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Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge


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March 18, 2003. Scientific American has the latest on research into the mind-enhancing drug known as ginkgo biloba: "A review of the experimental evidence both for and against its usefulness in enhancing brain functions suggests that the popular herbal supplement may slightly improve your memory, but you can get the same effect by eating a candy bar."

March 16, 2003. The Council for Secular Humanism is sponsoring a 3-day conference called One Nation Without God? Secularism, Society, and Justice on April 11, 12, and 13 in Washington, D.C. I wish I could attend. I'd love to hear writers Nat Hentoff and Christopher Hitchens. Michael Newdow will talk about his constitutional challenge to the "under God" phrase in the pledge of allegiance. Norm R. Allen Jr., executive director of African Americans for Humanism, will also speak. There are nearly thirty speakers on the program, so I can't mention all of them, but I'll mention one more: Taner Edis. I'm reading The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science. I'm finding it quite stimulating, especially since it is an extremely intelligent book, very scholarly, and argues against my position regarding the compatibility of creationism and intelligent design with natural selection.

The following week, Richard Dawkins (who also thinks ID and natural selection are incompatible) will be speaking at the 9th annual Atheist Alliance Conference in Tampa, Florida. Also speaking will be James Randi, Michael Shermer, Michael Newdow, and the atheist boy scout Darrell Lambert.

Maybe we should ask Congress to declare April Atheist Month.

March 13, 2003. Elizabeth Smart, missing for nine months, has been found alive and apparently well, no thanks to the 600 or so 'psychics' who called in with tips from their dreams and hallucinations. Many of the helpful psychics told the Smarts where they could find their daughter's dead body. Well, they had a 50-50 chance of being right about the 15-year-old being dead. PSI Tech, a Seattle-based company of remote viewers, claimed that more than a dozen of its members had determined the location of Elizabeth's body in a crypt that holds the skeletal remains of ancient American Indians. With hundreds of psychics making all kinds of claims, some of the psychics are bound to be right about some of the things they claim. I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before Sylvia Browne and others like her will shoehorn things they've said to make it appear that they predicted the whole outcome and deserve credit for Elizabeth Smart being returned safely to her parents.

March 12, 2003. Barry Karr, executive director of CSICOP (The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) announced that registration is now open for the The 11th European Skeptics Congress to be held in  London, September 5-7, 2003. Anyone with an interest in promoting rational and scientific thinking and its application for human benefit is welcome.

The venue of the Congress is Franklin Wilkins Building, Kings College London, 150 Stamford Street on the south bank of the River Thames and is within walking distance of many famous attractions, including the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, the Globe Theatre, the Festival Hall and the New Tate Gallery. Early registration is strongly recommended, particularly if you are booking accommodation as this will soon become full. 

March 12, 2003. Science may be the enemy of religion, but both are selling fear about the end of the world. If the Bible prophets are right, a war with Iraq is just what the doctor ordered, if the doctor is Ezekiel or the book of Revelation. If one scientist is right, Nature has an even better Apocalypse in store for the universe. Some days it doesn't pay to turn on the computer. Of course, both the religious and scientific prophets could be wrong, and the aliens could be right.

February 12, 2003 If you are at all interested in the latest in cosmology, you must read today's NY Times article by Dennis Overbye. "The most detailed and precise map yet produced of the universe just after its birth confirms the Big Bang theory in triumphant detail and opens new chapters in the early history of the cosmos, astronomers said yesterday." That's how the article begins and it just gets better and better. As Ed Sullivan might have said: "This is REALLY BIG news!"

February 6, 2003. James Randi has announced that his1995 book, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural is now up on the Internet, in its entirety! 

February 4, 2003. Michael L. Dini, an associate professor of biology at Texas Tech University, is being investigated by the Justice Department after a complaint of religious discrimination from the Liberty Legal Institute, a group of Christian lawyers (NY Times). Micah Spradling, a 22-year-old Texas Tech student, says he was discriminated against because of his religious beliefs when Dr. Dini would not write him or any other student a letter of recommendation for medical school or graduate study in biology unless he gives up his anti-evolutionist views. Dini has posted on his Web site the following notice:

If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: "How do you think the human species originated?" If you cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation for admittance to further education in the biomedical sciences.

