Robert Todd Carroll
July 16, 2005
"When critics [in the autism/thimerosal debate] say someone is lying "you have to say, 'yeah, but are they lying on behalf of the truth or are they lying on behalf of a lie?'" -- Peter Sandman, risk communicator
In this issue:
New entry: The Soal-Goldney experiment (1941-1943) was intended to be a replication of the precognitive abilities of Basil Shackleton but turned out to be a replication of dishonesty by a scientist.
New Funk postings: I inherit millions while away at a folk festival; Pennsylvania considers legislating intelligent design (ID) into the science curriculum; the Guardian publishes an article on another bit of quackery in the alternative pharmacopoeia.
New Mass Media Bunk postings: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. spins a yarn about a grand government/pharmaceutical conspiracy regarding vaccines and autism; Kennedy's rant is so bad it deserves another pasting; and The Lancet is lashed for its support of another asinine study by Dr. Mitch Krucoff et al. on healing prayer and other "noetic interventions."
New What's the Harm postings: Nun crucified in exorcism ritual and psychic sentenced to 27 years for extorting clients.
There are malicious spammers out there who request in an e-mail that you open an attachment. They have various lures to get you to do this. For the record, each subscriber to this newsletter should know I will never request that you open any attachments. Any such request is bogus and did not come from me.
Also, this newsletter is a one-way street, unless you choose to send feedback. I do not send out requests to respond in order to maintain a subscription.
About 15 years ago, I put together some materials to help students succeed by enhancing their study, writing, and reading skills. You may download some of these materials in PDF form: Student Success Guide: Study Skills and Student Success Guide: Writing Skills.
Generally, I don't like journalists to do my thinking for me. I don't read newspapers, listen to radio news, or watch TV news to get my opinions reinforced. I like journalists to give me what they know and let me decide whether I should be terrified or proud or feel some other emotion. However, when the story is about some topic that reinforces pre-scientific ways of thinking about reality, such as astrology or psychic power or spirits with plans, I cringe when a journalist reports the story without giving any hint that there is something fundamentally wrong about 21st century adults thinking like children or pre-scientific shamans. It should go without saying that I do not find it cute or quaint that most daily newspapers print astrology columns.
I realize that journalists can defend their silence on these issues by invoking the fairness doctrine (it's only fair that both sides be heard and it would be wrong to show a bias in favor of science, progress, and rationality), the freedom & equality doctrine (we believe in freedom of speech and so must treat all views equally, no matter how idiotic), or the ignorance doctrine (you skeptics don't really know for sure that the position of planets can't affect personality, that some people can't communicate telepathically with dead dogs, or that a healer can't cure people over the telephone by magic).
On the other hand, I get great pleasure when I stumble on a journalist who calls magical thinking magical thinking. I've mentioned before such bright lights as Leon Jaroff (Time), Michael Shermer (Scientific American), Andrew Skolnick, Doug Wyatt (Savannah Morning News), and John Stossel (ABC). Now I must mention George Claasen of South Africa's News24.com. Read his report on the World Summit on Evolution and his column "Horoscopes a load of hogwash." The latter column covers a lot more than just the folly of horoscopes. It reports on some of the things that happen when you live in a world that has no place for science or scientific thinking. Of course, management can't acknowledge that thinking critically is one of the family values it promotes. Here is News24's disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. (It doesn't hurt that Mr. Claasen also mentions skepdic.com favorably. He's not only a good thinker; he has impeccable taste!)
In case you haven't noticed, I don't send out an annual plea for money to support the cause. I have been able to cover most of the expenses of maintaining SkepDic.com through my Amazon.com affiliation. Every time you buy something from Amazon from a direct link on one of my Web pages, I receive a small fee. I also receive a fee, though smaller than for a direct link, if you go to Amazon from a link on one of my pages and purchase something else from Amazon at that time. So, thank you to those who make your Amazon purchases by going first to SkepDic.com. Remember, you can purchase The Skeptic's Dictionary online from Amazon.
There is still time to register for CSICOP's annual Toolbox at the University of Oregon, August 11-14, 2005. If you go, you'll get to spend a weekend in the company of Ray Hyman, Barry Byerstein, Wally Sampson, Jim Alcock, Lauren Pankratz, the incomparable Jerry Andrus, and about 40 fellow critical thinkers. This years focus is on some of the classics of skeptical investigation, including the Soal-Goldney experiment. I've attended the last two years and highly recommend it. Unfortunately, due to other commitments I won't be able to attend this year.
