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From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 8 No. 6

June 11, 2009

“When liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood it is hard to shake hands with her.”--Oscar Wilde

In this issue

What's New?
Board of Nursing Hoax
Science News
Spiritual Junk
Political Junk
Media Junk
Scum of the Minute Award
Scum of the Year Award
Dental X-rays
Richard Dawkins
JREF Scholarships
Summer Camp

What's New?

The Skeptic's Dictionary has four new entries: affect bias, ad populum fallacy, economic forecasting, and irrelevant appeal to tradition. The oracle entry has a new concluding paragraph on the oracle at Delphi.

Skeptimedia has several new entries:

Doing God's Work

postscript (Religulous): Doing God's Work

The World According to Oprah

A Hard Time to Be a Republican

A Hard Time to Be a Roman Catholic

Mr. Obama goes to Notre Dame

Cardinal Speaks ex asinum

A Blot on America's Record

Why Oprah loves Jenny McCarthy

What's the harm? has four new entries:

June 2, 2009. Scott Roeder, a 51-year-old Bible-quoting man with a history of anti-abortion and anti-tax protesting was arrested on suspicion of murdering Dr. George Tiller, 67, a doctor who provided late-term abortions at his clinic in Wichita, Kansas.

May 26, 2009. A Catholic father of four was beaten to death outside his home in Coleraine (county Derry, Northern Ireland) by a mob of some 40 young Protestant loyalists celebrating Rangers' clinching of the Scottish league (soccer) title.

May 24, 2009. Sex-slave traffickers arrested in Spain. Voodoo used to control the women.

May 20, 2009. Thousands beaten and raped by priests and nuns in Irish reform schools.

Several readers' comments have been posted since the last newsletter:

reader comments: A Blot on America's Record (an impassioned defense of Bush/Cheney & the invasion of Iraq)

reader comments: 9/11 conspiracies (a puerile repetition of claims by "truthers")

reader comments: psychic (a reader asks: are psychics frauds or nuts?)

reader comments: chiropractic (a reader goes to a chiropractor and lives to tell the tale)

reader comments: illuminati (a case of mistaken identity, but I straighten him out regarding Building 7)

reader comments: Wallach, the mineral doctor (a defender opens his mouth and removes all doubt)

reader comments: Inset fuel stabilizer (a reader wonders why so much woo-woo fraud is allowed to go on)

reader comments: homeopathy (one reader defends homeopathy, another calls her out)

Updates were made to the following:

Funk 47: W.R. Grace acquitted of killing and maiming by asbestos

orgone (magical thinking in Africa)

Newsletter (Elsevier's fake journals)

vitamin supplements (folic acid)

Nigerian 4-1-9 scam (scam baiters)

homeopathy (A total disaster for homeopathy - The Donner report by Jan Willem Nienhuys)

climate skeptics (another polar ice sheet collapses)

What's the harm? Evangelicals abusing children in Democratic Republic of Congo

What's the harm? exorcist in training sentenced

Scientology (Wikipedia and France take action against Scientologists)

Young Thinkers (science fair projects)

What's the harm? failed faith healing leads to homicide conviction for mom

remote viewing (Richard Wiseman's twitter experiment)

autism (new study to study potential environmental causes and new article by the SkepDoc)

crop circles (beautiful jellyfish)

chiropractic (Simon Singh story)

Board of Nursing Hoax

In California, we require our nurses to take continuing education courses so they don't get stale. We want them knowledgeable of the latest developments in modern medical care. Sometimes the board of nursing falls asleep at the bedpan, however. Therapeutic touch, for example, is considered a good thing for our nurses to know, even though there is compelling scientific evidence that the practice is nothing but a placebo treatment. The ritual makes some people feel better for a short time, but not because "energy" is manipulated. The Independent Investigations Group (IIG, part of CFI Los Angeles) thought the nurses would appreciate knowing the truth about therapeutic touch. For three years, the group tried to get the nursing board to end the practice of allowing registered nurses to take a certified continuing education course in this modern version of the laying on of hands.

The board wouldn't budge, so the IIG wrote up its own course on feng shui for home care providers and got it approved by the nursing board. In its application, IIG said that the course would "go over techniques using snake oil, anthropomancy, and canupiary flexibility." Canupiary flexibility is gibberish. The course was approved and the IIG was scheduled to teach its first continuing education course when the group issued a press release announcing what it had done. IIG's certification was revoked.

You can still get credit for therapeutic touch, however.

Science News

People with Down Syndrome rarely develop life-threatening tumors. Researchers at Children's Hospital Boston think they have discovered why: having an extra copy of one of the genes located on chromosome 21 interferes with the blood supply tumors need for growth.

The late Judah Folkman hypothesized that the lower cancer rates associated with Down syndrome might be traced to anti-angiogenesis genes on the 21st chromosome. How Sandra Ryeom found evidence that Folkman was correct is described here. For a technical discussion of the discovery and its implications see Technology Review. The findings of Ryeom et al. were published in Nature on May 20, 2009.


New research on human evolution demonstrates that natural selection has been strongly constrained by the historical relationships and gene flow between populations. "The movements of humans within and among continents, the expansions and contractions of populations, and the vagaries of genetic chance – have heavily influenced the distribution of genetic variations in populations around the world."* Read the whole story in "The Role of Geography in Human Adaptation."

