Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Issue # 17
December 1, 2002
Ninety-four percent of university
professors think they are better at their jobs than their colleagues.
How We Know What Isn't So
(Past issues posted at
1) New or revised entries
2) Responses to selected feedback
1) New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary
& Skeptic's Refuge
Since the last newsletter, I have
2) Responses to selected feedback
Below is a copy of the e-mail regarding firewalking (among other
things) from Mr. Nelson:
First of all, I identify myself as both skeptic and atheist. I must say
that I'm troubled by your approach to many items in your list and I will use
firewalking as the primary point. It bothers me to read skeptics that first
dismiss any pseudoscientific explanation to a feat/theory/line of thought
AND (in the Boolean logic sense) then dismiss ANY positive benefits to a
human or human thought that might derive from it.
There are MANY cases in our history where phenomena once had supernatural
explanations but when a scientific explanation was found the phenomena was
still useful or led to useful research. For example, lightning had many
supernatural theories, yet the phenomena is still interesting/useful. But to
get to the source of my ire, I go back to firewalking, you say: "Should a
person be elated at overcoming the fear of firewalking and successfully
walking through the fire pit without getting too severely burned? No. The
fear is due to ignorance and the elation will surely turn to bitterness when
the firewalker finds out that what they have accomplished can be done by
just about anyone."
Surely someone should be elated to overcome their fear and walk across
the fire pit. It is the same elation we as skeptics feel when we overcome
another myth that was presented to us. The fear IS due to ignorance but, to
me at least overcoming ignorance is a source of elation. As well, you state
that one will be 'bitter' when they find out what they have accomplished
could be done by anyone. Well, while everyone could do it, not
everyone would be willing to do it....That is because you would be telling
yourself to do something that your body is naturally telling you to avoid. I
think you have badly written about this event, I think the act of
firewalking could be used by skeptics to enlighten people that gut feelings
can be wrong, and that careful thought and analysis can show that what
appears to be harmful is really quite safe.
reply: Here I won't comment extensively on Mr. Nelson's criticisms, since
I have revised the firewalking entry after considering his convincing
arguments. I have one small quibble. We're both wrong in saying that the fear is due to
ignorance. It's probably due to instinct. In fact, ignorance in the case of firewalking
might be bliss or blisters, depending on the situation.
I am forced to challenge some of your information. I myself am a HUGE
skeptic - a cynic even. I have never had any faith in anything. Until
recently, I always knew that psychic and paranormal activity was total crap.
Then I starting dating my ex-girlfriend. This girl has the most genuine,
untamed ability I have ever witnessed. She is, at a minimum, unprecedented
in her handling of her own premonitions. She was never even remotely a liar,
in fact she despised me often for even the smallest (or largest) lies. So
everything she said was something true, no exception.
reply: So why did you break up? She sounds perfect. Never lies and
always tell the truth. What were her flaws?
Several times over the
course of our 2.5 year relationship, she was able to nail me to the wall
when I was even thinking of being unfaithful.
reply: OK. Now we see one of her flaws. Did it ever occur to you that
she might have been a tad bit possessive and oversensitive? What you take
for an ability to read your mind may just be an expression of her jealous
And you might say, "Oh, you
just suck at hiding stuff, she could just tell because you were giving it
away," but I assure you this is not entirely the case. Most of the time, the
occurrence was completely independent of any part of my life that she even
knew existed. She could just tell. This one instance in particular. A girl
in one of my classes at school poured her heart out to me as I was taking
her very drunk self home from a end of school party. I was in no way
attracted to this girl, and she had a fiancée, so it was of not even the
slightest bit of consequence. Over a month later, after I had all but
forgotten the incident, my girlfriend tells me about a dream she had, where
she was sitting in a car with her friend, and in the back seat is me and one
other girl, who was "flirting" with me and telling me things about how she
felt, all the while ignoring the girls in the front seat. She swore up and
down it really happened somewhere, somehow, yet I honestly couldn't come up
with what she was talking about. She knew EVERYTHING; the actual occurrence
HAD to have replayed in her dream the way she spoke of it, she knew what the
girl looked like, what color hair she had, what she said, even that the
girls name, which she couldn't quite remember, had a name that went very
cheerleader like: something "-EE." After several minutes of her being
convinced this happened and spilling details, I finally figured it out. "OHH,
was it Stacy???" I asked her. Of course that was it. She had described every
last bit of the event, which wasn't even of importance to me. I had
definitely never mentioned it to anyone, much less her or someone who could
have told her. She had no idea who the girl was, still doesn't to this day.
