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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 14 No. 1

January 2015

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.* --Theodore Parker (1810-1860)

What's New?

New Entries to The Skeptic's Dictionary: soothsayer's delusion and the Fatima "prophecy."

New Reader Comments: astrology, pareidolia & apophenia, and the Randi Million Dollar Challenge.

New Skeptimedia post: Cancer Risk.

Revised entry: NCCAM changes name but not its quackophile ways.

Updates: antioxidants, natural cancer cures, astrology, Scientology, and Superbowl and violence against women.

Is Cow's Milk the Best Substitute for Soda?

There is a movement in my hometown of Davis, California, to require local restaurants that serve "kid's meals" to offer the kids either 2% milk or water in place of sodas. The movement seems driven by a concern that obesity is a big health problem for our kids and that too much sugar is a big reason for the obesity problem. My golfing buddy Kermit (age 82 and fit as a fiddle due to diligence and hard work to avoid diabetes) and Dr. Gabe Mirkin point out, however, that milk contains a good bit of sugar. Replacing those sugary sodas with low-fat milk might not be such a great idea:

All Sugared Drinks Can Harm

Eating or drinking sugar can cause a rise in blood sugar that can damage every cell in your body. Sugar in drinks causes a much higher rise in blood sugar levels than sugar in food....Sugared drinks are associated with increased risk for obesity, diabetes, inflammatory-related pain, heart attacks, certain cancers, and premature death. An 8-ounce glass of two percent low-fat milk contains 122 calories [Trader Joe's 2% lists calories at 140 and grams of sugar at 14], more than a glass of soda, and the type of sugar in milk [galactose] may be more harmful to your health. [An 8 oz. glass of 2% milk] contains more than three teaspoons of sugar, more than current daily recommendations for children. Chocolate milk and other milk-based beverages often have even more sugar added to make them taste better.

Eight ounces of Coca Cola has 94 calories, so if a Coke drinker can restrict himself to eight ounces, he'll ingest fewer calories than if he drank an equivalent amount of 2% milk. (Coca-Cola has recently introduced a 7.5 oz. mini can. It should be popular among Jack and Coke drinkers.) Another plus or minus for Coke is that it has no fat, whereas there are 5 grams of fat in 2% milk. But eight ounces of Coke contains 26 grams (6.5 teaspoons) of sugar. If obesity in children is our main concern, there doesn't seem to be much advantage in substituting 2% milk for soda. And if concern for the amount of sugar our kids are ingesting is of primary importance, it seems even clearer that it is not wise to ask restaurants to offer 2% milk instead of sodas. If you're thinking orange juice might be a nice substitute for soda, consider that eight ounces of OJ has 24 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar and 110 calories (but no fat or cholesterol and some nice vitamins and minerals).

Water is good: no calories, no fat, no sugar. Eight ounces of unsweetened almond milk isn't bad either: 30 calories (25 of them fat calories), no sugar, and a lot more calcium than milk.

swiss cows







Dr. Mirkin's also concerned
with the traditional advice given by doctors to drink milk because it's good for your bones, yet a

A study from Sweden followed more than 60,000 women (aged 39-74) for 22 years and 45,000 men (aged 45-79) for 13 years, and found that:

• Women who drank three or more glasses of milk daily had twice the death rate of those who drank less than a glass daily and also suffered increased risk for total body bone fractures and hip fractures;

• Men who drank three or more glasses daily had a ten percent increase in death rate over those who drank less than a glass daily;

• For every glass of milk, the death rate increased 15 percent in women and three percent in men. Neither men nor women received any protection from fractures by drinking milk (British Medical Journal (October 28, 2014; 349:g6015).

I don't think the data show that milk is killing people, but they do show that milk doesn't seem to give much protection from bone fractures despite the frequent claim from the pro-milk lobby and many doctors and nutritionists that it does.

It may be true that our kids are ingesting too much sugar and they shouldn't be drinking so many sodas, but it may also be true that neither cow's milk nor fruit juice is a healthy alternative for children if the aim is to avoid obesity and all the health problems associated with being excessively overweight. Not all children need to worry about obesity, however. Very active kids who are basically healthy may drink milk and juice in moderation without worrying about becoming obese.

Anyway, I think the mayor of our town is too paternalistic with his plan to ask restaurants to change their menus to satisfy what he thinks is healthy for all kids. Let the parents decide. The city should mind its own business in this area.