Spiritual Junk

Sylvia Browne now calls herself a "spiritual teacher" and has her own line of spiritual jewelry to prove it.

Political Junk

Georgia Republican Paul Broun has introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives that would declare 2010 "the Year of the Bible."* The stunt might get him a few votes in his home state, but the resolution is as likely to pass as one that would name 2011 "the Year of the Atheist." Even so, Broun has 15 co-sponsors (and counting) already. So far, no Democrats have signed on.*

Media Junk

missing link found - ida - picturesIt was all over the television news and the Internet: the missing link has been found! As we all know, if one transitional fossil is found, that means we need two more to fill the "gaps" in the fossil record. Any "missing link" that is found just creates two more "missing links." Actually, there's no such animal as a missing link. So, what did scientists really find last month? Nothing, actually. The 47-million-year-old fossil in question was unearthed in 1983 at Grube Messel, near Darmstadt, Germany. It was owned by private collectors until recently. Jorn Hurum of the Natural History Museum in Oslo, Norway, which now owns the fossil, seems to be the main promoter of its extraordinary importance.

There was certainly a lot of media hype for a fossil that has been around for more than twenty-five years. At the same time that an article about the fossil was published online at PLoS One, a book was published by Colin Tudge, a DVD was released, a documentary was announced by the History Channel, and a promotional website featuring such luminaries as Sir David Attenborough appeared.

Is the fossil important? Sure. Is it the missing link? Of course not. Why is it being promoted as such? To get publicity. There's a lesson here, but I'm not sure I want to go too deeply into it.

Scum of the Minute Award

This minute's award goes to the Reincarnation Bank. You give these clowns your money, jewelry, gold, or anything else of value and they promise to hold it for you until you return in your next life. Or, as the clowns themselves put it: "Reincarnation bank offer a safe and secure management system for its clients - a place they can leave behind their assets and commodities for their return into [sic] the next life."

Not convinced? Then heed these inspiring words: Begin by believing and just do it. The great end of life is not just knowledge but action so act now and save for your reincarnation.

What a pitch! Why not make a bank transfer today?

Scum of the Year Award

There was little competition for most annoying phone and snail-mail spammer in the universe: those guys who keep calling your cell phone or sending you a letter about your auto service plan that's expired. The slimenecks call themselves Service Protection Plan, but their real name is Annoying Liars. They contact people who don't own cars, people who can't own cars because they're dead, and people who've never had a service contract on their car. Complaints seem to inspire the spammers to attempt more contacts. I've had numerous calls on my cell phone and several letters from these lugworms. The latest letter came from St. Louis and was signed by G. Raresh, who informed me that the 3-year factory warranty on my 9-year-old car had expired. He didn't mention that I'd acquired the car after the factory coverage had expired. In any case, I usually consider extended warranties a waste of money.

Service Protection Program and Service Protection Direct may be the same outfit* or there may be several scammers who are using the same business model: call or write people claiming that a car warranty has expired, claim you are giving them a second reminder to extend coverage, imply you are affiliated with a car company, and lie about saving the customer thousands of dollars for "unnecessary repair bills that you may incur once you are out of factory coverage!" A phone number is given, urging you to hurry up and call right now, right now! A cursory search of the Internet will reveal that calling them, even to complain, is not a very good idea.

If their service is as deceptive and annoying as their marketing, you are in for a ride from hell.

update: June 11, 2009. The Federal Trade Commission today asked a federal court to shut down companies that have been bombarding consumers with hundreds of millions of robocalls in an effort to sell vehicle service contracts.

Question of the day: are dental x-rays dangerous?

Dental x-rays on the slowest speed film deliver about 4 mrem of radiation. Most dentists use faster film and the actual exposure to radiation is reduced by a factor of 2-4. A full-mouth series using the slow speed film would expose one to about 72 mrem. Background radiation from the world you live in will expose you to about 1 mrem a day.* In a year, you're exposed to about 5 times what you'll be exposed to in your annual dental exam. Of course, your whole body is exposed to background radiation and at a slower rate than in the dentist's chair, while only a small area of tissue is affected by a dental x-ray. Many states and the federal government consider 5,000 mrem a year to be the maximum safe occupational limit. For more details, click here.

News about Richard Dawkins

I was wondering how Richard Dawkins was going to appear at TAM London and at the Atheist Alliance Conference in Los Angeles during the first weekend of October. News from Phil Plait, president of the JREF, is that Dawkins will not be speaking at TAM London. Tim Minchin will be performing, however, and that should be some consolation to those who were fortunate enough to get a ticket to the sold-out event.

Calling all Student Critical Thinkers Who Want $$

JREF Academic Scholarships are awarded every year to student skeptics from around the world who show an outstanding ability to use critical thinking in their chosen fields.

Four scholarships are awarded totaling $10,000, and the winners are chosen by a distinguished - and picky - committee. If you are a student and you use your skeptical skills in your work, then you should apply.

Thanks to the generosity of JREF supporters Dean and Dorea Schramm, each scholarship recipient will also receive an additional cash stipend.

The deadline for applications is August 1. Click here for details. Click here to read a press release about last year's scholarship recipients.

Summer Camp

It's not too late to sign up for summer camp at either Camp Quest West or Camp Inquiry.

* AmeriCares *

Camp Quest West
intelligently designed for children with a naturalistic world view in northern California

Camp Inquiry
science, reason, and skepticism for kids in upstate New York

Books by R. T. Carroll

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