Micah claims he can't truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to the question because "that would be denying my faith as a Christian." Never mind that Dini is also a Christian and obviously does not think one must deny one's Christian faith in order to accept evolution. Dini gives several reasons for the requirement that Micah feels discriminates against his religious beliefs.

Let’s consider the situation of one wishing to enter medical school. Whereas medicine is historically rooted first in the practice of magic and later in religion, modern medicine is an endeavor that springs from the sciences, biology first among these. The central, unifying principle of biology is the theory of evolution, which includes both micro- and macro-evolution, and which extends to ALL species. How can someone who does not accept the most important theory in biology expect to properly practice in a field that is so heavily based on biology? It is hard to imagine how this can be so, but it is easy to imagine how physicians who ignore or neglect the Darwinian aspects of medicine or the evolutionary origin of humans can make bad clinical decisions. The current crisis in antibiotic resistance is the result of such decisions. For others, please read the citations below.

Good medicine, like good biology, is based on the collection and evaluation of physical evidence. So much physical evidence supports the evolution of humans from non-human ancestors that one can validly refer to the "fact" of human evolution, even if all of the details are not yet known. One can deny this evidence only at the risk of calling into question one’s understanding of science and of the method of science. Such an individual has committed malpractice regarding the method of science, for good scientists would never throw out data that do not conform to their expectations or beliefs. This is the situation of those who deny the evolution of humans; such a one is throwing out information because it seems to contradict his/her cherished beliefs. Can a physician ignore data that s/he does not like and remain a physician for long? No. If modern medicine is based on the method of science, then how can someone who denies the theory of evolution -- the very pinnacle of modern biological science -- ask to be recommended into a scientific profession by a professional scientist?

The fact that Dini's argument is eminently rational may not have any bearing on the issue of religious discrimination, which seems to have no merit on its face. I doubt whether he could make accepting evolution a prerequisite for taking his biology courses, any more than I could require accepting Kant as your personal savior as a prerequisite for taking a philosophy course. But writing letters of recommendation is a personal matter. Professors are not required to write them and, as far as I know, colleges and universities leave such matters entirely up to the professors. I doubt that it would be legal and know that it would be immoral to assert that you will not write any letters of recommendations for Jews or Muslims. But to say you will not write a letter to support someone's application for further study in an area based on biology unless that person accepts the central, unifying principle of that field, seems like common sense. The fact that Micah can't accept evolution because he believes it conflicts with the requirements of his Christian belief can't be used as a standard for religious discrimination. If a person's subjective beliefs and feelings become the standard for discrimination, rather than objective evidence of invidious and unlawful behavior, then none of us in education would ever be safe from the charge of religious discrimination. Any time we made a requirement of a student who felt or believed the requirement would require them to deny their faith, we would be subject to charges of religious discrimination. Also, it would seem that if just one other Christian student is able to accept the professor's requirement, the charge of discrimination against one's Christian faith will be refuted. It is not Christianity that requires that one oppose evolution. It is your own personal belief and it is a personal belief that could end up causing great harm.

To call Dini's requirement “open religious bigotry,” as did Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of Liberty Legal Institute (LLI), is pure rhetorical bombast. He says: “Students are being denied recommendations ... solely because of their personal religious beliefs.” Not true. Beliefs about the origin of species are not religious beliefs. They don't become religious beliefs, any more than belief in how old the oldest rocks on earth are, simply because a person or group declares them to be religious beliefs. What next? Somebody complaining that a math professor is discriminating against them because she requires her students to believe in "0" when his religion explicitly forbids the faithful to utter 'zero' or believe in "0"?

A reader who uses the handle "Reverend Mykeru" replies:

What frightens me is how someone in biology who doesn't accept evolution can have *pragmatic consequences*. Remember "Baby Fae", the infant that was implanted with a baboon's heart?

