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

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From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 8 No. 2

February 3, 2009

"That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet." --Emily Dickinson.

In this issue

What's new?
Baylor University's pious fraud
Darwin Day
Atheist buses
Science news
Dumb & dumber
Moron of the month

What's New?

New dictionary entries: detoxification therapies and cryonics.

Revision of the Velikovsky entry: a new ending was added to emphasize the point that even in those areas where Velikovsky appears to have been correct, he was wrong.

Revision of the opening paragraph of the subjective validation entry: the revision emphasizes the extent of this powerful source of delusion.

New book review: of Outliers: the Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

I agreed to be an "expert" on the healing power of prayer on the Opposing Views website. The quality of argument on the other side was not very challenging, however.

What's the harm has two new entries: Thabo Mbeki's anti-AIDS policies may have caused the premature deaths of some 350,000 people. Young Mormons who have lived through what their elders might think of as "tough love" have set up a website called the Mormon Gulag.

Readers' comments and my replies were posted regarding psychic powers (she says she has them; I challenge her to a test); ghosts (he says he scared one out of his apartment; I propose that there may be an alternative explanation for his vision); and Noah's Ark (she says the story is true and Ken Ham has explained it all; I say the Jews plagiarized it and anybody can explain anything as long as they're allowed to make up miracles at will).

Several entries were updated.

  1. acupuncture was updated three times: the evidence that acupuncture is placebo medicine keeps piling up for this darling of the media, the public, and now the military;

  2. autism and vaccines was updated: a new study claims there is a significant increase in cases that can only be explained by environmental causes; the study is challenged by Dr. Steven Novella; the alleged rise in cases has been disputed by many, including Socratic Gadfly;

  3. Amway is going to try to make a comeback in the US as the economy tanks;

  4. self-deception was updated with comments on George W. Bush's self-assessment;

  5. the anti-vaccination movement is having an effect;

  6. NCCAM was updated to note that even as use of unproven therapies increases, there is a movement afoot to stop funding this embarrassment;

  7. Critical thinking mini-lessons was updated to include a link to Steven Novella's blog on how not to argue according to Schopenhauer's "The Art of Controversy";

  8. astrology was updated with a quote from Johannes Kepler about finding something useful in astrology. At one time I used a version of this quote taken from the opening of  Michel Gauquelin's essay "Spheres of Influence" (in Patrick Grim's Philosophy of Science and the Occult). If you compare the two quotes you will see that Gauquelin distorted Kepler's meaning by his editing and translating so that it appears that Gauquelin has done what Kepler had predicted. Read on for another case of distortion in defense of an idea one holds sacred. (Thanks to the Hungarian skeptics who traced the quote to its original source.)

Baylor's Religion Survey Deceives Again

Last September, Baylor University Press published What Americans Really Believe by Dr. Rodney Stark. I ignored it because it simply compounded the flaws of Baylor's 2005 survey on religious belief in America that I blasted in a previous newsletter. The book joins the data from the earlier survey with one done in 2007. I would have continued to ignore anything the Baylor Institute on Religious Studies has to say had it not been for a press release sent out recently by the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH). The challenges to the legitimacy of the Baylor study by CSH are many, but CSH doesn't touch on the one thing that irritated me the most about the 2005 study: the so-called "mixed-mode sampling design." I am further agitated that I have been unable to find any clear description of this method in the latest press releases or publications from Baylor regarding the 2007 survey.

As I noted in the earlier newsletter, Gallup did the surveying for Baylor. For the 2005 survey, Gallup recruited potential respondents through a nationwide random digit dialing telephone survey. 3,702 potential respondents were contacted and 1,721 returned completed surveys (46.5% participation). They call this a mixed-mode design because it involves both telephone and mail-in methods, but there is only one method for doing the survey. A participant self-selects from a randomly selected pool, does the survey that is mailed to him, and returns it. For the 2007 survey, all I have been able to find out is that a mixed-mode method was used and that 1,648 adults filled out the questionnaire. I have not been able to find out how many were called but did not choose themselves. Baylor is being very deceptive in not putting this data up front. Instead, Baylor's press release states that their 2007 survey consists of "a total of 1,648 adults chosen randomly from across the country." The average reader will not know that the representativeness of the sample is greatly affected by allowing fewer than half those chosen randomly to self-select for participation. The representativeness of the sample now depends on the assumption that the large number of people who chose not to participate in the survey are very similar as a group with respect to religious beliefs to those who chose to fill out the 15-page, 350-question survey. You've got to be joking.

