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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 55

May 21, 2005

"What I find most amusing and potentially reassuring is that when people are 'dead' it’s easier for them to 'multitask' in the afterlife." --Gary Schwartz

In this issue:

Feedback: Mind/Body Medicine

Roman Buchok writes: "I have noticed a kind of lack of dignity in the way you speak to some of your contributors – Please keep a balanced view." Mr. Buchok's response was to my dismissing attitude toward Walter Last's belief that love can cure cancer.

Buchok sent me a few passages from the April 1999 issue of “Coping With Cancer” magazine that amount to a plug for psychoneuroimmunology with the caveat that it could be damaging for a patient to put all of his or her faith in alternatives while ignoring conventional therapies.

I agree that since many people are going to seek alternative therapies, they should be advised not to completely ignore conventional therapies. For some people, however, the cost of the allegedly "complementary" therapy makes paying for conventional therapy very difficult. The following story illustrates this point as well as my tendency, at times, to be less than civil with quacks.

I admit that I sometimes find it difficult to treat certain ideas or their adherents with much respect. For example, Russell John Beckett, a 54-year-old Australian veterinarian introduced the world to mineral water that sells for $50 a case. (The recommended dose is 2 liters a day, about $5 worth. I assume we're talking Australian dollars here.)  The price is justified by testimonials from several people who claim the water cured them of various diseases. Paul Sheehan, a believer in the miracle water, had an article published in the Australian Herald's Good Weekend magazine that touted the water as good for arthritis, fatigue, and osteoporosis. Even though he mentioned that no scientific testing had been done, TV networks picked up the story and soon 

queues of up to 600 sick people - some of them in wheelchairs, some using walking-sticks - formed outside the premises of Bert's Soft Drinks in the southern Sydney bayside suburb of Taren Point, then the only place the water could be obtained....

In the hysteria, people drove from Melbourne to obtain supplies. Customers were rationed to three cases each (a case, then costing $30, contains 24 600 ml plastic bottles). Dennis Shelley, a director of the family-owned bottling company, was quoted in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader as saying that 10,000 cases had been sold in a single day, $300,000 worth. (Australian Herald)

Imagine what the sales would have been like if Sheehan had had more evidence than just five success stories regarding people, one involving a dog, and another involving a cat who died.

Beckett "discovered" his miracle water by deducing that the water would assist in longevity because sheep and cattle in New South Wales seemed to live longer than other sheep. Beckett attributed this fact - if it is a fact -  to creek water drunk by the animals rather than to breeding or good animal husbandry. Beckett says he's sure the magnesium carbonate in the creek water is the miracle ingredient, so he began selling bottles of water with the mineral in it.

Beckett apparently is misleading the world not only about this miracle water but about his credentials as a scientist. He's been described as having a doctorate in biochemical pathology from Sydney University, even though the university doesn't offer such a degree. His claims as a researcher have also been called into question.

Some potential customers might be impressed by the patents granted* to the miracle water, especially if they choose to ignore the fact that being granted a patent doesn't mean the stuff has been tested or that it works.

In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration forced Beckett to remove the more outrageous therapeutic claims from his website. But this was not until he'd formed six companies with his son, his brother, and his friend (Dennis Shelley) to market his product, "Unique Water." Beckett moved on to Canada with his partner's daughter, Tanya Shelley, where he and a Korean associate marketed his miracle water as Aqua Gilgamesh. Efforts to locate either Beckett or Shelley by the Australian Herald have been unsuccessful.

I have no reason to disbelieve the claims of people who paid their money and are satisfied customers. They are probably honest people whose hope and wishful thinking improved their moods and led them to swear by the water. But I have a hard time believing that a man who lies about his credentials and education is telling the truth about his discovery. The consequences can be dire. Some sick and dying people are so desperate for anyone who holds out a promise of recovery that they will abandon common sense and try anything, no matter how unlikely to be curative, rather than accept the fact that death is inevitable. The Russell Becketts of the world get no respect from me. As I see it, there's nothing to balance here because there is no other side of the issue. It's wrong to defraud people no matter how good it makes them feel and no matter how willing they are to be your victim. (For more on this story, see Confessions of a Quackbuster.)

High Cholesterol and Heart Disease (Suburban Myth 71)

The myth: A diet low in animal fat will prevent high cholesterol which will prevent atherosclerosis which will make you immune to having a heart attack.

Average LDL cholesterol in the U.S.: 131 mg/dl. Average LDL cholesterol for people with heart attacks: 134 mg/dl.

