From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 14 No. 6
"The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might." --Mark Twain
reader comments: Deepak Chopra on living forever young.
Skeptic's Toolbox 2015: August 6-9
The Skeptic's Toolbox is a 4-day interactive conference for skeptics led by the amazing Dr. Ray Hyman. Ray is an academic and a teacher first, second, and foremost. He's also worked as a professional palm reader, mentalist, and magician. He earned his Ph.D. in psychology from Johns Hopkins University in 1953 and taught for five years at Harvard before coming to the University of Oregon psychology department, from which he retired in 1998. In 1972, he was hired by the Department of Defense as an expert academic to investigate the testing of Uri Geller for psychic powers by Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI). The Russian military was testing psychics, so of course the U.S. couldn't fall behind. Thanks to Ray, no taxpayer dollars were wasted on Geller. And thanks in great part to Ray's statistical analysis and critique, the Stargate Program our military set up to test and train remote viewers wasted only $20 million before it was halted. Ray writes about Geller's role in bringing together the group now known as CSI:
... Randi, acting as one of the reporters from Time Magazine, saw Geller perform his stunts. These encounters with Geller prompted Randi to meet with me in 1973 to discuss the possibility of forming an organization to help protect both scientists and the public from such scams.
Martin Gardner, Randi, and I formed an organization we called SIR (an acronym that stood for “Sanity in Research.” SIR was an anagram of SRI (Stanford Research Institute). In 1976, SIR joined forces with Paul Kurtz and a few others to create CSICOP (The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). And the rest is history.*
CSICOP is now CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Ray is still a member of the executive council of CSI. Geller sued Randi and CSICOP in 1991, which eventually led to Randi leaving the group over the handling of his legal battle with Geller. In 1996 Randi started his own organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation. Randi's battles with Geller are revisited in the film The Honest Liar, a documentary about Randi's amazing life. The man has done so many amazing things to expose deception and advance the cause of rational thinking that it was inevitable that the film could not cover all his amazing work. There is no discussion of his work for Nature in exposing the inadequacy of the work of Jacques Benveniste or of his battles with Sylvia Browne, for example, or of his public debunkings of such nonsense as thoughtography and aura reading. A good amount of footage documents the Carlos hoax (1988) and the love story that stayed in the closet until 2010 when Randi announced he is gay with no psychics present. As most readers of this newsletter probably know, Jose Alvarez, Randi's partner for the past thirty years, is really Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga of Venezuela and that identity fraud landed Jose in jail for six months. While age and sickness could not diminish Randi's joie de vivre, it is obvious from the worn visage of the old master that a broken heart nearly did. For now, that story has a happy ending. Randi and Deyvi were married in 2013 and both are scheduled to take center stage at the 2015 Amazing Meeting, which will be Randi's last as host.
Ray Hyman's style is nothing like Randi's. That is neither good nor bad. Ray's approach to entering the arena to challenge questionable claims regarding the paranormal, supernatural, medical, etc., is straightforward and simple. Be prepared. Know your stuff before you engage. Don't try to explain things that don't need explaining (Hyman's maxim: "Don't try to explain how something works until you find out that it works."). Stick to the evidence. Leave the emotional rhetoric at home. Don't make it personal.
Ray is an academic who generally writes and speaks to audiences that appreciate attention to detail and careful analysis of the data, even if they don't accept his critiques. He's also written a few important pieces for skeptics such as "Proper Criticism" and "Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them," whose original title was "The Psychological Reading: An Infallible Technique For Winning Admiration and Popularity." Ray's introduction is worth recalling:
Over twenty years ago I taught a course at Harvard University called "Applications of Social Psychology." The sort of applications that I covered were the various ways in which people were manipulated. I invited various manipulators to demonstrate their techniques-- pitchmen, encyclopedia salesmen, hypnotists, advertising experts, evangelists, confidence men, and a variety of individuals who dealt with personal problems. The techniques which we discussed, especially those concerned with helping people with their personal problems, seem to involve the client's tendency to find more meaning in any situation than is actually there. Students readily accepted this explanation when it was pointed out to them. But I did not feel that they fully realized just how pervasive and powerful this human tendency to make sense out of nonsense really is.