Herbal tea, anyone?

Is the Flu Shot BS, as Bill Maher claims?

We don't know exactly how many people die from seasonal flu each year in the U.S., but we know it's in the thousands and that most of these deaths occur in those over 65 years of age. We had more than 300 flu-related deaths in California last season despite the fact that the vaccine was 60% effective last year. What does that mean, anyway? According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC): "This VE (vaccine effectiveness) estimate means that getting a flu vaccine ... reduced the vaccinated population's risk of having to go to the doctor because of the flu by 60% for both children and adults."* According to the CDC, VE is determined either by a randomized control trial or by an observational study of those who get vaccinated and those who don't. You might think, then, that the CDC's estimate that this year's vaccine is only 23% effective was pulled out of thin air. No RTC could have been done yet and the flu season has just begun, so any observational study is likely to have an unrepresentative sample. Remember, the 23% is just an estimate. The actual VE for this year's vaccine could be higher or lower. Here's how the CDC came to that number:

By January 3, 2015, 46 states were experiencing widespread flu activity, with predominance of influenza A (H3N2) viruses. This report presents an initial estimate of seasonal influenza vaccine effectiveness at preventing laboratory-confirmed influenza virus infection associated with medically attended ARI [acute respiratory illness ]based on data from 2,321 children and adults enrolled in the U.S. Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness Network (Flu VE) during November 10, 2014–January 2, 2015. During this period, overall vaccine effectiveness (VE) (adjusted for study site, age, sex, race/ethnicity, self-rated health, and days from illness onset to enrollment) against laboratory-confirmed influenza associated with medically attended ARI was 23% (95% confidence interval [CI] = 8%–36%). Most influenza infections were due to A (H3N2) viruses. This interim VE estimate is relatively low compared with previous seasons when circulating viruses and vaccine viruses were well-matched and likely reflects the fact that more than two-thirds of circulating A (H3N2) viruses are antigenically and genetically different (drifted) from the A (H3N2) vaccine component of 2014–15 Northern Hemisphere seasonal influenza vaccines. (Dated Jan 16, 2015.)

If many people do not get vaccinated, however, the risk of getting the flu increases. Many adults didn't get the flu shot last year, so the death toll was higher than it should have been. Even though this year's flu vaccine is not even half as effective as last year's, it will still save lives. In any case, your decision to get the flu shot shouldn't depend on how effective the vaccine is, since the ratio of the potential harm versus the potential benefit doesn't change much even when the vaccine is only 23% effective. The potential harm is near zero and is the same whether you get the shot or not.

The fact is that getting the flu shot is always something of a gamble, but it is not such an outrageous gamble as to be BS, as Bill Maher claims. For most people, getting the flu shot involves being injected with a dead virus, one that can't cause the flu. For those getting the shot, the worst case scenario is that you get the flu either because you'd already been infected before you got your shot (it takes 10-14 days before the immune system responds fully after the shot) or the vaccine didn't protect you from the virus you got infected with. That result is no different from what would have happened had you not gotten the flu shot. The best case scenario is that you don't get the flu because the vaccine protected you. If you had not gotten the shot, there is no guarantee that you would not have gotten the flu. In other words, you wager nothing but stand to benefit greatly. If you get the flu despite being vaccinated, you'd have gotten it anyway. If you do the math, it seems obvious that getting the flu shot is the best bet even if you are totally selfish and thinking only of protecting yourself. If you have a social conscience, you would also consider the potential benefit others--especially those who are too old or too young or too sick to get the shot--would receive should the vaccine protect you from getting the flu.

bill maherOnce again Bill Maher shows his ignorance regarding the value of the annual flu shot. This time he flaunted his lack of understanding before guest Atul Gawande (The Checklist Manifesto, Being Mortal). Maher's stated objection to the flu shot is his belief that the decision as to what viruses to protect against each flu season is guesswork. It is, but it is not random guesswork. And the potential good from getting the shot will always outweigh the potential harm, both for the individual and for society. Maher's unstated (at least in his interview of Dr. Gawande) reason is that he thinks vaccination for anything, much like his own existence, is pointless.

