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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 50

December 10, 2004

"The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
Groucho Marx

In this issue: Revisions, updates, and new stuff; cold fusion; election lowlight; intelligent design; feedback; and the upcoming Randifest.

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge


  • The Indian rope trick. The story did not originate in the Chicago Tribune in the 19th century. Alex Williams turned me on to a 17th century story from China that is the likely basis for the Tribune hoax. And Mick Sherman informed me of a 14th century Arab (Ibn Battutah) who claims he saw a similar trick while traveling in China. Also Johathan Blaney has informed me that in Ibn Battutah's account of the Indian Rope Trick he watched in China, there is a sceptical payoff. This is from the Mackintosh-Smith abridgement of the standard English translation by Hamilton Gibb: "The qadi Afhar al-Din was at my side and said, 'By God, there was no climbing up or down or cutting off of limbs. It's all conjouring" [p.269]
  • Jung: rewrote a small section to make it clearer that synchronicity is better explained by apophenia


New stuff

New Reader Comments

  • auras (two letters posted).

Cold Fusion

A couple of years after the Pons and Fleishman cold fusion debacle, our Department of Energy (DOE) announced, in so many words, that it considered cold fusion a chimera not worth pursuing. Earlier this year it announced that it would review the research in the field--now known as low energy nuclear reactions--that has been done over the past fifteen years. Last week, DOE published its report. The grand conclusion: "While significant progress has been made in the sophistication of calorimeters since the review of this subject in 1989, the conclusions reached by the reviewers today are similar to those found in the 1989 review." If I remember correctly, several labs tried to replicate the work of Pons and Fleishman--a task made difficult by the fact that they announced the results of their experiments at a press conference rather than in a peer-reviewed journal--and some succeeded. In the end, the replications were due to inaccurate measurement of heat due to faulty equipment. This should remind us that replication of positive results can sometimes give a false sense of confirmation of a hypothesis. (Or, if I'm wrong about this, it should remind us not to trust our memories.)

Lowlight of the recent election campaign

IMHO the lowlight of the presidential campaign came from the Catholic bishops who opposed Kerry because of his defense of a woman's right to have an abortion. Some of the bishops went so far as to advocate refusing the Eucharist to Kerry or anyone else who supports the right to have an abortion. Catholic bishops have given up any right to take the moral high road, especially where children are concerned, by their years of abuse, silence, and cover-ups regarding child abuse. Even now the bishops are as silent as sleeping lambs. Where is their outrage at the thousands of young people abused by Catholic priests and others?

Some may find it of interest that George W. Bush got 54% of the Catholic vote. Kerry, a Catholic, got only 47% of the Catholic vote. According to, "In Ohio, Bush got 55% of the Catholic vote in 2004 compared to just under 50% in 2000. That means a shift of 172,000 votes into the Republican column. Bush won the state by just 136,000 votes this year." Actually, Bush won by 119,000 votes. (No, I'm not implying that the bishops caused Kerry to lose or that Catholics are owed big time by GWB. But, if I were Kerry, I'd be asking myself why I'm not that popular with members of my own faith.)

further reading

Intelligent Design

A reader was concerned that the scientific community hasn't given the intelligent design (ID) folks a fair shake. The evidence put forth was the recent fiasco involving a paper by Stephen Meyer that was published in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington and was soon afterward repudiated by the group that published it. The spin being put on the affair by the ID folks is that the scientific community has played foul with them. (See, for example, Chuck Colson's article on the subject. He has links to several other articles in the same vein from the Discovery Institute folks.) According to the spin, the scientific community demands that ID be represented in peer-reviewed literature. Then, when an article is accepted in a peer-review journal, the scientific community roars and demands that it be removed. The truth is that the paper, while published in a peer-reviewed journal, was not peer reviewed. It was published without review by a former editor. Here is a statement issued by the biological society of Washington:

The paper by Stephen C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," in vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 213-239 of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, was published at the discretion of the former editor, Richard v. Sternberg. Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history. For the same reason, the journal will not publish a rebuttal to the thesis of the paper, the superiority of intelligent design (ID) over evolution as an explanation of the emergence of Cambrian body-plan diversity. The Council endorses a resolution on ID published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which observes that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity. Accordingly, the Meyer paper does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.

We have reviewed and revised editorial policies to ensure that the goals of the Society, as reflected in its journal, are clearly understood by all. Through a web presence and improvements in the journal, the Society hopes not only to continue but to increase its service to the world community of systematic biologists.

The Panda's Thumb, your one-stop website for material on evolution and the antievolutionists, has several items on the Meyer controversy, including a detailed critique of Meyer's paper by Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke, and Wesley R. Elsberry.

I also recommend Chris Mooney's article on the Meyer paper fiasco and for a critical examination of the ID movement.

