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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 11 No. 5

May 2012

“Without any imagination, this is all a pile of rubbish.” --Jens Notroff on prehistoric archaelogy*

What's New?

New additions to the Dictionary: the halo effect and the god helmet.

New additions to Unnatural Acts that can improve your thinking: the clustering illusion, intentionality bias, continued influence effect, the halo effect, and experimenter effect.

New on Skepticality podcast: the placebo and availability bias, as well as an interview with Derek.

New reader comments: the Silva method.

Revision: altered states of consciousness to show more skepticism of the work of Michael Persinger on evoking the experience of "a sense of presence" with magnetic pulses.

Updates: Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at skepdic.com/updates.html.

The Aliens Have Landed....Again

Many of you have heard of the archaeological find at Göbekli Tepe (meaning the hill with a belly or "belly hill" in Turkish), six miles from Urfa, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey, which some locals claim is the birthplace of Bible characters Abraham and Job. Klaus Schmidt and his team have uncovered many massive carved stones that he says are about 11,000 years old. Schmidt dates the site by comparing stone hammers and blades found there to artifacts from nearby sites that have been carbon dated to 9,000 BCE. He's also done some "limited" carbon dating himself that he says confirm his estimate.

Religious "experts" know this is bunk, however, since the Bible, according to these experts, tells us that Abraham's god created the universe in 4004 BCE. These stones were carved prior to formation of the planet, according to Biblical literalists. Others have reason to distrust those who take literally the tales of an ancient tribe of nomads and they place the date of these stones billions of years after Earth was formed, but before the development of pottery and metal tools, by a people who did not have agriculture or animal husbandry. Adding to the mystery is the apparent fact that the standing stones were deliberately buried around 8200 BCE. In fact, the standing stones were periodically buried, with new stones built on top of or alongside the old ones. Nobody knows who or why they put the stone circles together and nobody knows who or why they were buried more than a millennium later. But such immense ignorance has never stopped the fearless from exercising their imaginations while jumping to conclusions.

Gobekli Tepe


How many of you knew that aliens quarried, moved, and carved these stones? Neither did I, but of course on the Internet you can find any belief represented by serious-minded, passionate people who have no clue what they are talking about. Yes, you can read all about the alien connection here. Rather than show their knowledge about ancient peoples who could carve stones with other stones, the aliens-did-it folks postulate "as-of-yet forgotten/undiscovered technology" to account for the megalithic structures and carvings. "Undiscovered" here seems to mean "I'm ignorant" or "I couldn't organize such a building party nor could I carve a beast on a stone with another stone, so some advanced creatures using some advanced technology must have done it." Good logic. I'll bet these folks couldn't fix your carburetor or do heart surgery, either. Does that mean that auto mechanics and surgeons must be aliens or must have been taught to fix cars and human bodies by advanced beings from other worlds? There's probably a website for that, but let's move on.

Some archaeologists are calling the site "a temple" and "a religious site." The structures probably are grounded in some sort of superstition, but since there's no language associated with these unknown people and no record of them before now, it seems very speculative to associate any gods or supernatural beings to the place. (I was rather annoyed by several writers who kept referring to the standing stones as "pillars," as if they knew they were meant to support something. One author even refers to the T-shaped stones as "human forms." Maybe the aliens had no legs or heads. Maybe they brought spiders and scorpions with them from another world. That would explain why the intelligent beings who carved these stones depicted such creatures.)

Elif Batuman, who wrote an article about Göbekli Tepe for The New Yorker passes on this rather bizarre bit of logic:

The site has yielded no traces of habitation—no trash pits, no water source, no houses, no hearths, no roofs, no domestic plant or animal remains—and is therefore believed to have been built by hunter-gatherers, who used it as a religious sanctuary.

Schmidt speculates that the site had religious significance, but I fail to see how it follows from all those negatives listed by Batuman that it was used as a religious sanctuary, though both he and Schmidt refer to the standing stones as a "temple." By calling it a temple and assuming the stones had a religious purpose, Batuman can say, without sounding like the fantasists who claim aliens built the site,

The findings at Göbekli Tepe suggest that we have the story backward—that it was actually the need to build a sacred site that first obliged hunter-gatherers to organize themselves as a workforce, to spend long periods of time in one place, to secure a stable food supply, and eventually to invent agriculture.

