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From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 8 No. 3

March 1, 2009

"[The free market] is free in the same way a reality show is real." --Bill Maher

In this issue

What's New?
The psychic who wasn't
Pareidolia and lens flare
Beauty and the beast
Alternative treatment for seals
Science news
Why I am not an economist
Scum of the minute

What's New?

There's a new dictionary entry on Andrew Wakefield, the M.D. who started the MMR/autism scare, and a fresh review of Dean Radin's Entangled Minds, the "psichologist" who never saw a ridiculous statistic he didn't like. I've also posted another critical thinking mini-lesson (on ignorance, especially ignorance of the meanings of words, as a hindrance to critical thinking). On a lighter note, Italy lovers might enjoy reading about my stay at a Dianetics hotel on Lake Como.

Skeptimedia has three new posts: evaluating evidence (we often assume pieces of evidence are being evaluated separately when one is actually influencing how we evaluate the other), belief armor (certain beliefs are worn like impenetrable armor), and evolution continues (what follows from the fact that humans have evolved over the past 15,000 years?).

Reader comments were posted from someone who is very concerned that the measurements of Noah's ark be exact so critics not look foolish when trying to estimate how many animals in a single food chain can fit in an X x Y cubed cubit pig sty (or something like that).

I revised the EMF entry to include some information about the safety of microwave ovens. And I revised the IQ & race entry in light of new information from the human genome project and a couple of other sources.

I updated several SD entries:

--criminal profiling (to include links to articles about a recent National Academy of Sciences report that claims forensic "science" is gravely lacking in scientific rigor)

--climate skeptics (to include links to a story about the melting of the ice in Antarctica and to a story about Japanese scientists who compare climate change models to astrology)

--post hoc reasoning (to include a link to a news story with a lovely example of this fallacy. First she had acupuncture, then she got pregnant.)

--levitation and psychic (to include some info on Daniel Dunglass Home)

--morphic resonance (to include a link to an article by Sue Blackmore that evaluates tests of Sheldrake's idea)

--the last newsletter item regarding atheist ads on buses, etc.

--atheism (links to news stories: Texas teacher suspended for being a suspected atheist; militant Catholics deface posters for Religulous; )

--bioharmonics (to include mention of the continuation of this woo-woo)

--criminal profiling (to include a link to an article about a psychic who claims to be an "intuitive profiler")

--memory (to include a link to a blog on the neurological basis of intuition)

--Lysenkoism (to include links to Sharon Begley's piece on "the new Lamarkism" and PZ Meyers blog on why Begley doesn't know what she's talking about)

--the vitamin and mineral supplements page (to link to yet another study showing that supplements have no value in general)

--the autism and vaccines page (to include a link to an article about the decision by a federal court that will likely result in the dismissal of some 5,000 lawsuits by parents who blame vaccines for their children's autism)

--anti-vaccination movement (to include links to six articles exposing the harm this crowd does)

--placebo effect (to include a link to a story about the NHS in Northern Ireland offering several forms of placebo medicine to its clients)

--creationism and intelligent design (to include links to stories about the Vatican's upcoming conference on evolution)

The psychic who wasn't

The following story from a reader in southern California is not based on a true story; it is a true story.

I am in commercial real estate in Venice Beach, CA. I rent booths along the famous Venice Boardwalk to small vendors who sell things like t-shirts and sunglasses. Venice Beach, if you're not too familiar with it, has a large percentage of "out there" people that I come into contact with frequently.

This week I received a call from a woman who wanted a vending space. I asked her what merchandise she planned on selling from it. She replied that she was a psychic and would be doing "readings." She then proceeded to ask me how much the rent would be for the space.

I paused, then told her that "I was thinking of a number."

She hemmed and hawed a little bit, but she finally tried to explain that "it doesn't work that way." I said that obviously she wasn't a good enough psychic to be able to afford the rent for the booth.

I think that I have been waiting for that call my whole life.

The sad truth is that the lady psychic, no matter how good or bad she is at reading minds, will probably do quite well in her chosen profession if she sticks to telling people what they already know, what they want to believe, what they're willing to wonder about, and what they can make sense out of: you've had some bad relationships, you're looking for a change, health issues could come into play, money problems have come to the forefront, you keep an outdated calendar, and you are interested in trying things other people think are silly. Most people still don't understand what cold reading is or how subjective validation works. I can't count how many e-mails I've received over the past 15 years from people telling me about a "psychic" who told them things about themselves the psychic "couldn't possibly know."