Ray devoted many years to careful analysis of tedious parapsychology papers claiming to demonstrate the existence of psychic phenomena, but he also extended his teaching of the many cognitive biases and illusions that lead us into error and believing nonsense by organizing the Skeptic's Toolbox conferences, which have been held annually at the University of Oregon since 1995.
This year's topic is framing:
....what persuades most people has little to do with the logical and scientific support for a claim. Most people, including many who call themselves skeptics, become persuaded not by logic or science but by emotional and other non-evidential aspects of arguments. Dramatic examples of such non-scientific and irrational bases for belief can be found in what is called “the framing effect.” Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, Fast and Slow) describes framing as follows: “Different ways of presenting the same information often evoke different emotions.”
There is no entry on framing in The Skeptic's Dictionary, but I've written about the topic a few times. See here, here, here, and in chapter seven of Becoming a Critical Thinker, where I discuss how framing questions in polls--either by the words used or by the order in which the questions are asked--affects outcomes.
The program for this year's Skeptic's Toolbox looks amazing. First, Jim Alcock will give the keynote address: Framing the Message: Who (Says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect. Jim is also a member of the CSI executive committee and author of such classics as "The Belief Engine" and Parapsychology: Science or Magic? Jim has taught at every Skeptic's Toolbox since 1999 (and a few before that). Like Ray, Jim is an academic and a great teacher. I'm sure he will give the participants much to mull over until Ray addresses the group the following morning on the topic of Cold Reading as Framing. After Ray's talk, the group will break up into teams "and begin work" on a report. (When I attended the 2003 session, we broke up into four teams. Each team was given a paper to read, discuss, and critique. My team was given the Sicher-Targ paper on healing prayer; another group read a paper by Gary Schwartz on communicating with the dead.) On Sunday morning, the teams will present their reports.
Other sessions will feature psychologist Loren Pankratz on Hypnotists Reframing Themselves and retired flight surgeon and Science-Based Medicine blogger Dr. Harriet Hall on Framing the Message in Medicine and Alternative Medicine. Last but certainly not least will be investigative journalist Lindsay Beyerstein talking about framing in journalism.
One of the best things about the Skeptic's Toolbox--besides the incomparabe faculty--is the size of the venue and the quality of the participants. If you are new to skepticism and want to meet some great critical thinkers and teachers or if you are a veteran skeptic who needs your batteries recharged, you would do well to go to this year's Toolbox.
The "rest is history"--noted by Ray in the quote above--deserves a comment. Psychics, channelers, mediums claiming to hear the dead, and faith healers are more popular than ever everywhere on the planet. Geller and Popoff are still mucking about doing their shticks. Geller now claims he is a "mystifier" and does not have "supernatural" powers. His website now features a testimonial from movie legend Clint Eastwood, indicating how low Uri has had to go to prop himself up. He's a mystifier alright. I'm mystified by the fact that he didn't disappear from the public arena in 1973 when he was exposed on the Carson show thanks to Randi. Also doing well is Popoff, who is still running several schemes including selling "miracle" water and healing prayers, and presenting himself and his partner in crime as defenders of the persecuted church and supporters of orphanages in the Ukraine and Kenya. He and his wife still hold televised healing revivals (BET, Discovery, TLC, WHT, WORD). Benveniste and Browne are gone because they died, but they are not forgotten. Browne's son has continued the family tradition of blathering and drivel, but he seems to lack the chutzpah and cobra-like charisma of his momma. Maybe he just hasn't found his Montel Williams yet. Homeopathy continues to make the news, and has infiltrated universities such as the University of Toronto.
Is it possible that if Randi and other skeptics had framed their objections differently, Geller and Popoff would have faded into the abysmal pit where they belong? Maybe, but I think the only framing that would have taken these vipers off the streets would have been one that sent them to prison for life without possibility of parole. I hope I'm wrong and that those who attend this year's Skeptic's Toolbox will come up with some innovative, effective ways to combat the ever-rising tide of irrationality that threatens to drown us all. As an indication of just how hard this task is, you might notice from the Toolbox program notes that there will also be a discussion of the backfire effect, how presenting evidence against a claim often strengthens rather than weakens the belief.
