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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 11 No. 12

December 2012

"....outreaches should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable minority." --Cook and Lewandowsky, "The Debunking Handbook"

What's New?

Mysteries and Science

Mysteries and Science: Exploring Aliens, Ghosts, Monsters, the End of the World and Other Weird Things


Robert Todd Carroll

110 pages

available from Lulu.com for $9.75

E-book available for $6.99 from Amazon for Kindle, Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire HD, iPad, and iPhone.

Click here for more details about the book.

This book was formerly called A Skeptic's Dictionary for Kids. There is some new content and several illustrations in the new book.

New dictionary entries: negativity bias, Gonzalez protocol, and optimistic bias. Revised: apophenia.

New blog entries: informal fallacies, causal fallacies, and magical thinking.

New podcasts: fantasy-prone personality (mp3) and intuition revisited.

New book review: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks.

New reader comments: Gerson therapy, Russell Blaylock, the Long Island Medium, precognition, near-death experience, and anti-vaccination.

SD updates: cranberry juice and bladder infections, hindsight bias, victim soul, natural, near-death experience, Newsletter 1111, vibrational medicine, and the Nobel disease.

Personality Types

A reader asked for my view of David Keirsey's ideas on personality types and his tinkering with Carl Jung's theories. I've never heard of Keirsey and my only forays into personality typing are in my entries on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and the enneagram. Of course there are personality types. I was a college teacher for over thirty years and I met quite a few teachers with very different personalities. I've been involved in coaching athletes and there, too, I met young men with very different personalities. I've never denied that there aren't distinct personalities. What I dislike most about the MBTI is in how those who find it a wonderful tool use the information about preferences that it collects from those who take the "test." On the basis of MBTI type people are given advice about what kinds of occupations they would be temperamentally suited for and who they would work better with. A counselor at the college I worked at claimed that the MBTI not only helped her counsel students about courses and majors, but it also helped her understand her teenage daughter's behavior. Well, it gave her something to hang her bonnet on, anyway, and a feeling that she understood the ineffable.

Why is it important to do personality typing? What's the point? Is there really a preponderance of scientific evidence that only people of a certain personality type should become engineers or doctors? Is there good evidence that conflicts at work can be resolved by dividing tasks according to personality types? Should anyone be allowed to discriminate against a job applicant based on what the employer believes about the job and personality types?

Personality typing gives order to experience, but its value in determining what people should do or be allowed to do with their lives is questionable. The enneagram exemplifies some of the problems with personality typing:

The enneagram represents nine personality types. How the types are defined depends on whom you ask. Some define them by a fundamental weakness or sin. Others define them by a fundamental energy that drives one's entire being. Some follow classical biorhythm theory and classify the nine types according to three types of types: mental, emotional and physical. Others classify the nine types according to three types of instinctual drives: the Self-Preserving drives, the Social drives and the Sexual drives.* Some follow Gurdjieff, who claims to have followed Sufism, and type the types as mental, emotional and instinctual.

I had no trouble confirming the enneagram by applying it to the different kinds of people I've played golf with. Doing so was fun, but not very profound or useful.

There are dozens of ways--even hundreds of ways--that personalities can be typed. Whether one needs to do a typology and what kind would be best depends on the purpose. Jung's purpose is stated in terms of explaining behavior:

My scheme of typology is only a scheme of orientation. There is such a factor as introversion, there is such a factor as extraversion. The classification of individuals means nothing, nothing at all. It is only the instrumentarium for the practical psychologist to explain for instance, the husband to a wife or vice versa” (Psychological Types, in C. G. Jung Speaking, eds. McGuire and Hull, p. 305).

The sciences of genetics and neurology make most of Jung's classification system obsolete (and hence the MBTI is obsolete since it is based on Jung's system). The extravert/introvert distinction might still have a basis in genetics, but the thinking/feeling and sensation/intuition dichotomies are outdated. We now know that feelings drive our thinking, even if we consider ourselves intellectuals in control of our emotions. We also know that most of us most of the time are driven by our intuitions and that we are experts at confabulating narratives that confirm them. It is a struggle to overcome the natural urge to think and believe in accord with intuition. It is difficult to overcome the many natural biases that plague us all.

Being obsolete doesn't mean that a personality typology is useless. Utility depends on why you need the typology. Validity is another matter altogether. I think it is hopeless and pointless to try to create a personality typology of the sort that biologists use to classify living things. And it is just wrong to create a personality typology to determine who should work at what kind of job or who should be promoted to management. I've recently changed brokers and the personality of the new broker couldn't be more different than my former broker. The new guy is outgoing, talks a mile a minute, and is a libertarian but he uses the same kind of investment strategy as the old guy who was quiet, reserved, and very conservative. It's the investment strategy that fits my personality, not the personality of the broker.

I looked up David Kiersey's typology on Wikipedia. He called his instrument the Keirsey Temperament Sorter. He linked behavioral patterns to four temperaments and sixteen character types. His purpose was to help explain people to each other in the hope that understanding others would be of some benefit to us. Conflict management in personal and business lives seemed to be one of his main concerns. (Personally, if somebody is obnoxious, loud, overbearing, a control freak, and demands constant adulation I don't give a damn about understanding why he's that way. I just want him out of my life. I realize not everybody has the luxury of avoiding people they don't like. I think that using a personality typology to help antagonists "understand" each other in the hopes that this will increase the chances that they'll be more cooperative is a pipe dream.) At this stage in my life, there are only a few relationships I care enough about to want to be able to manage any conflicts that might come up. And I've already worked out an informal and flexible system that works for me without needing to type anyone's personality. So, I have little interest in studying Kiersey's four temperaments: Artisan, Guardian, Idealist, and Rational.