Pareidolia and lens flare

Phil Plait posted a photo on Skepticblog that he says is the worst case of pareidolia he's ever seen: a pattern on kitchen tiles that reminds the lady who walks on them every day of her Lord and Savior.

Phil's comment reminded me of a recent e-mail exchange I had with a woman who sent me a digital picture with the request that I not publish it or her letter. In her first e-mail to me, she wrote that she was offended by my stating that after forty years of thinking about the subject, I saw no reason to believe in spirits.

I took a photograph in Zion National Park this summer that will make your statement appear foolish and ignorant in the extreme. Further, I believe it will blow the minds of the entire world.

I've submitted it to two "paranormal agencies" that were apparently bogus because they did not respond. I suppose the photograph scared the hell out of them, as it did me. I do not wish to profit from this photograph, but I think the world needs to see it, I just do not know where to go with it.

Right. So why send it to me? And, if it's so powerful, why doesn't she want me to publish the photo or her letter? Anyway, she sent me the photo and it took about one second to see that it was full of refractions from lens flare due to being taken a little bit before sunset and into the sun. When I didn't reply immediately, she wrote me:

What's the matter, Bigshot? No response to the scary picture? You're a fraud in your skepticism as surely as you proselytize that others are in their beliefs. While this realization is irritating for me, I am still sorry for your fear.

You must think a lot of yourself, having explained away every phenomena in mankind's history. What then do you make of the photograph? You must be experiencing apophenia, huh?

You and your kind are dangerous to humanity, Mr. Carroll. You are leading people away from God with Satan's hand; you are allowing evil to work within you. It astonishes me that I, as a struggling single mother with only half a college degree, could teach you so much about truth. You haven't heard the last of me, but I won't contact you directly again; you're not worthy of my time.

How could I resist replying to such a sweetheart? I wrote back:

I was going to reply soon after I looked at your photo, but I couldn't think of gentle way to tell you that all I saw was a common example of lens flare caused by the refraction of light (sunlight in the case of the photo you sent me) hitting a camera lens with imperfections (which is typical of most cameras for general use). I would have recommended you read more about pareidolia and photography and perception. The outfits that rejected your photo did so because such photos are a dime a dozen and commonly produced by shooting into a bright light source like the sun near sunset.

Your original e-mail indicated that you are a very sensitive person, deeply committed to your views, and that, whatever you think you saw, there was nothing I could say that wouldn't offend you. Your follow-up e-mail proves me right.

Despite her threat not to contact me again, her zealotry got the best of her and she revealed what I missed in her photo:

No surprise you're declaring it sun glare, even though there are 3+ faces, not just of ghosts, but Mormons in the land they inhabited; top middle, 2 in far right. And the demons in all the glares. Someone said they saw a portal and that may be why there's so much in this photo.

If you want to see what's in her photo, just get a camera about a half-hour before sunset and take a picture with the sun a bit off-center or click here. You may get lucky and find a couple of flares with two or three dark or light spots not too far apart. The spots can be seen as two eyes, or eyes and a mouth, if they are surrounded by a light flare and you're not too particular about facial details. The same kind of pattern can occur with reflected light, and, of course, the pattern can be seen with light spots against a dark background. This bit of pattern recognition, along with a strong belief in spirits and a hefty dose of ignorance about photography and perception, is probably the source of many misinterpretations of lens flares as ghosts or geographical formations as constructions by intelligent beings on other planets.

If you want to see some really interesting photos taken into the sun, click here. For those who are sun worshippers and who like to keep things in perspective, click here.

Beauty and the beast

A group calling itself the Beauty Brains has posted several of a proposed nine-part series of articles on "the beauty of skepticism." They began with an article that might be called "The Scientific Method for Dummies." In short, make an observation, propose a hypothesis to explain the observation, make a prediction from the hypothesis, and then test it. The Beauty Brains call their article "Beauty and the Scientific Method." The only example they give involves eating chocolate and getting a pimple. Unfortunately, they belie their own description of the scientific method by the very wise advice to check the scientific literature for other experiments that people have done related to chocolate and acne. Then, instead of giving advice on the importance of having a control group when you test a hypothesis such as "does chocolate cause acne?", the Beauty Brains just advise their readers to create a series of your own tests where you eat chocolate and observe whether you get acne or not. They do note:

If however, you do get acne the next day, it does not mean you’ve proven chocolate causes acne. It just means you haven’t proven that it doesn’t cause acne.

