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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 27

July 4, 2003

"Half the students are still below the 50th percentile. That is a problem." --Lauren Hammond, Sacramento City Councilwoman

Subscribers 2,277

(Previous newsletters are archived at http://www.skepdic.com/news/)

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 1) The Skeptic's Dictionary, the book

The book should ship from the Wiley warehouse in New Jersey to bookstores around the world on July 25th. It will be officially announced as published on August 15th. When the book is readily available I will send everyone who subscribes to the newsletter an announcement with information on on-line ordering in the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the U.K. Of course, the book will be also available from most bookstores.

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 2) Changes in The Skeptic's Dictionary or Skeptic's Refuge

  • I've removed the What's Hot page that listed the most popular pages for the week. I hadn't updated it for months. However, I have recently begun using a new log analyzer and may be posting a modified version of the old page in the near future. (FYI: in a 20-hour period beginning July 1 at 4 PM, the Myers-Briggs page was the most popular on the site (448 visitors). Rounding out the top 5: Amway (413), curse (331), placebo (236), and the Rorschach (213). We had 13,891 visitors to 29,088 pages.)

  • I've revised the introduction to The Skeptic's Dictionary and the following entries: The Bible Code, Carlos Castaneda, déjà vu, and Roswell.

  • I've updated the electromagnetic fields and nocebo entries by adding links to related articles.

  • I've added another suburban myth and a new dictionary entry on Brights.

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 3) Responses to selected feedback

Dale Henderscheid of San Diego, California, wrote:

My brother told me about how back in the 1970's there was a fad (especially. in northern California) in which, one would boil a tea from various herbs in water...but then they would take the water from the boiling process, and add more water and boil that down, then add more water and boil that down, and add more water and continue boiling until there was nothing but hot water. It was then consumed as some sort of tonic. He knew little about it, but said the practitioners of this actually believed there was something in the process of distillation...that was magically beneficial rather than the herbs.... Ever hear of such a belief?

Yes, Dale. It's called homeopathy, and it's still very popular, not just in northern California but worldwide in places as disparate as England and Brazil. A recent test of homeopathy was broadcast on the BBC-TV program Horizon. It failed. You can read James Randi's account of the test in the latest issue (vol. 10 no. 1, 2003) of Skeptic magazine ("The Great Dilution Delusion").

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Mike, who says he does a  "small, yet growing paranormal newsletter," wrote regarding Greg bob's defense of UFOlogy in the last newsletter: "I have been Abducted by Aliens many times and anal probed.  It stopped when I quit taking the mushrooms."

Eric Doldissen of Sydney, Australia, advises us that "there is the possibility that the aliens are already here and are posing as idiots like "Greg bob" a.k.a. "metalicafan800" and getting as much publicity as possible so that nobody will give the idea of aliens the slightest credence, whatever evidence there is. There is even the possibility that skeptics who say they have examined all the evidence and then heap scorn on theories about aliens, might really be aliens."

Leroy Ellenberger sent me a copy of Frank John Reid's derisive review of Barry Markovsky's article on UFOs in The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (edited by Michael Shermer). (The review appeared in the Winter 2002-2003 issue of International UFO Reporter, the magazine of the J. Allen Hyneck Center for UFO Studies.) Reid finds Markovsky incompetent but he praises Shermer's encyclopedia because it "is far from the sort of rigid party line so familiar in analogous works from Prometheus Press." Markovsky is deemed incompetent mainly because he doesn't "discuss cases much," doesn't use Hynek's classification system correctly, and misunderstood Jaques Vallee regarding "the ETH [extraterrestrial hypothesis] scenario." Reid is particularly perturbed that the article wasn't written by a ufologist, i.e., someone sympathetic to explanations in terms of such things as "other dimensions," "parallel worlds," or the ETH and who won't dismiss hard cases as delusions, weather balloons, lies, Venus, and the like. I wonder if Reid has read the Prometheus Press counterpart to Shermer's encyclopedia: The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, which includes several articles by non-skeptics and is not a strict party-line text. (See my review for details.) I haven't read Markovsky's article, so I can't comment on its virtues or defects. I can say that the idea of writing an encyclopedia article on UFOs is daunting. There could be an entire encyclopedia on UFOs. Two books that bill themselves as encyclopedias have titles that indicate they associate UFOs with aliens (as do most people).  The Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters: A Definitive, Illustrated A-Z Guide to All Things Alien is edited by Ronald Story (New American Library Trade 2001) and has more than 400 entries by over 100 contributors in 681 pages. The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial (Visible Ink Press 1997) was written by Jerome Clark, former editor of Fate magazine and current editor of The International UFO Reporter. It spreads more than 200 articles over 734 pages.

