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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 74

January 7, 2007

"Parapsychology seems to be growing further away from the progress and excitement of the rest of consciousness studies." --Susan Blackmore

Previous newsletters are archived at Go there for subscription and feedback information.

In this issue:

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

I've posted a new entry on N'kisi & the N'kisi Project (a parrot and a psychic researcher named Sheldrake) and a complementary (but not complimentary) blog on an Animal Planet program purporting to pay homage to Jane Goodall but making her look like a monkey.

Comments from someone who thinks Edgar Cayce predicted the invention of the laser are posted, along with my usually benign and sweet response.

I've also posted comments on

Finally, I updated the magical thinking entry to include a link to an article about the use of snakes to predict earthquakes in China. Also updated was the 9/11 conspiracy theories article to include material from Phil Molé's article that appeared in the most recent issue of Skeptic magazine: "9/11 Conspiracy Theories - The 9/11 Truth Movement in Perspective."

The Amazing Meeting 5 in Las Vegas - Last Call

I'm getting ready for TAM5, which should be an intellectual and entertainment feast, coming up shortly (January 18-21). There is a rumor that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park) will be there and submit to an interview by Penn Jillette. It's hard to say who the star of the show is this year: the list of speakers is impressive. As I've mentioned before, I'll be working with science and nature writer Diane Swanson and physicist Ray Hall in putting on a critical thinking workshop. It's still not too late to register. (Check the JREF website for details.)

Sam Harris: A Man of Faith?

One of the leaders of the pack in anti-religious invective these days is Sam Harris, author of two well-selling anti-religious books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. He's also written an Atheist Manifesto, posted on a website called I've heard him being interviewed a couple of times. He does not beat around the bush and he does not hesitate to say insulting things about religious believers. In a review of Francis Collins's The Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, after describing an emotional experience that Collins had and that inspired him to some religious thoughts, Harris writes: "It is at this point that thoughts of suicide might occur to any reader who has placed undue trust in the intellectual integrity of his fellow human beings."* Collins is a physical chemist, medical geneticist, and head of the Human Genome Project. He is also a straight-up Christian and living proof that a person can be irrational in one part of his life, while rational in another, completely separate area.

Harris presents himself and atheism as rational, yet he doesn't apply very rigorous standards of rationality when dealing with the subjects of reincarnation and the paranormal. One reader of the Skeptic's Dictionary strongly urged me to remove the link to the "Atheist Manifesto." The reader didn't think Harris was really an atheist because "Harris believes psi phenomena are likely to be real and accepts Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin as credible witnesses on this subject. He also says he believes there may be empirical evidence for reincarnation." The reader cites a footnote on p. 232 of The End of Faith. I didn't remove the link to Harris's manifesto, however. He's entitled to his views as to what he considers atheism to imply. Anyway, a person can be an atheist and also believe in reincarnation and the paranormal. But Harris seems to claim that it is his rationality that has led him to atheism and should lead any other rational person to the same conclusion.

Perhaps Harris meant only to suggest that it would be unreasonable to dismiss reincarnation and the paranormal without a thorough rational examination. In an article by John Gorenfeld of, based on an interview with Harris, the aforementioned footnote was brought up:

"I've received a little bit of grief for that," [Harris] says. "I certainly don't say that I'm confident that psychic phenomena exist. I'm open-minded. I would just like to see the data."

To see the "data" yourself, "The End of Faith" points readers to a slew of paranormal studies.

One is Dr. Ian Stevenson's "Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy." The same author's reincarnation book presents for your consideration the past life of Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who introduced the Beatles to the Maharishi. He was born with a birthmark, it says, right where his past self was knifed to death, aged two.

[Earlier in the article, Gorenfeld noted that in The End of Faith Harris recommends that curious readers spend time with Stevenson's Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.]

Making the case for the "20 Cases" researcher, Harris sounds almost like "Chronicles of Narnia" author C. S. Lewis, who said Jesus could only be a liar or the Son of God.

"Either he is a victim of truly elaborate fraud, or something interesting is going on," Harris says. "Most scientists would say this doesn't happen. Most would say that if it does happen, it's a case of fraud. ... It's hard to see why anyone would be perpetrating a fraud -- everyone was made miserable by this [xenoglossy] phenomenon." Pressed, he admits that some of the details might after all be "fishy."

