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


From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 8 No. 11

November 1, 2009

Being rational takes work, education, and a sober determination to avoid making hasty inferences, even when they appear to make perfect sense. --Amy Wallace

In this issue

What's new?
Are we there yet?
The Ig Nobel prizes
Darwin celebrations
Rise in fundamentalism
Insecurity and religion
Unhealthy health care
TAM London
Science News
Scum of the minute
Rights squashed in Oklahoma
Quackery at the University of Maryland

What's New?

There are new entries for the missing link and mass hysteria.

I've posted a book review of Richard Dawkins's page-turner The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution.

New Skeptimedia posts include Capitalism (about Michael Moore's latest film and the guys from Government Sachs), Antivaxxer Plague (about the spread of the seemingly unstoppable meme that is the antivaccination movement, and Dribbling Loony Attacks Dawkins (about a pathetic attack on Richard Dawkins by a Telegraph blogs editor and the actual content of Dawkins's comments on Benedict XVI's changing the rules to attract conservative Anglicans).

Reader comments posted since the last newsletter:

Newsletter:  1 (the Bullitzer), 2 (SD as Bible),  3 (was I hoaxed?), 4 (Simon Singh fights back)

Dr. Wallach, the mineral doctor (reader defends anecdotes against RCTs)

Matthias Rath (reader taken in by distortion of facts in Natural News)

New posts to the What's the Harm? page:

Faith-healing killers sentenced, sort of.

Bogolyubovo convent (more abuse in the name of God)

James Ray & the sweat lodge deaths

Children still being abused and called witches by Christian clergy in Nigeria

The following pages have been updated:

alternative health practices (John Moore interviews Suzanne Somers and the actress/author gets no respect for her "medical" advice)

anti-vaccination movement (swine flu deaths are rising; only 46% of adults say they plan to get a flu shot this year; Amy Wallace has an excellent article in Wired about the harm being done by antivaxxers and the media hosts who pimp for them; several links have been added to science-based information on vaccines)

argument to ignorance (clarification of an example)

atheist bus campaign (more cities join in, and another case of vandalism)

autism (new study finds no difference in amount of mercury in children with and without autism)

chiropractic (link to a study showing no significant benefit from chiropractic for lower back pain)

climate skeptics (Earth is cooling....NOT)

collective hallucination (the yearning for a vision is strong in Ireland)

exorcism (in a Korean family)

faith healing (Benny Hinn denied entry into the UK)

homeopathy (embedded video of lecture from person living in an alternative reality)

hypnosis (a cat is registered as a hypnotherapist)

Nigerian scam (many arrests made in Nigeria)

nocebo (side effects of placebos)

organic farming (grim news about population increase, production of food, and undernourishment all indicate that organic farming will not solve world hunger)

placebo effect (mass media hype small study)

psychology (psychologists value their personal insight more than science, thereby demonstrating they missed the class on self-deception)

Scientology (fraud by the Church in France)

shroud of Turin (Luigi Garlaschelli reproduces the shroud)

sleep paralysis (Chris French discusses the topic)

spiritualism (new link to article by Karen Stollznow)

supplements (warning issued on Hydroxycut products).

Where do we go from here?  We're already there

Where is there a need for critical thinking that might have a significant impact on reducing some great harm that is being done? Who is causing great harm (physical, emotional, or financial) by their promotion of woo-woo, superstition, and science falsehoods? The list is a familiar one to anyone who is an active skeptic:

1. antivaxxers

2. fundamentalist creationists

3. acupuncturists, chiropractors, homeopaths, therapeutic touch nurses, and other "alternative" or New Age practitioners

4. faith healers

5. psychics and paranormal media

6. scam artists of all sorts

7. the self-help gurus, both old school and New Age

8. the deluded pseudoscientists looking for investors

9. most religions

10. the deniers of HIV/AIDS, the Holocaust, etc.