It helps the cause that Charles C. Mann wrote a piece for National Geographic on Göbekli Tepe entitled "The Birth of Religion." A graduate student who gave Batuman a tour of the site convinced him that the standing stones "are almost certainly humanoid figures, with long narrow bodies and large oblong heads." They see erect penises in various sculptures and stones. Good for them, but that might tell us more about these modern speculators than about the ancient people who put these monuments here.

What Schmidt has found is a collection of standing stones arranged in circles. He is simply guessing when he calls it a "place of worship." There are four rings of partially excavated pillars on a hillside. The rings have two large T-shaped stones in the center encircled by slightly smaller stones facing inward. The tallest pillars are 16 feet high and, according to Schmidt, weigh between seven and ten tons. Some stones are blank; others have carvings of foxes, lions, spiders, scorpions, snakes, and vultures. Unlike the animal paintings in caves done by earlier Neolithic peoples, these animals are not the kind you hunt. There is abundant evidence that animals were butchered and cooked on site. Joris Peters, an archaeozoologist from the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, specializes in the analysis of animal remains. He has examined more than 100,000 bone fragments from Göbekli Tepe. None have come from domesticated animals. Most of the bones have been gazelle bones, but he's also identified boar, sheep, red deer, vultures, cranes, ducks, and geese.

stone circle at Göbekli Tepe

Schmidt is convinced it was a holy place. It certainly was a special place. A lot of time, energy, planning, and skill went into its construction, but I think it's a little early to be calling it a temple, an observatory, a restaurant, a butcher shop, the Garden of Eden, a hunting lodge, or an alien outpost.

There is no end to Schmidt's speculations. He thinks these ancient Stone Age folks might have had beer and drugs. He thinks Göbekli Tepe was abandoned because the people “did not need it anymore. Now they are farmers and they find new expressions of their religious beliefs.” Yes, and maybe the aliens had a thing about erections and nasty animals.

If you desire to know more about the aliens and Göbekli Tepe, tune in to the (Pseudo)History Channel and watch “Ancient Aliens: Unexplained Structures.” Better yet, read Edwin's review of this "legitimately fascinating archaeological work [that] is being overshadowed by the sensationalist assertions of a motley crew of cult historians." Edwin hangs out at Skeptical Cubefarm.

Can Diet Cure MS?

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). According to PubMed Health:

MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. When this nerve covering is damaged, nerve signals slow down or stop.

The nerve damage is caused by inflammation. Inflammation occurs when the body's own immune cells attack the nervous system. This can occur along any area of the brain, optic nerve, and spinal cord.

It is unknown what exactly causes this to happen. The most common thought is that a virus or gene defect, or both, are to blame. Environmental factors may play a role.

There is no known cure, but life expectancy can be almost normal. Most people with MS continue to walk and function at work with minimal disability for 20 or more years. MS is not a constant debilitating illness. Attacks come and go. Sometimes the period between attacks can be extensive.

There is a video making the rounds on YouTube by Dr. Terry Wahls, who claims that she learned how to properly fuel her body at the subcellular level, which cured her MS.

Did she cure herself with "organic food, sunshine, filtered water" and other dietary changes? Maybe. But my guess is that she is in remission and that her dietary changes may have had nothing to do with her MS symptoms disappearing. If many people with MS make the same changes with the same result, or if a controlled study finds that diet can cure MS then I'll become a believer. Until then, though, I'd say her claims about diet curing her MS is not well founded.

The Skeptic's Toolbox

The title of this year's conference--to be held August 9-12 in Eugene,Ray Hyman Oregon--is "Evaluating Evidence: Garbage In Garbage Out." The goal of this year's Toolbox is to supply participants with the tools to evaluate and use evidence. To properly justify a claim, evidence has to be adequate and properly interpreted. To download a brochure, click here.

Ray Hyman, professor emeritus of psychology, University of Oregon, and CSI fellow, created the Skeptic’s Toolbox in 1989. Ray will be joined by longtime presenters Jim Alcock and Loren Pankratz, and The SkepDoc, Harriet Hall, and feminist political blogger Lindsay Beyerstein. Of all the skeptical events I've attended over the past 15 years, The Skeptic's Toolbox ranks at the top of the list. The faculty and participants are outstanding, the topics and discussions stimulating, the setting intimate and friendly. This event is the best value skeptics have to offer. Trust me. I taught ethics.

The Incomplete FAQ

A reader sent me a list of 17 questions with the permission to "feel free to use any of them on my FAQ." I often get questions like these, usually from people who haven't read much of my writing. This person, who wishes to remain anonymous, is no exception.