The chances seem slim that most of their readers are going to understand what they are talking about. (If the Beauty Brains knew about it, they could link to my article on Critical Thinking and Control Groups, where I evaluate testing the hypothesis that SprinkleThin™ is a significant causal factor in producing weight loss.) While it is true that you haven't proven that eating chocolate doesn't cause acne when you get acne the day after eating chocolate, it is not clear from this information how you should test the hypothesis. Discussion of control group studies is indispensable. I don't think it's sufficient to note, as the Beauty Brains do:

To figure out what is more generally true, it’s better to look at large, peer-reviewed studies. The sheer amount of controlled data they collect is much more reliable than your small experiments. (Although, you’re [sic] small experiments may be more predictive of what happens to you).

The final insult comes, in my opinion, when the Beauty Brains state at the end of their article: Incidentally, eating chocolate doesn’t generally cause acne. Why not encourage the readers to figure it out for themselves?

Who are the Beauty Brains? I don't know. Only one of them gives a name on the website, where it is written: All of us use “brainy” nicknames because being anonymous lets us blog about all kinds of products from many different companies without any bias.

I must be missing something. The down side of being anonymous is that we have no reason to trust you when you say:

The Beauty Brains are a group of cosmetic scientists who understand what the chemicals used in cosmetics really do, how products are tested, and what all the advertising means.

Cosmetic scientists? Okay. It would be nice to know that you have degrees in chemistry, physiology, medicine, or the like. Without knowing who you are or what qualifications you have, why should we trust you? How do we know you're not a front for one of the cosmetic companies and that your main goal is to post comments critical of competitors' products? How do we know that your main goal isn't to run Google ads and ads for lip puffers that grace your pages? Lesson One in skepticism, ladies, is Trust no one, not even yourself. Thus, a true skeptic, must take with a grain of salt your claim:

We’re here to help you cut through the confusing, misleading and sometimes false information that the beauty companies bombard you with. Our goal is to explain cosmetic science to you in a way that’s entertaining and easy to understand. We believe the more information you have, the better you’ll be able to find products that you like at a price you can afford. So, you can listen to the advertising. Or advice from a friend. Or what your stylist tells you. But if you want to really understand cosmetic products in an unbiased, scientific way, Ask The Beauty Brains. You’ll get answers from a team of scientists who have no sales pitch and nothing for you to buy.

By the way, the Beauty Brains say they were inspired to do their series on the beauty of skepticism by the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, Skepchick, and Carl Sagan. Nice product juxtapositioning. I'm sure Sagan would approve of critical thinking about cosmetics.

Here's a list of the topics for the rest of the series:

2. Experimental Design; 3. Null Hypothesis; 4. Occam’s Razor; 5. Anecdotal Evidence; 6. Confirmation Bias; 7. Correlation & Causation; 8. Argument from Authority; 9. Extraordinary Claims/Extraordinary Evidence.

Apparently, the numerical listing is no indication of the order in which these articles will be posted. The latest post is on the argument from authority and ends with the following advice:

To protect yourself from people who don’t have your best interest in mind, you have to remain skeptical of expert advice from beauty authorities. Understand that they are often wrong. You should never rely on a single source and don’t forget, no one “knows” what will work for you. You have to figure that out for yourself.

What the Beauty Brains say is true and it applies to them as well. The Beauty Brains are putting themselves forth as authorities without identifying who they are. We don't really know whose interest they have in mind.

I would add that you should also be skeptical of people who do have your best interest in mind. I hear the voice of the late U. "Utah" Phillips, who described the folks of Grass Valley, California, after he was diagnosed with coronary heart disease: They've got so many healers there, it makes you sick. Anyone who has been diagnosed with a serious illness knows that many people who love you and want you to get better offer up every bit of quackery you've never heard of as just what your situation calls for.

