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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 11 No. 3

March 2012

"Darwinian evolution has man coming from an ape-like creature and woman from an ape-like creature...whereas the Bible teaches man came from dust and woman from his side." --Ken Ham (Who ya gonna believe?)

What's New?

A reader suggested that I revise many Skeptic's Dictionary entries to be less biased in making or reporting claims about gods. Many people use the word 'God' with a capital G as if it were a name denoting a particular person or being like the name 'Richard Dawkins' does. We may have different ideas about what Dawkins is like, but we agree that the name denotes a single being. With 'God' there is disagreement about the denotation and the connotation. To atheists, for example, 'God' functions like 'Hamlet' or 'Santa Claus': it is the name of a fictional being. To some Christians, however, the name might refer to a male figure they take literally from Bible stories. To other Christians, the word refers to a set of perfections belonging to some sort of non-physical being as worked out by theologians over several centuries. Anyway, I have replaced references to 'God' with other terms, e.g., 'a god', 'some god,' 'Abraham's god' ( AG), and the like. I have also taken the liberty of inserting "[sic]" after uses of 'God' in passages I quote that suggest universal agreement about the denotation of the word. The word 'sic' is an abreviation for the Latin sic erat scriptum--thus was it written--and does not necessarily indicate, as some people seem to think, that the writer of the word 'sic' is accusing the writer of the words quoted of an error. For a sample of how these changes affect presentation in the SD, I suggest you look at the entries on atheism, Ray Comfort, creationism, or intelligent design. Unless there was some sort of divine intervention guiding me, I probably didn't make all the changes I set out to make.

New posts on the Unnatural Acts blog: priming effect, argumentum ad ignorantiam, backfire effect, and irrelevant appeal to authority. Coming soon: availability bias and the straw man fallacy.

New reader comments: Reiki, IQ and race, and aromatherapy.

Revised: quack Miranda warning.

Updated files: The Joe Mercola page now has a link to David Gorski's take on how quackery pays; climate change deniers now has a link to Donald R. Prothero's "How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused" and a link to Mark Lynas's review Watermelons: How Environmentalists Are Killing the Planet, Destroying the Economy and Stealing Your Children’s Future by James Delingpole; the backfire effect was updated here, here, and here; the detoxification entry has a link to a story about a woman who died from a detox treatment at a spa in Quebec; the organic food entry now has a link to Arsenic Found in Organic Baby Formula, Cereal Bars; the NCCAM entry now has a link to a rant by David Gorski about NIH director Francis Collins; the autism entry now links to Mercury Again Ruled Out as Autism Cause; and the IQ and Race entry now has a link to Jan Sapp's reviews of Race?: Debunking a Scientific Myth by Ian Tattersall and Rob DeSalle and Race and the Genetic Revolution:Science, Myth, and Culture, edited by Sheldon Krimsky and Kathleen Sloan. Despite the fact that, as Sapp notes, "The consensus among Western researchers today is that human races are sociocultural constructs," I still get mail condemning me for being politically correct and scientifically wrong for saying so. Here's the latest:

The article "IQ and race" is politically correct and scientifically incorrect to the extreme. The author (R. T. Carroll, I assume) managed to find and cite most of the PC extremists from both the past and present. His list of books and articles omits all of the most esteemed intelligence researchers and all peer-reviewed papers on the many facets of intelligence. Referencing people such as Gould and Kamin is a crime against science. Where real experts were mentioned, they were criticized.

Here are a few facts to set the record straight and to disabuse the PC author of his ignorance: Yes there are multiple intelligences, but the single factor at the third stratum (CHC theory) accounts for 98-100% of the validity of an IQ test. The other factors are broad abilities (second stratum) and narrow abilities (first stratum). Today, scholars are focused on g as the sine qua non of intelligence. IQ tests correlate positively (predictive of) with these: Academic achievement, income, longevity, health, life satisfaction, job and performance. IQ tests correlate negatively with these: Smoking, HIV infection, crime, time incarcerated, school dropout, teen pregnancy, fertility, illegitimate births, and unemployment. At the national level, mean national IQ correlates positively with per capita GDP, economic growth, economic freedom, rule of law, democratization, adult literacy, savings, national test scores on science and math, enrollment in higher education, life expectancy, and negatively with HIV infection, unemployment, violent crime, poverty, % agricultural economy, corruption, fertility, polygyny, and religiosity.