Ninety per cent of over-50s could be labeled sick.*

Half of US heart attack victims have acceptable cholesterol levels and 25% or more have none of the "risk factors" associated with heart disease, including smoking, high blood pressure or obesity...*

Moral of the story? Cholesterol is not the only cause of heart disease; having low cholesterol does not mean you are exempt from heart disease. Not eating animal fat and cholesterol does not mean you are exempt from atherosclerosis. Also, eating a diet with a good amount of animal fat and cholesterol does not necessarily mean you are promoting atherosclerosis or heart disease. (For example, see News from the Women’s Health Initiative: Reducing Total Fat Intake May Have Small Effect on Risk of Breast Cancer, No Effect on Risk of Colorectal Cancer, Heart Disease, or Stroke, Feb. 7, 2006)

Several people questioned my listing as a suburban myth the claim that too much animal fat and cholesterol in the diet promote atherosclerosis and heart attacks. To those who doubt that this is a myth I suggest you read a few things, beginning with a short article from the Skeptical Inquirer by Lewis Jones called "Risk Factor." Here is a sample:

You might expect that any rational thinker would be able to distinguish between a correlation and a cause. Otherwise the possession of a driving license would have to count as a "risk factor" for a fatal car accident, and learning to swim would be a "risk factor" for drowning. Nevertheless, an entire health-alarm industry has fallen in love with the association game. The belief seems immune to disproof. James McCormick and Petr Skrabanek gathered together the results of all the major intervention trials, and published the resulting tables in the medical journal The Lancet (Oct. 8, 1988). The various interventions manipulated diet, smoking, blood pressure, exercise, and reducing weight, and covered 828,000 man-years. "This summary shows no experimental evidence to support the notion that intervention programs prevent coronary heart disease or reduce overall mortality. . . . Despite this considerable body of evidence, which shows no benefit for intervention, many have interpreted the results as supportive of their wishful thinking." This review, they say "provides no data to justify the time, energy, and money which are being devoted to this crusade."

One of the favorite villains right now is cholesterol. Most of the public had never heard of it before the present hit list was drawn up, but now many of them are altering their entire lifestyle and eating habits trying to avoid it. This is in spite of all the evidence showing the pointlessness of any such measures. The result produced by 115,176 man-years of observation was that "lowering cholesterol by drugs did no good and may have done harm." The same applies to altering cholesterol by diet. In Sweden, for example, coronary deaths in middle-aged men were rising while the risk factors were falling. In a number of countries, death rates for men and women are moving in opposite directions, in spite of the fact that they eat the same foods. In fact, most people with heart disease have a normal cholesterol level.

The Jones article will start you thinking about the issue. Next, I highly recommend a lengthy article by science writer Gary Taubes that appeared in Science magazine in April 2002 ("The Soft Science of Dietary Fat"). Taubes will provide you with a bit of the history of how correlations have become the holy grail of research into cholesterol, fat, and heart disease. A similar in-depth article is available from medical doctor and science writer Malcolm Kendrick. Kendrick has also posted a summary of the weaknesses of the cholesterol-to-coronary-heart-disease belief at

A recent issue of Skeptic magazine (volume 11 number 3) has an article on the cholesterol myth by Marshall E. Deutsch ("The Truth About Cholesterol"). It is worth reading, though it is of minor importance, and some of it is of questionable value.

Finally, I suggest you read a book by someone whom most of the medical establishment considers a quack. I don't vouch for all the claims in the book, but I've read it and think that this quack has many things to say about risk factors, correlations, bad science, and the politics of science that are worth considering. I suggest you read Uffe Ravnskov's The Cholesterol Myths, despite the quackery. A careful reader should be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I would, of course, like to hear from anyone who has read this or similar material but has good reasons for believing that there is strong scientific evidence that a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat is a significant causal factor in the production of atherosclerosis or heart attacks. (I hope it goes without saying that the above does not imply that a diet rich in fat is desirable or particularly healthy or that such a diet might not have adverse consequences for some people.)

I should mention the work of Lawrence Rudel. He's found that in mice the enzyme ACAT2 "actively tweaks the structure of both dietary and liver-produced cholesterol, enabling it to move about the bloodstream much more easily. The molecularly altered cholesterol then takes up residence in blood vessel walls, clogging arteries and leading to cardiovascular disease." And Dr. Lawrence Broxmeyer, in arguing that infection may be the greatest risk factor in heart disease, notes that "half of US heart attack victims have acceptable cholesterol levels and 25% or more have none of the “risk factors” associated with heart disease, including smoking, high blood pressure or obesity." It may be true that for some people a high fat or high cholesterol diet is a contributing causal factor in heart disease, but the evidence is not strong that this applies across the board to all of us. Stay tuned.

further reading

  • Low cholesterol? Don't brag yet ("...increasingly, doctors are identifying a group of people whose levels of LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, are low, but who still appear to be at increased risk for atherosclerosis, heart attack and stroke.")
  • Ageing cells may lead to clogged arteries ("Cutting cholesterol from one's diet does not always prevent cardiovascular problems, says endocrinologist Clay Semenkovich of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. 'Probably the majority of people who have heart attacks have a normal cholesterol level,' he says. 'That suggests that there is something more going on.'")
  • High Cholesterol? With Children, It May Not Matter ("Even if testing were to find a cholesterol level of 240 or over, he [Dr. Thomas B. Newman, a pediatrician and professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco] adds, no diet study has ever demonstrated more than a negligible improvement in children's cholesterol levels.")