Hot off the presses...The Feathered Onion: Creation of Life in the Universe by Clive Trotman (Wiley 2004)...According to The Guardian, Trotman "bats down some of the creationist objections: the one about the eye, for instance, and the one about the sheer improbability of life assembling itself by chance."


I've had an inquiry from Youngra Rhee, a publisher in Korea, about publishing a print version of The Skeptic's Dictionary in Korean. Maybe someday we can compete with the Moonies!

Also, Kenji Sato informs me that he is working on updating and revitalizing the Japanese translation of The Skeptic's Dictionary. Thanks to Kenji.


Andrew Skolnick writes to correct a few errors in the last newsletter:

The three investigators who designed and conducted the test of Natasha Demkina's claimed abilities are Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman, who are CSICOP research fellows, and Andrew Skolnick who is the executive director of the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health. (The test was a CSMMH-CSICOP project. Ray and I are writing reports for the March/April 2005 issue of Skeptical Inquirer.


Tom Morris of the UK informed us of quackblog and of his posted comments expressing his outrage that two British universities are teaching homeopathic medicine as part of their science curriculum. That's pretty bad, but in this country we have to fight every day to keep back those who think we should teach religion as part of our science curriculum as a matter of fairness.


Chris wrote to complain about the Discovery Channel show, "Rameses: Wrath of God or Man?"

I hope to read a very negative review on your site in the near future. The Discovery Channel produces some good stuff, like Mythbusters, but it still amazes me that crap like Rameses can make it on there. I'm going to write a protest to Discovery while I'm ranting like this.

Sorry, Chris, I won't be reviewing this swell-sounding show. The Discovery Channel has disappointed me too often. I rarely watch it anymore. In fact, one of the shows I was disappointed with was Mythbusters! But that was long ago and don't ask me what the show was about. (update: Dec. 16, 2004. Last night I caught Mythbusters and the show was very good. The crew tested two perpetual motion machines--worthless devices, as expected--and they tested the urban legend that a child jumping on a bed was beheaded by a ceiling fan--not likely! No, they didn't use live children. They created their own dummy just like in the movies.)


John Renish was disturbed enough by what he found at his local Long's Drug store that he sent off a complaint to the company:

When in my local Long's store to refill my legitimate prescriptions the other day, I picked up a Long's "wellness" sheet "Don't Let the Flu Bug You". I was appalled to see that you recommend multivitamins, echinacea, goldenseal, Zicam, Airborne, and Vitamin C for real diseases, one of which is sometimes fatal. Then I saw your "Live Healthy" section in this site (, which is even more credulous, and recalled that you also sell copper bracelets and other "magical" products. I understand that these useless products have a high profit margin, but it is unprofessional and irresponsible in the extreme to proffer snake oil in a pharmacy.

At least they're not selling prayer wheels. Or are they?


Mogens Winther of Denmark tells us that the Danes have their own version of  Court TV's psychic detectives. “Sense Murderer “ is now being exported to several countries, including Australia and the US. In one of the episodes, the psychics incorrectly identify an innocent mother of two children as a killer. A police investigation proved the psychics were wrong. (What is wrong with that picture?)


Several readers wrote to tell me that I let Penn & Teller off the hook too easily in my last newsletter. [I HAVE RETRACTED THE FOLLOWING CLAIM. SEE NEWSLETTER 41. P & T WERE NOT CORRECT IN THEIR CLAIMS ABOUT THE EPA REPORT ON SECONDHAND SMOKE.] Even though P & T were correct about the tainted nature of the Environmental Protection Agency report in 1993 that claimed that passive smoking causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year, they were not justified in concluding that laws forbidding smoking in pubs and restaurants are not justified. They ignored other studies regarding the effects of passive smoke. See, for example,

Several other studies are described in A Skeptical Blog (Mon, Apr 07 2003/Penn & Teller: Exposing Bullshit or Spreading It?)

With respect to P & T's position on Bjørn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist and their Cato Institute affiliation, we are advised to follow the money and read

For a detailed criticism of P & T's claims on environmental issues and their defense of Lomborg, see A Skeptical Blog (April 22, 23, 24, and 25 2003) and for criticism of their diatribe against those who protest genetically engineered crops, see A Skeptical Blog (Apr 08 2003).

Okay. I agree. I wimped out on this one. P & T shouldn't get a free ride on environmental and scientific issues just because they ridicule Van Praagh, alternative medicine, alien abductions, ESP, creationism, feng shui, and Ouija boards.



I hope to see some of you next month (and next year!) in Las Vegas at the James Randi Educational Foundation Amazing Meeting (TAM3). Penn and Teller will be there but they probably will not be talking about environmental or deregulation issues. In addition to rubbing elbows with the Amazing One himself, TAM3 will bring you face to face with Richard Dawkins, Michael Shermer, Julia Sweeney, Banachek (Steve Shaw of Project Alpha fame), Joe Nickell, and Phil Plait, among others.

Until next time....


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