From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 12 No. 10
Democracy is “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” -- H.L. Mencken
Since the last newsletter I have been on vacation in Europe (Italy, Switzerland, and Austria). I posted nothing new in September. Recently, I updated the GMOs (and organic food) page and revised the craniosacral therapy page.
While in Austria, my wife and I toured the Mauthausen-Gusen "concentration camp," one of fifty such prisons built during the Nazi dictatorship. The remains of these prisons in the rolling green hills outside of Linz serve an educational purpose these days, but at one time not so very long ago they served as holding pens for human beings deemed inferior or obstacles to the totalitarian regime. Gusen is little more than a few rocks called a monument. Mauthausen is much larger and looks like a prison. Understandably, those prisoners who were still alive when the prisons were liberated at the end of WWII--and the Allies who were horrified by what they found--were in no mood for preserving these monuments to human depravity and political fanaticism. Still, enough of Mauthausen remains to serve as a vivid reminder of what fanatical human beings are capable of if allowed complete control to fulfill their fantasies and delusions. Much of the current site has been rebuilt and only a few reminders of what went on there are still intact. (I took a few photos and have posted them here.)
[While I was away, Wendy Lower's Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields was published. There were other female Nazis besides the infamous concentration camp guards Irma Grese and Ilse Koch who carried out the barbaric delusions of the Fuhrer. "A secretary-turned-SS-mistress had the 'nasty habit,' as one eyewitness put it, of killing Jewish children in the ghetto, whom she would lure with the promise of sweets before shooting them in the mouth with a pistol. Lower presents another chilling example: that of an SS officer’s wife in occupied Poland who discovered a group of six Jewish children who had escaped from a death-camp transport. A mother, she took them home, fed and cared for them, then led them out into the forest and shot each one in the back of the head." --from the review by Roger Moorhouse in New Statesman.]
I've never read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer's account of how Hitler and his Nazi comrades rose to absolute power and how they failed to fulfil their fantasy of a mighty Germany built on the ruins of Russia and other countries, rid of impure non-Aryans and all those who didn't share their myths about Germans, destiny, races, history, masters and slaves, etc. I figured it was about time to read for myself what I'd been told in other books about what happened in Europe during the decade or so before my birth. Like most highly emotional experiences, reading the account of Nazi mythology, passionately believed by political fanatics hell bent on imposing their will on nations they deem inferior, has affected everything I perceive these days. For example, Ted Cruz and the Tea Party folks seem to me now like the one-dimensional fanatics who took over Germany by wit and might in the 1930s. Obviously, these American fanatics are not aiming to impose a dictatorship on the rest of us. They want to dismantle government except for a few things they deem essential, such as national defense. The constant push to reduce taxes is a way to that end. With less money coming in, government has less power to fund social welfare programs or build and maintain infrastructure. What the Tea Party folks share with the Nazis is the absolute conviction that their myths about our government, Obama's birthplace and religion, the Christian nation, death panels, economics, aliens, etc. are unchallengeable. They also share the passion of the Nazis to see their will be done or bring down their enemies (anybody who disagrees with them, but especially "liberals") on top of them. Do they really think that if they can't cause Obama to fail, they will make things so messy that the people will clamor for the Tea Party to save the nation from total collapse? I don't know, but their fanaticism bothers me and I think it should bother more people than it apparently does.
My first day back from vacation I read a newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, something I hadn't done in a month. Two stories stood out on October 3: one about a practice in California's Department of Corrections (CDC) and the other about the National Security Agency collecting records about where Americans were when they made calls from their mobile phones. (I learned later that the NSA has also been collecting online contact lists from places like Yahoo.) The CDC is being sued by inmates for "brutal and inhumane" treatment. The charges include the claim that mentally ill inmates have been shackled at the arms and ankles while being made to stand inside metal cages the size of phone booths. Mentally ill inmates have been pepper sprayed in their cells for refusing to obey orders to come out for their "treatments." I suppose there is some comfort in knowing that it could be worse: forcing or coercing mentally ill inmates into sterilization was a common practice in California until it was outlawed in 1979.
