Robert Todd Carroll

 logo.gif (4146 bytes)


Click to order from Amazon

The Skeptic's Refuge



vertline.gif (1078 bytes)


August 31, 2004. A 16-year-old girl was hanged to death in the northern Iranian province of Mazandaran on August15  for "acts incompatible with chastity." Amnesty International expressed outrage at the execution, but Iran says she was really 22. Her unnamed co-defendant, a young man, was given 100 lashes and released.

August 19, 2004. Rupert Ursin and his colleagues at the Institute for Experimental Physics in Vienna report today in the journal Nature that they have successfully teleported photons more than 600 meters across the Danube River. They fired a laser through a barium borate crystal to generate two pairs of photons, one of which was entangled (if something disturbs the state of one photon, the other feels the effects as well even when they are not physically connected). "By separating the entangled pair, the scientists successfully transported information about the state of one photon to the other," according to Scientific American. "The results indicate that quantum teleportation is feasible over long distances and under real-world conditions."

August 19, 2004. An article by Steve Connor in The Independent reports that the respected journal Inflammation Research has published a paper that may provide support for one of the basic tenets of homeopathy: that extremely diluted solutions can be biologically effective. The headline reads: Sceptic's tests support homoeopathy. Now the challenge for scientists is to repeat it.

Apparently, scientists in Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands "tested highly dilute solutions of histamine to see whether they still exert an effect on basophils in a test tube. At extreme dilutions, three out of four laboratories found a statistically significant effect and the fourth found an effect which just fell out of the typical range for statistical significance."

One of the researchers, Professor Madeleine Ennis, an asthma researcher at Queen's University of Belfast, remains skeptical of homeopathy. She noted that "the research does not prove that homoeopathy works." They didn't test homeopathy; they tested high dilutions of histamine. "I know what we tested and I cannot explain the results," she said.

Philippe Belon, who works for the French homeopathy company, Boiron, agreed that the research "is not a demonstration that homoeopathy works," but he thinks it provides support for the basic premise behind homeopathy.

At this point, all we can say is that the labs found a statistically significant difference between the control (distilled water) and the histamine in a double-blind study. If they had not found a statistically significant difference, they would not have been justified in claiming they had disproved homeopathy. Finding an interesting statistic in a single study is hardly proof of anything, but it's a start. Only time will tell if the experiment can be replicated and, if it can, what it might mean for homeopathy.

According to The Independent, an editorial in Inflammation Research explains that the journal published the research, even though "the authors are unable to explain their findings," because it "wished to encourage others to investigate this area."  The editorial also notes the journal's "spirit of openness" in publishing a controversial paper but insists that the paper underwent  "a rigorous reviewing process."

reader comments

I have done laboratory experiments at high dilution, and there are some things that can go wrong in such experiments. These potential pitfalls were not obvious to me before I started the experiments. Suppose, for example, that you want to dilute a solution by a factor of a million. If even a tiny microscopic drop from the original solution ends up accidentally contaminating the final solution, the final solution is not as dilute as you think it is.

My experiments were done a couple of years ago. I was using lasers to detect pollutants in the environment. Often, contamination in the environment can be at very low levels: parts per million, parts per billion, even parts per trillion. To calibrate the sensitivity of our technique, we had to make up solutions of known concentrations of the substance to be detected. That's when I became aware of the difficulty of making up a very dilute solution. By the way, we weren't at the ridiculously low concentrations of homeopathy.

Contamination problems set a limit to scientific measurements in a number of fields: for example, in radioactive carbon dating of samples older than roughly about 70,000 years before the present era, the technique becomes unreliable. Why? Because the amount of C14 in a sample that old is very small and can be overwhelmed by tiny amounts of contamination by modern carbon.

I'm not saying that the recently reported experiment had that error, but it's a possibility. The bottom line: making VERY dilute solutions is difficult, and calls for extreme vigilance against contamination. The take-home lesson: the experiments that you cited on your web site should be repeated. If the effect is real, it'll be there consistently.