From [source]  "Finally, a (true) horror story. A few years ago there was a little girl, known to the concerned public as "Baby Fae," who needed a heart transplant. Human donors are hard to find, especially for infants, so a daring surgeon convinced the parents to let him implant a baboon's heart. A hopeful world held its breath, while skeptical biologists scratched their heads (a baboon's heart?), but everyone hoped for the best. Sadly, Baby Fae died after a few weeks. Among the contributing factors may have been that her immune system had recognized the heart as something foreign, and attacked it. After the sensational news stories had died down, it was reported that a biologist asked the surgeon why he had chosen a baboon donor, which is a much more distant relative of ours (in evolutionary terms) than a chimpanzee, which is our closest relative (DNA ~99% identical). Wouldn't there have been less danger of rejection with a heart from a closer relative? The surgeon's answer: he hadn't even taken that into consideration, because he didn't believe in evolution! To him, no creatures were related to each other, since they had all been created at once, in their present forms.*

Maybe a chimpanzee's heart wouldn't have saved Baby Fae either, but the chances might have been better. It's hard to find words to describe a doctor who would do this kind of experiment on a child, then later reveal that his decisions were based on a complete denial of the best modern science. I hope you are never faced with a life-or-death decision between what science says the world is like, and what you think it is like. But scientific progress is unstoppable, and all modern life science centers around the knowledge of the evolutionary genesis and relationships of living things. And there's no sign of that changing anytime soon." In cases like that perhaps religious discrimination, if that is what it is, is a good thing, as opposed to being religiously indiscriminate.

Someone named William Sappo wrote:

I enjoyed reading you're 2/4/03 entry "funk." And I wanted to respond to your statement that evolution is "the central, unifying principle of that field"(biology). The scientific magazine Discover put the situation this way: "Evolution . . . is not only under attack by fundamentalist Christians, but is also being questioned by reputable scientists. Among paleontologists, scientists who study the fossil record, there is growing dissent from the prevailing view of Darwinism."

Francis Hitching, an evolutionist and author of the book The Neck of the Giraffe, stated: "For all its acceptance in the scientific world as the great unifying principle of biology, Darwinism, after a century and a quarter, is in a surprising amount of trouble A London Times writer, Christopher Booker (who accepts evolution), said this about it: "It was a beautifully simple and attractive theory. The only trouble was that, as Darwin was himself at least partly aware, it was full of colossal holes." Regarding Darwin's Origin of Species, he observed: "We have here the supreme irony that a book which has become famous for explaining the origin of species in fact does nothing of the kind."?Italics added.

Evolutionist Hitching agreed, saying: "Feuds concerning the theory of evolution exploded . . . Entrenched positions, for and against, were established in high places, and insults lobbed like mortar bombs from either side." He said that it is an academic dispute of far-reaching proportions, "potentially one of those times in science when, quite suddenly, a long-held idea is overthrown by the weight of contrary evidence and a new one takes its place."6 And Britain's New Scientist observed that "an increasing number of scientists, most particularly a growing number of evolutionists . . . argue that Darwinian evolutionary theory is no genuine scientific theory at all. . . . Many of the critics have the highest intellectual credentials." The Neck of the Giraffe, p. 65.

A quick search of TalkOrigins brought up the following about Mr. Hitching:

Research on Hitching turned up the following: Hitching is basically a sensational TV script writer and has no scientific credentials. In The Neck of the Giraffe he claimed to be a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute, but an inquiry to that institute said he was not. He implied in the "Acknowledgements" of The Neck of the Giraffe that paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had helped in the writing of the book, but upon inquiry Gould said he did not know him and had no information about him. Hitching also implied that his book had been endorsed by Richard Dawkins, but upon inquiry Dawkins stated: "I know nothing at all about Francis Hitching. If you are uncovering the fact that he is a charlatan, good for you. His book, The Neck of the Giraffe, is one of the silliest and most ignorant I have read for years."*

A physics professor wrote:

It might be even better for Prof. Dini to write a letter, on behalf of students who don't believe in evolution, that includes the following statement: "This student doesn't believe in evolution. I question whether he can grasp modern science." This true statement will warn the med scool. About 75% of applicants to medical school are rejected, including any applicant with a "drop dead" letter of recommendation.

further reading

January 27, 2003. Penn and Teller's 13-part series on Showtime called Bullsh!t! started airing last Friday. The vulgar title and language used throughout the program is described by Penn as a legal ploy. They can't be sued if they use vulgar or obscene words to describe what people like John Edward and James Van Praagh do. If they call them liars and quacks or purveyors of scams, they can be sued.