The following may not be classics, but they are worthy exemplars of what happens when skepticism is abandoned in empirical research.
As a teacher, few things are more gratifying than a student demonstrating that the instruction was not in vain. Ray Hall, who teaches a course on Science and Nonsense at California State University, Fresno, passed on the following from a student who'd taken his course.
Dr. Johanna M. Hoeller is a chiropractor who is fully certified by NUCCA (National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association). She practices a special kind of alignment of the atlas that even she didn't know she practices until she saw a videotape of it. The treatment consists of the patient lying on his or her side while Dr. Hoeller twists her own wrist above the neck of the patient. The twisting produces a popping noise. She continues with the wrist-cracking until she's popped all the air out of her joints. She never touches the patient. She takes an x-ray of the patient's neck before and after the treatment. She shows the patient the x-rays hanging side by side, which she has overlaid with red and blue lines. She points out how the red line doesn't match up with the blue line on the before picture like it does with the after picture.
Since Dr. Hoeller does not touch the patient, who simply lies still during the procedure, no realignment of the atlas is possible. As far as I can tell, the only thing that moves are the lines Hoeller superimposes over the x-rays. I made stills from her video of two x-rays for comparison. Check it out. If anything in the patient's neck moves during the therapy it happens when the patient lies down or gets up.
A couple of patients are interviewed in the video and they're convinced Hoeller's therapy works. One fellow says the treatment works so well he's been coming in for more than seven years. Somehow, I don't find that to be much of an endorsement.
This case is a classic example of confirmation bias and self-deception on Dr. Hoeller's part and subjective validation on the part of the patients. Ignorance may also play a role in Dr. Hoeller's belief about the body's power to be healed. (Like may New Age healers, Dr. Hoeller is humble and denies she has any special powers. She just helps the body heal itself.) However, according to Samuel Homola, D.C., "the atlas is the highest spinal bone in the neck and has no connection to any structure that could cause back pain."
The case is also a classic example of the placebo effect.
The regressive fallacy is probably at work for some of the patients. For example, one of the two patients in the video complained of shooting pains down her leg. I had such pains not long ago and spent several sleepless nights hoping for someone to cut my leg off. For two days, I sat as little as possible, walked as much as possible, and did basic back exercises several times a day. After three days, I was playing golf with no pain. Who knows what I might believe if I'd gone to Dr. Hoeller when I was at the peak of my misery.
The pragmatic fallacy plays a role in the belief of both doctor and patient but the root cognitive illusion at work in these kinds of beliefs is magical thinking. Neither doctor nor patient seems to recognize the principle that lets us distinguish events that are causally related from those that are merely associated in (a) time or space or (b) symbolically in images or words. Most people who do not think magically would not try this therapy. Most scientists would not even bother to do a controlled experiment to test the hypothesis that cracking one's wrist over the neck of another person can have any physical effect on the atlas, even if they thought that the atlas might have some remote connection to back or leg pain.
The patient's willingness to experiment with magical as opposed to scientific treatments is usually explained in terms of desperation: Nothing scientific has worked so far; I'll try anything to get rid of this pain! The patient may realize the irrationality of the treatment and yet be willing to try it on the remote hope that it might work. Such a patient resolves cognitive dissonance by engaging in wishful thinking: I'll give up rationality in the hope that there might be someone who really can work magic. Maybe some of those stories of magical cures are really true. Scientists don't know everything! Maybe most things work by laws of nature that we know and understand but there may still be a few areas where different kinds of laws are at work that we haven't yet discovered.
The doctor's strong belief in the efficacy of her treatment is strengthened by the positive feedback she gets from patients who have deluded themselves into thinking that she's cured them. She may not get much negative feedback. Many of her patients must realize that her methods are unlikely to have any effect on anything, so they are not likely to protest too loudly when the treatment fails. She may not keep records of her "successes" and "failures." In her mind, however, she may remember the successes and repress the memory of her failures. In that way she deceives herself into believing that her treatment is extremely effective. She has probably never tested her methods under controlled conditions and may not even know how to do so. Why test something that obviously works?