Food-Related Illness

Maher also complained to Dr. Gawande that whenever he's gone to a doctor for anything, he's never been asked what he eats. I'm sure Dr. Gawande didn't want to make his host look foolish, so he refrained from responding. (Or did he refrain because Maher cut him off so he could discuss Islam with his guests who knew about as much as I do about the beliefs of ordinary Muslims in America?) Anyway, the reason your doctor never asks you about what you eat is because you haven't presented yourself with any foodborne illnesses or you don't go to a doctor who thinks all disease is due to what we eat and drink.

Is Bill Maher the Ann Coulter of atheism? David Brooks thinks so:

In most societies, there's the adults' table and there's the kids' table. The people who read the establishment organs are at the adults' table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids' table. They're not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

jenny mccarthy, antivaxxeerMaher's willful ignorance on a host of issues regarding health and food continues to arouse Orac's fury: See Bill Maher: Still an antivaccine wingnut after all these years. Even worse than Maher when it comes to health issues is Oprah, mainly because she has much more influence than Maher. It's because of her powerful influence that she's also able to do more good than Maher. Maher's agenda is also much narrower than Oprah's. Maher might consult Suzanne Sommers on health issues, but I doubt he'd have her as a guest on his television show to claim, as Oprah has, that she beat cancer with diet and probiotics. Anyway, for all the good she's done, we can't ignore that Oprah is responsible for giving power to Jenny McCarthy (not going to Disneyland this year), Dr. Phil, and Dr. Oz. (As of 1/26/2015, the measles outbreak that originated at Disneyland in southern California is up to 87 cases. Last year, the U.S. had a record 644 measles cases. Thank you, Mr. Wakefield; thank you, Oprah and Ms. McCarthy; and thanks to all you well-educated parents fruitlessly trying to prevent autism in your kids.)

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) Unites CSH and CSI

The secular trinity has become a secular, humanistic, and skeptical monolith. The Council for Secular Humanism, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Center for Inquiry have merged. Henceforth, all will be united under the banner of CFI. One corporation should reduce "complexity, redundancies, and costs," a CFI press release notes. The mission of the new CFI is "To make the world a better place by using reason instead of faith, by relying on science instead of superstition." I don't know that the merger will make the world a better place, but it should help streamline operations. The merging of corporations has not met with universal favor. Sharon Hill of Doubtful News and the JREF, for example, tweeted: "I can’t support such a muddled, conflated mission. But Skeptical Inquirer is still a good magazine....Advocating for skepticism is something COMPLETELY different than advocating for secularism."

As readers of The Skeptic's Dictionary know, I am no friend of religion. But I don't consider religion to be my enemy. Some of the finest human beings I've met in my seven decades on this planet have been religious people whose religion greatly contributed to their goodness. While some of the most despicable human beings to have ever lived have been atheists (Stalin, Mao, Lenin, Pol Pot), their atheism didn't necessarily contribute to their murderous ways. Also, atheists are just as moral (as a group), if not more so, than religious folks. So, just as I don't consider religion to be my enemy, I think theists are wrong to consider atheists their enemy. In any case, I think expressing one's skepticism about religion and religious claims is, as Sharon Hill notes, completely different from advocating for secularism. (Such advocacy consists mainly of arguing for separation of church and state, freedom from discrimination against atheists and the non-religious, and absence of favoritism by any political entity toward any individual or group solely because of his or her religious affiliation.) Subscribers to Skeptical Inquirer who do not consider themselves secular humanists will automatically become a member of CFI whether they want to or not, and they will "soon be receiving a membership card," according to the CFI announcement. Presto! The number of secular humanists will magically increase.

Since the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism will become programs of CFI and cease to be standalone corporations, support of CSI and Skeptical Inquirer automatically becomes support of CSH and CFI. Whether this will bother anybody remains to be seen.

While CFI Consolidates, Michael Shermer Expands His Domain

michael shermerMichael Shermer has announced a new blog to follow the publication of his latest book: The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. The blog is called The Moral Arc. The expression is from Theodore Parker via Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I don't know if Shermer is right in claiming that we are living in the most moral period of our species' history, but I am sure he is right in claiming that most of our moral progress has come in spite of religion rather than because of it. He writes:

Most people believe that moral progress has primarily been due to the guiding light of religious teachings, the activities of spiritual leaders, and the power of faith-based initiatives. In “The Moral Arc” I argue that this is not the case, and that most moral progress is the result of science, reason, and secular values developed during the Enlightenment. Once moral progress in a particular area is underway, most religions eventually get on board—as in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, women’s rights in the 20th century, and gay rights in the 21st century—but this often happens after a shamefully protracted lag time.