Anyway, the first episode dealt exclusively with people like Rosemary Althea, Edward, and Van Praagh and their critics who claim that what they are doing is using cold reading techniques to take advantage of grieving people. The critics included Joe Nickell of CSICOP and Jim Underdown of the Center for Inquiry West, and magician/mentalist Mark Edward of Skeptic magazine who has infiltrated dead-can-talk performances and has put on some of his own. Mark Edward, unlike John Edward who is no relation, reveals to his audience that he has no special powers, only the tools of cold reading and surreptitious information gathering before shows begin or during breaks (a tactic known as hot reading).

What are these tools? Here are a few, as explained by Ian Rowland in his book The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading:

The rainbow ruse: "a statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite" (my example: "You can give the impression of being very stoical, the strong, silent type, but there are occasions when you appear vulnerable and others might perceive you as being emotional.") Such statements sound perceptive, but are actually very safe, as long as you don't say anything quantifiable and is couched "in terms of potential and capacity, rather than actuality and fact."

The Russian Doll: "a statement which can have several possible layers of meaning" (my example: "I'm getting a G sound from over here, maybe a George. Who is George?" Rarely, will there be nobody in the audience who can't find some connection with somebody named George.) (my example: I'm getting messages from a spirit named “Bernadette.” [no response from the audience] Anyone know who this might be? [no response] She is the kind of woman who was always first to volunteer when help was needed? [no response] She loved children. [no response] She's someone's mother. [no response] Does anyone recognize anyone's mother who was like Bernadette? [Finally, someone in the audience recognizes an aunt who loved children and was always volunteering. The medium then reveals that Bernadette is passing on messages from the aunt.]

Barnum statements: "artfully generalized character statements which a majority of people, if asked, will consider to be a reasonably accurate description of themselves." (examples: "You have a strong need for people to like and respect you." "Sometimes you feel as if you are not appreciated or given the credit that you deserve." "You're an independent thinker and don't just gullibly accept what people tell you." "You tend to be unrealistic at times." "You tend to be overly critical of others at times.")

The next program in the series will be on alternative medicine. Click here for a schedule of the first six episodes. If you missed the first episode, it will repeat on Feb. 6 at 10:30 on Showtime. Or, if you can't wait, you can view in on the Infidel Guy's page. You have to register first (you can leave blank the boxes that ask for numbers). Then go to this site. That will take you to the link for the Penn & Teller program.

January 25, 2003. Paranoid conspiracy theorists (PCTs) have been thrown a bone by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Some PCTs have been claiming that the government has been lying to us about American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757 that was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on 9/11. The engineers have issued a report explaining why there wasn't more damage done to the 60-year-old building and the people inside.

January 22, 2003.  Just days after Nature published an article showing that baby partridges flap their tiny wings to help them climb steep slopes and that chickens might just be models of what the first wings were all about, New Scientist has published a story about six fossils discovered in China that show a small dinosaur that had flight feathers covering its legs, as well as its tail and arms, forming an extra pair of wings.

Experts have traditionally been split between two mutually exclusive theories. Flight either began with small, fleet predatory dinosaurs leaping from the ground into the air, or with other animals that learnt to fly whilst jumping to earth from trees. But the new studies reveal a far more complex picture.

Good stuff! More about the feathery dinosaurs in Scientific American.

January 21, 2003. The Onion has a very funny piece called "Skeptic pitied" in today's issue.
[thanks to Ted Weinstein]






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Robert Todd Carroll

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