Alternative treatment for injured seals

A reader sent me a link to an amazing story about a harbor  seal weaner with an allegedly abnormal kyphotic "hump" in his lumbar spine. I use the word 'allegedly' because I have no idea what a normal kyphotic hump would look like in a baby seal. Actually, I didn't even know what 'kyphotic' meant until I looked it up. My dictionary says it has something to do with the "exaggerated outward curvature of the thoracic region of the spine resulting in a rounded upper back."

Anyway, the baby seal was found stranded in the San Juan Islands and given the name Avanti by the folks at the Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre of British Columbia. The IWNCC, or NCC for short, emphasizes "alternative, nontoxic treatments such as homeopathy, herbal remedies and physical therapies." It's reassuring to know that toxic treatments won't be used on injured wildlife.

Avanti "had trouble with all aspects of locomotion including swimming, hauling out and moving on land." Maybe one of the founders owns an Avanti and there is some inside humor involved in this story. In any case, this was one beat-up baby. It had numerous infected punctures and slashes on the lower torso. "Radiographs revealed a possible cracked sternum and diminished disc space between three upper lumbar vertebra." The blood report indicated a serious chronic infection. The poor creature "had no movement in his lower torso, but had movement in his tail." He couldn't have fallen into better hands than the NCC folks.

The treatment included Rolfing and

Liu Wei Di Huang Wan, a Chinese herbal formulae [sic] originated 1500 years ago for improper physical development in children and lower back problems. He was also given high potency homeopathic Nux Vomica for spinal trauma and homeopathic Hypericum for nerve damage.

Liu Wei Di Huang Wan is also known as Six Flavor Teapills and is used to yank up your yin. Soreness in the lower back indicates diminished yin, don'tcha know.

Hypericum is the active ingredient in St. John's wort, commonly used by homeopaths and naturopaths to treat depression. An expert in homeopathic remedies informs us that

The typical Nux Vomica patient is rather thin, spare, quick, active, nervous, and irritable. He does a good deal of mental work; has mental strains and leads a sedentary life, found in prolonged office work, over study, and close application to business, with its cares and anxieties.

Sound like a depressed harbor seal to me.

In addition to Rolfing "to rebalance his structure, release any soft tissue restrictions and regain normal function," Avanti was given "frequent doses of homeopathic China to help counter the effects of dehydration and homeopathic Pyrogenium for infection." To be safe, however, Avanti was given "a course of antibiotics and was tubed with electrolytes every 4 hours." I don't know if antibiotics and electrolytes are considered toxic by all homeopaths, but it is comforting to know that "the electrolytes contained herbal Echinacea tincture to help boost immunity and acidophilus to replace the intestinal bacteria killed by the antibiotics."

I'd say these folks used the right treatments for the wounded weaner, except for one thing. Battlefield acupuncture should have been their first line of treatment. As the seal got stronger, advanced Rolfing was used to release hind flipper soft tissue. Neoprene restraints on his front flippers were used to force Avanti to use his rear flippers. To an outsider, this might appear cruel, but it was for his own good. Under the care of the NCC, Avanti went from 24 to 65 pounds before he was released into the wild to eat salmon and be eaten by an Orca.

If you liked this story, you may enjoy reading about the injured elk fawn who was saved by homeopathic remedies before being released into the wild after hunting season.

Science News

A significant find from a vast cache of ice-age fossils discovered two years ago at Rancho La Brea has been made public: a well-preserved male Columbian mammoth, about 80% complete, with 10-feet long intact tusks, and given the name "Zed." Science News has the story, as does Swoopy and Mickey's Zoo. For up-to-the-minute news, follow the blog of the Excavatrix, who works at the La Brea site and has posted some exquisite photos.

For those who don't know, the la Brea area is one of the richest sources of fossils from the last Ice Age (approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years ago). The Page Museum at La Brea has one of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of late Pleistocene fossils. A couple of years ago, the neighboring Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened an area for excavation before it began a major construction project. Twenty-three crates, weighing from 3 to 65 tons each, were loaded with intact blocks from the site for later excavation; hence the name Project 23. Paleontologists at the Page Museum estimate that Project 23 could double the collection by three to four million specimens. So far, some 700 fossils have been recovered, including 3 saber-tooth cats, 1 lynx, 1 North American lion, 6 dire wolves, 2 coyotes, 1 Harlan's Ground Sloth, 1 baby bison, 1 baby horse, 2 dwarf pronghorns, lots of turtles, at least 5 birds (including a teratorn), millipedes, and oak leaves.