Is Sugar the New Tobacco?
Has sugar replaced tobacco as the most health-harming thing on the planet? And have the sugary drink lobbyists taken a page out of the tobacco lobbyists' book to create doubt about the harmful effects of their product? A recent editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine claimed that eating too much sugar and refined carbohydrates is a far greater cause of obesity than not exercising, drinking alcohol, and smoking combined. A recent news story had the headline: Sugary drinks linked to 25,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
By contributing to obesity and, through that, to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, the consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks appears to claim the lives of about 25,000 American adults yearly and is linked worldwide to the deaths of 180,000 each year, new research says.
I'd like to see the algorithm by which that figure was arrived at. Anyway, I've got all those health problems and I don't go anywhere near sugar-sweetened drinks. Still, if I did drink sugary sodas, I would be worse off if I were poor and living in a developing country:
...more than 3 in 4 of the world's deaths attributed to overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages occur in ... poor and developing countries.
Or I could live in Mexico where, with a population some 40% of the U.S. population, the death toll from sugary drinks equals that of the U.S. And these data do not include those who died from excessive intake of fruit juices or drinks sweetened with honey, rice syrup, maple syrup, coconut nectar, coconut sugar, or rapadura. Most of us have heard of sucrose, glucose, fructose, and lactose (a sugar made up of glucose and galactose), but who among you has heard of maltose, trehalose, turanose, maltotriose, rapadura, or xylitol?
"This is not complicated," said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tuft University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and a senior author of the new research. "There are no health benefits from sugar-sweetened beverages, and the potential impact of reducing consumption is saving tens of thousands of deaths each year." That may be true, but even if there are no health benefits from, say, butter or bacon, I don't think that fact will reduce consumption of those tasty items significantly. Not all people live by the motto "Only something with health benefits goes in this mouth!" Anyway, couldn't I just switch to a non-sugar sweetener? Oh, wait. I already have. Turns out that may be bad for me, too.
Another scary story about ingesting substances that have no health benefits announces Fake sweeteners may mess with the way our bodies metabolize sugar.
High doses of artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame can change the population of healthy gut bacteria in mice and in some humans. And those changes can affect how well their bodies metabolize sugar, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Cathryn Nagler, who studies the microbiome at the University of Chicago, said "The limited amount of research they did on humans at least suggests we need to examine our artificial sweetener use more carefully." She said artificial sweeteners may well belong on the list of diet and lifestyle changes that are implicated in the rise of "diseases of the Western lifestyle" like diabetes, obesity, and food allergies. Maybe. Maybe not. "The jury is still out with regards to whether these sweeteners actually cause weight gain," said Sridevi Devaraj, an associate director of Texas Children's Microbiome Center in Houston.
So, if sugary drinks are so bad for our health, could it be that PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Dr Pepper Snapple, the three largest soft drink companies in North America, have been systematically spreading denial, doubt, and confusion to convince us that sugary drinks are not bad for our health? Dr. Gabe Mirkin thinks so. these Sugary drink lobbyists may seem to many people to be playing softball compared to what the tobacco industry accomplished in the latter part of the last century, but you might want to rethink that notion. Apparently, these sugary deceivers are trying to get us to believe that we can counteract the ill effects of sugary drinks by exercising. Dr. Mirkin writes:
More than one-third of North Americans are obese, defined as having so much extra fat that they are at increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, type-2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Indeed, even normal-weight people can be damaged by taking in too much sugar and refined carbohydrates such as bread, cereals, and pasta. Up to 40 percent of people with normal weight and body mass index (BMI) have high blood pressure, heart disease, or non-alcohol-related fatty liver disease, all associated with excess intake of sugar and other refined carbohydrates.
