From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 13 No. 1
The conscious mind—the self or soul—is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief. ~ Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
New SD entry: Trivedi effect®.
New reader comments: facilitated communication.
Updates: See Recent Changes.
SD Going On Twenty Years
I find it hard to believe that sometime this year will mark the twentieth anniversary of The Skeptic's Dictionary (the website....the book is only 10 years old). Sometime in 1994 I posted a few articles on logical fallacies for my critical thinking class. A few days ago I posted entry number 749. That doesn't include all the book reviews, essays, blog posts, and other scribbling I've posted. What have I learned and what good has it done?
I've learned that most people aren't very good at evaluating their own experiences and that intelligence has little to do with what most people believe and that for some people the more evidence presented to them against their belief, the stronger their belief becomes. I've learned that some intelligent people think they're too smart to be fooled. They think that because they know about confirmation bias and other cognitive biases, their interpretation of a personal experience as truly paranormal or supernatural is inerrant. I've also learned that many people, including many skeptics, use the word 'rational' too often and without much understanding of how difficult it is to know when anybody, including ourselves, is being rational. I've learned that when you and your opponents keep accusing each other of believing whatever you do because of 'cognitive dissonance,' that there's probably something very wrong with that concept.
In terms of fighting the good fight, doing god's work, and all that, well, belief in the supernatural and paranormal are as strong as ever. The percentage of adult Americans who say that prayer is an important part of their daily life has remained at about 76% for the past quarter century. I'm not too concerned about people who pray or those who think they've experienced Bigfoot, precognition, or telepathy, but the world would be better off without the vaccine deniers. They say they oppose vaccines to save the children, but in fact they're sickening and killing them. In 2010, a whooping cough outbreak in California sickened 9,120 people, more than in any year since 1947. Ten infants died. Newborns are too young to be vaccinated against pertussis, but they can be protected if those they come in contact with have been vaccinated. At last count, the Anti-Vaccine Body Count page listed 1,299 preventable deaths in the U.S. over the past 5.5 years. The number is probably not accurate, but nobody should have died because they or somebody they came in contact with wasn't vaccinated.
Those who say they never doubt the existence of god has dropped from 88 to 80 percent. There's been a similar drop in the percentage of those who say they take the Bible literally. Three out of every ten American adults is a biblical literalist. "The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling."
My ire isn't roused too much by those who attend religious services, but I have no sympathy for naturopaths who claim they can cure cancer with magic. Nor can I be indifferent to those religionists who pray to some god to heal sick children when a simple science-based medical treatment would likely have saved the children from suffering or death.
The Internet has given skeptics a worldwide voice, but it's also given those we criticize the same access. Television remains a strong influence on and reinforcer of beliefs. It's difficult for skeptics to compete with the influence of television on beliefs. There have been a couple of skeptical television programs, but they soon ended and were replaced by dozens of programs catering to alternative medicine (PBS is a main offender here), spirits, UFOs, conspiracies, and other entertaining "mysteries." Belief in gods, angels, and devils might still be very strong in America, but television programs are more likely to feature ghosts or mysteries with a paranormal or conspiratorial hook. In 2011, the Oprah Network produced "Miracle Detectives," but only a few episodes aired as far as I can tell. I liked that show because it featured a skeptic applying her knowledge and using good critical thinking skills. Her antagonist was a true believer who was allowed to wallow in his intuitions and uncritical beliefs.
Sharon Hill of Doubtful News lists current TV shows with a paranormal slant, and they are many. Belief in ghosts remains strong, as evidenced by not only the number of TV programs featuring so-called paranormal investigators, but also by the popularity of so-called mediums who claim to get messages from ghosts to pass on to clients or attendees at performances.
I'm amused by the bumbling clowns who use Geiger counters, EMF detectors, and other gadgetry in their inane attempts to prove ghosts are real and lurking in dark places. I'm not amused, however, by the likes of James van Praagh, John Edward, and the dozens of other buffoons who claim to connect the living with the dead. Such people make me wish the 60% who believe in hell were right. Justice would be done should these parasitic devourers of the grief-stricken be made to suffer eternal torment.