On a related note ... I rarely hear from chiropractors but recently I received e-mails from three chiropractors, each critical of my entry on chiropractic. Coincidence? I doubt it. The letters varied in degree of civility, intelligibility, and rationality. Here's a sample of the worst of the bunch:
Dr. blah blah sounds like man of sound mind and healthy character. May his alignments go unnoticed. I won't respond to all his gibberish but I will comment on his claim that "it's all about money." Contrary to Dr. blah blah's view, money is only part of it. If it were just about the money, then more physicians would take their cue from folks like Deepak Chopra. Most physicians are not starving for customers and are probably grateful that chiropractors and massage therapists will work with the many people who have back and leg pains. It gives physicians more time to spend with patients who have more serious ailments.
Another chiropractor chided me for not keeping up to date with and posting on my Web site all the great new science supporting chiropractic principles. He suggests http://www.idealspine.com. I suggest he not ignore what I write in my entry on chiropractic: "This is not to say that chiropractors don't help people with aching backs, including people with chronic back problems. It is the theory of subluxations that has not been supported by scientific studies." The studies this chiropractor refers to support a variety of claims but none of them support the classic notion of subluxation. Furthermore, while there are many studies that indicate chiropractic can help people with back pain, there are also studies that indicate this pain can be relieved with equal success without resorting to chiropractic or the theory of subluxations. Furthermore, chiropractors are misleading the public when they claim that they, but not medical doctors, believe in the body's own power to heal. Every physician knows about proteins and tissue healing with rest. Do alternative practitioners really believe that physicians are ignorant of the body's immune system? (For an excellent introduction to immunology, I suggest Dr. Gerald N. Callahan's Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception. The author has a poet's eye and I guarantee you'll learn more about the body's ability to heal itself from this little book than you will from reading all the scientific studies published in support of chiropractic. The read will be pleasurable as well as enlightening.)
The third chiropractor, in addition to harping on the alleged ignorance of the medical profession about the body's ability to heal itself, thinks that the fact that chiropractic has survived for as long as it has is proof that testimonial evidence and practical success is all that's needed for a health practice to survive. I agree and refer to the cognitive illusions listed above in discussing the "success" of Dr. Hoeller as the best explanation for the survival of chiropractic. I don't accept the notion of this chiropractor that it took 100 years but the science has finally caught up to Dr. Palmer's theory of subluxations.
Now, on to a note from a student from my class on Critical Thinking About the Paranormal. He sent me a news item about a company in Australia that correlated automobile accident reports with astrological sun signs. Suncorp Metway, Ltd., studied 160,000 accident claims over a three-year period and found that Geminis are the worst drivers and Capricorns are the best. No data was given in the article I read, but the author, a professional astrologer who specializes in family readings, had an explanation for the rankings put out by Suncorp. I could find no mention of the "study" on the Suncorp page and I rather doubt that it will find its way into a scientific journal, but that didn't stop Nancy R. Fenn from interpreting the results for us. Her article is actually a commentary on the comments of Warren Duke, Suncorp's national manager of personal insurance, who apparently fancies himself an expert in astrology as well.
According to Duke, Geminis are “typically described as restless, easily bored and frustrated by things moving slowly.” That should give us a better understanding of famous Geminis like Queen Victoria, Barbara and George Bush, Pat Boone, and William Butler Yeats. Of course, there are plenty of famous and non-famous non-Geminis who are restless and easily bored, but why complicate things?
Taureans came in right behind the Geminis. Fenn agreed with Duke's assessment of Geminis but she had her own take on those of us born under the sign of the bull.
According to Fenn, Taureans live in the here and now and focus on their own body. It's unnatural for us to process abstract information. Being introverted and self-absorbed, we would tend to be reckless drivers. (Of course, if we were extroverted, we'd tend to be reckless drivers, too, but why complicate matters?)
Scorpios, who come in right behind Capricorns as the best drivers, says Fenn
Wow! I'll bet Scorpios are more psychic than the rest of us, too. They're "sensitive to energy." Now there's a scientific concept for you. And they can see right through us, just like Superman!
Debunking this drivel is not profitable. But for those who are interested in why this kind of prattle has so many satisfied customers, I suggest the following: confirmation bias, the Forer effect, magical thinking, the pragmatic fallacy, selective thinking, self-deception, subjective validation, and wishful thinking. Plus people who are easily bored or who live in the here and now find this sun sign pablum entertaining and as good as any other guide in life.
