Robert Todd Carroll
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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
May 2, 2002
1) Skeptic's Dictionary, the book
Some of you may have noticed that I have not been adding much to the SD for the past few months. I've been rewriting the entire work, though you wouldn't know it from the Web site. I've revised and edited nearly each of the more than 400 entries while preparing a manuscript for John Wiley & Sons, who will be publishing the SD next spring. I sent off the manuscript on April 22.
The manuscript differs from the Web site in at least two major ways: the writing is much tighter and the tone or voice is the same throughout. The entries on the Web site have been written over an eight-year period. It is obvious that I was not in the same mood for eight years. Also, writing for the WWW encourages some bad habits, like being too wordy or using the sledgehammer when a flyswatter will do. Some entries have been completely revised, e.g., atheism. I even added a couple of new entries: animal quackers and energy.
I think that overall the reader will find the published text better written and more concise than the Web site. It should be even better when a professional editor is finished blue penciling it. I do plan to clean up the entries on the Web site eventually, but right now I am exhausted from four trips through the entire dictionary.
One nice thing about the book will be the list of sources. There are more than 750 skeptical works listed in the bibliography; this should prove useful to researchers. One not so nice thing about the book is that I had to edit out some entries. The SD Web site has about 350,000 words. We wanted to produce an inexpensive, portable book. That meant some serious editing (e.g., goodbye to entries on God and evolutionary psychology). Since the final version of the book has not yet been decided upon, I won't go into any more detail at this time.
My agent, Ted Weinstein, found several publishers interested in the SD. We could have produced a hardback for about $60 with one publisher, but that would have limited the number of people who could afford to buy it. The plan now is to produce a paperback that will retail for about $20.
After hearing that some politicians used public money to give copies of Mozart's music to newborns, I thought I would write my Congressman to request that government funds be used to do the same with the Skeptic's Dictionary. Anyway, next year you will be able to give a copy of the SD book to all your relatives, friends and acquaintances, teachers, ministers, total strangers, etc.
The latest entry is on vastu, an ancient Indian form of geomancy worked into a "science" by the Transcendental Meditation people. If you think feng shui is silly, you should read up on its older sister vastu.
I've also recently published my comments on (1) an Internet article on false memory and (2) a newspaper article on a priest accused of abuse by a woman who says she had a recovered memory of the abuse four years ago. My read on the current focus on child abuse by priests--especially homosexual priests--and secret settlements with the Church is that there would not be so much media attention if it were not for the abuse of power by bishops and cardinals who concealed the abuse and sent sexual predators to new parishes instead of to prison. These church "leaders" are despicable beyond words for putting Mother Church and her so-called "representatives of God" above the safety of children.
At times, however, it seems that the media is suggesting that the typical priest is a homosexual pedophile. Yet, we know that the vast majority of priests are not pedophiles, and only those ignorant of the truth believe that homosexuals are necessarily pedophiles. Estimates vary, but one source claims that fewer than 5% of priests are abusers, which is a lower rate than for men in general. Also, fewer than 0.5% of American priests have been ousted in the latest purge: 176 priests out of about 46,000.
In many ways, an arrogant institution is getting what it deserves. On the other hand, accusations will be sufficient to remove many priests from their positions. (No doubt the psychologists will weigh in with their weighty studies showing that since priests are celibate and generally sexually inexperienced, and since there is a disproportionate number of homosexuals in the priesthood, accusations of pedophilia are justified.) Understandably, parents will want to protect their children from harm. If they think there is even a possibility that their priest might harm their children they will err on the side of their children. Who can blame them? Especially since they can't trust their bishops to do the right thing. But we must remember that there are many disturbed people out there. Some of the accusations will be questionable or false.
The media and law enforcement did not do a particularly good job of being fair during widespread allegations of abuse by day care workers. The media is already jumbling cases of abuse of children by priests with cases involving homosexual or heterosexual priests having relations with other adults. In any case, few in the media will defend the priests or the church; to do so might appear to be defending child abuse. You won't sell as many papers or up the ratings with stories about questionable evidence. I find it more than just interesting that the Sacramento Bee placed the story of the allegations against the priest on the front page juxtaposed to the story about the the boy who killed 18 people in a German school. On the same day, a story about the arraignment of a local man who shot and killed his girlfriend, abandoned their 18-month old son by the San Francisco airport and then fled to France where he was caught a few days later and held for four years while he fought extradition, was buried on the 3rd page of the Metro section.
The case I comment on is reminiscent of the kind of case we saw during the witch-hunt days of recovered memory therapists in the 1980s, when therapists were uncovering repressed memories of abuse as frequently as the McCarthyites had found communists in government during the 1950s.