11. the conspiracy paranoids

12. the media personalities like Oprah, Montel Williams, Bill Maher, and Larry King who pimp for anti-science and the irrational.

Are many skeptics active in these areas? The answer's obvious. Keep up the good work, my friends!

A special tip of the Thanksgiving hat to those who are reaching out to children, teaching and encouraging them to think for themselves and question us old fogies about everything we hold sacred.

The Ig Nobel Prizes

The Ig Nobel awards honor achievements that "first make people laugh and then make them think." One of the more interesting achievements this year was a bra that turns into two gas masks.

Awards were given for such things as showing that cows with names produce more milk than cows without names, showing why pregnant women don't tip over, and showing how to make diamonds from tequila.

Darwin Festival 2009

The Darwin 2009 Festival, 5-10 July 2009, celebrated the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the sesquicentenary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. The program included 110 speakers, many of whom can be seen and heard on YouTube.

Not all is well, however. See next article for details.

Fundamentalism on the rise in Britain

As much of the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, an international survey has found that Britons are now about equally inclined with Americans in thinking that religious ideas should be taught together with evolution in science lessons.

An Ipsos Mori survey questioned 11,768 adults from 10 countries on whether the theory of evolution should be taught in school science lessons with philosophical and theological ideas like intelligent design and young Earth creationism. 54% of Britons and 51% of those polled in the US think religious beliefs popular among some Christians should be taught in the science classroom.

Lewis Wolpert, emeritus professor of biology at University College London (UCL) and vice-president of the British Humanist Association, said of the poll's results: "I am appalled. It shows how ignorant the public is. Intelligent design and creationism have no connection with science and are purely religious concepts." Steve Jones, professor of genetics at UCL, did not mince words: "This shows the danger of religions being allowed to buy schools, hijack lessons, and pretend that they have anything useful to say about science...."

The poll also indicates that fundamentalist Christian creationism is on the rise in Britain.

New study blames insecurity for religious service attendance

Two researchers in the Netherlands studied "religious participation" in 60 countries and found that social insecurity and the environment people grow up in have a more significant impact than education on a person's tendency to participate in religious services.

Some US scientists support the religious market theory: minimal regulation of religion and maximum competition between congregations make for more appealing "products." A single national Church will lead to less participation than a "cacophony of evangelists" competing for customers.*

If these researchers are right, we should see a huge surge in religious participation in the US as a result of the insecurity in the economic sphere and evangelists recruiting at unemployment offices.

update: David Flint writes: "My colleague Tom Rees has published a paper which reaches similar conclusions about insecurity. However he finds that Rational Choice Theory (aka religious market theory) is NOT confirmed by the same data. For my own comments see How inequality makes people religious."

In his comments, David argues that research shows that the main cause of the social insecurity leading to increased religiosity is inequality of wealth.

Unhealthy Proposals on Health Care

The opportunistic vultures have descended on Health Care Reform. No, I don't mean the No-to-anything-Obama crowd. I mean the religious zombies who choose prayer over medicine and the snake oil hawkers of every sort of unscientific remedy. The religious danger comes in two forms: one doesn't want health insurance because they don't use medicine or hospitals; the other wants prayer and all forms of wacko faith healing to be covered by insurance. Both groups complain of religious discrimination, the universal whine of those who think they're special and don't have to conform to what's good for the community.

One of the biggest problems Health Care Reform faces is in defining what counts as health care. If chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy, and other unscientific practices are included in universal insurance plans, then the government is validating quackery. If they're not included, then the government is effectively putting them out of business. Wouldn't a free market be better? Let the quacks offer their snake oil and let those who crave it have their fill at their own expense. Or have two plans the public can opt in or out of: one plan for science-based medicine and the other for quacks. Let the people choose which one they want and the government will cover their costs. We could look at it as an experiment. Which group has the better survival rate? Which produces the healthiest children? Which has the better placebos? Etc. I'd especially like to see the results for those folks who think health is a matter of will: just think about being healthy and you'll be healthy. This experiment could provide us with the scientific evidence needed to validate or debunk many beliefs about health and disease based on intuition and fantasy.