Coca-Cola would have us believe that its sugary drinks are part of a healthy athletic lifestyle in much the same way that tobacco companies used to. Remember the racketball players relaxing in the locker room after a game? What better time for a Benson & Hedges? The Marlboro Man is a classic, but my favorite was the ad that showed mountain climbers at the summit of some high peak as they enjoyed their mentholated cigarettes. Coke has LeBron James on their side (and he has more than $40 million of their dollars), plus they are proud sponsors of "NASCAR, the NBA, the PGA Tour, NCAA Championships, the Olympic Games, the NRL, the FIFA World Cups, and the UEFA Euro." So say the folks at Athlete Promotions, who are proud of this association and invite any celebrity athlete to contact them about representation.
This may come as a shock to some people but a study in PLoS Medicine (March 10, 2015) that investigated the sugar industry's influence on dental research found that the sugar industry has protected itself from potentially damaging research by using a similar approach to that taken by the tobacco industry. "These findings highlight the need to carefully scrutinize industry opposition to the proposed WHO and FDA guidelines on sugar intake and labeling, respectively, to ensure that industry interests do not interfere with current efforts to improve dental public health."
According to Dr. Mirkin, a study in PLoS Medicine (February 2013) showed that studies funded by the sugar industry are five times more likely to show that sugar does not cause weight gain than those with non-industry funding. This review of 206 studies on the health effects of soft drinks, fruit juices, and milk concluded that “industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.”
The comparison between the tobacco and soda industries has been taken much deeper by a group of researchers in a paper entitled Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare? The tobacco lobby's main goals were to minimize regulation and move responsibility for any effects of their product from the corporations to the consumers. The soda lobby wants to accomplish the same goals but it has an additional goal of bringing back the ghost of Joe Camel: they want to increase their sales to kids. Apparently, the soda lobby will go to any extreme to accomplish their goals, including trying to present themselves as benevolent philanthropists (check out the Dr. Pepper "sustainability" page). The soda folks have "employed elaborate, expensive, multinational corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns," such as the Pepsi Refresh Project funded by Pepsi's marketing budget. The scheme lasted a couple of years before Pepsi halted it, perhaps because of declining market share.
In 2010, Pepsi donated more than $20 million to support causes that received the most votes, and intends to transform the Refresh Project into a global phenomenon. Meanwhile, industry leader Coca-Cola maintains Live Positively, another corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaign that offers consumers healthy lifestyle advice and touts the firm's philanthropic and sustainability efforts.
Take a look at Coca-Cola's website. There is nothing good that Coke doesn't stand for. If you didn't know better, you might think that the only thing that stands between you and happiness is a bottle of sugary soda. Coke is making the world such a good place to live in that one wonders why the President hasn't named it the Drink of the American People. Look hard on the Coke website. How many obese people do you see? None.* Hah. That should convince even the most hardened skeptic that sugary drinks aren't contributing to the worldwide obesity epidemic. Globally, childhood obesity is “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century,” according to the WHO.
Sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption has helped fuel this crisis; from 1977 to 2004 U.S. children more than doubled their caloric intake from SSBs, in 2004 they received 13% of their caloric intake from SSBs, and these drinks have contributed an estimated one-fifth of the weight gain in the U.S. population from 1977 to 2007.*
All we need now to close the deal on this comparison of Big Tobacco with Big Soda is a Congressional hearing of sugary drink executives swearing under oath on national television that they do not believe that their sugary drinks are unhealthy.
For those who are absolutely sure that sugary drinks are being maligned unjustly, I suggest you read one or two scientific articles or abstracts, if the articles aren't available to you. I recommend: Sugar-sweetened beverage, diet soda, and fatty liver disease in the Framingham Heart Study cohorts in the Journal of Hepatology (June 5, 2015) and Soft drinks consumption and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in World Journal of Gastroenterology (June 2010). A couple of tidbits:
"Soft drinks are the leading source of added sugar worldwide, and have been linked to obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome."
"...regular sugar-sweetened beverage consumption was associated with greater risk of fatty liver disease, particularly in overweight and obese individuals, whereas diet soda intake was not associated with measures of fatty liver disease."
I think I'll stick to beer....in moderation, of course.
If you think you hear a loud murmuring in the background, that may be the beginning rumblings of the backfire effect.
See also Coke made us all obese: McDonald’s, high-fructose corn-syrup and the sick, super-sized strategy to make you fat by Bartow J. Elmore