One reader of the Illuminati entry wanted to know the origin of the back side of the Great Seal. If it is not Masonic, where did it come from? Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson consulted with Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, a portrait artist with some knowledge of heraldry. They came up with the Eye of Providence and the date of independence (MDCCLXXVI). William Barton of Philadelphia came up with the idea of the 13-step unfinished pyramid (for the thirteen colonies and the unfinished nation). Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, introduced the mottos Annuit Coeptis (He [God] has favored our undertakings) and Novus Ordo Seclorum (new order of the ages). The rays of light around the eye in the triangle apparently represent God's Glory. The back side of the Great Seal is called the "spiritual" side. It certainly does try to convey that the country is under God's protection, if not part of His Plan for the world. This belief that America is God's chosen land obviously still dominates the thinking of many of our so-called patriots. There is an interesting account of the Great Seal at <www.state.gov/www/publications/great_seal.pdf>.
Another reader wrote: In looking for Bastyr grads in NYC I came across your web page. One can tell that you have never used alternative medicine. In our state, insurance covers it and all of my friends who use it came to it after the failure of a standard med procedure. NIH is using research based info on it. Your writing is just "East Coast" mentality and far behind the times. Bastyr is working with the U. of W. on some research projects.
I've never before been accused of having an "East Coast mentality." I don't know what it means, but I assume it's an insult that means something like "hayseed." Anyway, Bastyr has been given $50,000,000 of our tax dollars by Congress to find ways to integrate "alternative" medicine into the mainstream. This is an institution that graduates doctors of naturopathy and offers instruction in such things as "spirituality." The NIH funds projects on everything from bee pollen to shark cartilage to healing by prayer. It is true that bogus or useless therapies are being paid for by more and more insurance companies: they know it's cheaper than scientific medicine and the patients are satisfied with it.
Another reader thinks my article on The Bible Code "borders on anti-Semitism" because I write that "on this theory God dictated in His favorite language, Hebrew, a set of words which are more or less intelligible if taken at face value, containing stories of creation, floods, fratricide, wars, miracles, etc., with many moral messages. But this Hebrew God chose his words carefully, encoding the Bible with prophecies and messages of absolutely no religious value." I admit that the reference to "His favorite language" was a jab at the notion of being "the chosen people." The second use of the word "Hebrew" does seem redundant in retrospect. I suppose I was trying to ridicule the notion that the theory of the Bible code only works for certain books written in Hebrew and only when checked against Great Men of Israel. The reader notes that I didn't take a sarcastic tone when I mentioned "a Christian team which supported the beliefs of the Israeli team." I think the reader is bit oversensitive, but I'd like to hear if anyone thinks otherwise.
One reader claims that "It is far easier to punch holes in theories than to find proof for them." And another claims that it is easy to be a skeptic but difficult to believe in supernatural things. I think both claims are patently false. In many SD entries, I note how easy it is to find evidence for just about any belief one has. Francis Bacon noted this long ago, and Thomas Gilovich expounds on it in his How We Know What Isn't So. I explain the details in the entry on confirmation bias. The difficult thing is to recognize contrary evidence, and it is unnatural to look for it. If you think punching holes in theories is easy, you haven't tried it.
I don't know what is easy about being a skeptic. For one thing, you're almost always in the minority and you're constantly being badgered by believers. How is it easy to reject what most of your friends and family believe?
The same reader who thinks it is easy to punch holes in theories writes: "Has there ever been any "supernatural," "unexplainable," or "crackpot" idea/belief/theory/practice that has shocked you with it's ability to not be properly explained? If so please let me know what it is...if not, you have been researching with a mind to disprove instead of a mind to educate."
This reader seemed to have a penchant for the false dilemma. I responded that disproving and educating are not mutually exclusive. When we learn that something isn't true, we learn something positively beneficial. The reader agreed but countered that "debunking is sometimes as much based on the interpretation of the facts as the original theory being investigated." That is true, but the issue should be which interpretation makes the most sense and is the most probable, not whether one is interpreting facts. As far as I know, there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact.
This spring I received a pleasant e-mail from Giuseppe Ferro, asking for permission to translate the SD into Italian. Guiseppe has found a publisher for his translation, Avverbi Edizioni. This is especially heartening, since the Japanese and Spanish translations of the SD have disappeared. The translators' Web sites are gone and their e-mail addresses are no longer valid. I am still amazed that total strangers have translated the SD into Portuguese, German, Korean, and Slovak. I had the pleasure of meeting Vlado Luknar, our Slovakian translator, when he attended a conference in San Francisco. Maybe someday I can get to Bratislava. Anyone out there willing to revive the Spanish translation? To encourage such I have included a link to SYSTRAN, a computerized translator, for Spanish. It appears to be a nearly moronic translation. Perhaps its poor quality will inspire someone.