Every breeding group has its own mean IQ. Means vary from the 50s (Australian Aborigines and Kalahari Bushmen) to about 110 (Ashkenazi Jews). The mean IQs of breeding groups is unchanged when they immigrate. For example, Chinese maintain a mean of 105 in various populations around the world. Their mean IQ does not change as a result of language or environment. [Not true of Koreans living Japan or Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland or of several other ethnic groups treated as inferior by the group in power. Why?] The Gladwell comments are at odds with a mass of data taken independently by scores of researchers from many countries. Denying the existence of race is an unnecessary diversion. We all know that there are multiple breeding groups and that they produce their own kind. When two breeding groups mix, the hybrids always have mean group IQs that lie between the two source groups. The IQ differences between breeding groups reflect g differences. When IQ tests with different g loadings are used to measure the difference in means, the difference will increase proportionately to the g loadings of the tests. For this reason, culture fair tests (such as the Raven set) produce larger between group differences than do culture loaded tests. The heritability of IQ increases from childhood (40-50%) to adulthood (above 80%). This would not happen if there were a significant environmental component.

The environment has two components: the shared and the non-shared. The former includes the family and all social and institutional factors; it is high in childhood, but falls to zero during the teen years. The non-shared environment includes only those factors that can operate via biological or chemical means (exposure to toxins, disease, etc.). Intervention programs have not been able to permanently boost intelligence, nor does adoption have any effect on intelligence by the time the adopted person reaches adulthood (the shared environmental component is gone). [Nonsense. The non-shared environment includes the bigotry and racism some groups suffer that others impose on them.]

Of course, the piece is unsigned. I'm a bit in the dark, though, as to what his point is. Does he want us to incarcerate certain "breeding groups"? Does he think we should begin a eugenics program? I do thank the author for informing us that national IQ correlates positively with life expectancy. I always thought it was the good who die young; now I know it's the stupid. Hey, isn't that predicted by natural selection? I knew Darwin was a racist! Do I twist the data to my own service? Well, what a naughty boy am I.

Bras and Cancer: the Mercola Factor

Joe Mercola loves to scare people. One of his fear pieces dregs up an old myth about bras impeding the flow of lymph fluid and causing breast cancer. Scientific American took up this scary myth a few years ago. It is not true that wearing tight bras or bras with underwires has been shown to cause breast cancer. That false claim originated "in 1995 with a book called Dressed to Kill, in which Sydney Ross Singer and Soma Grismaijer, a husband and wife medical anthropologist team, claimed that women who wore tight-fitting bras all day, every day, had a much higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who went au naturel. The authors claimed that by inhibiting lymphatic drainage, bras trapped toxins in the breast tissue, which caused cancer." The anthropologists misinterpreted the data, but got a good scare story out of it. Mercola is a master at finding small, one-off studies that have never been replicated to support whatever unscientific idea he's promoting. In his bras-cause-cancer article he cites several such studies and makes no effort to consider confounding factors like breast size having something to do with whether one wears a bra or what kind of bra one might wear. Anyway, scientific medicine may not know what causes breast cancer, but so far the evidence is slim that wearing a bra is an important thing to worry about.

Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia

If you haven't heard of this important project, please check out Susan Gerbic's blog or read Ben Radford's interview with her in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer: "Skepticism One Wikipage at a Time." If you want to see some numbers on the effectiveness and potential for this project, check out Tim Farley's "Why should skeptics edit Wikipedia? Traffic, traffic, traffic!" The Wikipedia articles on homeopathy and chiropractic, for example, get over 100,000 hits per month each. The Skeptic's Dictionary entries on those topics get about 2,400 hits per month each. Those two entries were among the top 50 in ranking (of over 700 entries) on the SD recently. For the week ending 10 Feb 2012, the chiropractic entry ranked 40 and homeopathy ranked 43. The greatest number of visitors in one month to the SD chiropractic entry was 4,249 in October 2011. The highest visitor count for a month on the SD homeopathy page was 2,721 in April 2010. Furthermore, Wikipedia refers about 8,000 visitors a month to pages on The Skeptic's Dictionary. Only StumbleUpon, Google, and the SD homepage refer more visitors to the articles on The Skeptic's Dictionary.

