Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge


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December 20, 2004. Rump reading (aka rumpology) threatens to replace the chupacabra as the number one item of interest among viewers of the raunchy late-night talk show La Cosa Nostra on Spanish-language WJAN-TV Channel 41 in south Florida. Jose Miranda, a 53-year-old Little Havana soothsayer and self-proclaimed rumpologist, has become the hit of the show, much to the irritation of some of the local psychics.

"I can't imagine anyone wasting their time and money on someone like this when there are so many legitimate psychics out there," said Sheree Silver, a local spiritual leader.

Miranda learned his trade from Jaqueline Stallone, rumpologist to the stars, who seem to have re-invented rump reading while changing son Sylvester's diaper. She says the ancient Greeks and Romans read rumps to learn about fidelity and potential talent. (No comment.)

"The left cheek is the cheek of the future," Miranda said. "The right cheek is the cheek of the present. Your love life, your money, your career, everything is there. It's no different than reading a palm or someone's eyes."

True enough.

December 18, 2004. You can be conned! as Bob Steiner says. Wendy Grossman, Chris French, Nick "Skeptics in the Pub" Pullar, and Paul Taylor were reminded of this unpleasant fact recently. Grossman, a founder of The Skeptic (UK) magazine, tells the tale. The tip-off? When the psychic you are testing is very hostile and claims to clairvoyantly see that you are incontinent or that your wife is having an affair.

Actually, I'm surprised there haven't been more attempts to hoax Randi or CSICOP. Maybe there have been numerous attempts but they've not been publicized.

December 17, 2004. Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column for Guardian Unlimited, has announced this year's winner of the Andrew Wakefield prize for preposterous extrapolation from a single unconvincing piece of scientific data. The winner is the Daily Express, for claiming that "recent research" has shown turmeric to be "highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate" on the basis of laboratory studies into the effects of a chemical extract on individual cells in dishes, and no (zero) trials in humans.*

[We now know that Wakefield was paid more than £400,000 by lawyers trying to prove that the vaccine was unsafe. The payments were part of £3.4m distributed from the legal aid fund to doctors and scientists who had been recruited to support a now failed lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.*]

The award for outstanding innovation in the use of the title 'Doctor' goes to Gillian McKeith, Ph.D. [Her doctorate is in Holistic Nutrition from the American Holistic College of Nutrition.] Of her deservedness, Goldacre writes: "anyone who claims that eating chlorophyll will really "oxygenate your blood", and that a seed contains "all of the energy necessary to make a fully grown plant", cannot possibly have a meaningful postgraduate qualification in a biological field."

The Bad Science product of the year goes to Space Tomato Number One, part of the Chinese government's "space breeding" project, where increased radiation supposedly has led to bigger and better vegetables.

The Bad Science celebrity of the year goes to Jeanette Winterson for her plan to send homeopathic remedies to treat HIV in Botswana.

Personally, I think Judith Reisman [see below] has all these folks beat.

And this just in: Researchers at Rockefeller University in the US have made the first tentative steps towards creating a form of artificial life.

December 15, 2004. Man bites dog and is charged with animal cruelty. Pet psychic tells court that the dog forgives him. (Which of these claims is the true one?)

December 14, 2004. While we wait for a federal judge in Georgia to decide the merits of a lawsuit against the Cobb County school district over requiring disclaimer stickers in biology texts, a new lawsuit has been filed in the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district, where the teaching of intelligent design (ID) was mandated. The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the lawsuit is the first in the nation to challenge whether public schools should teach ID.* The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, PA. The complaint alleges that some parents "perceive the district's action as conveying a governmental message that students should subscribe to the religious views reflected in the assertion or argument of intelligent design."

Didn't we go through this 20 years ago with creation science?

Meanwhile, the ID folks are rolling up their sleeves again in Kansas and things are heating up in Gull Lake, Michigan. While out here in the wild west, we wonder why some folks want to teach their kids nonsense.

December 14, 2004. India Daily has provided the explanation we've all been waiting for regarding the "intelligence" on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Our remote viewers failed. This is very surprising because, as Richard Milton points out, one of our remote viewers once saw a big crane in a vision of something in Russia and it turned out the Russians had something like a big crane in the location the remote viewer was clairvoyantly visiting. It is hard to believe that our remote viewers weren't able to find WMD, Sadaam Hussein, or Osama bin Laden, since these psychics are so accurate. Lucky for India, however, that they now have remote viewers doing their intelligence. Soon India Daily will match Pravda and Weekly World News for accuracy and intelligence.