Isn't it obvious that mostly zealots would agree to such an arduous survey about their religious beliefs? This study is a mile wide and an inch deep. As I wrote about the 2005 survey: If this is what passes for science today at Baylor University, then God help us all.

The Baylor study is a paean to religiosity in America and dismisses non-belief as minimal and unimportant. As such it is a pious fraud. The full extent of this fraud is detailed in Gregory S. Paul's analysis of the report for CSH. Paul details the case, contra Baylor, that the population of the United States is becoming significantly less religious. Baylor should give away a free copy of Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics with every copy of their report.

Darwin Day

About a decade ago, Amanda Chesworth and Robert Stephens co-founded a celebration of the birthday of Charles Robert Darwin. February 12, 2009, will mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. Events celebrating science, reason, and the work of the man himself are scheduled worldwide. I plan to attend the celebration in Sacramento on February 8, where Michael Shermer will be speaking on why Darwin matters. To find out what is happening in your part of the world on Darwin Day, click here.

Books on Darwin are often controversial, but a new one by Adrian Desmond and James Moore is likely to boil a few kettles. The title says it all: Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution.

Atheist Buses

The latest news comes from Australia where the Atheist Foundation of Australia formally complained of religious discrimination to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission after being refused permission to put atheist advertising on buses. The offensive signs were to read: "Atheism — celebrate reason". APN Outdoor refused to run the ads, giving no reason for their refusal.

The atheist bus campaign began in England with London comedy writer Ariane Sherine and signs that read "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Funds were collected by the British Humanist Association, and Richard Dawkins pledged to match donations up to £5,500. The ads are on some 600 buses and in many tube stations.* So far only one bus driver has refused to drive his bus because of the ads.

Sherine was inspired by bus ads she saw that read: "When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" followed by a web address. She checked the website and learned that those who don't accept Jesus will "spend all eternity in torment in hell." She didn't think it was a joke and felt a need to respond. The idea for an atheist bus campaign is now global and includes nations in Europe, Australia, North America, and South America. Click here to view an exchange between Sherine & a theist.

In Washington, D.C. the ads were sponsored by the American Humanist Association. They were met with ads from the local Center for Family Development. The atheists' ads proclaim: "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." The believers' ad reads: "Why Believe? Because I created you and I love you, for goodness' sake. —God."

In Northern Ireland, atheist ads for buses were banned, but the ads may appear on bus shelters, on digital screens, and billboards.

In Barcelona, Spain, buses rolled out with the message "Probablemente Dios no existe. Deja de preocuparte y goza de la vida." (Probably, God does not exist. Give up what worries you and enjoy life.) Madrid, Valencia, and other cities are being targeted to run similar campaigns. The Spanish newspaper La Gaceta, which covered the first day of the ad campaign launched by the Union of Atheists and Freethinkers” of Spain, says that despite "so much publicity and so much ink spilled in the media," most Spaniards reacted with indifference to the ads.*

The Freethought Association of Canada reported that it has collected $21,500 and is ready to buy atheist ads on buses in Toronto. Campaigns are being readied for Halifax and Calgary (update: the Calgary campaign is up and running but several other Canadian cities have been thwarting the atheists' efforts. Atheist ads have been rejected in Halifax, Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, B.C., London, Ont., and Ottawa. Folks in Halifax are quite upset. The Ottawa city council reversed it's decision to ban the ads when it was told that the ban probably wouldn't hold up in court.) The attempt to load buses with ads in Kingston, Ontario, fizzled because of contract language between the ad and the bus companies.

Ads reading "The bad news is that God doesn't exist. The good news is that you don't need him" were due to appear on buses in Genoa, Italy, but religious conservatives blocked them. However, ads have been okayed that read: "The Good News Is There Are Millions of Atheists In Italy; The Excellent News Is They Believe In Freedom Of Expression."

The Brits plan to run 1,000 advertisements on London Underground and on a pair of giant LCD screens opposite Bond Street tube station. The new ads will feature quotes from public figures, such as Albert Einstein, Douglas Adams, and Katharine Hepburn.

