Robert Todd Carroll
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.
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 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...."
January 8, 2003. In today's
Salon.com, 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.
January 2, 2003. Famous
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
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
to Review Mediumship Research: Understanding the Ultimate Reviewer's
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:
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
The spirit scientists say
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
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.
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 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.
Robert Todd Carroll
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