From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 12 No. 6
Occasionally, something I write evokes a response. Such was the case when I wrote in the last newsletter that "I can't imagine any sane person actually reading the Bible from cover to cover." I'll add here that if you have any critical thinking skills, you'll put the Bible down after reading the second creation account, an account that is even more simplistic than the first creation account. Anyway, what I wrote offended a Swiss philosophy and psychology teacher.
"I usually read your posts with great interest," he wrote, "but I was quite disappointed upon reading" blah blah blah. "It is not quite worthy of a true skeptic, and my students would certainly not get away with such an un-critical statement. It insults the intelligence and the work of quite a few theologians out there who are real scholars. Although I can understand why you would go out against a literal reading of the bible (as performed by fundamentalists), it is by far not the only way to interpret these writings. And yes there are quite a few sane and skeptical people who have read the bible through and through."
Why is it that so many people get their feathers ruffled when someone offends their sense of a "true" or "real" whatever? Wow! Not worthy of a true skeptic and offensive to real theologians! Anyway, most readers probably recognize hyperbole when they see or hear it and know that what I meant is that the Bible is largely gibberish, cruel, immoral, and unworthy of serious consideration by those of us who still have a few working neurons. Of course there are some intelligent people who have actually read the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita in the original languages and are sane by some standard. The fact that theologians have duped large audiences into thinking they have uncovered some great truths about existence or the origin of the universe is of no concern to me. Their tomes are just as much gibberish, even if highly articulate and erudite gibberish, as the Bible. These theologians my correspondent admires are the ones who make Kierkegaard's accounts of believing in absurdities and being willing to make a human sacrifice of your son seem virtuous. Bully for them.
I repeat what I wrote in the previous newsletter: Every skeptic should keep a copy of the Bible around, if only to prove to your Bible-believing friends that the "holy" book is profane and disgusting in parts. Steve Wells's The Skeptic's Annotated Bible will save you the trouble of trying to figure out where all the immoral and insane stuff is to be found. And, yes, I am aware that there are some lovely poems tucked away between accounts of stoning people to death for trifles, exerting unmentionable vengeance on the descendants of those who have offended you, and handing over your daughters to be raped by dignitaries.
The Unsinkable Sylvia Browne
A few months after eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck went missing from his home in Richwood, Missouri on October 6, 2002, Sylvia Browne appeared with Shawn's parents on the Montel Williams show. Browne proclaimed that Shawn had been kidnapped and killed by a "really tall" dark-skinned man with long brown hair in dreadlocks and that his body had been dumped between two large, jagged boulders. Of course she was making it all up, but some people believe in this kind of garbage. Shawn was found alive on January 12, 2007, living with a large white man, Michael J. Devlin, and another boy. Devlin will be spending the rest of his life in prison for kidnapping the two boys and sexually molesting them over a period of several years. Browne thinks she should get partial credit because she guessed that someone named "Michael" was involved.
In 2004 Sylvia Browne told Amanda Berry's mother on the Montel Williams show that her daughter was dead. In fact, Berry had been kidnapped and held captive by Ariel Castro along with two other women for more than a decade before she escaped last month.
Browne is the queen of exploitainment. She will not be slowed down or stopped by a few "errors." She provides an emotional lifeline to the terminally gullible. Like the theologians who make belief in absurdities like the Trinity, The Resurrection, and Transubstantiation a virtue, Browne and her psychic cadre of vultures make believing in psychic powers seem plausible to her clueless fans.
The Prison Honor Roll
It gives me no pleasure to report that Brian Dunning, creator of Skeptoid and other important skeptical ventures, might be joining Kevin Trudeau in prison. Dunning has pleaded guilty to wire fraud for his part in defrauding eBay out of several millions of dollars in a cookie-stuffing scheme. Trudeau has stiffed the government for some $37 million over misleading television ads for his weight-loss book. The judgment against Trudeau was handed down three years ago but he's yet to pay a penny. He says he's broke. The government says he's created an elaborate scheme to hide his assets.