1. Who do you know who has been hurt by Alternative Medicine?

A. There is no such thing as "alternative" medicine. A treatment is either medicine or it's not. There are alternatives to medicine, such as praying or having somebody smack you in the forehead in Jesus's name or wave their hands in the air over your body while claiming to be affecting chi, prana, energy, the Holy Spirit, or some other bogus entity. You can give people water that you've processed or blessed in various ways and call it homeopathic medicine or holy water, but it's still water, not medicine. It's an alternative to medicine.

I do know people who have been hurt by chiropractors, but I wouldn't name them. I know people who have taken things like the Gerson therapy instead of chemotherapy for breast cancer who died sooner than they otherwise likely would have. Again, I won't name them.

On the other hand, I've maintained a webpage called What's the Harm? for many years. I have posted numerous instances of people being harmed by acupuncture, faith healing, chiropractic, among other things. Tim Farley at What's the Harm has documented hundreds of cases of people harmed by all the kinds of things this writer probably means by "alternative medicine."

Anyway, it is not because people can be harmed by acupuncture, homeopathy, energy medicine, and the like that I criticize these alternatives to science-based medicine, which, as we all know, has its practitioners who have done their share of harm. No. I criticize these alternatives to medicine because they are delusional. They claim to be healing methods, but they aren't. Yes, I know they have zillions of satisfied customers, but that is not relevant to whether these practices are efficacious medicine. Most illnesses, aches, and pains go away on their own. Shamans and medicine men knew this long before physicians even existed. Most of your patients, clients, victims--whatever you want to call them--will give you and your medicine, whatever it might be, credit if you are the last person who treats them before they recover. Most of these patients are satisfied customers; otherwise the practices would have dried up for lack of business. But they're satisfied because they feel better after treatment and they assume it is because of the treatment. Double-blind, controlled studies have shown time and time again that the inference from treatment to cure with acupuncture, homeopathy, and energy medicine of all sorts, isn't justified. The only positive evidence in favor of these alternatives to medicine is that in many cases they relax the patient by giving them hope, thereby reducing stress and improving mood, and they take advantage of classical conditioning.

2. Who do you know who has been saved by scientifically-proven medicine?

This one is easy. Me! Thirteen years ago I was diagnosed with angina and an angiogram found that one of my arteries was 90% occluded. A stent was inserted and I'm still alive. My father and his father both died of heart attacks in their fifties. My stent was inserted when I was 53. Perhaps if this simple operation were available to them, they'd have lived longer. We'll never know. I might have tried a diet of lettuce and carrots, combined with coffee enemas, and my artery might have expanded. I doubt it, but we'll never know since I opted for the surgery.

I'll mention just one more person I knew who was saved by scientifically-proven medicine. My mother, who was diabetic and had cardiopulmonary disease, was able to live into her seventies, thanks to science-based medicine and pharmacology.

I suppose I should also mention that my grandson and grandniece most likely would not have survived long after their births had it not been for scientific-based medicine.

In any case, there are zillions of people who have been helped by science-based medicine.

3. When did you first learn about skepticism and what attracted you to it?

I first learned of philosophical skepticism, I think, when I took my first philosophy class in college about fifty years ago. Two things in particular made it attractive. The skeptics raised interesting and important questions about the nature and extent of knowledge that is possible, and they provided arguments with which to do battle with all the dogmatists of the world. I think by nature I have an inbred dislike of all people who think they know things with absolute certainty, especially those who think they know what I should believe and do.

I believe I learned of what is now usually called scientific skepticism in February 1982 in an article by Douglas Hofstadter in Scientific American entitled "World Views in Collision: the Skeptical Inquirer vs. The National Enquirer." I was teaching critical thinking at Sacramento City College in those days. Two things in the article attracted me to skepticism. One was mention of a teacher named Douglas Stalker and a method he used to get his students to understand the difference between science and pseudoscience. (I discuss this method here.) I tried the method in some of my classes and found it somewhat more successful than simply lecturing students about pseudoscience. The other thing in the article that attracted me to skepticism was mention of Martin Gardner and articles that he and others like him were writing for the Skeptical Inquirer. I quite liked those articles and the way Gardner investigated fad beliefs I'd never even heard of but which had large numbers of followers. To name just a few: there was a thing called Dianetics, something called orgone energy, a cult built around the belief in a hollow Earth, and a host of weird medical and food fads.

I discuss the difference between philosophical and scientific skepticism in the SD entry on skepticism.