Personally, I consider the "other dimensions" or "parallel worlds" hypothesis on par with the supernatural hypothesis. Such hypotheses are untouchable. Once you assume naturalistic explanations won't do, you remove yourself from naturalistic critiques. All that is left for the critic to do is to find logical contradictions in your "transcientific" account. Wrapped in the cocoon of the transcientific, the theorist is immune to mundane assumptions such as sleep disorders, neurological malfunctions, geological or astronomical misinterpretations and the like. On the other hand, I can't deny that a complete account of the UFO phenomenon should include even transcientific explanations.

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James Randi writes in his latest commentary (Swift Online):

Last November's documentary on the celebrated, suspected 1947 UFO crash in Roswell, N.M., was the highest-rated special in [the Sci Fi channel's] 11-year history. It was seen by nearly 2.4 million people, or about 2½ times their usual prime-time audience. They know good business when they see it. The network sponsored an archaeological excavation at Roswell, New Mexico, and has two new UFO specials in the works.

For more on the Sci Fi channel's efforts see this CNN.com article "Sci Fi pushes for aggressive UFO search." What is most amusing about their efforts, including the hiring of a Washington lobbyist, is that Sci Fi claims it is not motivated by self-interest but by a genuine concern for the public interest. Thomas Vitale, Sci Fi's senior vice president of programming, boldly asserts: "Our main goal is not to find a UFO. The goal is finding the truth." So, if it's the truth they're after, why are they seeking help from Washington?

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Last week Larry King interviewed Glen Dennis, a former mortician who surfaced as a key player in the Roswell story in 1989, some forty years after the alleged alien crash. You read right. He sat on the biggest story in UFO history for forty years. What a guy! Anyway, he offered Larry King, intrepid seeker of truth, essentially the same account he handed Unsolved Mysteries in 1989 and Omni magazine in 1995. Dennis claims that in 1947 he was a mortician working at Roswell's Ballard Funeral Home. He claims that on the 4th of July he got a call from the Roswell Army Air Force's (RAAF) office of Mortuary Affairs and was asked whether he had any child-sized caskets. He also claims that later that day he drove an ambulance to RAAF base to pick up an injured man and take him to the hospital. Dennis claims a nurse at the hospital told him to get out of there and that she had walked in on an alien autopsy. He said a few more things but you get the picture. When queried about this nurse, Dennis has given her several different names, claims she mysteriously moved to England and died just as mysteriously. Kevin Randle, an ardent ufologist, was unable to find any evidence this nurse even existed. Neither has any other investigator. Also, Lorenzo Kimball, who was a medical supply officer at the RAAF base in 1947 claims that neither the office of Mortuary Affairs nor the alleged suite where the autopsy supposedly took place existed in 1947. Dennis, by the way, along with some partners, founded the International UFO Museum and Research Center at Roswell in 1991, which has become a top New Mexico tourist attraction. You can read all about this and much, much more in B. D. "Duke" Gildenberg's fine article "A Roswell Requiem" in the current issue of Skeptic magazine (pp. 60-73).

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Finally, as I am occasionally criticized for not giving complete accounts (covering all sides of an issue), I remind the reader that I state up front (in the introduction to The Skeptic's Dictionary) that my goal is to provide the skeptical arguments and sources on various occult issues. I have not written an encyclopedia and I have not written a book which critically examines all the best arguments, pro and con, on the issues I cover. I've begun such a book, but The Skeptic's Dictionary is not that book.

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4) Critical Thinking Mini-lesson - The Wason Card Problem

One of the nicer features of the James Randi Educational Foundation's Amazing Meeting earlier this year was the time set aside for mini-talks by those responding to a call for papers. One of those talks was given by Dr. Jeff Corey, who teaches experimental psychology at C. W. Post College. His talk was on "The Wason Card Problem" and its role in teaching critical thinking skills. Four cards are presented: A, D, 4, and 7. There is a letter on one side of each card and a number on the other side. Which card(s) must you turn over to determine whether the following statement is false? "If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side." For a graphic version of the problem go here. (I suggest you spend a few minutes trying to solve the problem before continuing.)