So, if you are skeptic in search of a project, consider becoming an editor of Wikpedia articles. Don't know where to start? In her interview with Ben Radford, Susan says "I would love to mentor anyone interested in learning how to edit." I hope those words come back to haunt her.

Homeopathic arnica for pain?

The local fishwrap, the Sacramento Bee, continues its downward spiral. The paper now assigns its religion writer to do science articles, one of which was picked up recently by a newspaper in Ohio. The Bee is now offering a weekly piece called "Integrative Medicine." The column is written by two MDs. As I say in my SD entry on the subject, "integrative medicine is a synonym for alternative medicine that integrates sense with nonsense." The Integrative Medicine column for 23 Feb 2012 supports my disparaging viewpoint. In addition to warning readers to be careful with prescription drugs, Drs. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden write "the homeopathic medicine arnica has been shown to assist in acute pain such as bruises or strained muscles." My deconstruction of that sentence is probably a bit more detailed than most people want, but here goes.

If this is a homeopathic medicine, it has little or no active ingredients. It has some water in it, water that was used to dilute the arnica, in some cases, completely out of the solution. But water is not a known analgesic. Sure, you might wash a scraped knee with soap and water, but nobody's mom ever said "here, let's put some water on it and the pain will go away." Well, maybe somebody's mom or dad did say that and the pain went away. Someday, though, the kid will figure out the trick of kissing wounds to make them better or telling the child that you're going to pull the pain out of her knee into your hand. Suggestion is a wonderful thing, at times, but I wouldn't use it in place of real medicine if I'm in real pain.

Then there's the language Drs. Judge and Barish-Wreden use. What comes to mind when you read that some medicine "has been shown to assist" with whatever? Here's what comes to my mind. It isn't too hard to find studies that "show" just about anything. There are gazillions of small or incompetently designed studies that find positive correlations with such things as hemlines and the rise and fall of the stock market or age and shoe size or moon phases and gambling winnings. So what? They mean nothing. We need large studies, competetently designed and replicated. Once we have those, we can talk about recommending something as a medicine. Plus, the word 'assist' is a weasel word. It means nothing in science. 'Assists' or 'helps' is the kind of word advertisers use: "helps prevent waxy yellow buildup," "may help lower cholesterol if taken with a statin," "assists in the prevention of tooth decay," "assists in building strong bones if taken with a glass of milk."

After these initial thoughts on the doctors' claim about homeopathic arnica for acute pain, I went to Google University. My first search result was a promo piece on Arnica.com that boasts: Dr. Oz recommends arnica. The accompanying video integrates good information about bruises with a recommendation to use pineapple, papaya, and an arnica-based gel. I'm all for medicine you can eat or drink, so I might try a bit of pineapple on the next bruise I get. If I remember correctly, I once soaked a swollen finger in a glass of tequila and the swelling went down after about an hour. I drank the tequila and then the pain went away. It worked for me; maybe it will work for you. Anyway, Dr. Oz doesn't say what's in the amica gel he uses. Is it really homeopathic, i.e., so diluted as to have few or no molecules of the arnica plant remaining?

There are, in fact two kinds of arnica gels that arnica.com sells. One is homeopathic and--surprise, surprise--it is promoted as being safe for everybody and having no side effects. What? Placebos can't have side effects? That's news to me. The other amica product is an herbal gel.

In herbal form, the amount of plant extract is substantially higher. This can cause adverse effects when taken internally. Home brewed teas and tinctures can cause dizziness, diarrhea, irregular heartbeat and even death. Topical herbal applications can cause reactions as well. For this reason, professional practitioners recommend Arnica only when used in homeopathic form. Just take care not to apply the cream or gel to broken skin where it can cause irritation.

"Professional practioners" recommend the kind that has little or no active ingredient. Great.

So, what's in this plant that is so effective in treating bruises. According to Wikipedia: "Several species, such as Arnica montana and Arnica chamissonis, contain helenalin, a sesquiterpene lactone that is a major ingredient in anti-inflammatory preparations (used mostly for bruises)." It's not surprising that a systematic review of clinical trials showed that homeopathic arnica was no more effective than a placebo. The tablet-form homeopathic arnica sold on arnica.com has Arnica Montana 30X as its main active ingredient. The 30X means that the arnica has been diluted by a factor of ten thirty times. So, if you started with a quart of arnica, the first step would be to add 10 quarts of water and shake it up. Then take each a quart of liquid from the mixture and add 10 quarts of water to it.
Do this eight more times. How many molecules of arnica do you think are left in an ounce of the water when you make it into tablets? Hardly any. But, according to the completely unsubstantiated notion of homeopathy, the medicine got stronger with each dilution! You energized it also by shaking it after each dilution.

