A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 11

November 16, 2008

"If a creed makes a man feel happy, he almost inevitably adopts it." --William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

"I don't know." --(?)

In this issue

What's new?
The illusion of control
Superstition
Gay marriage
Scum of the minute
Pig-ignorance award
Robert Lancaster update
Blogs & filmmakers
100th Skeptics' Circle!

What's New?

New entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary:

The Phil Parker Lightning ProcessTM (another self- help program that can cure just about anything and help you achieve just about anything), doomsday and doomsday cults (these should become more popular as the world recession grows), global consciousness (another pipedream of parapsychologists), The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) (our ideology-driven national health program), New Thought (the basis of countless belief in belief programs),  Q-Link (jewelry for believers in the power of belief) and Gerson therapy (a 60-year-old quack cancer cure that is the centerpiece of a new feature film).

New entries in Skeptimedia:

Religious Fascism (about those who want to force all of us to live by their moral code), Prescribing Placebos (a response to a NY Times article that makes a mountain out of a molehill), Sharon Begley: Skeptics Think They're Intellectually Superior (a response to a Newsweek article on belief).

New posts in What's the Harm?

Kabbalah and Madonna's divorce and Killing a teen for god (stoning people to death in God's name).

New posts from readers:

EFT (a practitioner of Emotional Freedom Technique defends his work), Waldorf schools (letter writer attacks me for posting another letter writer's views), and neuro-linguistic programming (reader shares her experience with NLP course).

Revisions

I revised the Templeton Fundies article to bring it up to date and add a little more background into the Templeton Foundation's attempt to lure (with big chunks of money) scientists and science groups into promoting its message that religion and science are really good chums.

Updates of Skeptic Dictionary entries

atheism (added links to several articles, including to a press release from the American Humanist Association announcing its atheist bus campaign), placebo effect (added links to aforementioned NY Times article and my response), ghosts (added link to Scientific American article on how believing is seeing), science (added link to Christopher Hitchens's article on Sarah Palin's contempt for science), exorcism (added a video of a CNN report on a new TV reality show featuring live exorcisms), and pyramid schemes (added a link about riots in Popayan, Colombia over a pyramid scam involving greed and witchcraft).

Translations

Herman Boel's Dutch translation of The Skeptic's Dictionary online now has 200 entries, plus the mini-lessons on critical thinking,

I recently received several copies of the print edition of the Japanese translation. It's in two volumes and I put a copy on the shelf next the Korean and Russian translations. The Spanish translation is still in production. I am humbled by the thought that so many people have found my words worthy of being translated into their native tongues. At least I hope that's what all those funny marks are.

The Illusion of Control

Psychics, self-help gurus, energy healers, numerologists, and a host of other characters I write about in The Skeptic's Dictionary offer little more than the illusion of control to their clients. It's often said that in uncertain times, people will turn more superstitious than usual and seek out paranormal and supernatural mediums. Isn't it always relative, though? When are times not uncertain? These days there's more economic uncertainty than there's been for some time, but has the increased uncertainty turned into more business for, say, the psychics?

It all depends on which psychic you talk to, apparently. In a recent article in Wired, the headline reads: In Troubling Economic Times, Consumers Flock to Online Psychics. The body of the article, however, is about how some psychics are getting more business than ever, while others are experiencing the same slowdown as the rest of the economy. (Except, as my ever-alert editor John Renish, notes in the area of liquor, guns, and lottery tickets.)

One arena where the illusion of control dominates is sports. Athletes are notoriously superstitious and sports commentators are known not only for their clichés and repetition, but for their frequent invocation of the power of belief. It gets a little tiresome to hear another commentator say that Tiger Woods "willed the ball into the hole" or that somebody who hit a game-winning home run "wanted it." The guy who missed the putt for the championship or struck out to end the World Series wanted it just as much, but what commentator would say, "he just didn't want it enough."

Even President Bush fell into the control illusion and cliché routine when he hosted the national champion Fresno State Bulldogs baseball team at the White House. He called them "a team that refused to quit" and thanked the players for their "willingness to never say die" (as if the University of Georgia players they beat for the championship were a bunch of quitters).

Steve Salerno's SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless has a chapter on the "empty prescriptives" of sports figures who make the banquet and workshop circuit where you'll be told repeatedly that to succeed in sports and in life you gotta want it and believe, baby. Even the correlative of the will to believe principle seems too obvious to pay big bucks for: if you believe you will fail, you probably will. It will be interesting to see if the global "recession" impacts the attendance at motivational programs.

Superstition

University of Maryland physicist Bob Park is best known for his weekly pithy summary of the news from Washington, D.C., that might be of interest to anyone concerned about science and its abuse at the hands of politicians. Park is also well known for his ability to reduce complex issues into pithy and witty one-liners, e.g., the anthropic principle: "If things were different, things would not be the way things are."