A recent Harris survey found that religion and magical thinking still trump science in the US. In a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 adults, 54% say they do not believe humans evolved from earlier species, while 64% believe that human beings were created directly by God. The pollsters note: "In general, older adults (those 55 years of age and older), adults without a college degree, Republicans (73%), conservatives (75%), and Southerners (71%) are more likely to embrace the creationism positions." On the other hand, 58% of Democrats and 48% of those who identify themselves as political liberals believe in creationism. Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats seem to differ in degree, not kind, when it comes to magical thinking.
Twenty-three percent of those surveyed said they believe that creationism, but not evolution or intelligent design, should be taught in public schools, while 12% think that evolution should be taught to the exclusion of creationism and intelligent design. Fifty-five percent think that evolution, creationism, and intelligent design should be taught in our public schools.
The Harris survey was released with the following notice about its methodology:
There are other sources of error as well: false implications and false dilemmas. For example, consider this question that was asked in the Harris poll: "Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: Darwin's theory of evolution is proven by fossil discoveries." The question gives the false impression that Darwin's theory is supported mainly by fossil evidence. That may have been true in the middle of the 19th century, but there is now abundant evidence from anatomy1, 2, 3, 4, 5, molecular biology6, 7, 8, 9, 10, genetics11, 12, and so on13. This question unwittingly feeds into the creationist argument that the fossil evidence is inadequate to support evolution. Creationists are especially fond of harping on the absence of "transitional forms" in the evolutionary record. When they are not misquoting people, the creationists put forth an argument that seems plausible to those ignorant of science and logic. A truly transitional form between species would not have been abundant, otherwise it wouldn't be transitional. But even when fossils of transitional forms are found, creationists demand a transitional form to the transitional form. The request for transitional forms is impossible to fulfill because it is never-ending.
Here's another question asked by Harris that is problematic:
The question is loaded: It creates a false dilemma. Note that the percentages add up to 100%, meaning that participants had to choose one answer to the exclusion of the others. Yet, many people believe in evolution and creationism, creationism and intelligent design, evolution and intelligent design, or all three.
In any case, from the point of view of scientific education, this survey plays into the hands of the ID and creationist folks by asking the question regarding the teaching of these topics in public schools as if it were a matter that should be decided by public opinion.
Was it synchronicity or coincidence that while considering the Harris survey I received the following e-mail from Norman Paterson of the UK. (I hope Norman doesn't mind that I've made some small revisions.)
I like Norman's suggestion that teachers of biology introduce their students to creationism and intelligent design in order to teach a valuable lesson about science: Some approaches lead nowhere even if true (e.g., bringing in aliens or gods to explain how things work), so we avoid them in science.
Another recent poll, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that 76% of the physicians surveyed believe in God (versus 83% among the general public) and 56% believe in an afterlife (compared to 62% of the general public).
I suppose I bring up these polls because I fail to see what good all this religiosity is doing us as a nation. Individuals may benefit from their religious beliefs but I can't see that religion has brought the country as a whole any benefit. Religiosity hasn't helped our educational system, our health-care system, or our political system. I can't see any evidence that it has made us a more moral nation. If anything, religion has hurt us by encouraging irrationality, superstition, wishful thinking, arrogance, and magical thinking. (Sorry for being so evasive. In the next newsletter, I'll tell you what I really think!)
As a writer, I often struggle with being misunderstood because I have not written something as clearly as I should have. I usually find this out when a reader questions me and I realize that the reader wouldn't be asking the question had I done a better job as a writer. Sometimes, however, I believe I've said exactly what I mean in as clear a fashion as possible and the reader still gets a message I never intended. Sometimes I can't figure out how they arrive at their understanding. Other times I can and I blame the reader. For example, I received this letter from "Chris":
I suppose Chris didn't need a reply because he's sure of his reading. He doesn't need a response because I'm the one who isn't thinking logically. Actually, Chris and many like him do need a response. They seem to think they are free to frame my writing to fit what they think my purpose should be. I can't count how many times I've been criticized because I didn't write a book of articles that tries to examine all the evidence on the topics I take up. I make it clear in the introduction to the book that The Skeptic's Dictionary was designed to provide the best skeptical arguments and references on the topics I take up. Chris seems to think that I am making an argument in my crop circle entry with the conclusion that all crop circles have been created by men. He hasn't read the article very carefully. The statements "Most, if not all, crop circles are probably due to pranksters" and "Some believe that the crop designs are messages from alien spacecraft" make it clear that I don't claim categorically that all crop circles have been created by men. But that is a minor point. The crop circle entry isn't an argument at all. If anything, it is an attempt to explain why many people believe a farfetched hypothesis over a simpler, more parsimonious one. People have always invented magical causes for things they don't understand or don't want to understand. Today, aliens are offered as causes of all kinds of things that in another era would have been attributed to Satan.