Somehow I'm not comforted by the information that the NSA decided not to implement their plan to collect information on where we are when make mobile phone calls.
Fortunately, these are isolated incidents and not part of a party's or group's plan to control everything according to their beliefs in the inferiority of certain people, the need to control our thoughts as well as our actions, or the need to know nearly everything about everybody under their rule. I don't want to fall into a slippery slope argument, but there is a danger that once we get used to our government invading our privacy in every area possible, some sinister group in the future might use these snooping mechanisms for evil purposes such as setting up a Christian nation of white homophobic supremacists under one conservative banner that reads "liberals are traitors."
While in Vienna, my wife and I went to the Albertina Museum, where the featured exhibition was a retrospective of the work of Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein (b. 1948 in Vienna), known for his hyperrealistic paintings of wounded and bandaged children. In an interview, Helnwein described how unsettling it was to find little or no public reaction to the revelation in 1979 that Austria's top court psychiatrist, Dr. Heinrich Gross, admitted that he had personally killed hundreds of children at Vienna's Am Spiegelgrund Pediatric Unit during the Nazi rule by poisoning their food. Helnwein reacted by producing Life not Worth Living, a disturbing hyperrealistic painting of a little girl with her head resting in a soup bowl. Helnwein was outraged at the apathetic response in Vienna to the revelations about a respected court psychiatrist admitting to being a child murderer. A photo of the watercolor was printed in a news magazine along with a letter from Helnwein, which provoked a trial of Dr. Gross. The court psychiatrist was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial, however. In an interview, Gross indicated he felt no remorse, that what he did was allowed at the time and not considered wrong according to the rules under the Third Reich, but that he wouldn't do it today because the rules are different now.
Helnwein now lives in Ireland and is an Irish citizen. Given the history of abuse of children by Catholic priests and nuns in that country, as well as the support given by the Irish clergy to Franco and the Spanish Fascists, there is a bit of irony in his decision to settle on the Emerald Isle.
Now, what do Mauthausen and Helnwein's art have to do with skepticism?
Most of us have heard of Josef Mengele, the Nazi SS officer and physician who experimented on children at Auschwitz. But who's ever heard of Dr. Gross or the doctors at Mauthausen who infected prisoners with typhus and other diseases to test various vaccines they were experimenting with? There wasn't just one doctor experimenting on humans. There were dozens of them, all trained in science, and most of them medical doctors. These men of science could make a case that what they were doing was ethical on utilitarian grounds. They were acting for the good of society. They seem to be poster boys for the argument that science can't determine what we ought to do, despite what Michael Shermer and Sam Harris have been arguing in recent years. No science can prove that all humans should be treated equally. No science can prove that anyone should act for the benefit of all mankind. Given the Nazi value system, what these doctors did for the state and in the name of science was completely justified. We condemn their actions as immoral but we consider their value system, which deemed some races inferior beings and natural slaves, unjustified and immoral. But we don't condemn their behavior on the grounds that science proves they were acting immorally.
Science always occurs in a social context. Nazi science justified what the rest of the world condemned. If science can determine right and wrong, then Nazi science, as crazy as it was (they even claimed there is "German math"), determined right from wrong. The rest of the world didn't condemn the experimentation on humans, the forced enslavement and extermination of people based on race, religion, sexual preference, etc., simply because the rest of the world had a different science. Do Shermer and Harris really believe there were no morals before science? Do they really believe that science should determine when it is justified to intervene and try to stop the brutality and inhumanity that continues to emerge in various places on earth? Science can't determine our values; it can only help us achieve them or recognize the best means to enhance or support them. Science can be used for good or evil, but science doesn't determine what is good or what is evil anymore than science can determine what is and isn't art, or what is good art or bad art.
Finally, I would put religion in the same bag as science and beat them both with a large club if either claimed to be the sole proper determinant of what is right or wrong, good or evil, or beautiful or ugly.