Another book he lists is The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. "These are people who have spent a fair amount of time looking at the data," Harris explains. The author ... Dean Radin ... proclaims: "Psi [mind power] has been shown to exist in thousands of experiments."

Is Harris backpedaling or is he trying to have it both ways? Harris wouldn't have to do much research to discover that Ian Stevenson's evidence for reincarnation is little more than a collection of stories that he thinks confirm his hypotheses, one of which is that if a person dies of a wound or injury they will be born in another body with a mark of some kind near that wound or injury, or that can be connected in some way to that wound or injury. This hypothesis is based on fantasy, however.

Stevenson collects stories, but Radin collects studies. He then lumps them together into meta-studies and applies a statistical formula that is able to show that even a minute difference from chance expectation for these huge data bases is "statistically significant." He takes this as proof that "something interesting is going on." The only thing I find interesting about paranormal research is why grown-ups pay them any mind. At the end of the day, all Radin has is a statistic and like everybody else who has studied this kind of stuff he still can't produce a single person who can mind read a three-letter word or move a pencil on a table without using trickery. The assumptions of Stevenson and Radin don't seem much more rational than many religious assumptions that Harris berates.

Stevenson does no scientific testing. He does things like go to a village where everybody believes in reincarnation and he finds some kid who is put forth as being so-and-so who died in some other village. All he can do is try to confirm by interviews and checking newspaper articles (if there are any) about the death to look for consistency in the stories. If he can't put the story down to lying, prompting, suggestion, or any other naturalistic explanation, he keeps it and calls it one more confirming instance of his hypothesis. If he finds the story doesn't hold up, he doesn't keep it.

That Harris would take seriously Stevenson's beliefs about xenoglossy is disconcerting. Here's another excerpt from the Gorenfeld article:

Asked which cases are most suggestive of reincarnation, Harris admits to being won over by accounts of "xenoglossy," in which people abruptly begin speaking languages they don't know. Remember the girl in "The Exorcist"? "When a kid starts speaking Bengali, we have no idea scientifically what's going on," Harris tells me. It's hard to believe what I'm hearing from the man the New York Times hails as atheism's "standard-bearer."

I also find it hard to believe that this is coming from a man who claims to be a voice of reason. Harris indicates that Stevenson's stories about xenoglossy are either true or they're fraudulent, which is a false dichotomy. Stevenson could have gotten the translation wrong, he might be gullible, he may have made a mistake, he may be  exaggerating, or  he could be a pious fraud. Harris says that he can't see how something could be a fraud if it makes so many people miserable. What about religion?

One other thing. Harris says in the Alternet interview that he supports torture because "it works." Porter Goss, former head of the CIA, says torture doesn't work and that's why the U.S. doesn't use it. We use inhumane debriefing, not torture. I can't comment on this because I haven't yet seen the randomized, double-blind, controlled studies. But if a voice of reason says it's true, who am I to disagree?

Harris has posted a "response to controversy":

My views on the paranormal-ESP, reincarnation, etc.: My position on the paranormal is this: While there have been many frauds in the history of parapsychology, I believe that this field of study has been unfairly stigmatized. If some experimental psychologists want to spend their days studying telepathy, or the effects of prayer, I will be interested to know what they find out. And if it is true that toddlers occasionally start speaking in ancient languages (as Ian Stevenson alleges), I would like to know about it. However, I have not spent any time attempting to authenticate the data put forward in books like Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe or Ian Stevenson's 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. The fact that I have not spent any time on this should suggest how worthy of my time I think such a project would be. Still, I found these books interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claims of religious dogmatists.*

Thinking at the speed of light

According to The Times of India, telepathy will be replaced in the future with techlepathy. It reports on a prediction by the World Future Society, which forecasts that wireless technology will be incorporated into our thought processing by 2030.

In the next 25 years, we'll learn how to augment our 100 trillion relatively slow inter-neuronal connections with high-speed virtual connections via nanorobotics.

This will allow us to greatly boost our pattern-recognition abilities, memories, and overall thinking capacity, as well as to directly interface with powerful forms of computer intelligence and with each other.

It is predicted that new technology will permit us to transmit neural patterns of unspoken words to other persons. Eventually we'll be able to transmit even our emotions via wireless technology. Maybe so, but if the technology is too good we won't be able to deceive others because they'll pick up information from our subconscious. If we can't deceive would we still be human?