Michael Behe visits my home town with a speech full of unintelligent comments

Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, brought his one-trick pony, intelligent design, to UC Davis on Friday, April 29th but I was out of town and missed the party. I did manage to get a letter to the editor published on the day of the talk, however. My letter was in response to an article about Behe's upcoming talk. For those who don't read the Davis Enterprise, I post the letter here with some minor modifications:

When Michael Behe comes to Davis to discuss his belief that some biological entities are too complex to be explained by theories such as natural selection, I hope he will respond to the obvious question as to why he would put his faith in ignorance.

That may sound insulting but his argument is that he and some other scientists cannot figure out how some things have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications. They conclude that such things can best be explained as the product of intelligent design (ID).

Behe is a Catholic biochemist who draws an analogy between a mouse trap and the flagella of bacteria and the inner workings of cells. However, we know that the parts of the mouse trap were designed to fit together. He claims that we don’t know the entire history of the evolution of the flagellum or the cell. Ken Miller, a Catholic biologist claims we do know how the various parts of the flagellum evolved independently. (See his article “The Flagellum Unspun: The Collapse of "Irreducible Complexity.") To believe the parts of the cell are irreducibly complex and were probably designed by some sort of intelligence is to put one’s faith in what science does not know at present. To assume scientists will never discover any separate and individual utility for the many various parts of the cell is a matter of faith in the continued ignorance of science.

ID, in short, is an anti-scientific belief and could never be a competitor to scientific theories such as natural selection.

After reading an account of Behe's talk in the UD Davis student paper, I am glad I was out of town. Either he is very ignorant about natural selection or he was deliberately deceitful.

According to Peter Hamilton of the California Aggie, Behe made the following claims:

  • intelligent design theory is currently the largest challenge to traditional Darwinian views;
  • the theory of intelligent design is not a religiously based one;
  • the claims [of Darwinian evolution] rest more on imagination than they do on data; Darwinian stories of how life came about have “lost touch with reality” and are based on “undisciplined imagination”; the theory of Darwinian evolution is based on no strong physical evidence;
  • because so many complex biological systems and parts of organisms appear designed, it is only logical to infer that they were in fact created for the specific purposes they serve;
  • evolution cannot explain the incredible diversity of species;
  • the eye is an example of something irreducibly complex, requiring intelligent design;
  • “It’s astounding that a theory that has been so utterly fruitless in explaining the very foundation of life nonetheless seems to command the majority of support by biologists.”

My response to these claims is

  • ID is not even a small challenge to any scientific theory of evolution. It is to the credit of the ID folks that their dedicated little band of religious apologists has been able to manipulate a good portion of the media and the public, as well as many local school boards, into thinking ID is a serious scientific challenger to the theory of natural selection.
  • To claim that ID is not religiously based is deceitful. One can state the ID belief without making a reference to God. However, if another meat-based or mechanical life form were posited as the intelligent designer, the ID folks would demand a designer of the designer but not ad infinitum. They would ultimately only be satisfied with a designer who transcends the natural world and is by definition not designed. But the Undesigned Designer is none other than God. What a surprise.
  • If anyone is basing his beliefs on imagination and a fruitless belief, it is the ID folks.
  • The fact that something appears to be designed may lead us psychologically to infer a designer, but logically we should know better than to conclude that because something looks like it was designed, it was probably created for the specific purpose it serves. (To make this claim seems to be an admission that one doesn't understand why natural selection is such a powerful explanatory idea--perhaps, as Daniel Dennet says, the greatest idea ever.
  • Claiming that evolution can't explain the incredible diversity of species or even the evolution of the eye seems to belie an ignorance of the theory and an inability to grasp the power of this idea.
  • Natural selection was not proposed to explain the origin of life any more than the Big Bang was proposed to explain the origin of the Singularity. But even if the first living cells were created directly by a god, i.e., a non-physical intelligence without irreducibly complex parts, that information would be of no use in explaining how things evolved over the next 4 or 5 billion years.

In short, I'm glad I wasn't there. I may have lost my temper at the opening prayer.

ID elsewhere

Steve Feldberg, the Programming Director of, announced that the Kansas Board of Education hearings on the teaching of evolution are now available as a free download at Also, NPR did a piece on the Kansas hearings.