The new blog will "report on all the good things that are happening in the world as a reminder, among a litany of bad news reported by the media every day, that there is hope for humanity. The topics to be covered are mostly social and political: Animal Rights, Capitalism, Civil Rights, Crime, Evil, Gay Rights, Genocide, Justice, Morality, Reason, Religion, Slavery, Terrorism, Torture, Violence, War, and Women’s Rights. We're told that readers of the new blog will be invited to share their own stories in a section called "A Million Acts of Kindness."

I wish Shermer good luck with this project. It reminds me of an announcement made BG (before Google) by the Sacramento Bee to begin publishing The Good News. The only catch was that the newspaper was not going to assign anyone to gather and report the good news. That task would be left to the readers, who apparently were not interested enough to make any reports worth publishing. The idea died on the vine. Today, an unpaid intern could do the job in between classes, blogging, and posting on social media.

Another Shermer project is prognostication. He's hosting a conference at Cal Tech this coming May 29-31 called In the Year 2525: Big Science, Big History, and the Far Future of Humanity. As absurd as it sounds, you might find walking the grounds where Richard Feynman once walked evokes a strange feeling of comfort that comes with those occasional reminders that some things are right with the world. Scheduled speakers include Jared Diamond, Lawrence Krauss, and Donald Prothero, among others.

Speaking of our most moral period....

fake diplomaA degree from Stanford University will cost those who actually go to Stanford, attend classes, and graduate in four years (good luck with that!) about $150,000. Why bother when you can buy a diploma and a set of full transcripts for only $800 from Black-Market Express? (If you just want a set of fake transcripts, the price is only $400.)

I found out about this swell place to buy your diploma while reading about a visa mill called Tri-Valley University (TVU) in the famous Silicon Valley south of San Francisco. A visa mill is akin to a diploma mill except that when you enroll in a visa mill you don't even get a fake education. All you get is documentation that allows you to enter the U.S. on a student visa. If you'd like an education in how clever entrepreneurs deceive government agencies while luring illegal aliens to the United States for a large fee, check out the former website of this now shut-down visa mill. The website clearly illustrates the fact that only someone without any concern for getting an education could mistake this place for a university. The misspellings and bad grammar alone are a giveaway. "Tri-Valley University is a Christian Higher Education Institution aiming to offer rigorous and excellent quality academic programs in the context of Christian faith and world view....Faculty members and speakers at Tri-Valley University are renown professionals in the field with both academic and industry backgrounds. Most of them have many years of industrial experiences and are manager and/or executives in semiconductor industry with extensive, expert knowledge to offer."

TVU was shut down by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2011. In March of 2014, Susan Xiao-Ping Su, the founder and president of TVU, was convicted of 31 counts "ranging from conspiracy to commit visa fraud to money laundering to alien harboring."* She was sentenced to sixteen years in prison. The government said she defrauded "students" of about $5.5 million. It took three years for the government to take her to court and another three to convict her. This was a "university" that had no instructors and whose students nearly all came from India. (About 19,000 students, more than 10,400 from India alone, studied in the San Jose metro area on F-1 international student visas from 2008-2012, according to a Brookings Institution report based on federal immigration records. That makes Silicon Valley the No. 9 market nationwide for F-1 students behind larger urban areas like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Source: Silicon Valley Business Journal. Another finding of the Brookings Institution was that nearly 20,000 international students cycled through the Silicon Valley region on F-1 visas from 2008-2012 and paid more than $600 million in tuition and local living costs.) Immigration reform, anyone?

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, TVU "listed 553 students as living in a single two-bedroom apartment near the college; in fact, students were spread out across the country, from Texas to Illinois to Maryland." So many people living in such a small place would have been a clue that something was very wrong had anyone in government bothered to look. Many worked full-time at low-level retail jobs "that were passed off as career training so they could be employed while on student visas." A similar situation at nearby Herguan University was explained by CEO Jerry Wang [more about him later] by claiming that he considered the employers to be "temporary Herguan faculty members." The Chronicle of Higher Education also claims that failed students at Herguan were routinely given pass grades in exchange for paying extra money. Free, overregulated enterprise at work?