In 1990, 49% of Americans believed in demonic possession. In 2012, 68% of registered Republicans believed in demonic possession. That's not very progressive, if you ask me. According to one poll, not even half of us in America accept evolution, but about three-fourths of us believe in angels. (In another poll, 60% accept evolution but about half of those think evolution is guided by a divine power. About 24% more Democrats than Republicans accept evolution. These Republicans probably think the Democrats are possessed by devils.) The older you are and the less educated you are, the more likely you are to believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. I thought we were supposed to get wiser as we got older. Education doesn't help everybody, however. A whopping 24% of college graduates think Adam and Eve were real. Well, we don't require our graduates to believe what we teach them. Anyway, maybe most of these grads went to Bible colleges. About 21% more Republicans than Democrats believe the Adam and Eve story. (Some readers may be wondering how many Republicans versus Democrats think a divine power guides evolution. Pew doesn't provide an answer, much to the dismay of one blogger.)
I suppose if we really want to find out what Americans believe we should ask the NSA. I wonder: how many of those tapping our phones and following our activities on the Internet believe in demonic possession and think Adam and Eve were real people?
They will be missed
Bob Steiner, my friend and comrade in the war against superstition and the phonies and cronies taking advantage of vulnerable people, died last year and he will be missed. Bob devoted his earlier years to joining James Randi in exposing frauds like Peter Popoff. His later years were spent using magic with kids, trying to keep them off drugs. Bob was one of the first activists in the skeptical community to contact me about The Skeptic's Dictionary website to encourage my work and to identify himself as an ally. I'll never forget the night he drove to Sacramento City College from his home in the San Francicso Bay Area to hear me give a talk. Afterwards, under the lights in the parking lot, Bob spent half an hour trying to teach me a complicated card trick. Sorry to say I never mastered the trick but I'll always remember the kindness. Bob is remembered in Australia as "Steve Terbot," psychic extraordinaire. He hoaxed an entire country. He told me he was able to do it mainly because not a single journalist questioned his many absurd claims about psychic feats back home. Nobody, he said, bothered to check any of his sources. Sound familiar?
Last year also saw the death of a man I never met and knew nothing of until it was announced that he was murdered on his morning walk. Narendra Dabholkar was one of India's leading opponents of superstition. He was founder of the Maharashtra Forum for Elimination of Superstition (Maharashtra Andha Shraddha Nirmulan Samiti) and editor of Sadhana magazine. At one time he was vice president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations (FIRA). He was also active in IHEU, a global humanist movement. He was outspoken in his criticism of India's so-called godmen, who take advantage of the superstitious masses. His efforts to get laws passed against superstition and black magic were met with strong opposition from various Hindu organizations. (NY Time obit.)
They will not be missed
Last year also saw the death of Sylvia Browne, who spent her adult years claiming to be psychic and writing books about her spirit guide and her knowledge of the afterlife. She specialized in making up stuff about missing persons. The saddest part of this story is that millions of people believed her. Joining Brown in death was Harold Camping, a civil engineer who began a Christian ministry mostly known for his predictions of the end of the world. He made the prediction at least five times. Again, the saddest part of the story is that many people believed he knew what he was talking about.
Sylvia's spirit lives on
Sylvia Browne's evil spirit lives on in the work of people like James van Praagh and John Edward. The latter will be in Sacramento on January 15th. The ad in the Sacramento Bee for the "seminar" claims that the show will provide "exciting opportunities to experience messages from the other side." Yes, from the other side of the room. Again, the saddest part of this story is that there are many people who believe this clown is really getting clipped messages from dead people. Worse, some people are even comforted by this guy's performances. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Dying for a Miracle
File this story under "religion and television are not for kids."
A television show exploiting a belief widespread in Mexico and Spanish-speaking Catholic communities around the world has led to the suicide of a 10-year-old girl. The show is based on the book La Rosa de Guadalupe: un milagro en cada capítulo (The Rose of Guadalupe: a miracle in every chapter). the title is an unveiled reference to the story about a Nahuan peasant named Cuauhtlatoatzin who became a Christian convert and took on the name of Juan Diego. The story is that the Virgin Mary appeared to Cuauhtlatoatzin in the winter of 1531 and proved his visitation by producing an imprint of the apparition on his cloak as well as a rose.
According to a news article in the Piedras Negras El Heraldo de Saltillo, Itzel Murillo Elvira Lobato hanged herself in the expectation that the Virgin would perform a "miracle" and revive her, thereby reuniting her divided family. The television show featured an episode with the following theme: a girl lives with her mother, despairs at the separation of her parents and, feeling abandoned, decides to attempt suicide to unite the family. The Virgin appears, revives the girl, and her parents agree to live together again and make a new start.