While I was away, my local city council voted not to fluoridate the city's water supply that will begin flowing from the Sacramento River in a few years. Before I went on vacation, our local newspaper's only political columnist had labeled fluoridation as forced medication and wondered where the adding of medicines to our water supply would stop. (I live in a university town but nobody seemed too bothered by the columnist's questionable claim about fluoride being forced medication or the slippery slope implication that this was just the first step down the road to perdition.) The leadership of the most vocal local group opposed to fluoridation took up the columnist's fallacious argument and convinced four of five council members that fluoridating water is medicating without consent. I suppose you could look at it that way. Adding vitamins and minerals to cereal, bread, and milk might also be looked at as a kind of forced medication. Adding chlorine to the water supply--an action that prevents illness--could also be looked at as forced medication. I suppose one might even make a case that forcing oil companies to take the lead out of gasoline is a type of forced medication. What right does the government have to look out for my health? Eh? Anyway, when I think of forced medication I think of things like forcing mentally ill patients in psych wards to take drugs to calm them down, make them subservient, or reduce their delusions.
Our county Board of Supervisors recommended fluoridation, as did a committee set up by the city council. Only one council member voted for fluoridation and he's running for the state Assembly. He'll probably get my vote.
At least nobody claimed that fluoridation causes autism.
I returned from my month-long leave of absence from reality to find that the federal government had shut down....sort of. As far as I can tell, the reason for this is that the Tea Party has terrorized the Republicans in Congress so much so that even the most pragmatic among the Obama haters--Mitch McConnell--has chosen trying to keep his job from a Tea Party upstart named Matt Bevin over doing what is in the best interest of the country. (McConnell has since come to his senses and has been working hard to come to a compromise agreement with Democrats in the Senate, but John Boehner and the wingnut fringe of Republican House members remains unmoved by anything but their own delusions.) The Tea Party would rather see the national and international economies collapse before allowing Obamacare go into effect. The Republicans have tried to subvert the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") more than 40 times. This has not brought out the best in Obama and his administration. I can understand the frustration of trying to negotiate with a party that considers giving up your only major achievement after five years in office a required starting point. But it's not right to take out your frustration on innocents. When a busload of veterans from Mississippi and Iowa arrived at the World War II Memorial on October 1, they found it barricaded by the National Park Service on orders from Sylvia Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget. Kathleen Parker characterized the order to barricade our national monuments as the action of a "petty bully." Nothing like taking the low road when you think you're on higher ground. If you're being bullied, go ahead and bully the bully; but don't bully innocent bystanders.
Skeptics are often accused by true believers of being cynics. We're usually not, but the actions of politicians make it very difficult to remain merely skeptical of their claims and actions and make it almost inevitable that a deep and irreversible cynicism is going to infect a large part of the body politic. The way Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, and others used veterans for their political sideshow was despicable. After the initial uproar, the Park Service announced that veterans would not be turned away. That didn't deter the Tea Party and Obama-hater folks from creating a circus resembling a lynch mob. How can one not be cynical about these supposedly grown-up people who greatly affect the way our country is governed or prevented from being governed?
A reader asked me to remove his name from the SD Newsletter mailing list because he didn't like my comparing the tactics of Ted Cruz to the tactics of the Nazis: no compromise; I'll bring the whole house down if I can instead of giving in; I'll make whatever claims I think will make my opponents look evil and me look good; I'll claim the opposition is tyrannical, against the Nation, opposed to our destiny as a (Christian/Aryan) nation; I'll claim the opposition has set up a dictatorship and has violated our Constitution, even though I propose to set up a government run by my small band of malcontents and tell you what the Constitution really means. If Obama were a true dicatator of a socialist regime, he'd put Cruz and his merry band of loudmouths in a large sack, have them publicly beaten with a large piece of timber, and then handed over to the Taliban.
The letter writer sees it differently. Cruz and the Tea party just want to rein in the federal government and make it smaller, which is what the majority of Americans also want. Really? Did the reader do a poll in his own head or consult Cruz for that claim about the majority of Americans? What is it that Joey--we'll call the letter writer and other Cruz supporters "Joey"--wants to see less of in government? Less spending on military defense and weaponry? Less spending on disabled veterans? Less spending on homeland security? Less spending on maintaining national parks and monuments? Less spending on:
- defending the Constitution? (get rid of our courts?) [If you want free speech or a free press, hire a private firm to guarantee it.])