(I hope you have been able to restrain yourself from jumping ahead and have worked out your solution to the problem. Before continuing, try to solve the following alternative version: Let the cards show "beer," "cola," "16 years," and "22 years." On one side of each card is the name of a drink; on the other side is the age of the drinker. What card(s) must be turned over to determine if the following statement is false? If a person is drinking beer, then the person is over 19-years-old.)

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I gave the Wason Card Problem to 100 students last semester and only seven got it right, which was about what was expected. There are various explanations for these results. One of the more common explanations is in terms of confirmation bias. This explanation is based on the fact that the majority of people think you must turn over cards A and 4, the vowel card and the even-number card. It is thought that those who would turn over these cards are thinking "I must turn over A to see if there is an even number on the other side and I must turn over the 4 to see if there is a vowel on the other side." Such thinking supposedly indicates that one is trying to confirm the statement If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side. Presumably, one is thinking that if the statement cannot be confirmed, it must be false. This explanation then leads to the question: Why do most people try to confirm a statement, when the task is to determine if it is false? One explanation is that people tend to try to fit individual cases into patterns or rules. The problem with this explanation is that in this case we are instructed to find cases that don't fit the rule. Is there some sort of inherent resistance to such an activity? Are we so driven to fit individual cases to a rule that we can't even follow a simple instruction to find cases that don't fit the rule? Or, are we so driven that we tend to think that the best way to determine whether an instance does not fit a rule is to try to confirm it and if it can't be confirmed then, and only then, do we consider that the rule might be wrong?

Corey noted that when the problem is changed from abstract items, such as numbers and letters, and put in concrete terms, such as drinks and the age of the drinker, the success rate significantly increases (see the example described above). One would think that confirmation bias would lead most people to say they must turn over the beer card and the 22 card, but they don't. Most people see that the cola and 22 cards are irrelevant to solving the problem. If I remember correctly, Corey explained the difference in performance between the abstract and concrete versions of the problem in terms of evolutionary psychology: Humans are hardwired to solve practical, concrete problems, not abstract ones. To support his point, he says he simplified the abstract test to include only two cards (showing 1 and 2) with equally poor results.

I had discussed confirmation bias, but not conditional statements, with my classes before giving them the Wason problem. The majority seemed to understand confirmation bias; so, if the reason so many do so poorly on this problem is confirmation bias, then just knowing about confirmation bias is not much help in overcoming it as a hindrance to critical thinking. This is consistent with what I teach. Recognition of a hindrance is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for overcoming that hindrance. However, next semester I'm going to give my students the Wason test after I discuss determining the truth-value of conditional statements. The reason for doing so is that anyone who has studied the logic of conditional statements should know that a conditional statement is false if and only if the antecedent is true and the consequent is false. (The antecedent is the if statement; the consequent is the then statement.) So, the statement If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side can only be false if the statement a card has a vowel on one side is true and the statement it has an even number on the other side is false. I must look at the card with the vowel showing to find out what is on the other side because it could be an odd number and thus would show me that the statement is false. I must also look at the card with the odd number to find out what is on the other side because it could be a vowel and thus would show me that the statement is false. I don't need to look at the card with the consonant because the statement I am testing has nothing to do with consonants. Nor do I need to look at the card with the even number showing because whether the other side has a vowel or a consonant will not help me determine whether the statement is false.

There is a possibility that the reason many think that the even-numbered card must be turned over is that they mistakenly think that the statement they are testing implies that if a card has an even number on one side then it cannot have a consonant on the other. In other words, it is possible that the high error rate is due to misunderstanding logical implication rather than confirmation bias. In the concrete version of the problem, perhaps it is much easier to see that the statement If a person is drinking beer, then the person is over 19-years-old does not imply that if a person is over 19 then they cannot be drinking cola. If this is the case, then an explanation in terms of the difference between contextual implication and logical implication might be better than one in terms of confirmation bias. Perhaps it is the context of drinking and age of the drinker that indicates to many people that a person can be over 19 and not drink beer without falsifying the statement being tested, i.e., that simply because if you're drinking beer you are over 19 doesn't imply that if you're over 19 you can't be drinking cola. That is, in the concrete case people may not have any better understanding of logical implication than they do in the abstract case and neither case may have anything to do with confirmation bias.

