis is more plausible than another.

The ID folks say

Look at this data (such as how the human cell or a bacterium's flagellum works). What best explains the data? Natural selection or intelligent design? Natural design can't. Intelligent design can. So, ID is the more plausible hypothesis.

The spirit scientists say

Look at this data (such as the accuracy of a medium in a controlled environment). What best explains the data? Cold reading or survival of consciousness? Cold reading can't. Survival of consciousness can. So, survival of consciousness is the more plausible hypothesis.

Each of these arguments asks us to choose between two alternatives that are not truly alternatives. We can see that they are not alternatives by recognizing that the alleged alternatives are actually compatible with each other. Natural selection or other naturalistic theories may not be able to explain some biological phenomenon at present. However, we can't legitimately rule out future discoveries and claim that no naturalistic theory will ever be able to explain something biological. But even if everything in Nature can be explained naturalistically, that would not bear at all on the issue of whether there is a designer of everything biological. Since this designer transcends the natural world by definition, we can't exclude a priori the possibility that the designer has created everything according to certain natural laws.

Likewise, cold reading may not be able to explain some of the feats of mediums. However, we can't legitimately rule out future tests where anything a medium can do a cold reader can do better. But even if the work of every medium could be explained by cold reading, that would not bear at all on the issue of whether there is survival of consciousness. Since spirits transcend the natural world by definition, we can't exclude a priori the possibility of spirits working in ways that are indistinguishable from the ways of mentalists doing cold readings.

December 9, 2002. There was big news this week but I was too busy editing a big manuscript to make note of it: Bigfoot is dead, so to speak. Ray L. Wallace died on November 26th at the age of 84, but the Seattle Times didn't get around to an obit until December 5th. In August 1958, Wallace, an inveterate prankster, had a friend carve him 16-inch-long feet he could strap on and make prints with. He owned a construction company that built logging roads at the time and he set the prints around one of his bulldozers in Humboldt Country, California. Jerry Crew, a bulldozer operator, reported the prints "of huge naked feet circling and walking away from his rig." The Humboldt Times in Eureka ran a front-page story on the prints and coined the term "Bigfoot." A legend was born.

December 4, 2002. Professor William Martin, of Düsseldorf University, and Professor Michael Russell, of the Scottish Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow, proposed a new theory about the origins of life: it happened at the bottom of the sea.

December 1, 2002. Two readers have informed me that this week's South Park--where Lord of the Flies meets Peanuts--featured a ribald critique of John Edwards's dead-men-talking routine. I missed this episode, but admit to having a fondness for the crude and cruel little imps. Apparently, the little ones called Edward "a liar, a fraud, and a douche," not necessarily in that order, as they put forth their thesis that psychics are frauds who use cold reading to con people into thinking they have paranormal abilities. One reader found it interesting and hilarious that South Park would reinforce the Skeptic's Dictionary. I found a website called the South Park Scriptorium that has some information on this episode. It's labeled Episode 615: The Biggest Douche in the Universe and gives the following description

When a famous psychic fails to help him exorcise Kenny from his body, Cartman takes other steps to achieve his goal. He and Chef travel to the moors of Scotland, where Chef’s mom tries a little of her voodoo magic on him to help him achieve his goal. Meanwhile, after the boys' encounter with the TV psychic, Kyle is paralyzed with fear at the thought of members of the spirit world watching over him. Only by debunking those who claim they can communicate with the dead can Stan save Kyle.

This doesn't sound quite like my style, but if somebody finds synchronicity here, who am I to disagree?

If you are into scatological humor, after watching South Park you might settle in for the evening with a humorous book: How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way? by Hiroyuki Nishigaki.

November 28, 2002. UFO enthusiasts should be happy to know that the British government is about to publish the "Rendlesham File" along with other files on reported UFO sightings. But the file may not resolve the dispute that began in 1980 between the folks in Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, eastern England, who claim to have seen a spaceship and the skeptics who think they saw a meteor and a lighthouse.

November 26, 2002. Homeopathy fails another test. Randi's million still safe. Read all about it!
[thanks to Stewart and Rod]


Pat Robertson, the the leader in the race to be named leading televangelic hypocrite for Jesus, denounced the Koran today and blasted American journalists for being afraid to condemn the book that encourages Muslims to kill non-believers. Robertson also denounced President Bush for calling Islam "a religion of peace."

Matt 7:3: You hypocrite! First, take the wood out of your own eye. Then you will see clearly to take the dust out of your friend’s eye.