Tom "bee pollen" HarkinOne problem that is bothering many Americans is the issue of treating people who live healthy lifestyles equally with those who are smokers, are obese gluttons, drink to excess, don't exercise, ingest high quantities of unhealthy foods, take extreme risks, and so on. Some legislators are aware of this. Sen. Tom Harkin, for example, wants Health Care Reform to emphasize prevention. Unfortunately, Harkin will also want reform to cover bee pollen and dolphin therapy.

update: 3 Nov. Should health care package cover prayer? The House of Representatives released a version of the health care reform bill that does not require private and public health plans to cover spiritual care. However, the provision to cover Christian Science prayer treatments as medical expenses is backed by some of the most powerful members of the Senate. The provision was inserted by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) with the support of Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry and the late Edward M. Kennedy, both of Massachusetts, home to the headquarters of the Church of Christ, Scientist.

TAM London

BBC News posted a very favorable article on the first Amazing Meeting outside of the U.S. Read it here.

Science News

Scientists have created part of the temperomandibular joint in the lab using human adult stem cells taken from bone marrow. Problems with the joint are widespread but difficult to repair using grafts from bones elsewhere in the body. Producing human bone in this way could potentially transform reconstruction work.*

Scum of the minute

Bill Harris, an NLP trainer (among many other things), promises you can meditate like a Zen monk in minutes with Holosync®. (Never heard of him? You probably didn't see or read The Secret, either. If he hasn't been on Oprah, he should have been.) In addition to giving good meditation, Holosync will relieve you of anxiety and troubling emotions. You'll be healthier, live longer, and experience other mind-blowing effects. Holosync is perfect for the lazy and the gullible. If you want instant physical health benefits, mental health benefits, clarity-of-mind benefits, relationship benefits, and overall sense of well-being benefits without doing anything strenuous or exerting, this is just the product the alternative doctor ordered.

According to Bill:

The Holosync Solution program utilizes Centerpointe's proprietary Holosync sound technology, embedded beneath soothing music and environmental sounds, to induce deep meditative states, causing the brain to reorganize at higher levels of functioning.

You can take his word for it.

I couldn't find any evidence of scientific studies that demonstrate significant behavior modification, much less brain reorganization "at higher levels of functioning," from listening to subliminal tapes. Googling "holosync bullshit" turned up a website called Numinous Nonsense, however. Several folks complain that all they've received from this $200 program are headaches. These testimonials to the detrimental effects of the product don't appear on the Holosync page. What a shock.

What is Holosync? Allegedly, it is "a scientifically-proven audio technology." It "will easily and effortlessly place you in the electrical brain wave patterns of deep meditation, every time." Even better, Holosync will "stimulate the creation of new neural pathways between the right and left hemispheres of your brain, balancing your brain and leading you to a high-performance state scientists call 'whole brain functioning'…"

Google "whole brain functioning" and the number one link is to another outfit touting "brainwave synchronization" by meditation. I knew meditation could reduce stress hormones and have other beneficial effects that come from relaxation, but I didn't know that brainwave synchronization "will lead to both sides of your brain being so balanced that your brainwaves will merge into a single coherent brain wave pattern." (What? You don't believe it's true? You have to admit, it sounds good, though.) "Some people believe that at this point, the normal conscious mind is bypassed and you finally achieve the 'it,' the 'oneness' or enlightenment that people seek from meditation. It’s a state of mind that some people call the awakened mind." Monks take years to achieve the "it." With Holosync, it takes only minutes to delude yourself into thinking you're enlightened.

For a more accurate picture of what scientists think about this split-brain distinction see "Left Brain Right Brain" by John McCrone (New Scientist, July 3, 1999).

When we cut through the hype about rewiring the brain, what are we left with?