It would not be possible to prove that aliens haven't created any crop circles. The best I can hope for is that readers will recognize that even elaborate crop circles can be pulled off in a short amount of time by idle teenagers or malicious pub dwellers. I can't make anyone apply Occam's razor. I can only point out that there is a much simpler and more plausible explanation for any given crop circle: It is more probable that it was created by humans than by aliens.
Also, most of my entries have links to other entries. The crop circle entry links to entries on alien abduction, the ancient astronaut hypothesis, and the UFO entry. If Chris and other readers follow those links and read those entries, I think they will find that the evidence is much stronger for the "humans did it" than for the "aliens did it" hypothesis.
I could make a similar case for the Philadelphia experiment entry. A proper reading of the entry will find that I imply one story is more plausible than the other, not that the story I favor is put forth to prove a contrary theory is false.
A Treasury of Deception: Liars, Misleaders, Hoodwinkers, and the Extraordinary True Stories of History's Greatest Hoaxes, Fakes and Frauds by Michael Farquhar. This is an easy read. Most of the entries are short and entertaining. Most of the major hoaxes are here: Piltdown, Nostradamus, the Protocols, Mary Toft, and the like. I probably would have added the Indian rope trick, the Carlos and Steve Terbot hoaxes. Overall, this is a good introduction to some of the leading liars of all time.
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. I haven't read much of this one, but so far he's provided a few interesting anecdotes and some grandiose promises. He claims there's a science to making good snap judgments and mastering this science "would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interview are conducted, and on and on." We'll see.
Faith, Madness, and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception by Gerald N. Callahan is worth mentioning again. This is a great little book written by a poet who's also an M.D. Tom Cruise claims that Scientology cured him of dyslexia. If so, he should read this book to find out that postpartum depression is not a vitamin deficiency. On second thought, this book might be too deep for Tom Cruise, but he should be informed that a woman's immune system is five times more likely to turn against her than is a man's. Trust me, Tom, it's not because women need more vitamins than men do. Here's a brief passage:
I have not enjoyed many writers as much as I am enjoying Callahan.
Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature by David J. Buller. This is another book I am really enjoying. Buller has written a book about evolutionary psychology (EP) that 1) does not assume the reader knows everything there is to know about evolutionary biology; 2) does not assume that EP is de rigueur; and 3) promises to demonstrate that all the major details of the EP paradigm are wrong.
CBS, not to be outdone by NBC's "Medium," is introducing "Ghost Whisperer" to its roster of TV garbage for the masses. The show will star Jennifer Love Hewitt and is based on the allegedly true story of Mary Ann Winkowski of North Royalton, Ohio. The former pet groomer has found a way to supplement her income without becoming an Amway IBO. People pay her to chase ghosts from their houses.
Try iMusic (your soundtrack for success) to enhance your brain. iMusic will entrain your brain into peak performance mode. Indeed. You'd have to be performing at a very low level to fall for this load of meaningless jargon. If the iMusic site doesn't satisfy your need for a belly quack, try Dr. Zhi Gang Sha's page. Sha seems to have learned from Jacques Benveniste. He sends blessings over the telephone that are then coded into frozen water crystals by magical soul software so the blessings can be delivered to human organs around the world. His website says he does free remote healings but I was sent a copy of an e-mail recently regarding a woman who has given Dr. Sha $73,000 over the past two years. Maybe she just likes him but apparently her husband isn't too pleased. She does seem to be a bit generous. One may purchase Zhi Gang Sha Soul Software for Communicable Diseases for a mere $400.00, according to his website.
Scott Larsen has been having fun applying the Bible code to Amway. Check out the Amway Bible codes.
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