In Brazil, ATEA, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos (Brazilian Atheists and Agnostics Association), is preparing to launch a bus ad campaign. Daniel Sottomaior, who is leading the campaign in Brazil, informs me that he has recently been interviewed by two leading Brazilian newspapers. Perhaps the newspaper pieces will inspire contributors. In any case, the ads should begin running in the near future. The ad campaign has already been attacked by a politician. Cláudio Lembi, a former vice-governor of São Paulo State, has attacked the ads as part of the atheist campaign for communism, hedonism, nihilism, and anything bad. Imagine what he'll say after he's actually seen an ad.

How about an ad with a picture of a dirtied soldier's helmet on the ground and the atheist symbol? The words could read: Atheists have died so you could enjoy freedom of expression and religion.

Argument by billboard could lead to some humorous moments, as in a sign outside a church proclaiming that atheists do not exist.

update on atheist ads

Ninety complaints trump freedom of expression in Rancho Cucamonga, California. The city is being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation for removing a billboard ad that read: "Imagine No Religion."

Not so for New Orelans, however.

The opposition to the campaign has not been quiet, however. A man PZ Myers classifies as one of the "brain-damaged peckerwoods" has put up a billboard of his own. One might also refer to Ray Comfort as the Ben Stein of televangelism. Comfort has shelled out $6,000 for one month's rent of a billboard in Southern California on Interstate 105. Purely by coincidence, Comfort also announced that he has a book coming out with the catchy title of You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence but You Can't Make Him Think.

In Genoa, Italy, the first atheist bus hit the streets on February 16th with it's message "The Good News Is There Are Millions of Atheists In Italy; The Excellent News Is They Believe In Freedom Of Expression." The bus was back in the garage within minutes, however. Much to the delight of conservative religionists, the bus battery died shortly after leaving the station. Coincidence or divine intervention? Either way, it's good for a laugh.

March 2009

Photo: Brent NicastroIn In Madison, Wisconsin, the bus ad campaign has become a pissing contest between the Freedom From Religion Foundation and nearby Pilgrims Covenant Church. The atheists are putting ads inside buses, while the Pilgrims are buying space on the outside. One atheist ad reads: "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion." (This is a quote from the late actress Butterfly McQueen, who appeared in the movie "Gone With the Wind.") The Pilgrims countered with: "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God" (Psalm 14, verse 1).

Meanwhile, a campaign was initiated in Montreal.

Ten controversial bus advertisements promoting atheism went up last week around downtown Montreal as part of the Quebec Humanist Association's campaign against established religion.

In Germany, organizers are raising funds for a campaign in Berlin, Munich, and Cologne. Phillip Möller, one of the campaign organizers, says the German group has collected €3,500 in the first four days of fundraising. They need €16,000 euros more to fund the project.

In Boise, Idaho, a local billboard spurred some heated debate over it's message: "Beware of dogma." The billboard was funded mainly by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. "We were inspired by other groups around the country and around the world who have been putting up similar humanistic messages," said President of the Humanists of Idaho Paul Rolig.

In Finland, the Finnish Humanist Union and the Union of Freethinkers of Finland are preparing a campaign for Helsinki and Tampere.

update: June 29, 2009. A private citizen has filed a complaint with the Council of Ethics in Advertising over the atheist bus campaign, which has plastered buses in some cities in Finland with atheist slogans. According to the petition, the ad campaign for atheism is slanderous and breaches UN human rights treaties. The chair of the Union of Freethinkers, Jussi Niemelä, denies the allegations.

In north Texas, two billboards, one on Interstate 35E near Loop 12 in northwest Dallas, the other on I-35W near Braswell in northern Fort Worth, read: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."

New In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the American Atheists (AA) affiliate, FLorida Atheists and Secular Humanists (FLASH) put up a billboard, as seen below, that local residents, mostly African-Americans, want removed.

In Moscow, Idaho, the American Humanist Association put up a billboard on highway 95.

In New York City, the NYC Atheists bus campaign is in full swing.

In Seattle, the campaign continues.

The Netherlands.

South Bend, Indiana.

New Des Moines Iowa (The group Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers (IAF) has launched an advertising campaign on the sides of 20 transit buses in Des Moines.) In other news, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, awarded a large chunk of change by the Templeton Foundation for promoting "spiritual" stuff, called the atheist bus campaign "pathetic." Taylor had nothing to say about all the religious messages that have adorned buses around the world for decades.