Park's follow-up to Voodoo Science was published last month. Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science is a similarly thin volume that does not burden the reader with footnotes or chapter sources. (There is a good index and a short bibliography, however.) His style makes for an easy read, but it also requires the reader to have faith in the author's memory and accuracy. This can be problematic at times. For example, his account (p. 159) of the political origins of the National Institutes of Health [NIH] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) differs from the account given by Sally Satel, M.D., and James Taranto in an article in The New Republic (Jan. 3, 1996). I couldn't check Park's sources because he doesn't give them, but his account is wrong. Joseph Jacobs, not Wayne Jonas was the first director (when it was called the Office of Alternative Medicine). Jonas, the third director, was hand-picked by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) in 1995 to head his pet project. Jacobs left in 1993. Harkin was unhappy that Jacobs wanted to do real science and was unable to find proof for his pet belief that bee pollen cures allergies. To this day, NCCAM remains, in the words of Wallace Sampson, M.D., "the only entity in the NIH [among some 27 institutes and centers] devoted to an ideological approach to health."*

Park seems to have a library of information in his head, not only in physics, which is his area of expertise, but in biology and chemistry, and in a host of topics covered in The Skeptic's Dictionary: the Templeton prize, creationism and intelligent design, healing prayer studies, stem cells and morality, The Secret, homeopathy, God and science, "alternative" medicine, acupuncture, the Ten Commandments, and the placebo effect.

The one subject I had hoped he'd cover in depth—the attempts to link quantum mechanics to woo-woo—is treated in chapter eight, "Schrödinger's Grave." But Park only talks about quantum physics itself in a few paragraphs. The rest of the chapter is devoted to a brief review of things like The Secret, Edgar Mitchell's out-in-space telepathy experiment, PEAR, global consciousness, and other psychokinesis studies.

If you are a regular reader of Park's What's New newsletter and of The Skeptic's Dictionary, you may find Superstition reads like déjà vu.

On a minor note: I was rather surprised at the number of typos in the book, published by Princeton University Press. Even so, the overall impression of the book is not one of carelessness or inattention to detail, but of insight and bemusement at the fact that so many educated adult members of our species remain superstitious and willfully ignorant of science in the 21st century.

Park does give the reader an occasional glimpse into his personal life. He likes the woods, even though a giant tree fell on him some years ago and nearly killed him. He's not averse to befriending elderly priests, and though he could have easily used them as foils in depicting the antagonistic relationship of science and religion, he doesn't. He calls them "wise and gentle men of faith," even though they are depicted as somewhat childish and feeble-minded. The priests' common refrain, "God's ways are not our ways," cries out for a Parkian response (which we are not treated to): How would you know that? Actually, Park's concluding statement cries out for the same response. "Science," says Park, "is the only way of knowing—everything else is just superstition."

Change? Yes. Progress? Not in California.

Blacks turned out in record numbers in California to vote for Barack Obama. The percentage of voters who identified themselves as black in this election was 10%, compared to 6% in the last general election. I think we can safely say that Obama was the main reason so many more blacks voted this time around.

Seventy percent of blacks, and 52% of those voting, voted to amend the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Some were blaming blacks for the defeat of the "gay marriage" bill, as Proposition 8 was called, but it's not blacks who should be blamed. Even though it's true that if blacks had not voted in record numbers, proposition 8 would have been defeated, their vote had nothing to do with their race. It had everything to do with their religion. Hispanics also voted heavily for Obama and for Proposition 8. And much of the money in support of Proposition 8 came from out-of-state Mormons, which is too hypocritical to even comment on.

Prop 8 opponents couched the debate in terms of civil rights, but Bible-toting Christians of whatever color don't see it that way. They see it as an affront to God's will and to Christian tradition. So, if you're looking for someone to blame, blame Christians who think the Bible is God's word, that it forbids homosexuality, and that the rest of us in America should have to live by their code whether we like it or not because "America is a Christian nation."

I'm no expert but it might have been better to have framed the issue in terms of the idea that it is unAmerican to force everyone to follow your personal moral code. Islamic theocracies force everyone to follow Sharia. Do we want to be like them? Even Bible-toters don't want to stone adulterers to death or require that adultery be illegal. Stoning adulterers to death is a tradition that is still upheld in some Islamic places, where it is probably believed that to change the tradition would be to undermine marriage, morality, and civilization itself.

In any case, trying to get the Bible-toters and Book-of- Mormon-toters to think of gay marriage as a civil rights issue is a formidable task. Protesting loudly, boycotting, parading, defacing Mormon churches, and otherwise venting anger is understandable, but unlikely to have much positive effect. Educating religious homophobes to the facts might take longer, but its effects would be longer lasting, too. People don't choose their sexual orientation, and gay people are no less likely to form loving unions than heterosexuals. Being gay is as normal as being heterosexual (in the sense of "occurring naturally," which is the 3rd meaning in Merriam- Webster). The angry reaction to the defeat of Proposition 8 is a natural response and an example of this normalcy. Finally, if this were a "Christian nation," we'd all give up our wealth and hit the streets preaching the good news that the end is at hand. You'd think that after 2,000 years of waiting, somebody would figure out that Jesus was wrong.

update: Terry Sandbek has alerted me to two books by Christian authors aimed at Christian audiences that are supportive of homosexuality. What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage was written by David G. Myers and Letha Dawson Scanzoni. Myers is a psychologist and serves on the board of the National Marriage Project. Scanzoni is a member of the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women's Caucus.

Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church is by Jack Rogers who is a professor of theology emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary and was moderator of the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Scum of the minute

In the last newsletter I mentioned a study that found cell phones can cause real pain to "electrosensitive" individuals, even if there is nothing electromagnetic in the "phone." Now we have a company created for just such people: Stetzer Electric. Their motto is "measuring safety in an unsafe world." Their appeal is to people who are afraid of being made ill by electromagnetic fields. If you're not afraid of your electrical outlets and appliances by now, you will be after reading their website. To be protected you need to buy their filters (they recommend you buy 20 at $35 each) and microsurge meters (they recommend you get one for $125 if you want to measure each outlet and get an exact count of how many filters you need). What does the filter do, you may wonder? It is:

designed to filter harmonics and other high frequency current (trash) from the electrical environment, thereby reducing the potential for leakage into the human environment and creating additional trash in non-liner [sic] loads (televisions, computers, variable frequency drives, energy-efficient lighting, etc.).

For those who are technically inclined, they add: "At 60 Hz the filters act as capacitors and normally marginally improve the power factor of the customer load, which are [sic] normally slightly inductive."

If you have any money left after filtering your home from EMFs and want to get rid of the skin cancer they caused, check out this page: the eggplant cancer cure. Bill Cham invented it and he says it "works nearly every time." He also claims to have a Ph.D. in Medicine, but he doesn't mention where he got it.

The pig-ignorant anti-science remark of the year

This year's award goes to Sarah Palin for her inane remarks about it being wasteful to fund fruit fly research in Paris, France.

Steve Mirsky of Scientific American points out in a podcast that the United States has a vital interest in agricultural research and in joint projects with labs in other countries. Not to mention the long history of important scientific findings thanks to those who study fruit flies, including a finding that may help in developing a cure for autism.

Palin will probably also receive the NCTE Doublespeak Award this year. She seems to be, in the words of Dick Cavett, a person without a first language.

Second place went to John McCain for his equally stupid remarks about studying the DNA of bears in Montana, which he voted for by the way.

Robert Lancaster Still Stopping Sylvia Browne

By now most of you have heard that Robert Lancaster, the creator of the StopKaz and StopSylvia websites, had a stroke and is incapacitated. Robert was a speaker at the Amazing Meeting V, which coincided with the discovery of a living boy whom Sylvia Browne had declared dead on the Montel Williams show. This led to Robert, along with James Randi, being interviewed on CNN. Robert's wife, Susan, has been posting on the JREF forum, keeping readers informed of Robert's condition. Some friends have set up a website for those who would like to help with costs.

You've probably also heard that a cybersquatter bought the StopSylviaBrowne domain name while Robert was in the hospital and has turned the site into a mess. [The squatter uses Domains by Proxy to protect his identity.] Robert's Sylvia Browne stuff is now located at StopSylvia.com. Tim Farley of http://whatstheharm.net has advice on what to do about linking to the new site at http://skeptools.wordpress.com/2008/11/01/skeptics-load-your-google-bombs/

Another Skeptical Blog

The Skeptologists have set up a new blog called Skepticblog but I don't see how they can ever compete with Steve Kroschel, whose latest film is a feature-length defense of the Gerson regime and other quackery. The trailers for "The Beautiful Truth" (nice title, eh?) indicate a well-made, high quality production that will probably have some persuasive power amongst those who think Big Pharma and the "medical establishment" have been suppressing the truth about cheap and simple natural cures so they can line their pockets with our hard-earned money. (One of the trailers is of a hilarious grade-school level demonstration that dental amalgam is killing us with mercury vapors. The mercury scare apparently began in 1985 with the publication of It's All in Your Head by Hal Huggins, a Colorado dentist who is convinced that just about everything that ails anybody is due to the mercury in amalgam fillings. "60 Minutes" gave the idea a big boost with a program segment in 1990 entitled "Poison in Your Mouth." )

Speaking of blogs and filmmakers....remember the first rule of skepticism? Trust no one, not even yourself. The second rule is to remember the first rule when somebody confirms your bias. Journalists who work for networks who make being biased a badge of honor should remember this rule the next time they consult a blog as a source for a news story. I'm referring to the blog called the Harding Institute for Freedom and Democracy and its nonexistent senior fellow Michael Eisenstadt who was the source of the "leak" to Fox News that Sarah Palin didn't know Africa was a continent. Eisenstadt is the fake name for filmmaker Eitan Gorlin. Fox's Greta Van Susterin asked Palin about the leak, apparently both unaware that it was a fake. Her reply is in a language I am not familiar with, but it didn't seem to faze Greta:

My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars.

If that bit of garbled verbiage doesn't deserve the Doublespeak Award, it should at least qualify for the Gobbledygook Prize.

100th Skeptics' Circle

The 100th edition of the Skeptics' Circle will be posted at Respectful Insolence by Orac on November 20th.

Hal Bidlack

Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn won re-election over Democrat Hal Bidlack in Colorado's 5th Congressional District.

* AmeriCares *

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