Dunning and Trudeau may be joined by David Ray Toftness, D.C. of the Toftness Post-Graduate School of Chiropractic, Inc. David's uncle Irwing, also a chiropractor, invented a gizmo called the Toftness Radiation Detector in the early 1980s. The hand-held device allegedly focuses low-level radiation emitted from the body that a chiropractor can detect while rubbing his fingers on a detection plate. The rubbing creates "crackling" sounds that supposedly identifies areas of "nerve interference" (subluxations) treatable by very-low-force spinal "adjustments." The device was banned in 1982 but David Ray continued to promote and sell it. It took the government a mere thirty years to prosecute the case.
For some perverse reason, it would give me great pleasure to report that Sylvia Browne had been sentenced to life in a special prison for psychics who claim to get messages from the dead, clerical pedophiles, and military rapists and their protectors in uniforms. Oh, wait, I'm supposed to turn the other cheek and judge not lest I be judged.
Confirmation Bias, Publication Bias, and Twin Studies
Most of us "know" that identical twins are likely to think and behave alike even if raised in separate households that have no contact with each other. You've probably heard the stories about the twins raised thousands of miles apart who both named their dog "Sylvia" and were members of the same weird Church of the One True One. Well, it seems that all those great twin studies that found so many similarities in pairs of identical twins may have found those similarities because that's what they were looking for. Had they been looking for differences, their results might have been different and the researchers might not have been so confident that they were providing evidence of a slam-dunk for a simplistic view of genetic determinism. (I'm sure you've heard of such things as the 'god gene' or the 'gay gene' or of the quest to discover the 'cancer gene' or the 'Parkinson's gene.') The scientific research now shows that the role of genes is not as simple or straightforward as once thought. Yes, identical twins share many characteristics--they look alike and are likely to be the same height, for example. But they also diverge in ways that might seem unexpected. For example, they rarely die of the same disease.
Over the past two decades, Professor Tim Spector and his colleagues at King's College, London, have been studying identical twins.
"Most of the twins recruited to our study went to the same school and lived together, eating the same food for the first 18 or so years of their lives," says Spector. "But the outcomes of their lives are often very different indeed."
Specter explained the current thinking on twin divergence to Observer writer Robin McKie ("Why do identical twins end up having such different lives?"). In the 1990s, Specter was studying the roots of common ailments such as cataracts and arthritis. He began studying identical and fraternal twins, hoping he might discover a way to separate the genetic basis of such ailments from environmental influences. These ailments were just something that people had to put up with. "However, I wanted to know why some people got hit quite early and not others," says Spector.
And that is where his study of twins began. By comparing identical and fraternal twins and their sensitivities to illnesses, it is possible to separate the genetic roots of conditions from their environmental influences. So Spector began recruiting them for his research and set up his unit at St Thomas' hospital, London. He did so at a time when the first breakthroughs in modern genetics were taking place. In the late 80s and early 90s, researchers – using the tools of modern molecular biology – were starting to pinpoint single genes that were responsible for deadly but relatively uncommon inherited ailments such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease and muscular dystrophy. The roots of widespread ailments such as heart disease and diabetes, although more complex and possibly involving up to a dozen genes, would soon follow, it was expected.
"Scientists would analyse genes and find a link between a group of them with a disease," says Spector. "Thousands of these gene studies were carried out but most of them were false because the researchers did not or could not replicate their results. This was an era of hype. If you got a negative result, you simply didn't publish it: 90% of publications turned out to be rubbish."
"We now began to look not at the similarities between identical twins but the differences. It was a shift in perception really. Our work shows that the heritability of your age at death is only about 25%. Similarly, there is only a 30% chance that if one identical twin gets heart disease the other one will as well, while the figure for rheumatoid arthritis is only about 15%."
"Essentially, epigenetics is the mechanism by which environmental changes alter the behaviour of our genes," Spector says. "This involves a process known as methylation, which occurs when a chemical known as methyl, which floats around the inside of our cells, attaches itself to our DNA. When it does so, it can inhibit or turn down the activity of a gene and block it from making a particular version of a protein in our bodies." Crucially, all sorts of life events can affect DNA methylation levels in our bodies: diet, illnesses, ageing, chemicals in the environment, smoking, drugs and medicines.
I suppose these studies might give some comfort to those parents of twins who wonder where they went wrong. They dressed their children exactly alike, fed them the same food, sent them to the same camp, and made every effort to treat their twins exactly the same. Yet, one twin grew up to be a scientist, a skeptic, and an atheist, while the other became a psychic guru to the stars who claims spirits talk to her in clipped messages while floating around in her breakfast cereal.