- protecting our lives and property, and maintaining order in society (get rid of all federal police agencies?);
- building and maintaing highways?
- writing laws limiting immigration and enforcing those laws?
- Social Security and let old people fend for themselves?
- regulating drugs and health devices? Why not let the pharmaceutical firms determine what's safe and effective? We don't need any protection from false advertising about how good their products are, nor do we need protection from price-gouging in a free market (Mandeville proved that in The Fable of the Bees or was it Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations?)
- enforcing laws that establish rights? (Let the people decide whether it's ok to kill doctors who perform abortions or to blow up abortion clinics.)
- protecting our borders? (Do we really need a border patrol? In a really free society anybody should be free to go wherever he wants, whenever he wants.)
- eliminating the IRS, the FDA, the NIH, the FBI, the CIA, and any other agency with a three-letter acronym?
It should never be a question of near-anarchy or totalitarian socialism. There will always be a need for government and the debate these days should be over where and how government should intervene in our lives. I'm with those who believe that the government that governs least governs best, but I'm also with those who believe that these days governments should be providing, for their own safety and prosperity, not just a strong military for defense, but education and health services for all our citizens. I believe that we should be funding homeland security, but that some limits need to be drawn as to how far we should allow the government to invade our privacy for our protection or to murder people with drones. The point is that there ought to be debate about where and how government intervenes and the debate should not go on forever. Nor should the losing side in the debate try to sabotage the government's efforts to implement what it has decided to do after a vote in the Congress, a signature of the President, and a ruling by the Supreme Court that the intervention is constitutional. Obamacare is not even close to being socialist. It doesn't provide free healthcare to all our citizens. It doesn't set up a single-payer system. It doesn't set up a National Health Service. The green areas in the map below
show the countries that provide universal health care.
What's astonishing is how cleanly the green and grey separate the developed nations from the developing, almost categorically. Nearly the entire developed world is colored, from Europe to the Asian powerhouses to South America's southern cone to the Anglophone states of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The only developed outliers are a few still-troubled Balkan states, the Soviet-style autocracy of Belarus, and the U.S. of A., the richest nation in the world.*
Ted Cruz, Joey, and the Tea Party folks are proud of this?
Finally, if you want to unsubscribe to the SD Newsletter, please follow the instructions at the top of each newsletter about unsubscribing. I don't control the newsletter list. Go to this page: skepdic.com/news/ and click on the unsubscribe button. Or, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org from the email address you wish to unsubscribe from.
Another reader informed me that he's unsubscribed from the SD Newsletter. This one's worth posting unedited:
As a long-time follower of the skeptical movement, I had to unsubscribe from your newsletter today because you so thoroughly misrepresented the positions of Sam Harris and Michael Shermer. I don't like this in-fighting among skeptics. It is thoroughly distasteful. I no longer call myself a skeptic due to the action of yourself and some other prominent "skeptics."
BC replies: When scientists or skeptics disagree we call it 'disagreement,' not 'infighting.' I argue that Michael Shermer and Sam Harris are wrong in claiming that science, which tries to discover what is true, can't prove what ought to be in ethics or aesthetics. I'm sure Shermer and Harris would not call our disagreement infighting, especially since neither one of them is likely to read my newsletter or care what I think about anything. And I seriously doubt either would agree with you that I have misrepresented their views.
Political opinion and personal philosophy has [sic] frequently been inserted into the published commentary of prominent skeptics such as yourself and Michael Shermer. I've argued with Shermer many times via email. But at least Shermer has shown the ability to change his mind to some extent, and I give him much credit for that despite my disagreement with him and other libertarians over the libertarian economic ideology.
BC replies: This seems like a totally different subject. I'm aware that some readers don't like skeptics to offer their opinions on politics or religion, but it is a bit misleading to lump claims that should be classified as claims in the "philosophy of science" as "personal philosophy." Harris, Shermer and I should be seen as arguing for a position in the philosophy of science about the limits of science rather than as offering our personal philosophies.
I am a professional scientist who has worked in public health for 20 years. Science includes the philosophy of science, which is a secular philosophy.