These hearings, as many of you already know, were aimed at giving the defenders of intelligent design a forum for making their case that ID is a real competitor to natural selection and should be taught in the biology classroom. Anyone who has followed the ID movement knows that the real motivation is to discredit science in general and natural selection in particular. The ID folks believe that science and "Darwinism" are materialistic and atheistic.

The science community recognized that the hearings were bogus and refused to participate. Some have compared the hearings to the Scopes trial. There is some similarity. The issue poses a false dilemma: either there is the God of the Bible (Bryan) or there is atheism (Darrow). But the Kansas hearings seem to be a bit more radical as they aim to define science as "a systematic method of continuing investigation." They would leave it open as to where science might seek answers to its investigations. This might sound like a good thing until the Raelians, the Sitchinians, the post-modernists, Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists, the cabalists, and the radical feminists start pounding on the door, announcing that they have the real answers to all scientific questions.

Kansas isn't the only place where ID is the central educational issue. In Dover, Pennsylvania, the latest school board election is about little else. Last October, the school board voted 6 to 3 to require that ninth-graders be told about intelligent design when they learn about evolution. There are 14 candidates for board positions. Oddly, Republicans are supporting seven incumbent supporters of ID and Democrats are supporting seven candidates who oppose putting ID in the science classroom.

The Christian-oriented Thomas More Law Center has said it may sue Gull Lake Community Schools in Michigan unless two middle school teachers are allowed to include ID in their classes.

According to the Long Island Press, New York State Assemblyman Daniel L. Hooker (R-Saugerties) "has introduced a bill in the New York State Assembly that would require public schools to teach the newest twist on Creationism, a theory that holds humans were created by an “intelligent designer” rather than evolving by happenstance." Lauren Wolfe, the author of this bit of prose, seems to get what is driving the ID folks, but to characterize evolution as being driven by "happenstance" is the kind of misunderstanding that makes science teachers cringe. There are natural laws at work here, Lauren! It is not happenstance, for example, that members of our species have two eyes instead of one or three. Anyway, Hooker has also sponsored another piece of legislation that would allow the posting of the Ten Commandments on government property.

Too often the media present the issue in terms of "what are the scientists afraid of?" or "the growing support for ID as a challenger to Darwin's theory." Another exception comes from the People's Weekly World.

The ID brain trust

An ID advocate named Richard Gunther sends out e-mails to the world to let them know about the swell reasons evolution is wrong and ID is right. Here is the conclusion of one of his recent missives:

Obviously, if humans, spending billions of dollars, cannot even come close to making even the basic bits for a living cell, what are the chances that Nature did it, and assembled them all correctly, by accident? Nil of course, but evolutionists don't want the public to know this. They prefer to believe the lie than face the truth.

I suppose Gunther thinks that since humans are intelligent and nature is not, we should be able to bring about anything nature can. This doesn't seem self-evident to me, though Gunther seems to think it is unquestionably true. We evolved, not by accident but by laws and forces inherent in nature. Why should anything that has evolved be able to repeat the processes of nature? Nature had billions of years to work her magic. Humans have only been around for a nanosecond in comparison. Gunther thinks the truth is that there is an invisible guy in the sky who demands to be worshipped night and day, and who is recording his every thought and deed so he can reward him with the privilege of being in his eternal presence or punish him with eternal suffering. Fine. But he looks even more foolish for claiming that evolutionists would rather lie than face the truth and that they're hiding something from the public.

Scam of the Day

Batterylife® sells a piece of ceramic foil that allegedly will increase the life of a laptop or cell phone battery while helping the environment. Tom's Hardware Guide (THG) tested the foil and found it worthless. Tom's step-by-step example of how to do a proper scientific test is well worth the read.

Another Skeptical/Critical Thinking Blog

Jeff sent us a link to the Two Percent Company, a website devoted to critical thought and  skepticism applied to all kinds of topics. Check it out! Also, take a look at the latest edition of The Skeptic's Circle.

More translations of The Skeptic's Dictionary

The Japanese translation of The Skeptic's Dictionary is now available at thanks to Hiroo Yamagata.

Thanks to Mark Debusschere, there are now a few entries translated into Dutch.

Laura Xiong of has asked for permission to post some Chinese translations.

Also, there will soon be an Estonian print version of the SD.

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

New stuff: Gary Schwartz's Subjective Evaluation of Mediums - Veritas or Wishful Thinking?

Revisions: Christian ultra-fundamentalism and Our Lady of Watsonville.

Updates: acupuncture, Afrocentrism, anthroposophic medicine, electromagnetic field, and Loch Ness "monster."

Support our work! You can purchase your copy of The Skeptic's Dictionary online from or from your local bookseller. The perfect graduation gift!