John Farley

August 11, 2004. Telewest Broadband in the UK says it has a full range of Internet solutions to suit any organization. Sounds like hype, but an article in today's Scotsman supports their claim. The cable company is working with "a group of specialists in paranormal investigations" to create "an amateur ghost-busting kit for householders who suspect their home might be haunted."

The kit can be linked to the Internet, "allowing homeowners to keep an eye out for ghostly goings-on while away from home," and will include such things as "motion and humidity detectors, a temperature monitor and electromagnetic meter."  Supposedly, these gadgets will help the consumer spot "subtle changes in the room which could show a ghost is present."

The kit will also measure a person's gullibility for no extra charge.

August 10, 2004. In an attempt to overcome provincialism, I thought I'd check out the news from other parts of the world where state-funded faith-based education is accepted. I thought I'd start with Aftenposten - The News from Norway. One story reports that the Norway Labor Inspection Authority blasted work conditions at a private Christian fundamentalist school for listing "Jesus Christ" as its executive manager. "We at the Labor Inspection Authority naturally cannot go to the spiritual world to contact those with chief responsibility for the health, environmental and safety work at the school," said senior inspector Gunn-Elise Lyngtveit Ramlet. Why not? Does it violate the union contract? Can't engage in good-faith negotiating with such an EM?

Ananova reports that some teachers at the private Skjaergard's School are complaining that the headmaster, Pastor Glenn Rasmussen, keeps trying to exorcise them.

The school features such exotic classes as speaking in tongues for second graders. I wonder if this is part of the no child left behind program in Norway.

August 8, 2004. Robyn E. Blumner, a St. Petersburg Times Perspective Columnist, defends atheism, rationality, and logic against bigotry, irrationality, and discrimination in an excellent essay. (How do I know it's excellent? Because it expresses my thoughts exactly!) Besides, how often do you read a columnist who admits she's an atheist? We're one of the most despised groups in America, but watch out, we're growing in numbers. What was it John Lennon said? Imagine...

Imagine there's no heaven, It's easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky, Imagine all the people living for today...

Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do? Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one, I hope some day you will join us, And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man, imagine all the people Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one, I hope some day you will join us, And the world will live as one. --John Lennon (1940-1980)

In order to dream, you gotta still be asleep. --Bob Dylan

August 1, 2004. Need a laugh? Check out Fengtek Releases Motherboard Designed Using Feng Shui Principles By Brian Briggs.

July 29, 2004. Health Grades Inc. claims that in 2000, 2001, and 2002, nearly 192,000 people in the U.S. died each year as a result of potentially avoidable medical errors. Health Grades claims to have studied 37 million patient records to get its results.

"If the Center for Disease Control's annual list of leading causes of death included medical errors, it would show up as number six, ahead of diabetes, pneumonia, Alzheimer's disease and renal disease," says Samantha Collier, MD, vice president of medical affairs at Health Grades Inc.

According too WebMD, "Researchers say the results of this report suggest there is little evidence that patient safety has improved since the Institute of Medicine released its landmark report on medical errors in 1999." However, a large percentage of the increase in error can be attributed to a category not used in the earlier study. "Failure to diagnose and treat in time and unexpected death in a low-risk patient accounted for nearly 75% of all deaths attributable to patient safety incidents."

See also BioWorld Online.

June 14, 2004. To celebrate Flag Day and the 50th anniversary of the  federal law that inserted the words "under God" into the pledge of allegiance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that Michael Newdow does not have the legal standing to challenge a California state law requiring the Pledge of Allegiance to be recited in every public school. You might say that Newdow lost on a technicality because the Court did not rule that it is constitutional to require schoolchildren to say "under God" when they recite the pledge. The door is open for someone else to repeat Newdow's challenge.

Newdow's lack of legal standing is due to the fact that he made his challenge on behalf of his daughter and he is a "non-custodial" parent to the child. The child's mother has physical custody. Apparently, Newdow's daughter spends less than half her time with him. Had the mother joined him in the challenge, the Court would have had to have ruled one way or the other on the issue. However, she is a Christian and is happy with "under God" being required to be uttered by both believing and non-believing children.