BC replies: You don't know what you're talking about. Science does not include the philosophy of science. They are completely separate areas of inquiry, not that the same person can't do both. In my experience, I've read and met very few scientists who have had more than a passing interest in, much less a deep knowledge of, the philosophy of science. Furthermore, no philosopher of science would refer to his or her work as "secular philosophy," even if it were thoroughly secular. There is no justification for excluding a priori the inclusion or exclusion of appeal to non-worldly, i.e., supernatural, beings or forces in one's philosophy of science.
I see nothing more that is needed to come up with what is right and wrong besides biological evolution, the methods of science, secular philosophy, and objectively gathered historical evidence. Historical evidence has a profound effect on cultural norms, and when produced by the methods of science and with an objective view, can be said to be a part of science. The problem here is that some people want to limit the scope of science to their own subjective viewpoint. Science has evolved over time and will continue to evolve. I promote science and secular philosophy. I have no need for the skeptical movement or skeptics.
BC replies: I can't imagine any good science being done by people who don't include skepticism in their methodology. Be that as it may, you would not be engaging in infighting by arguing against those of us who are skeptics and whose philosophical views are such that we find your view about science and values wrong. Furthermore, you don't seem to appreciate the difference between claiming that determining moral values is outside the scope of scientific inquiry and claiming that science is limited to subjective viewpoints. The latter is, I believe, what is called post-modernism and it is not my position.
Finally, I don't understand how anyone can be a good scientist without engaging in profound disagreements with other scientists, without the benefit of back-and-forth, give-and-take, lively debate about fundamental issues as well as about the many details of methodology, use of statistics, valid inferences from the data, etc.
Anyway, please shut the door after you leave. You're refund is in the mail.
The above letter writer sent me two follow-up complaints claiming, among other things, that I associated Shermer and Harris with Nazis, which is a misrepresentation of what I wrote. I compared the tactics and fanaticism of Ted Cruz and the Tea party with the tactics and fanaticism of the Nazis. I offered the role of Nazi science in upholding the validity of the Nazi delusions about race and their destiny as an Aryan nation as an example of why Shermer and Harris are wrong in their claim that science can determine what we ought to do, i.e., can determine what is morally right or wrong. I don't compare Shermer and Harris to anything. It's just stupid to say I'm associating them with Nazis wheh I used the example of how Nazi scientists determined moral right and wrong to disprove the general claim about science and values that Shermer and Harris put forth.
Maybe I should expand on my point as long as everyone understands that I am not claiming that Shermer and Harris are pro-Nazis or that they support Nazi science.
Science can prove that the Nazi scientists were wrong about the "master race" and inferior races. As one reader wrote: "there's nothing special about being fair-skinned, since a lack of melanin (also in the hair and eyes, presumably as a side effect) is merely an evolved defense to avoid rickets in the long, dark northern winters." But even if science could show that one race is superior to another, say, with regard to intelligence, that would not justify enslaving or killing members of the "inferior" race even if some science determined it did. But it is not science that determines whether or not enslavement or genocide is morally wrong. Science can't prove that we are obligated to rule our societies by science rather than pseudoscience or by truth rather than by delusions. In fact, for most of human history, humankind has survived, prospered, and put forth many systems of moral values without the help of science. Science may be able to show what kinds of behaviors are likely to improve our well-being, but science can't prove that we should always act so as to improve our own or other's well-being.
Strange But True
Scientists have studied the quality of holy water in churches and the results are a bit short of miraculous. "All holy water samples from churches and hospital chapels showed extremely high concentrations of HPC; fecal indicators, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus occurred only in the most frequently visited churches. [HPC measures a range of bacteria that are naturally present in the environment.] The scientists also studied samples from various "holy springs," which some people drink in the belief that the water has some sort of miraculous property. Again, the results weren't pretty. "Of the holy springs investigated, only 14% met the microbiological and chemical requirements of national drinking water regulations."
I like to keep up with the competition, so I visited a little church in Mondsee, Austria, (yes, I admit I was on the Sound of Music Tour) and found a little dispensary for bottled holy water. Maybe the scientists should compare the bottled stuff to the stuff in the fonts and springs.
Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
Susan Gerbic wants you to know that the Species film Wikipedia page has been updated. Yes, it does tie in to scientific skepticism! (Remember the chupacabra. Descriptions bear a strong resemblance to the creature in Species and there's a reason for that.) Lawrence Krauss & Neil deGrasse Tyson's pages are now in Dutch. Krauss is going to be lecturing in Amsterdam in October, so him having a beautiful Dutch WP page is going to help his noteworthiness and the skeptical message as well. Same thing with Tyson's page, Susan notes. "As Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey--a follow-up to Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980)--nears the 2014 release, we are trying to be ready for the world's attention when they want to know who this guy is. And everyone (except creationists) love Dr. Eugenie Scott, her page is now translated into Spanish. Encourage more of your readers to join us, they can write to us at GSoWTeam@gmail.com." For more information on guerilla skepticism on Wikipedia, click here.
Scum of the Minute
The award goes to Adisorns for claiming its homeopathic products can make you taller, slimmer, younger, less hairy, more hairy, more buxom or less buxom, as well as improve your eyesight and brain power. The last will be essential if you are stupid enough to buy any of their products, each of which sells for $159 a bottle (containing 900 homeopathic pills). If it were true that you get what you pay for, these pills should be free, since, if they are truly homeopathic, they contain nothing that can affect any biological organism in any significant way. Adisorns even has a Facebook page. I wouldn't make any nasty comments there, however. The Adisorn folks might find your picture on the Internet and paste it next to one of their phony testimonials.
A close second are all those pharmaceutical firms pushing bioidentical hormone therapy (BHT). If you are one of the 33 million women between the ages of 45 and 59, you may be in the market for custom-made hormones, thinking this will make menopause less troublesome. If you are considering BHT, please read THE HORMONE HOAX THOUSANDS FALL FOR.
Another Fan Letter
Despite the fact that the scientific evidence does not support Dr. Blaylock's belief. . . . . . Man made Global Warming is supported by scientific evidence and man-made global warming is a scam. It is a lie! The U.S. Food & Drug Administration? Who in their right mind would believe them? The World Health Organization? The same organization that lies and twists the facts and hides conflicting evidence they found about the dangers of smoking and second hand smoke? [The author of this email forgot to mention that the WHO praises acupuncture, too. --rtc] The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services? These same people today support Obamacare/The Affordable Care Act! [So do I. -rtc] Every American should have a conspiracy theory attitude on everything the U.S. Government does. [There's a difference between a healthy skepticism and absolute cynicism. --rtc] I am a skeptic and I am skeptical of the theories of Dr. Blaylock and I am also skeptical of you, sir, and all your liberal left wing supporting of this present day transformation of America by this President and his list of impeachable offenses. [The author of this email doesn't expand on this claim, but I'm sure the Tea party folks could help him out. Actually, I take that back. The Tea party folks seem to think that being black is an impeachable offense.--rtc] I never have had a flu shot and simple common sense tells me not to and, now that I've read what Dr. Blaylock says about flu shots, I am inclined to believe a lot of what he says and I, now, am skeptical of your possible ties to the present day Washington Democrats. In short, I would listen to Blaylock and Mercola any day before I would believe anything this administration says and, now, you!
The emailer forgot to mention Mike Adams as another source just as reliable as Blaylock and Mercola. By the way, I got my flu shot today (Oct. 15) and have noticed that I'm much more impatient with evolution deniers, global warming deniers, and debt-ceiling deniers--the moron trifecta, according to Bill Maher.
More Fan Mail
This comment is in relationship to your article on RBTI [Reams Biological theory of Ionization]. You obviously make fun of Dr. Ream's beliefs. Years ago I followed his program, and I have never felt better in my life. I can't remember why I went off of it (I think I got tired of drinking water or lemon water every half hour), but I am hoping to get on it again in the near future (as soon as my budget straightens out so that I can buy the lemons I need daily). Please don't knock it until you've tried it!!
Apparently, RBTI doesn't help memory. Anyway, I won't knock it if you and millions of other fans of such pipe dreams would take some time to study the post hoc fallacy, the placebo effect, the value of randomized control group studies, and some basic biology to get some idea of what is a plausible biological mechanism.