This tragedy reminded me of my own desire as a child to be a martyr for Jesus. The Dominican nuns that taught me exploited the vulnerability of children by filling our heads with stories of young boys and girls who gave up their lives rather than deny their belief in Jesus. Hell, we weren't old enough to understand what it meant to "believe in Jesus," but we were sorry we didn't live in a time when kids had the opportunity to die for that belief. Fortunately, nobody challenged us with death unless we'd give up our belief. We grew up and some of us vowed never to tell such stories to our own children. We don't have to. Hardly a day passes that we don't hear about some religious fanatic killing himself and a crowd of strangers in order to be a martyr. These aren't children, though, who can be excused for being naive and vulnerable. These are adults who have checked in their brains at the mosque and have been taught by other adults they respect and admire.
Despite what your religious leaders may tell those of you who believe in Abraham's god, we atheists do not think of the opportunity to commit immoral acts when we think of freedom from religion. No. We think of freedom from the tyranny of those who destroy lives, including their own, in the name of some god or prophet.
Note: Thanks to Concordat Watch for the link to the story and the translation from Spanish.
Supplement Sales Remain Healthy Despite the Lack of Evidence That They Do Any Good and the Growing Evidence That They Do Harm
The Annals of Internal Medicine posted a scathing editorial rebuking the millions of people who continue to use vitamin and mineral supplements as part of a "healthy" lifestyle.
Beta-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements are harmful. Other antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases. Although available evidence does not rule out small benefits or harms or large benefits or harms in a small subgroup of the population, we believe that the case is closed— supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough. [Gualler, E and others. Enough Is enough: Stop wasting money on vitamin and mineral supplements. Annals of Internal Medicine 159:850-851, 2013]
The evidence for the harsh comments is presented online here.
In a related story: "Dietary supplements account for nearly 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries that turn up in hospitals, up from 7 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis by a national network of liver specialists."
According to the Nutrition Business Journal, Americans spend an estimated $11.8 billion each year on vitamin and mineral supplements.
Nobody ever said that placebo medicine would be cheap, but many have thought it would at least be safe.
Another Book I Won't Be Reading
I was once asked by a prominent skeptic what I'd talk about if I were invited to speak to his group. I told him I'd probably talk about the work of Dean Radin. The skeptic told me that nobody in his group had ever heard of him and I never heard from the skeptic again.
Radin, for those who don't know, is a leading promoter of the idea that there is compelling scientific evidence for the existence of ESP and psychokinesis. I've posted reviews of two of his books:The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena (a 13-part overkill deconstruction of his work) and Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. I've also posted an essay entitled "What if Dean Radin is right?", which presents the short version of what I see as his major errors. Radin is formally trained in engineering and education, but he presents himself as an expert in statistical analysis on meta-studies of psi research. I present him as an articulate buffoon who exaggerates. His hyperbole exceeds all attractiveness, making his boasts for the paranormal less rather than more believable. He has apparently continued in the same vein with his third book, Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities. The new book is reviewed by Dale Debakcsy in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Debakcsy writes of Radin's "tendency to laud showy results over responsible ones." Debakcsy was not impressed with Radin's tendency to overreach, i.e., tweak "entirely unconvincing" studies and testimonials into meta-analyses producing hundreds-of-billions-to-one odds in favor of some pet paranormal hypothesis.
Like I said I won't be reading Radin's latest panegyric to psi. I've wasted enough time on this guy already. And if any skeptic, prominent or otherwise, asks me to give a talk about Radin, they know where they can go.
What is a Skeptic?
I received the following email regarding the definition of skepticism:
Dear Dr. Carroll
In your dictionary's entry on skepticism, you might be interested in adding the definition Steven Novella suggested back in 2008, quoted below. It is rather elegant and seems to me to capture very well what scientific skepticism is about. It has been informally adopted in the self-descriptions by different Skeptics in the Pub meetups around the world.
A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.
It's easy to see why this definition would be popular with skeptics. It's very flattering and comforting. I think it's too broad, however.