December 14, 2004. Just when I was about to rethink the utility or futility of the word pseudoscience, along comes Judith Reisman. She has a doctorate in communications but has promoted herself as an expert in neuroscience.* According to today's Sacramento Bee (B6), she also considers herself an expert on addiction. Reisman represented the California Protective Parents Association at a recent congressional hearing convened by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). She testified that "pornography triggers myriad kinds of internal, natural drugs that mimic the 'high' from a street drug. Addiction to pornography is addiction to what I dub erototoxins."* Reisman proposes that we ban all sexually explicit images as mind-altering drugs because they cause the release of opioids.

Jerry Satinover, author of Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, testified that "pornography really does, unlike other addictions, biologically cause direct release of the most perfect addictive substance. That is, it causes masturbation, which causes release of the naturally occurring opioids. It does what heroin can't do, in effect."* (I'm tempted to comment on Satinover's observations, but I think I'll let his words speak for themselves.)

As the Bee editorial points out:

The fact is, anything pleasurable - viewing artistic images of nudes, listening to a beautiful piece of music, eating a rich meal (or any sweet or high-carb foods), winning money at gambling, having sex - releases these "naturally occurring opioids." The body also produces natural opioids during strenuous exercise and in response to stress or pain, a basic survival function.*

Reisman sounds like the folks who voted to ban styrofoam cups because they contain the lethal chemical dihydrogen oxide.

December 11, 2004. I have just read an interview with 81-year-old British philosopher Anthony Flew about his conversion from atheism to "theism." I put theism in quotes because I still do not have a very clear notion of what Flew's concept of god is. He says his view is quite like Aristotle's and that he thinks of god as intelligent, knowing, and in some vague way the designer of the universe, yet devoid of other aspects of personality. He says that science has led him to his new belief [which, he now denies is a new belief], but he only mentions genetics. He speaks favorably of the intelligent design argument, so I take it that he thinks that science has produced evidence of some complex phenomena that he doesn't think can be explained by natural laws or forces. Yet, he still maintains that the concept of a disembodied consciousness or soul is incoherent. He clearly still does not believe in immortality, but he seems to have some vestigial beliefs in psychic phenomena. "If I wanted any sort of future life I should become a Jehovah’s Witness," says Flew.

He doesn't think morality proves the existence of god, nor does he find any merit in the ontological argument or various causal arguments for the existence of god. He describes himself as sort of a deist. The one thing that is very clear in the interview is that he does not think highly of the prophet Muhammad nor the religion of Islam.

"I would never regard Islam with anything but horror and fear," says Flew, "because it is fundamentally committed to conquering the world for Islam." And, "to read the Qur’an is a penance rather than a pleasure." Of Muhammed, he says: "the Prophet, though gifted in the arts of persuasion and clearly a considerable military leader, was both doubtfully literate and certainly ill-informed about the contents of the Old Testament and about several matters of which God, if not even the least informed of the Prophet’s contemporaries, must have been cognizant."

Update (December 15, 2004). Flew's letter printed below was written in 2001. It was not written in response to current rumors that he has converted to Christianity. For Flew's latest word on what he believes see Antony Flew Considers God...Sort Of by Richard Carrier (The Secular Web). In short, "The fact of the matter is: Flew hasn't really decided what to believe."

For now, I think his view can best be described as questioning, rather than committed. And there is much to criticize in his rationale even for considering Aristotelian Deism. He is most impressed, he says, by Gerald Schroeder's book The Hidden Face of God: How Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth (2001), but Schroeder (a Jewish theologian and physicist) has been heavily criticized for "fudging" the facts to fit his argument--see Mark Perakh, "Not a Very Big Bang about Genesis" (1999); and my own discussion in "Are the Odds Against the Origin of Life Too Great to Accept?" (2000), as well as my peer-reviewed article "The Argument from Biogenesis," soon to appear in Biology & Philosophy. Flew points out that he has not yet had time to examine any of the critiques of Schroeder. Nor has he examined any of the literature of the past five or ten years on the science of life's origin, which has more than answered his call for "constructing a naturalistic theory" of the origin of life. This is not to say any particular theory has been proven--rather, there are many viable theories fitting all the available evidence that have yet to be refuted, so Flew cannot maintain (as in his letter to Philosophy Now) that it is "inordinately difficult even to begin to think about" such theories. I have pointed all this out to him, and he is thinking it over. (Carrier)