The real blow of this decision is not to those who oppose our schools forcing everyone, believers in God and non-believers, to pledge allegiance to a flag that is said to represent one nation "under God." That challenge can be made again and I expect it will be in rather short order. The real blow, according to Newdow and others, is to parents who don't have physical custody of their children. He's right but I don't see how the court could rule otherwise. When parents separate, the one who has physical custody should have priority when it comes to deciding whether to raise the child as an atheist or a believer. Justice Stevens wrote that Newdow "wishes to forestall his daughter's exposure to religious ideas that her mother [Sandra Banning], who wields a form of veto power, endorses, and to use his parental status to challenge the influences to which his daughter may be exposed in school when he and Banning disagree. The California cases simply do not stand for the proposition that Newdow has a right to dictate to others what they may and may not say to his child respecting religion."

George Washington University family law professor Catherine J. Ross said: "This is an important case for family court. When parents disagree on matters of essential values, it may mean that the courts will give a great deal of weight to the parent with primary custody, even at the cost of not being responsive to the second parent's wishes." I sympathize with non-custodial parents who have fundamental disagreements with the other parent, but it is simply not feasible to allow their views on values issues to have more weight than the parent who has physical custody. If an atheist parent has custody of a child and the non-custodial parent is an ultra-fundamentalist Christian, the child should be raised as the atheist sees fit and the courts should not kowtow to the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Christian.

At least four of the Supremes--Scalia, Thomas, Rehnquist, and O'Connor--are on record as saying they don't see the "under God" phrase as a constitutional problem. They find it innocuous. I find it obnoxious but not because it expresses a belief in God. I find it repulsive to require children to utter a belief in God in one breath while forcing them to utter a belief in liberty for all in the next breath. What kind of logic maintains the value of liberty when liberty means the freedom to say your nation is "under God" because that is what the majority want you to say. Those of us who are trying to raise our children as good atheists or agnostics should not be marginalized simply because we are in the minority. The Bill of Rights means little if the majority gets to decide whether we have a right to not have our children forced to feel like outcasts for not believing in the superstitions of the majority.

further reading

June 14, 2004. The Scientist reports today that The Journal of Reproductive Medicine has withdrawn from its Web site a September 2001 study that demonstrated the benefits of prayer on fertility treatments.

June 10, 2004. Clever Hans, move over and make room for Rico, the wonder border collie. Some scientists have tested Rico's "language skills" and got their study published in Science. Read all about his "fast-mapping" abilities in  New Scientist. The researchers used the dog's owner to speak to Rico, but they claim the owner was not visible to the dog when retrieving items so that it was not possible the dog was picking up non-verbal cues from the owner.

I've always said, if I ever have a dog it will be a border collie. But I never thought I might be able to have a conversation with my canine.

In an unrelated story in today's newspaper, Michael Newdow--the atheist who has challenged the "under God" phrase in the pledge of allegiance--has been awarded $1,000,000 in a libel suit against a minister who charged him with perjury.

June 8, 2004. A retired Air Force General, T.C. Pinckney of Virginia, and  a Houston, Texas, attorney, Bruce Shortt, have called for Southern Baptists to pull their children out of public schools because they have become too secular.

Don Hinkle, editor of the Missouri Baptist Convention's Pathways news journal, said he doesn't support the pullout but he thinks the proposal merits debate, especially since, in Hinkle's view, the public schools were in the beginning "thoroughly Christian." According to Bob Allen of the Biblical Recorder,

Hinkle blamed the National Education Association teachers' union for pushing a "liberal, socialist" agenda, the U.S. Department of Education for removing schools from local control and federal courts for imposing the separation of church and state. He specifically criticized the NEA-backed "values clarification" for promoting moral relativism.

"I am often perceived as being blunt with my opinions, so let me reinforce that perception," Hinkle wrote. "The notion that truth is relative is straight from the pit of hell for it mocks the ultimate absolute Truth-Jehovah God and His inerrant, infallible Word." Hinkle also blamed advocates for gay-rights and sex education for "insidious indoctrination" to "a host of things" once thought of as unmentionable....