We know that the experience of putting a given frequency tone in one ear and a slightly different tone in the other is that of hearing a third tone which is the difference in frequency of the two tones....Today, the binaural beat phenomenon is employed by a number of audiotape manufactures as a way of producing certain relaxed states in the listener. [D. S.] Foster examined, as part of his [doctoral] dissertation study [1990], the degree to which these binaural beats at alpha frequency could result in an increase in alpha. He found that the binaural beats did indeed produce an increase in the occurrence of alpha; however, another group which heard artificially produced surf sounds also showed a comparable increase in alpha. These two groups did not differ significantly.*

Using sounds to help people relax is nothing new. Claiming to use sound to "balance brainwaves" and induce a state of meditation equivalent to that of a Zen monk is quite new, but it does fit with the kind of marketing prevalent today that banks on the public being suckers and not caring about integrity, honesty, or accuracy.

Are there going to be satisfied customers who use Holosync? Of course. The excitement of a new product, the promise of help, the desire to change, and many other factors can conspire to produce a false sense of effectiveness from the product. (Throw in a dynamic guru to lead the pack and you can even get people to die trying to improve their lives. See James Ray and the sweat lodge deaths.)

I think I'll wait until the scientific evidence is in that these audio signals can alter my brain for the better before I jump on the bandwagon due to impressions I or others get from using the product.

I have to keep reminding myself that the self is not really an unbiased observer of experience.*

For all we know, maybe the Holosync and similar devices will trigger the GSK-3 controls, creating more brain cells to accommodate all those new neural connections. This might sound like a good thing, but it could be a bad thing. Maybe when you reach what you think is nirvana, you've actually triggered a mental illness.

Oklahoma abortion law

Oklahoma's new abortion law (H.B. 1595, The Statistical Reporting of Abortions Act) requires doctors to ask 34 questions of any woman seeking an abortion. The doctor must then pass on the answers to the Oklahoma health department, which will post them on a public website. The questions ask about the woman's relationship to the one who got her pregnant, how many previous pregnancies and abortions she's had, the reason for the abortion, and where the abortion was performed. Any doctor who does not provide the state with this information faces prosecution and loss of his or her medical license.

Todd LambThe sponsor of the law, Republican state senator Todd Lamb, said it was intended to give the mother "as much information as possible about that baby" because it might grow up to win the Nobel prize. True. It might also grow up to be like Dick Cheney or Hitler or Todd Lamb."

Correction: Dan Sullivan also sponsored H.B. 1595.

Lamb had sponsored another abortion law that was recently struck down by the courts and it was in reference to that law that Lamb made his Nobel prize remark. The law required that an ultrasound be carried out vaginally of all women who seek an abortion if the pregnancy was in its early stages. Rape victims were not exempted....The woman could not be forced to look at the screen but would have no choice but to listen to the doctor's description.

update: Oklahoma County District Court Judge Twyla Mason Gray has issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of H.B. 1595, according to The Christian Post. Former Democratic state Rep. Wanda Jo Stapleton filed a lawsuit challenging the reporting requirements as "totally intimidating." The questions asked are "totally personal questions, and it's nobody's business," said Stapleton.

University of Maryland Medical Center promotes quackery

The University of Maryland Medical Center has a very deceptive and misleading promotion of therapeutic touch. UMMC calls TT "a form of healing that uses a practice called 'laying on of hands' to correct or balance energy fields." No. TT is a form of placebo healing that works mainly by the power of suggestion, ignorance, and hope. In a barely intelligible sentence, UMMC answers the question "What is the energy field?" with the following: "Although scientists differ on the nature and relevance of the human energy field, the concept of an energy field is also a part of other types of healing." Say what? Most scientists since the 19th century have rejected vitalism and do not recognize any such thing as a human energy field. TT has no scientific basis.


Happy Thanksgiving.
Bob Carroll

* AmeriCares *

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