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

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October 1, 1996 (Sydney Herald)

Kooky ideas in the land of God, ESP and pyramid selling


THE spectrum of human belief seems to have broadened considerably in the last decade or two.

These days, when a new acquaintance lets slip that he or she believes we're all descended from an ancient race of dirt-worshipping Neptunians who colonised this planet because of the attractively high nitrogen content of the soil, you're meant to be sympathetic.

You're meant to tilt your head meaningfully to one side, as if to say, "Well, that's a proposition I'm going to dedicate some serious thought to."

Instead of just punching them, the centuries-old preferred option.

In our live-and-let-live, tolerant society, it's now OK to make up your belief system. You used to be a Catholic or a Proddy. Now it's whatever gets you through the night.

Some people still cling to organised religion. Some believe in money. Some believe in what are loosely (and less and less meaningfully) called alternative lifestyles.

And some believe in the myriad millennial weirdnesses spreading like little viruses through our culture.

As X-Files creator Chris Carter points out, 3per cent of Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens.

An even larger percentage of Australians believe that whatever the question, Ray Martin has the answer. Truly, we live in freaky times.

And as I'm inordinately fond of noting, the Net plays an increasingly significant part in the spread of kooky ideas, fuelling the fires of superstition, conspiracy and ignorance.

But not always. The Skeptic's Dictionary is a one-man quest to shift a little of the balance back in favour of empirical, rational thought.

Robert T. Carroll, a Californian philosophy teacher, is spending his spare time compiling an archive of refutation material, a one-stop shop for people who want to arm themselves for battle with believers or find other viewpoints on some of the belief-related issues of our time.

Carroll holds a palm up to those who put their faith in "God, ESP, the Easter Bunny and pyramid marketing schemes". His message is simple: "Enough is enough."

His exhausting work-in-progress "book" has more than 170 chapters so far, some only a couple of paragraphs and some into the thousands of words, dealing with subjects as disparate as reincarnation and the Roswell incident, false memory syndrome and the faces on Mars, dowsing and dianetics. Carroll began growing the dictionary in 1994. He notes that it "is probably one of the first books written expressly for publication on the World Wide Web".

The site has more than 15,000 visitors a month.

The author is not just stirring or looking to be an intellectual killjoy. He doesn't simply deny the validity of his subjects. Some of his pieces are dismissive but others explore both sides, giving ground to the believers, at least enough to keep a debate going on.

And it's not as if he simply loves the sound of his own voice. One of the best things about the site is that it links to other resources, on and off the Web, on both sides of the argument.

After pulling The Celestine Prophecy to pieces, he offers links to the official site for the book, and to another titled Why I Hate The Celestine Prophecy. For every Uri Geller, there is a James Randi.

"I thought of the book as mainly a resource for people trying to find sceptical literature on occult, supernatural and pseudoscientific matters," Carroll says.

"I intended to restrict my recommended readings to sceptical literature. I wanted a one-sided, biased text, to counterbalance the seemingly endless material on the other side. I've kept to that plan for the print recommendations, but I've included a lot of links to non-sceptical WWW sites."

Though the use of links has greatly broadened the book's scope, the biggest growth area has been reader feedback.

Carroll posts the brickbats and bouquets for his thoughts at the end of each chapter. He says the reader response has played a large part in the direction of the book.

"The two most popular entries have been on Amway and mind control," he says. "The first entry I had on Amway was a tiny little thing that focused on a report I read in the Wall Street Journal about some guy who was trying to bring Amway to Poland. "I was bombarded with mail from Amway "devotees' - I can't think of a more appropriate word. The response seemed to me so disproportionate to what I had written that I had to investigate further.

"I then posted a much more detailed and extremely more critical article on Amway, as well as articles on multi-level marketing schemes and on pyramid schemes.

"The mail has not stopped. I have posted comments on the Amway article that amount to about three times the length of the article itself."

"Right now," Carroll says, "I'm reading a lot of stuff on the brain, and on "mind control' and "brainwashing'. The one thing that fascinates me the most is how intelligent people think they can't be fooled by charlatans."

Last updated 12/09/10

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