Maybe if this event had affected me for longer than the few minutes it was
happening, or at least if it had been someone I was around a lot socially (I
wasn't at all; that was maybe the 3rd time I was around this girl outside of
class.), then I could try and attribute this to some other factors, but
there is no plausible explanation I have come up with for how this could
have happened. Needless to say, it freaked me out.
reply: Matt, you must have a different meaning than I do for words
like "skeptic." I certainly hope the "EE" didn't freak you out. There must
be a thousand common female names with an "EE" sound in them. You've
connected a few dots here, Matt. In your ex's dream a girl was flirting with
you; in reality, a girl was drunk and poured her heart out to you. I don't
know what you mean by that. Did she reveal some personal things to you or
did she come on to you? Whatever she did, it made no impression on you by
your own admission. You've given your ex-girlfriend's dream whatever
significance you think it has. Her dream seems more likely an expression of
a jealous person than of a psychic. In any case, I think you should be
thankful this girlfriend is an ex. There are other qualities of importance
besides being brutally honest.
I have always been a very logical, rational (often
over-rational) person, completely void to the idea that things could fail to
be explained with a structure-ful [?], physical explanation. I certainly
never believed in anything of the sort, until I was attacked by it several
times over the course of the relationship; it still blows my mind to this
reply: To be brutally honest, Matt, I think you're right. This girl
definitely affected your ability to think logically and rationally.
May I add my name to the people encouraging your efforts. If you give
up, I might turn to god. Now there's a threat!
Lately, I've seen people at health food stores do the following. To
determine if some product will be good for them, they grasp the product in
one hand, hold it to their breast. Extending the other arm straight out,
they have someone try to push/pull the extended arm down. If the arm can be
pulled down, then the product is bad for them. Else, the product is good for
them. I nearly bust out laughing every time I see this embarrassing display.
Does this behavior have a name? Can you check it out and report back your
findings? Perhaps these people REALLY DO need a vitamin. Thanks.
reply: What they're doing is a bit of quackery known as
applied kinesiology. It's
not surprising that you'd see people doing this a health food store. The
main advocates of this nonsense are naturopaths
and chiropractors. These folks in the store must
think the products can sap the body of some sort of vital energy. Thus, the
arm goes down when the product is bad; it is sapping them of energy. What's
really going on is explained by the
Psychologist Ray Hyman tells a very interesting story about this subject.
Some years ago I participated in a test of
applied kinesiology at Dr. Wallace Sampson's medical office in Mountain
View, California. A team of chiropractors came to demonstrate the
procedure. Several physician observers and the chiropractors had agreed
that chiropractors would first be free to illustrate applied kinesiology
in whatever manner they chose. Afterward, we would try some
double-blind tests of their claims.
The chiropractors presented as their major
example a demonstration they believed showed that the human body could
respond to the difference between glucose (a "bad" sugar) and fructose (a
"good" sugar). The differential sensitivity was a truism among
"alternative healers," though there was no scientific warrant for it. The
chiropractors had volunteers lie on their backs and raise one arm
vertically. They then would put a drop of glucose (in a solution of water)
on the volunteer's tongue. The chiropractor then tried to push the
volunteer's upraised arm down to a horizontal position while the volunteer
tried to resist. In almost every case, the volunteer could not resist. The
chiropractors stated the volunteer's body recognized glucose as a "bad"
sugar. After the volunteer's mouth was rinsed out and a drop of fructose
was placed on the tongue, the volunteer, in just about every test,
resisted movement to the horizontal position. The body had recognized
fructose as a "good" sugar.
After lunch a nurse brought us a large number
of test tubes, each one coded with a secret number so that we could not
tell from the tubes which contained fructose and which contained glucose.
The nurse then left the room so that no one in the room during the
subsequent testing would consciously know which tubes contained glucose
and which fructose. The arm tests were repeated, but this time they were
double-blind -- neither the volunteer, the chiropractors, nor the
onlookers was aware of whether the solution being applied to the
volunteer's tongue was glucose or fructose. As in the morning session,
sometimes the volunteers were able to resist and other times they were
not. We recorded the code number of the solution on each trial. Then the
nurse returned with the key to the code. When we determined which trials
involved glucose and which involved fructose, there was no connection
between ability to resist and whether the volunteer was given the "good"
or the "bad" sugar.
When these results were announced, the head
chiropractor turned to me and said, "You see, that is why we never do
double-blind testing anymore. It never works!" At first I thought he was
joking. It turned it out he was quite serious. Since he "knew" that
applied kinesiology works, and the best scientific method shows that it
does not work, then -- in his mind -- there must be something wrong with
the scientific method. ("The
Mischief-Making of Ideomotor Action," in the Scientific Review of
Alternative Medicine 3(2):34-43, 1999.)
I might add that the chiropractor's notion that glucose is bad sugar and
fructose is good sugar is nonsense. Your brain runs on glucose and fructose
(the main sugar in corn syrup) has been
associated with the obesity epidemic. (The amount of fructose in fruits
is very small, by the way, so, if you are thinking there is no way eating
lots of fruits will make you obese, you are right.).
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