So far, Zed is the star of the show. He's the first nearly complete individual mammoth to have been found in Rancho La Brea.

The Page Museum at the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits is open to the public. Viewing areas have been set up to watch the ongoing excavations.

(La brea means "the tar" in Spanish and the black stuff oozing up in the area is actually asphalt. Here in California, however, it is tradition to refer to the la brea tar pits.)

Why I am not an economist

Every pundit I've had the misfortune to listen to lately says that we're in a world of hurt economically because of institutions and individuals throwing good money after bad. Now the pundits tell us that the way out of this mess is to throw more good money after the bad. Maybe they're following the homeopathic law of similars: like cures like.

If I understand things correctly, and there's a good chance that I don't, the idea is to give money to institutions so they can hire workers and lend money to individuals who can hire workers who can borrow money and buy things they want but can't afford. We all need more money to spend to get the "free" market rolling again. Trillions of dollars in the value of stocks vaporized over the last year. Trillions more are being printed. The more money we print, the stronger the economy will get. Is this placebo economics? By repeatedly suggesting that this is the cure, will we be conditioned into thinking it is, even if it isn't? Is this what the politics of hope looks like when it's practiced?

On February 24th in his budget speech before Congress and the world, President Obama told us that we're going to hell in a hand basket, but he told us in such a way that most of us are looking forward to the trip. "We're not quitters!" he said, quoting a little schoolgirl from South Carolina. Don't get me wrong. I think he gave a great speech. It was appropriate, given the dire straits we find ourselves in. But Obama and the optimists are sure the future will resemble the past: the economy will recover and we'll enter a new age of prosperity. The pessimists and philosophers aren't so sure. Remember Bertrand Russell's chicken? "The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead...." Induction is a wonderful tool, but it is not inevitable that the future will repeat the past.

As I understand it, we're in trouble because we threw too much good money after bad, so now we need to throw more good money at the problem. We borrowed and spent too much, so we need to borrow and spend some more if we are to solve the problem. We must increase the deficit in order to lower it. The only way to save the "free" market is to have the government take control of the economy until it can be "free" again. Fail economically in a small way and we let you fall by the wayside. Fail in a big way and we reward you with huge loans and few restrictions. Lose your job and go homeless; cause thousands of people to lose their jobs and you get a big fat check for your troubles. Economics is a dismal science; it can turn a skeptic into a cynic. I'd rather be a skeptic.

Scum of the minute

This minute's award goes to EMR Labs, LLC, for its Advanced Bio-Photon Analyzer, which

is designed to tune up your biofield through a resonant effect that harmonizes your energy and helps you to navigate smoothly through a stressful world. Think of the ABPA's effect like tuning forks that remind your biofield of its optimal functioning state. Worldly stress causes the biofield to become more chaotic and incoherent. The ABPA reverses this process, promoting efficiency, harmony, and balance.

EMR claims that in 1994 the US National Institutes of Health "adopted a new term – biofield – to describe a growing body of research showing a subtle field that permeates and extends beyond the physical body." I suppose you could say the NIH adopted the term, since the CAM division gave grant money to blowhards like Gary Schwartz to study this imaginary entity, also known as an aura or a vibrational field. Science long ago gave up the idea of a vital force animating living things, but the idea still resonates with the bioenergy crowd.

The biofield is something you’ve probably already noticed: a vital force that animates our bodies and powers our daily lives. When our biofield is out of balance, we’re out of balance. Disease, fatigue, stress, and apathy all reflect a compromised biofield. When something improves our biofield, such as the ABPA, it enhances our sense of well-being.

Every day, our biofields are negatively impacted by flickering computer monitors, cell phones, emotional stress, microwave transmissions, and traffic jams. We are literally bombarded with frequencies that wear down our immune system and biofield. That’s why it is essential to recharge.










For those who want to spend real cash ($1,795 at the time of this writing) on a device that provides countermeasures to non-existent harmful agents, the bio-photon analyzer is made for you. The promoters of this piece of biojunk want you to know that it is an "essential tool for feng shui practitioners and professionals who want to produce astounding results for their clients." I'd add that any respectable ghost hunter should have one these devices in his toolbox. Better hurry, though. These bio-photon folks may end up like James Folsom, another entrepreneur in the quack device market.

* AmeriCares *

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