My educational background is in philosophy, where 'skepticism' has little to do with people like Dean Radin, John Edward, or Sylvia Browne. Until I read an article by Douglas Hofstadter in Scientific American in February 1982 entitled "World Views in Collision: the Skeptical Inquirer vs. The National Enquirer," I had only a passing interest in the kinds of things that are featured in Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, and The Skeptic's Dictionary. When I thought of skepticism, I thought of Pyhrro, the Academic skeptics, Sextus Empiricus, or David Hume's "mitigated skepticism." Skepticism, to me and others in philosophy, is an epistemological position, a set of tropes or methodological devices intended to cast doubt on any proposition put forth. The most radical skeptical position was presented by Gorgias: nothing exists or if something exists it cannot be known or if something does exist and can be known it cannot be communicated. Ancient philosophical forms of skepticism denied the possibility of certain knowledge. Academic skepticism advised seeking the best probabilities. By the time Hume proffered his "mitigated skepticism," philosophers known as empiricists had recognized that the idea of "objective knowledge" was absurd: all we know of "reality" emerges from the interaction of our minds with whatever exists independently of our minds in the external world and with the inferences we draw from that interaction. Philosophers such as John Locke despaired of ever understanding the inner workings of nature. Hume championed the idea known as phenomenalism: all we know is what we perceive. George Berkeley took this one step further: to be is to be perceived. Until something is perceived, it doesn't exist. Today, the standard view in philosophy would be the same as the standard view in physics: something exists when nobody's perceiving it, but by definition we can't know what this something is; we can know about it only by inferences drawn from sense experience. We are lucky we live in an age where technology has extended our perception to include galaxies billions of miles from us and sub-atomic particles billions of times smaller than us.
The fact is, however, that there is no direct line from Hume to Sagan, Randi, or Shermer. The connection between so-called scientific skepticism and epistemological skepticism is the historical usage of 'skeptic' to apply especially to those who denied we could know anything about the supernatural world unless it was directly revealed to us by a supernatural being. Some of these folks were agnostics or atheists, but most were believers in the supernatural who valued faith over reason. By extension, the term 'skeptic' came to be used to refer to those who doubted the existence of gods. By further extension, a skeptic was anyone who doubted anything that most people believed, such as the belief that miracles occur or that there are real causal connections between such things as the position of the planets and stars to the personality of someone born on Earth.
When I first read the Skeptical Inquirer, it was clear to me that what these folks were skeptical about were such things as the claim that astrology is more than a superstition or that psychic phenomena actually occur. I know there was a rift among those who started CSICOP between those who wanted to take the ancient philosophical position known as Pyrrhonism of suspending judgment on all things, no matter what the evidence was. The winners were those who took the position more akin to the Academic skeptics and to Hume's mitigated skepticism: the evidence often favors some claims over others as being more probable, probability is the best we can hope for, we need not suspend judgment but should go with the position that seems most probable and reject claims that the evidence indicates are highly improbable.
Obviously, Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer have come a long way from their beginnings. Both now clearly identify themselves as promoters of science and critical thinking--a positive thing--rather than as just enemies of superstition and magical thinking. When I first became aware of these kinds of skeptics, I was teaching classes in critical thinking where I introduced my students to the idea of skepticism as being an essential part of what it means to be a critical thinker. I wasn't referring to either promoting science or opposing superstition, however. My model skeptic and critical thinker was not James Randi but Socrates. The skepticism of Socrates was part of his method of critical inquiry into any subject he took up. He was not a defender of science (or natural philosophy as it was known even into Isaac Newton's time). Socrates denied being involved in speculation about the heavens above and the earth below, which is how he characterized natural philosophy in his day.
The only thing I know, said Socrates, is that I know nothing. The wise men he queried in the agora thought they knew a lot. His skepticism was a foil for the dogmatists who were certain they knew what they knew. Unlike Bertrand Russell, Socrates did not consider dogmatists to be stupid, but he did seem to delight in humiliating anyone who claimed to be an expert in something and know with certainty this or that. He humiliated them by asking them questions. When they answered one question, Socrates would ask them another that would reveal the foolishness of their answer to the previous question. This would go on until the dogmatist whined about how Socrates didn't know what he was talking about. I wanted my students to recognize that the kind of skepticism that Socrates had was connected to intellectual humility and open-mindedness. His skepticism was not nihilistic like Pyrrhonism.
I said at the beginning of this section that I think the definitions of skeptic and skepticism put forth by Dr. Steven Novella are too broad. He seems to conflate skeptic with critical thinker. I think skepticism is one of qualities of critical thinking and that there is some overlap in the concepts where being a skeptic and engaging in critical thinking amount to the same thing. But I don't think, for example, that studying the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception are essential to skepticism, but they are essential to critical thinking. Critical thinking requires much more than a healthy skepticism regarding claims, sense perception, memory, and testimony. (Unhealthy skepticism is the kind displayed by the birthers, climate-change deniers, anti-vaccinationists, Apollo moon landing deniers, and others of like ilk.) Anyway, what would you call the following analysis? Skepticism? Critical thinking? Both?