Not to worry, futurists tell us that we'll have our own personal firewall to restrict access to parts of our minds we don't want others to see.

The article concludes on a bright note:

Yes, there'll be hackers going in-mind from time to time and mind-bloggers going openly public but, in general, techlepathy should be as safe as having a mobile phone inside one's head.

That safe, eh? Well, sign me up!

The Paranormal Network

As though there isn't enough paranormal entertainment in our society, The Paranormal Network has been reborn with plans to expand to cable TV. [Maybe the TV site will do better than the Internet site (, which went dead a week after this posting.] According to CEO, Michael A. Force of Nashville, Tennessee, The Paranormal [TV] Network will run Paranormal related shows 24/7 with no infomercials which do not specifically contain paranormal related themes. Don't you just hate those non-paranormal infomercials?

Bad Language

Bad Language, a website featuring the cunning linguist Dr. Karen Stollznow, joins Bad Astronomy, Bad Biology, Bad Chemistry, Bad Geology, Bad Meteorology, Bad Physics, Bad Psychics, Bad Science and more Bad Science.

One of Karen's specialties is defamatory language. I don't know if she uses defamatory language, but she studies it. She's also very skeptical and has written several pieces for the Australian Skeptic magazine and for many other publications. Check her publication postings.

The Skeptics' Circle

Skeptical bloggers are invited to submit their latest posts to The Skeptics' Circle, which is now in its 51st edition. My favorite post this time is from Orac about Andrew Wakefield's conflict of interest as leader of the anti-vaccine brigade. Taking cash from lawyers who plan to sue those your research defames makes Andrew a very bad boy. Another post worth reading is Second Sight, which takes apart each episode of a TV program on psychic detectives being shown on Australia's ABC-TV. These are just two of many worthy articles in the latest edition. Check it out.

Bay Area Skeptics Meeting

Join me and the Bay Area Skeptics on Monday, January 29, 2007, at the Dimond Branch Library, 3565 Fruitvale Avenue, Oakland, California, from 6:30 to about 8 PM. All are welcome. I'll be talking about The Skeptic's Dictionary and why I bother to promote critical thinking in a world that sometimes seems to have gone mad.

Scams of the minute awards

One award goes to Biosonics, the creation of naturopath John Beaulieu. He says you can tune your body just like you can tune a piano. I know why I should tune my piano but why would I want to tune my body? So you can "achieve optimal physical balance" and "transcend to higher levels of consciousness." What does that even mean?

John claims that:

Tapping two BioSonic tuning forks will instantaneously alter your body's biochemistry and bring your nervous system, muscle tone and organs into harmonic balance. In seconds ... your body enters a deep state of relaxation. Feeling centered, your mind will be at peace...

Tapping these tuning forks will also reduce stress and enhance your immune response. Why am I skeptical? It sounds so reasonable.

If you just want to tune your brain, you can pick up John's "brain tuner" kit for about $100. If you buy this gizmo, that's proof that you do need your brain adjusted.

Award number two goes to Grander, a company that sells all kinds of energizers. My favorite is the "penergizer." The instructions are easy to follow:

Simply stir your water, beer, wine, coffee, smoothie or juice ten times and hold in the middle of the glass for 5 seconds.

What does stirring your drink with the penergizer do, you may wonder? As far as I can tell from the product description, this will revitalize the drink and enhance its taste. How this happens is pretty technical, but try to follow me as I take you through the GRANDER steps.

"The GRANDER Technology treats water using a molecular resonance effect." Molecular resonance is really cool. It rearranges the molecules and reconstructs the internal structure of the water. This allows the water to purify itself. "Water is re-enabled to decrease waste and promote life on a cellular level - benefiting every biological organism that depends on water!"

Their water treatment units are even simpler than the Inset fuel stabilizer. You don't even need to install them; just drop them in the water and let the magic begin. No plumbing required! If you want, they'll even sell you water to go with your treatment unit. How thoughtful is that?

In addition to the penergizer, GRANDER also sells pendants that allow your personal energy field to be strengthened.

GRANDER has energizers for the air, cutting boards, and beds. They even have a product line for pets that will make them "seem happier." In the end, isn't that what we're all after? To seem happier? What more could we ask for? Thank you, GRANDER, for being there just when I was getting cynical again.


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