Science News

Korean researchers have developed a non-chemical way to remove lead from the blood. A fluorescent receptor binds to lead ions, which are then bound to magnetic nanoparticles of silicon-dioxide-coated nickel. The fluorescent receptor does not bind with other minerals or trace elements, thereby avoiding a problem that can lead to serious side effects with chemical chelation. The method has not been used on humans yet, but it is hoped that a technique will be developed that removes blood from the body, extracts only the magnetic particles, and returns purified blood.

update: Thanks to Karen Neder for the following correction:

Re: the work by the Korean researchers mentioned in the Science News section of the latest Newsletter (vol 8, no 2). I found the paper describing the research: Angewandte Chemie International Edition English, 2009, vol 48, pp 1239-1243. I’d like to clarify some things.

The lead receptor is a chemical. It’s made from other chemicals using chemical reactions.

It looks like your description of the work is based on the article you linked. That article described the work incorrectly. The author may have confused previous research summarized in the introduction of the paper with the current research reported in the paper.

From the linked article: “The receptor molecules, with lead attached, are then bound to magnetic nanoparticles of silicon-dioxide-coated nickel.” That is erroneous. That is not how the researchers did it. The receptor consists of a fluoroionophore covalently attached to the silica coating on the nanoparticles. Each nanoparticle has multiple fluoroionophores attached. (Fluoroionophore: “ionophore” because it binds an ion, “fluoro” because it fluoresces when it binds the ion.) Then the receptor was tested for detection and removal of lead from water and blood.

The reason that particular fluoroionophore was chosen was that in previous work it had been shown to selectively bind lead with high affinity. It was part of ongoing research investigating fluorescent molecules in the qualitative and quantitative detection of metal ions.


2009 has been declared the International Year of Astronomy. The idea, in part, is "to help the citizens of the world rediscover their place in the Universe through the day- and night-time sky." Thanks to leadership in my home town of Davis, California, we are a bit ahead of the curve. Former mayor Julie Partansky (1947-2009) initiated a dark skies ordinance here ten years ago. By dimming city street lights and using lights that direct illumination downward, we are able to see and enjoy the night sky in ways that can't be experienced in places with extensive light pollution.

Skepticality recently interviewed astronomer and podcaster Dr. Pamela Gay. She mentioned the Galileoscope, "a high-quality, low-cost telescope kit developed for the International Year of Astronomy 2009 by a team of leading astronomers, optical engineers, and science educators. No matter where you live, with this easy-to-assemble refractor you can see the celestial wonders that Galileo first glimpsed 400 years ago and that still delight stargazers today, including lunar craters, the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, and Saturn's rings."


Good news from the UK: Several universities are eliminating degrees in homeopathy and complementary medicine in response to criticism from the scientific community led by Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London and the proprietor of DC's Improbable Science. The University of Salford, the University of Westminster, and the University of Central Lancashire should be congratulated for strengthening the science base of their curricula and responding to concern about awarding science degrees in subjects that are little more than quackery or placebo medicine.

Dumb and Dumber

BBC News reports that a goat was arrested for armed robbery and stealing a car. The goat was captured by vigilantes who claimed the goat was a shape-shifting witch. Police say they are holding the goat until its owner claims it. The unnamed author of the story took the opportunity to report that the belief in witchcraft and the power to change shapes is common in Nigeria. Readers are also reminded of the low level of education of police officers in Nigeria and of the reliance on vigilante groups.

Is it any dumber to give a Ph.D. to someone for writing a dissertation whose central figure is a shape-shifter? Is it any dumber for educated police officers to consult psychics? Again I ask, is it any dumber for school officials in Oklahoma to accuse a 15-year-old girl of witchcraft?

Moron of the Month

The award goes to Jennifer D. at Acupuncture Blog Chicago for her first in a series of face readings of popular figures: a Chinese face reading for Rod Blagojevich. According to Jennifer D, you can tell by his non-existent upper lip that Blagojevich prefers to receive rather than to give. His small eyes indicate a lack of sociability, and his long earlobes indicate a long life. Of course, his face may be a little longer now that he has been removed from office and is no longer governor of Illinois. Perhaps Blagojevich should get the award.

Face reading was popular in ancient China during the time of Confucius, she says. It was popular in Europe for many centuries, too, where it was called physiognomy. Los Angeles Judge Edward Jones revived this ancient pseudoscience in the 1930s, calling it personology.


This issue marks the 100th edition of The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter. I have no idea why that is important, but I thought I'd mention it anyway.

And thanks, I guess, to President Obama for the nod to non-believers (in religious superstition) in his presidential address.

* AmeriCares *

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