On the other hand, some might reason that if I turn over the even card and find a vowel, then I have confirmed the statement, which is in effect the same as showing that the statement is not false, but true. This would be classic confirmation bias. Finding an instance that confirms the rule does not prove the rule is true. But, finding one instance that disproves the rule shows that the rule is false.

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5) Complaints about not receiving the newsletter

About two dozen copies of the last newsletter were not delivered because spam filters rejected them due to content. These filters are lists of words commonly found in spam e-mails. If an e-mail or subject line contains one or more of the offensive expressions, the mail is rejected. I think the flagged words were those used in the Nigerian bank scam article, where I reproduced the words of the scammers. This raises a troublesome issue. If you use a spam filter (and I don't blame you for doing so), you will not receive e-mail critical of the spammers unless the criticism avoids using the words of the spammers.

Also, some of you have filters that reject mail from someone unfamiliar to you. Again, I don't blame you, but if you wish to receive your copy of this newsletter set up a filter for mail from newsletter@skepdic.com and direct it to a folder of your choice.

Finally, several of you do not receive your newsletter because your mailboxes are over quota and your IP bounces them back to me.

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While on the topic of scams......Mary Sue Blackhurst advises: "Don't give out account numbers to callers who say they're calling from one credit card company with an offer of a promotional balance transfer rate if you give them the information on the other account right now." I would add, don't give out any account numbers to anyone unless you are the one who has initiated the conversation. The recent "Best Buy Scam" demonstrates just how innovative some thieves can be to get those account numbers.

Richard Tubman wrote to inform us of a fellow who has written a book that is a collection of his correspondence with various promoters of the Nigerian bank scam. The author, who calls himself J. Cosmo Newbery, also has a web page explaining his modus operandi:

I ... try to spin [the scammers] along for as long as possible, often insulting them mercilessly along the way. Despite what they say, they want my money and they put up with a lot in the hope of getting it. So keen are they for my money that it never crosses their mind that I might be having them on. Bless them!

Since the last newsletter, I have received more scam e-mails, including requests from four more alleged Africans: Nigerian Dr. Charles Iho (two requests, in fact, dated two days apart), Nigerian Dr. Ken Abu, Barnabas Abudu (son a Zimbabwean farmer who somehow managed to squirrel $12.5 million in a Dutch bank before he was murdered by government agents), and Basher Mobutu (two requests, in fact, from this son of the late president of Democratic Republic Of Zaire, President Mobutu Sese Seko). Iho claims to be part of a committee on petroleum; Abu says he is a minister of aviation. I replied to them that I had reported them to the Secret Service. I was inspired to this action after receiving the following e-mail from Paul Morrison

Seeing as I actually do live in Cape Town, South Africa, (unlike Misters Sisolo and Umbeki) I can inform you that the local police are cracking down on these scammers, and that reporting the e-mails you receive to the relevant authorities *might* actually make a difference. Perhaps not, but it is something to consider. Keep up the good work!

If you have not lost any money to these criminals but wish to report any attempt to involve you in a scam, you may send a fax of the letter to the Secret Service at (202) 406-5031, according to the Secret Service site on "4-1-9" or "ADVANCE FEE FRAUD" schemes.

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For some reason, I've been paying more attention to scams lately and took notice of a rather stupid scam involving Coca-Cola Company. Their employees rigged a marketing test of Frozen Coke at Burger King. They hired an outside consultant to spend up to $10,000 to buy value meals at Burger Kings in Richmond, Virginia (where Frozen Coke was being test-marketed) and demand Frozen Coke. According to a lawsuit by a former Coke officer, the Richmond promotion resulted in a $65 million investment by Burger King in Frozen Coke. This scam reminded me of one Microsoft pulled a few years ago when it was being hauled to court for various questionable behaviors. Microsoft started a phony grassroots campaign and had employees sending in letters to newspaper editors and various states' attorneys. The letters offered support for Microsoft against anti-trust charges by the government.

I'll conclude with a note about Samuel Kim, who is suing Microsoft and Best Buy, claiming they conspired to scam him. Mr. Kim says he made a purchase at a Best Buy electronics store and as part of a promotion with Microsoft, he was given a free trial compact disc for Internet access through Microsoft's MSN service. He says that at the checkout the CD was scanned for "inventory" purposes, which,  "automatically triggered MSN to create an Internet access subscription." He says he never activated the subscription but when the free trial period ended, MSN charged his account. He doesn't say how much he was charged but his suit is for more than a few butterflies.

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