While Hinkle doesn't think kids should be pulled from public schools, he says he agrees with Pinckney and Shortt that "government" schools are anti-Christian and run by "enemies of God." "I cannot think of anything more anti-Christian than teaching impressionable children that God does not exist," said Hinkle.

Hinkle said he hated to endorse the pullout because of "progress being made" on fronts like the "Intelligent Design" movement challenging the theory of evolution.

I guess you could say that these folks are Christian ultra-fundamentalists.

May 30, 2004. On October 4, 2001, I posted a rant regarding an article published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine called "Does Prayer Influence the Success of in Vitro Fertilization–Embryo Transfer?"  The Observer reports today that one of the study's authors is "a conman obsessed with the paranormal who has admitted to a multi-million-dollar scam. Daniel Wirth, now under house arrest in California awaiting sentencing, has used a series of false identities for several decades, including that of a dead child." According to The Observer, "Wirth is at the centre of a network of bizarre scientific research."

Dr Bruce Flamm of the University of California commented that he is "concerned this study could be totally fraudulent."

Wirth has a law degree and a master's in parapsychology from John F. Kennedy University,  but has no medical qualifications. He has co-authored numerous pieces of research claiming to prove paranormal activities. He heads something called Healing Sciences Research International, which appears to be nothing but a mailing address.

Dale Beyerstein of the University of British Columbia has been investigating the work of Wirth and his frequent partner in crime, Joseph Horvath, for several years. He likens them to a pair of conmen.

The Observer reports that shortly after the prayer and fertility study was published, the Department of Health began an investigation into Columbia University's research. "It found numerous ethical problems. [Rogerio A.] Lobo, a respected scientist who was named initially as the lead author of the research, had only provided 'editorial review and assistance with publication' on the study."

I am still at a loss for how such a study could ever have been published in a respected medical journal, not because it may be fraudulent, but because the basic premise of the study is self-defeating. As I wrote in my rant:

If prayer works by influencing God to influence the outcome of an experiment, then God can interfere with the laws of nature at any time. If God can interfere with the laws of nature at any time, then no controlled, double-blind study can be sure of the meaning of whatever outcome results. Any result could be the result of direct influence by God. In other words, the assumption the study is based on is self-defeating. No science at all would be possible if God could be interfering with the laws of nature at will. Science requires a backdrop of lawfulness in Nature in order to discover any causal connection between anything and anything else.

update (Dec 4, 2004):  The New York Times reports that Dr. Lobo has pulled his name from the article. However, Dr. Lawrence Devoe, editor in chief of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, said that the journal's review of the paper had found no serious problems and that it would be reposted on the journal's Web site.

Leon Jaroff of Time has also written up this debacle.

May 21, 2004. Ira Flatow's Talk of the Nation, Science Friday, features Edward J. Larson, author of Evolution: the Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory. Listen to the interview on NPR.

May 19, 2004. An examination of scientific studies worldwide has found no convincing evidence that vaccines that contain thimerosal cause autism. Last September, I wrote about a Danish study that came to the same conclusion: the fear that the mercury in vaccines is a significant causal factor in the development of autism is unfounded. My September article was a follow-up to an article I posted in 2002 regarding the campaign by Lyn Redwood, mother of an autistic child, to convince the world of the dangers of thimerosal.

Mark Blaxill, the father of an 8-year-old girl with autism, is the current leader of the Coalition for Safe Minds, a group that sponsors research specifically designed to find a connection between vaccines and neurological disorders. He says that the new report from a committee of experts appointed by the Institute of Medicine is "premature."

Even though the evidence for a link between thimerosal and neurological disorders such as autism is lacking, manufacturers of vaccines stopped using mercury-based preservatives in 2002. So far there has been no noticeable significant drop in the rates of autism.

Today's New York Times article by Sandra Blakeslee provides a bit of the history of this issue.





©copyright 2003
Robert Todd Carroll

larrow.gif (1051 bytes) The Skeptic's Refuge

More Mass Media Funk rarrow.gif (1048 bytes)