I've had several people suggest that I set up a message board or chat room. I'm not going to say I'd never have one, but I don't plan to establish either. We're dealing with controversial issues that cut to the core of people's irrationality. The SD is not like a cancer support page. I have no interest in trying to moderate a message board or chat room. I am, however, taking feedback again, though I am still several years behind in responding to e-mail. I do have a full-time job, family obligations, recreational needs, etc., and a very full life away from the SD. To the casual reader, it may seem that the SD and SR are my only passions. Not quite.
The SD has 423 entries and about 24,000 hyperlinks, more than 13,000 of them internal.
Currently on the nightstand are Wittgenstein's Poker, The Feeling of What Happens, Phantom's in the Brain, and Bad Astronomy. The first is purely for pleasure. It's a story about a meeting between Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, with plenty of background material on Vienna, the Vienna circle and other things historical and philosophical. Anyone interested in the history of contemporary analytic philosophy and philosophy of science should find this book of value. It's very decently written, as well.
The Feeling of What Happens is Damasio's attempt to explain what we know about the brain's processing of feelings and emotions. You'll enjoy this book if you are interested in how the brain works or why the divisions between mind and body, thought and feeling, and right and left brain are untenable.
Anyone interested in what is known about phantom limbs and other strange experiences (like the experience of God) and their relationship to neurological functioning should find Ramachandran's Phantoms extremely rewarding.
Finally, there is Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait, who teaches at Sonoma State University and runs the Bad Astronomy Web site. In addition to debunking beliefs that the moon landing was a hoax and that eggs can be stood on end only at the equinox, Plait takes on the usual suspects: astrology, Velikovsky, UFOs, and creationism. He also explains such things as why toilets flush the way they do. But the parts I am finding most interesting are the parts dealing with good astronomy: explanations of the tides, why moons face one way as they orbit their planets, and many other things we should have learned in school but probably didn't. The book is currently listing for under $12 at Amazon.com but would be a bargain at any price. It is the first in a planned series from Wiley & Sons. Coming in October: Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O by Christopher Wanjek, who writes about health issues for the Washington Post among other outlets.
8) Prospects for Skepticism: The Next Twenty-Five Years is the theme of CSICOP's Fourth World Skeptics Conference, to be held June 20-23 in Burbank, California. I have my room reservation, airplane ticket and have sent in my registration fees. I guess that means I'm going. I'll post a report in a newsletter when I get back. It will be good to see Bob Steiner again. He's a fabulous magician and expert on con games. I'm also looking forward to hearing William Dembski speak. He's the author of Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1998). He's one of the new breed of Christian scientists who think metaphysical questions can be answered by scientific means. He's scheduled for a morning session on "Evolution and Intelligent Design" with skeptic Massimo Pigliucci and Christian evolutionist Kenneth Miller. There really should be an epistemologist or a philosopher of science on this panel to explain why metaphysical questions can't be answered by science and vice-versa. Second best would be an epistemologist or philosopher of religion to explain the difference between faith and reason.
Even though I don't read science fiction, I'm going to a luncheon featuring Harlan Ellison, who has written 75 books, most of which I take it are in this genre. He sounds like a very interesting man.
I'll definitely attend the session on "Fringe Psychotherapies," which is a recurring theme in the SD. Gina Green and Carol Tavris are featured. Unfortunately, this session runs concurrently with a session called "Look to the Stars" and they aren't talking about Hollywood.
The keynote address will be given by Marvin Minsky of the MIT media lab, one of my favorite thinkers.
Even though the SD is not concerned with Urban Legends, I am looking forward to seeing David and Barbara Mikkelson of snopes2.com fame.
Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch and Wallace Sampson of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and others will be discussing "Medical Claims" at the same time that Joe Nickell, Jan Willem Nienhuys, Massimo Polidoro and Richard Wiseman will be discussing "The Investigations." If only I could master the out-of-body experience, maybe I could attend both sessions simultaneously.
On Sunday, Amanda Chesworth will moderate a session on "Educating Our Future." Amanda is the brains and brawn behind the Young Skeptics pages. Unfortunately, that session is going on at the same time as the session featuring a discussion of the paranormal in China, India, Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico and Germany. Maybe by June I will have mastered the siddhi of bilocation.