The likelihood that these "students" were all innocent victims of fraud is about zero. There are at least 150 more of these visa mills being investigated by ICE. None of the visa mills could be doing what they're doing without a permit from the government allowing them to admit foreign students to their universities. How does one go about getting such a permit? You commit fraud and bank on nobody in government checking out your fake letters claiming to be from accredited colleges stating that they would accept credits from your "university" for students wishing to transfer. (If you don't know English well enough to write a respectable fake letter, I'm sure that Black-Market Express will do the writing and printing for you.) The Chronicle of Higher Education  investigation depicts TVU as the tip of the iceberg:

Other colleges—most of them unaccredited—exploit byzantine federal regulations, enrolling almost exclusively foreign students and charging them upward of $3,000 for a chance to work legally in the United States. They flourish in California and Virginia, where regulations are lax, and many of their practices—for instance, holding some classes on only three weekends per semester—are unconventional, to say the least. These colleges usher in thousands of foreign students and generate millions of dollars in profits because they have the power, bestowed by the U.S. government, to help students get visas.

“If there’s a way to make a buck, some people will do it,” says Brian Smeltzer, chief of the Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations. Well, if you put it that way, it doesn't sound so immoral. Just people trying to make a buck and kids trying to get a leg up in life by buying a visa, while government regulators write more regulations instead of enforcing the ones already on the books.

Students looking for an easy visa to the U.S. and a way to make a buck by recruiting more students need not fear. TVU may be shut down but there is another Silicon valley visa mill still operating: Herguan University. It may be a coincidence, but Susan Xiao-Ping Su was an adjunct faculty member of Herguan at one time. According to an article in the Huff Post, Herguan's CEO, Jerry Wang, was arrested and charged with 15 counts of visa fraud in August 2012. Wang was charged with luring

international students to his unaccredited school by using fraudulent documents to obtain visas. Notably, Herguan's 450-member student body consists overwhelmingly of foreign students from India. The crimes could land him a 23-year prison sentence and cost him more than $1 million in fines.

Maybe Wang will end up in prison but for now his "university" is still taking applicants and boasts on its website that it is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). The ACICS is approved by the U.S. Department of Education. That's a confidence booster for our illustrious watchdog system. The Secretary of the Department of Education might like to know that the Brooking Institution checked the IRS records for Herguan. Three members of the board of directors were listed as working zero hours per week and receiving zero compensation. The school's president, Feng Min Jerry Shao, was listed in 2012 as working an average 20 hours per week and receiving zero compensation. When a Chronicle of Higher Education investigator visited the Herguan campus, supposedly a school that enrolls about 450 students, the place felt "eerily unoccupied. There are mazelike hallways of unused classrooms, very little furniture, and a library with mostly empty shelves. On a recent weekday evening, when most classes are supposed to be scheduled, a single class was being held."

If Herguan is not to your liking, you can always try that great university in Sunnyvale: International Technical University. It's also accredited by ACICS. If you're interested in an education, however, you might skip ITU and try a community college.

If enrolling in a visa mill is too costly or too much trouble and a degree with transcripts is all you're after, go to Black-Market Express. They've found a way to make a buck. And it's legal, too! It says so right on their website. If you pay them extra, they'd probably give you a certificate guaranteeing that your diploma is from a school accredited by ACICS, which is approved by the U.S. Department of Education, which ought to be abolished.

The JREF Founder and Chairman Retires

James RandiJames Randi has announced that he is retiring as chairman of the James Randi Educational Foundation. In his farewell announcement, he makes it clear that he is not retiring from the skeptical arena and will continue writing and lecturing. Randi will be the featured speaker at The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM) next July 16-19 in Las Vegas. Rick Adams and Chip Denman, representing the JREF board, assure us that they will be good stewards as they make plans for the JREF’s future. We wish them well and hope the JREF continues to prosper. As anyone who has followed my writings over the past twenty years knows, Randi has been one of the main skeptics and critical thinkers I've tried to model my work after (the other two most important models for me have been Martin Gardner and Carl Sagan). I feel privileged to have been invited to speak at the first TAM and conduct a workshop on critical thinking at TAM5 with Ray Hall and Diane Swanson. We love you, James, and wish you a long and happy "retirement."


Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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