My main interest since I began teaching more than forty years ago has remained in logic, critical thinking, and the kinds of things that lead to errors and delusions in thinking. Skepticism is just one of many tools I use in the attempt to figure out what beliefs are justified and why they are or are not justified.

4. What is the definition, in your mind, of the placebo effect?

In my mind? I have an entry on the placebo effect in the SD. I've also recently recorded a podcast on the placebo. The short answer is that there is no placebo effect. This may shock you, but 'the placebo effect' is a catch-all term for a host of things, which I detail in my entry on this topic in the SD.

5. Why is the placebo effect "bad"? If I believe that by doing 50 jumping jacks in a row I will be "cured" of acne and it works, what is bad about that? 

What you are describing is the power of belief. What's bad about it is that your personal perception of having your acne cured may be a delusion. Objective tests may show you still have acne even though you deny it. Or, your acne may go away on its own but you will be deluded into thinking that the jumping jacks did the trick. When somebody else gets the same result doing jumping jacks, you'll be absolutely convinced of the power of jumping jacks to cure acne. When somebody comes along with a case of acne for which jumping jacks don't work, you may blame the failure on their lack of belief rather than on the lack of efficaciousness of jumping jacks for curing acne. But don't worry, their acne will eventually go away and they'll give credit for the cure to some other equally magical activity or to some worthless over-the-counter cream. What's bad about this? Besides the waste of time and money? Well, if you suffer from something serious and life threatening, like cancer instead of acne, your jumping jacks routine may keep you from seeking proper medical treatment that might just save your life. Like many people, though, you may seek proper scientific medical treatment but continue to do the jumping jacks. Some call this integrative medicine, where you integrate science-based medicine with nonsense and then give credit to the nonsense if things work out well.

Harvard University has created a program in “Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter.” Ted Kaptchuk, its director, is studying how patients respond to sham treatments, as well as the importance of patient’s faith in a treatment. In a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine last July he described an experiment with asthma inhalers. The real ones improved patients’ lung function by 20%, compared with 7% for the alternatives: a dummy inhaler or acupuncture. But patients judged the effectiveness of the three therapies to be about the same. The deluded ones might continue with their dummy inhalers, even if they're made aware of the fact. Do you really think this will help them? See The believers Alternative therapies are increasingly mainstream. That means headaches for scientists—and no cure in sight.

Faith healers claim they can cure cancer with prayer or by laying on of hands. They can't, but people can be deluded into thinking they've been cured by the emotional experience they undergo. Some of these crackpot faith healers claim they're being persecuted for their religious beliefs when they are forced to obey the laws against fraudulent advertising of medical treatments. They're not being persecuted. They're deluded whiners playing the persecution card. They should be put in jail.

6. You wrote in the FAQ's, "In other words, if you choose to do meaningful things, your life is meaningful. If you choose to live a meaningless existence, then your life is meaningless." How does this belief differ from the placebo effect, aka what you believe is what happens?

Choosing to do meaningful things, such as helping those less fortunate than yourself or devoting your life to trying to find a cure for cancer, has no similarities to the delusional notion that what happens is what you believe. It should be obvious to anyone who has read what I've written about the placebo effect that it is not true that people can get rid of health problems just by believing some magical activity will do the trick. Your idea that "the placebo effect" is bringing about things by believing them may be a popular understanding of that expression, but as I have noted above, it is not one I share. You can give a person with a headache a dummy pill and claim it has medicinal powers. The person's headache will go away. You are wrong if you think it went away because the patient believed the dummy pill was good medicine. It went away because headaches resolve themselves most of the time.

7. Is your objection to the placebo effect that people are not consciously choosing to believe in something, that they are accidentally choosing to believe in it because they have been led "astray" by the sellers of the product or practice?

I think that people attribute power to the placebo when, in fact, the placebo has no power to heal. People get better after undergoing treatments that are essentially not efficacious because their illness or pain has run its natural course, they got additional treatment that was efficacious, regression to the mean, selection bias, classical conditioning, or a host of other factors including reduction of stress by being given hope of relief in a clinical setting by a comforting healer. These other factors have been studied by scientists and I review them in my article on the placebo in the SD.

Stay tuned. In next month's newsletter, I'll finish answering this inquirer's questions regarding my definitions of crackpot, skepticism, closedminedness, and informed belief. She also wants to know about any regrettable beliefs I've had over the years. I'll have to think about that one.

* * *

Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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