Some of you may recall about four years ago it came to light that UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and others had poisoned with arsenic tens of millions of people in Bangladesh. It wasn't done intentionally, of course. Millions of dollars were poured into that country to dig wells and provide fresh water to people who were used to drinking from stagnant ponds and pools. Unfortunately, many of the wells were not dug deeply enough and were contaminated with high levels of arsenic. When this was discovered, all the wells were tested and those that had concentrations of arsenic beyond what was deemed acceptable were painted red. Wells that were deemed safe were painted green. To compound the tragedy, it turns out that fifty percent of the red wells should have been painted green and over 7% of the green wells should have been painted red. Scientific American has the story.

November 24, 2002. Today I sent off the following missive to the Columbus Dispatch.

Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, recently had a very misleading article published in your newspaper (Nov. 11, 2002). The most egregious deception was in the title: Intelligent Design vs. Darwinism: Theories in Collision. Intelligent Design is a philosophical argument, not a theory, and can’t collide with natural selection—"Darwinism" is a polemical term used only by ID adherents in their attack on evolution—in any meaningful sense because natural selection is a scientific theory, not a philosophical argument.

Intelligent design is the argument that some things in nature could not have happened by chance and can only be explained by appeal to an intelligent designer. The argument claims that some things cannot be explained by any naturalistic theory, i.e., by any scientific theory. This kind of argument has been around in philosophy for many centuries and it has often been pointed out that it is fallacious because it begs the question. In short, the argument assumes that the universe as a whole or certain things in particular, such as the flagellum of a bacterium or the workings of a human cell, cannot be explained by natural selection or any other scientific theory. But this is what it claims to be proving! It assumes that certain things can best be explained by appeal to an intelligent designer. But this is what it claims to be proving!

Another deception in Meyer’s article is the way he tries to assert that natural selection is a theory in crisis and that intelligent design offers a viable and valuable criticism of natural selection. First, it is false to claim that natural selection is a theory in crisis. But, if it were, the only viable and valuable criticisms would come from challenges to the science involved, not to the philosophical implications of the science. Meyer’s Discovery Institute promotes the false belief that natural selection implies that humans have no souls and that there is no God. natural selection does no such thing. An evolutionist is free to believe that God creates souls for humans (or for any other creature, for that matter), without contradicting anything in the science of evolution.

Meyer and his colleagues have deceived the State Board of Education in Ohio into thinking that Darwin’s ideas have never been challenged by other scientists. Only someone completely ignorant of the history of science could make such a claim. Intelligent design is philosophy, pure and simple. It offers no cogent explanation of anything significant in evolutionary biology and it certainly doesn’t offer an alternative to any working scientific theory.

What should be recognized by the State Board of Education is that the children of Ohio have a right to the best science education possible. They, and apparently the majority of folks polled in Ohio, have been deceived by people like Stephen Meyer into thinking that a weak philosophical argument is actually a viable scientific theory.

Finally, Meyer is misleading when he notes that natural selection is a satisfying theory for an atheist. It is, but it should be noted that many people who do not begin with the Bible as the guide to their science, as the Discovery Institute folks do, have no trouble in believing both in God the Creator of the universe and creator of human souls and also in evolution and the Big Bang.

November 21, 2002. The next episode in the Science Channel's program "Critical Eye" will examine the mysteries of Stonehenge, pyramids, and the Nazca lines. The episode is called "Mystical Wonders"  and will first air on Monday, November 25th at 8 pm. The following week's episode (Dec. 2) is called "Mind Games" and will examine hypnosis, subliminal messaging, and repressed memories.

The program was produced with the assistance of CSICOP and the Skeptical Inquirer and has a decidedly skeptical perspective on the issues. Last week's episode was entitled "Foretelling the Future" and examined psychics, palmistry, Tarot cards, astrology, and Nostradamus. The program is not simply a debunking exercise. Sylvia Browne, for example, got to reveal that she gets her powers from God and she got to claim, without being challenged, that she has helped the police solve many crimes. A couple of astrologers and followers of Nostradamus also got their say, but skeptics like Bob Steiner and Ray Hyman dominated the program. They didn't just debunk, however. Hyman explained the psychology of deception and explored how things like cold reading and confirmation bias work on our minds. Bob Steiner noted that even though psychics, astrologers, and palm and Tarot card readers often give good advice, they don't help their clients learn how to think through a problem so they might be better prepared to deal with the next problem that comes their way.

The program airs on Monday nights at 8 pm. The Science Channel folks will even send you a reminder by e-mail. Click "submit" at the right bottom of their reminder page.





©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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