"'I know of one patient who turned to Gerson Therapy," said Prince Charles in a speech to 200 healthcare professionals, "having been told she was suffering from terminal cancer and would not survive another course of chemotherapy. Happily, seven years later, she is alive and well. So it is vital that, rather than dismissing such experiences, we should further investigate the beneficial nature of these treatments."
No, Prince; what is vital is that we be skeptical of anecdotes like this. Neither you, the lady in question, nor I know that Gerson therapy had anything to do with the lady's recovery. It may have been the chemotherapy that cured her. Just because one thing happened after another doesn't mean the first thing caused the second. Remember the post hoc fallacy from your college days? Maybe she was misdiagnosed. What does 'terminal cancer' mean? Most of us think it means you have cancer that will kill you in a short time. Seven years is not a short time for humans. So, she obviously did not have "terminal" cancer. Furthermore, this story is anonymous: there is no way to follow up on it to find out if it's true that the woman even had cancer, much less was alive and well seven years after being diagnosed. Also, Prince, the amount of money available for cancer research is limited. We can't throw money after every anecdote like this one. We must have some reason to believe this therapy is plausible and worth the effort. Now, if by "further investigate the beneficial nature of these treatments" you simply mean collect more anecdotes, then by all means go ahead. That shouldn't cost us too much. But while you're at it, make sure you collect the stories of those who did the Gerson treatment and didn't live to tell us about it. Oh, wait, you can't do that, can you, unless you trust psychic mediums who get messages from the dead. Perhaps it is possible to interview the dead, but how would we know that what the psychic medium is telling us is really coming from a spirit of a former Gerson patient? Fortunately for us, many psychic mediums have been tested and some have been found to be the real thing by scientists like Gary Schwartz. He's validated John Edward and Allison DuBois. Yet, many people remain skeptical of his methods of validation. Should we pump money into testing methods of testing psychic mediums? This doesn't look promising, given the long history of fraud and deception in this area of investigation. Maybe we should give up on the anecdote thing and concentrate on the scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness of Gerson therapy. Unfortunately, the evidence is underwhelming and we should put our limited funds into more promising cancer research.
A healthy skepticism should lead us to ask certain questions about the stories we hear and the conclusions others draw from them. A healthy skepticism questions the reliability of anecdotes, the fallacy of post hoc thinking, the reliability of sense perception and memory, and the reliability of our interpretations of personal experience. Critical thinking goes beyond this and tries to discover if there have been any controlled studies on this therapy. The critical thinker tries to find out what is most reasonable to believe about Gerson therapy. The skeptic tries to find out what is reasonable about the Prince's reasoning. There's a lot of overlap, but I think skepticism is a part of critical thinking, not the other way around. That said, I'm pleased to conclude by noting that the skeptics I've met like Phil Plait, James Randi, Ray Hyman, Jim Alcock, Harriet Hall, and the late Barry Beyerstein are models of critical thinking, as are the bloggers on Science-Based Medicine (one of whom is Steven Novella), which brings me to the final section of this newsletter.
SBM Establishes the Society for Science-Based Medicine
In 1994, Carl Sagan gave the keynote address to the CSICOP [now CSI] folks--it's online--and near the end of his talk he spoke of the "one deficiency" he saw in the skeptical movement: a sense of us-vs.-them and that we have a monopoly on the truth; they don't." The divide between us and them still exists, but I don't think it's a deficiency so much as a necessary evil. Clearly, there must be an us-vs.them attitude when one is dealing with people like Oz, Mercola, Weil, Blaylock, Chopra, Gordon, Wakefield, and Weiss. The situation is made more divisive by the fact that many people see Suzanne Sommers and Jenny McCarthy as reliable medical sources. Not only are the leading generals on the CAM side organized with large followings, they have done a superb job of manipulating the media. The anti-vaccination movement alone requires an active division between us and them and would justify establishing an organization just to fight the anti-vaxxers.
For the past six years, the Science-Based Medicine blog has been the one-stop destination for education, information, and discussion of medicine that is science-based. I had no hesitation joining the Society for Science-Based Medicine shortly after being informed about it by my editor, John Renish. I encourage my readers to take a look at the announcement page and consider joining too. At the very least, you'll get the pleasure of providing support and encouragement to some of the brightest minds and most decent people on the planet. I hope the membership drive is successful enough to inspire the SBM folks to continue their consumer protection and education work and attract like-minded experts to join them in the never-ending task of weeding out sound science from wishful and magical thinking.