Carrier notes that Flew "confesses he has not been able to keep up with the relevant literature in science and theology, which means we should no longer treat him as an expert on this subject."  Here is Flew's letter, written in 2001:

Sorry to Disappoint, but I'm Still an Atheist!
By Antony Flew

Richard C. Carrier, current Editor in Chief of the Secular Web, tells me that "the internet has now become awash with rumors" that I "have converted to Christianity, or am at least no longer an atheist." Perhaps because I was born too soon to be involved in the internet world I had heard nothing of this rumour. So Mr. Carrier asks me to explain myself in cyberspace. This, with the help of the Internet Infidels, I now attempt.

Those rumours speak false. I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word 'atheist' in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as 'atypical' and 'amoral'. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify - to show to be false - what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as "the religious hypothesis." The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity.

I first argued the impossibility in 'Theology and Falsification', a short paper originally published in 1950 and since reprinted over forty times in different places, including translations into German, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Welsh, Finnish and Slovak. The most recent reprint was as part of 'A Golden Jubilee Celebration' in the October/November 2001 issue of the semi-popular British journal Philosophy Now, which the editors of that periodical have graciously allowed the Internet Infidels to publish online: see "Theology & Falsification."

I can suggest only one possible source of the rumours. Several weeks ago I submitted to the Editor of Philo (The Journal of the Society of Humanist Philosophers) a short paper making two points which might well disturb atheists of the more positive kind. The point more relevant here was that it can be entirely rational for believers and negative atheists to respond in quite different ways to the same scientific developments.

We negative atheists are bound to see the Big Bang cosmology as requiring a physical explanation; and that one which, in the nature of the case, may nevertheless be forever inaccessible to human beings. But believers may, equally reasonably, welcome the Big Bang cosmology as tending to confirm their prior belief that "in the beginning" the Universe was created by God.

Again, negative atheists meeting the argument that the fundamental constants of physics would seem to have been 'fine tuned' to make the emergence of mankind possible will first object to the application of either the frequency or the propensity theory of probability 'outside' the Universe, and then go on to ask why omnipotence should have been satisfied to produce a Universe in which the origin and rise of the human race was merely possible rather than absolutely inevitable. But believers are equally bound and, on their opposite assumptions, equally justified in seeing the Fine Tuning Argument as providing impressive confirmation of a fundamental belief shared by all the three great systems of revealed theistic religion - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For all three are agreed that we human beings are members of a special kind of creatures, made in the image of God and for a purpose intended by God.

In short, I recognize that developments in physics coming on the last twenty or thirty years can reasonably be seen as in some degree confirmatory of a previously faith-based belief in god, even though they still provide no sufficient reason for unbelievers to change their minds. They certainly have not persuaded me.

further reading

December 8, 2004. About a month ago, the Grantsburg, Wisconsin, school board revised its science curriculum to allow the teaching of creationism. That policy has been changed by a 6-1 vote. The board now says that the curriculum won’t include classroom lessons on religious explanations such as creationism.

The new policy reads: “Students are expected to analyze, review and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information. Students shall be able to explain the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. This policy does not call for the teaching of creationism or intelligent design.”

I wonder if students will be required to explain the weaknesses of any other scientific theory.

Meanwhile, 12 members of York College's biology department signed a letter to the York Daily Record that states that the decision by the Dover (Pennsyylvania) Area School Board to require the teaching of intelligent design "reflects a genuine lack of knowledge about the data supporting evolution by natural selection."

December 1, 2004. Is it quackery or medicine, faith healing or science? Is temporary mood improvement being mistaken for cure? Decide for yourself after reading this article about a doctor in China who is experimenting on humans by injecting fetal olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) into their brains and spines. As a bonus, you can get a quick lesson in how to turn a moral absolutist into a utilitarian: offer a hopeless case the chance for recovery by using cells from an aborted fetus.
[thanks to Karel de Pauw]

November 24, 2004. It sounds like an urban legend. Cell phone explodes when boy tries to call  911! Yet, according to our federal government's Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), there have been 83 complaints about cell phones exploding or catching fire during the last two years.*  According to CPSC representative, Scott Wolfson, the problem is the batteries.