The muscle therapy gel with arnica has Arnica Montana 2x as one of its ingredients. This means that the arnica was diluted by a factor of ten two times. This still leaves very little arnica for each 3 oz. tube of gel. In promoting this product, arnica.com writes: "Contains Arnica - the first natural remedy for swelling, bruising and trauma." And I thought ice or snow was the first natural remedy for such things. Silly me.

But what about the herbal form? Are there any scientific studies that have been done on the herbal gel? The Cochrane Collaboration has nothing on the subject. One small study done in 2003 concluded:

The results of this pilot study showed a trend towards a beneficial effect of Arnica D12 with regard to reduction of hematoma and pain during the postoperative course. For a statistically significant proof of efficacy of Arnica D12 in patients following varicose vein surgery a larger sample size is necessary.

While trying to find out what Arnica D12 is, I discovered that this pilot study done nearly a decade ago is the only one cited by dozens of websites promoting the scientific evidence in support of using arnica for pain. If there are any other scientific studies on arnica, they aren't mentioned on the arnica.com website. Enough said.

Human Design...Just when you thought you'd heard it all

Every hear of "human design"? Me neither until a reader sent me a link to the JovianArchive page. Here's something I'll bet you didn't know:

All living beings are part of a single holistic field and therefore all of us continually interact with each other and the world around us. We are not separate but are part of the whole. We are connected to the whole by tiny particles called neutrinos and we are connected to the other by aura, the invisible energy field that surrounds each of us.

And you thought neutrinos were uncharged elementary particles that have very small mass and that rarely interact with other particles. That may be true, but Alan Krakower (a.k.a. Ra Uru Hu) the creator of Human Design, believed that neutrinos carry information that determines "your unique imprinting." Krakower claimed that for eight days in 1987 he went through "a process of mystical deconstruction climaxing with his encounter with the 'Voice,' an intelligence that was far superior to anything he had ever experienced." Who would doubt it?

Until his death in 2011, Krakower spread the good news that the voice (or voices) told him.

The Human Design System is a synthesis of two streams of science, traditional and modern.

The traditional sciences - astrology both eastern and western, the Hindu-Brahmin Chakra system, the Zohar or Kabbalah, and most importantly of all, the I’Ching, the Book of Changes - these are the traditional elements in the synthesis that is Human Design, and combined with the modern science of reading the genetic code, this offers you profound insight into how you are designed to navigate the material world.

It gets better.

Human Design uses your birth data to calculate your design chart, or Bodygraph, which determines your Type and Definition, the key components of the system.

The chart provides you with the simple mechanics of Strategy and Authority to experiment with, in order to live and discover your individual and differentiated nature.

By simply grasping the surface mechanic, you will have a grounding in this life that is immediately going to bring a difference to your process.

The irony of what it is to be a human being is that we are caught at the surface of understanding and accepting our nature and the cosmos around us. It doesn't matter how intelligent we are, there is a vast underlying ignorance of how our bodies operate.

Can't you just feel the irony? Anyway, here's my Rave Chart:

my rave chart








Pretty scientific, eh? My inner authority is the solar plexus. And this means? "If you have a defined Solar Plexus Center, this is automatically your decision making authority.  It is the most common of all inner authorities, belonging to about 51% of  humanity.  The Solar Plexus center operates in a wave and therefore those with this authority have 'no truth in the now.'  Clarity is something that emerges over time." For a few bucks, I can learn more, but I think I'll continue to wallow in my ignorance for now.

Intelligent Design?

Want to see an example of intelligent design by using tools for purposes other than the ones they were designed for? Check out this amazing display.

Death of the Illuminati: a rock opera

The world premier of the rock opera, Death of the Illuminati, will take place at the Canopy Club in Urbana, Illinois on Thursday, March 29th. You will have the option to attend the show or stream the show live on a computer or Internet TV through iClips.net. Stream access through iClips.net is $5. Tickets to attend the show are $10 in advance.

Laugh for the Day

If you missed the Dilbert comic strip piece on 25 Feb 2012 check it out.

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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This page was designed by Cristian Popa.