To avoid a cell phone explosion, Wolfson said consumers should take the following safety precautions:

  • Don't drop or crush your phone;
  • Don't let the metal contacts on your battery connect and short out (for example, by carrying it in your pocket with keys).
  • Avoid questionable replacement batteries.*

There have been some battery recalls. Two kinds of batteries have been voluntarily recalled -- 140,000 Kyocera 7135 model phones and 50,000 counterfeits found in some LG TM-510 phones. There has also been a recall for 1 million counterfeit Kyocera batteries.

November 23, 2004. How much is a ten-year-old toasted cheese sandwich worth? If you can convince people to see an image of the Virgin Mary when they look at it, it's worth $28,000.

November 23, 2004. The banner in the home team's locker room is called the "Competitor's Creed." It includes the lines "I am a Christian first and last ... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” A public high school in Texas? Nope. This is the work of Air Force Academy coach Fisher DeBarry, who agreed on Friday to remove the banner, a day after the school’s Superintendent announced it would do more to educate students on religious intolerance.

It seems the Academy is cracking down on those who are using their authority to promote Christianity. Apparently, this action was in response to a survey in which a third of nonreligious cadets reported that they felt Christian cadets were given preferential treatment. Air Force Academy officials are also cracking down on a practice by some staffers to put Bible verses at the bottom of their academy e-mail.* Apparently, the problem began or began to escalate when some cadets got passionate about their religion after seeing the movie The Passion of the Christ. Academy commanders had to admonish cadets for using academy e-mail to encourage people to see Mel Gibson's movie about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

I guess the Academy won't be changing its fight song to Onward Christian Soldiers. Unless the White House intervenes, of course.
[thanks to Alex Scofield]

update 18 Dec 2009: Military Advance: Religious Tolerance On The Upswing At The Air Force Academy "More than four years have passed. How are things at the Academy now? We’re pleased to say they’re much better. As the Associated Press reported recently, the Academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, spearheaded the launch of a campaign to promote religious tolerance and acceptance of people of many different faiths and none."

November 22, 2004. Last month, the Dover School District announced that it was adding the theory of intelligent design to the biology curriculum. The board has changed its mind. Instead, it will require teachers to read the following to all biology students:

The state standards require students to learn about Darwin's Theory of Evolution and to eventually take a standardized test of which evolution is a part. Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book 'Of Pandas and People,' is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.

The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life up to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses on the standards and preparing students to be successful on standards-based assessments.*

There are a few things wrong with this directive that are very troublesome. Is this board as ignorant as it appears to be? Darwin's theory of natural selection is an attempt to explain how species evolved. That species evolved is a fact. How they evolved is what a theory of evolution tries to explain. The statement "Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence" is a nonsensical statement. Theories don't have gaps. No amount of evidence will "fill a gap" in a theory. Intelligent design does not respond to any gap in the theory of natural selection. It is an assertion that some things in nature can't be explained by natural selection but can be explained by asserting that an intelligent designer intentionally put several things together to achieve some function. The only scientists making this claim are adamant anti-evolutionists who think evolution is a threat to their religious beliefs. Mainstream scientists do not find intelligent design any more sophisticated than saying that a miracle happened. Talk about a theory with gaps! What could have more gaps than a theory that exclaims a miracle happened every time it can't explain something?

Intelligent design may well be an explanation of the origin of life, but natural selection was not put forth by Darwin as an explanation of the origin of life. Darwin's theory only begins to apply once there is life; it makes no claim about the origin of life itself. In any case, if the school board truly believes that intelligent design and natural selection are different explanations of the origin of life, then they shouldn't be teaching either. Their policy, they say, is to leave "the discussion of the Origins of Life up to individual students and their families." There seems to be a gap in this directive, a logical gap.

November 22, 2004. I suppose it is inevitable that quack authors will soon be claiming to channel books from Shakespeare, Tolstoy, James Joyce, or Ronald Reagan. The belief that spirits are talking to psychics is very popular, so soon we should see publishers fouling up bookstores with hot-from-the-grave potboilers by famous dead people. The idea that psychic Rochelle Sparrow plans to publish a book called John F. Kennedy is Alive! may be a hoax, but it is only a matter of time before somebody claims to be writing a book dictated by John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby, his father Joseph, and Marilyn Monroe as well.

©copyright 2004
Robert Todd Carroll

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