I realize that others might be in situations where having a method of conflict resolution is necessary. I'm sure there are many useful methods of resolving conflicts without having to resort to labeling people by some artificial personality typology, however well grounded in observation or validated by volumes of confirming examples.

Preying on Cancer Patients

The Texas Medical Board has dropped its case against Stanislaw Burzynski, M.D. The Burzynski Clinic has been offering clinical trials for a so-called alternative cancer treatment using antineoplastons. 'Antineoplaston' is the name Burzynski gave to "a group of peptides, derivatives, and mixtures" that he uses in the trials. The compounds are not licensed as drugs and Burzynski is not licensed to treat cancer with his mixture. He has been doing clinical trials with his concoction since 1977.

According to Stephen Barrett, M.D., at Quackwatch:

In 2011, the Texas Medical Board charged Stanislaw Burzynski, M.D. with (a) failure to meet standard of care, (b) negligence, (c) lack of diligence, (d) lack of informed consent, (e) unprofessional conduct, and (f) non-therapeutic prescribing. The charges were related to his management of two cancer patients. According to the complaint....: He treated a woman with breast cancer with a combination of five immunotherapy drugs that are not FDA-approved for treating breast cancer and that the combination plus a chemotherapy agent caused the woman to have unwarranted side effects. He treated a neuroblastoma patient with a drug that lacks FDA approval for that cancer and continued it for an 11-month period even though the cancer kept growing. In 2012, the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings dismissed most of the charges and denied the board's request to reverse its ruling. In November 2012, the board decided to drop the case.

According to Orac, the Texas Medical Board:

...had gone after Burzynski based on the doctrine of vicarious liability, which means in essence that the TMB was arguing that Burzynski was responsible for the actions of the physicians working for him who had cared for the patients at the heart of the TMB case against Burzynski. In response, Burzynski moved to dismiss and/or strike TMB allegations against him to the extent that the allegations were based on the actions of other physicians working at his clinic. His attorney’s argument was that, under administrative law, there is no vicarious liability for the actions of others.

The court agreed and the TMB asked to have the charges dismissed. Their request was granted.

Several skeptics (David Gorski, Stephen Barrett, Peter Bowditch, Skeptical Humanities, Skeptic North, and others) have written extensively about Burzynski, so I won't repeat the litany of charges that have been made against him. Briefly, there is no significant evidence after thirty-five years of "research" by Burzynski that his antineoplaston therapy is an effective cancer treatment.

In a recent article in Skeptic magazine on CAM (so-called complementary and alternative medicine) for Cancer, Harriet Hall, M.D. proposes that we replace the categories of "conventional" and "alternative" with "proven treatments," "experimental treatments," and "comfort measures." I would agree with this as long as "experimental treatments" were further subdivided into "plausible" and "implausible." If those two terms are not agreeable, then some others should be found to distinguish those procedures that are clearly the result of magical thinking (like shark cartilage for cancer based on the mistaken belief that sharks don't get cancer) and those that have some basis in biology and what is known already about cancer and cancer treatments. Too many of these treatments are based on fallacious reasoning about personal experience and have a near zero chance of being efficacious cancer treatments, e.g., the Gonzalez protocol. These kinds of treatments are experimental but they should be distinguished from other experimental treatments that are offered patients as a last resort but which have some basis in medical history and knowledge.

Anyway, readers have recently informed me of several experimental treatments for cancer that I'd never heard of. The first and third examples demonstrate that knowledge is needed to determine what is and isn't plausible. The second demonstrates that since some people believe in miracles and supernatural forces, what is plausible to them won't be plausible to a non-believer.

Rick Simpson claims that "if children were given tiny doses of [hemp] oil each day like a supplement, diseases like cancer, diabetes, MS, and many other conditions could be eliminated entirely." What's his evidence for this preposterous claim? His experience: "From my experience all forms of disease and conditions are treatable and often curable with the use of high grade hemp oil as a treatment." He says he has lots of anecdotes and that he's cured thousands of their cancers, but all we have is his word for it. There's no doubt about his enthusiasm for cannabis. "We are at the dawn of new age in medicine and a new day for mankind," says Rick. "Not only can hemp save the world, it can eliminate a great deal of human suffering and can even put an end to starvation." Rick is the winner of the Freedom Fighter of the Year at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam.

Is using hemp oil to prevent and treat cancer or other ailments plausible? Well, there have been some animal studies on cannabis that indicate it can have an effect on tumors, which has led to one small study on two humans. Anyway, I'm jealous. Rick's Facebook page has more than 16,000 likes. The Skeptic's Dictionary Facebook page has fewer than 10,000 likes.

The Bengston Energy Healing Method® of William Bengston, Ph.D., on the other hand, is plausible only to a believer in the supernatural. Bengston claims to have cured mammary adenocarcinoma (breast cancer) in mice by the "laying on of hands." HIs work was published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, the same journal that published Rupert Sheldrake's paper on a psychic parrot. The journal was founded by Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who collected thousands of pages of stories from children that he considered evidence of reincarnation. The journal is peer reviewed but it is definitely not a first-tier publication and I would advise not taking papers published in this journal too seriously. new (If you search the Library of Congress journal list for "Journal of Scientific Exploration" you will get 0 results.) [/new] Anyway, there is absolutely nothing in medical history and knowledge that would give the slightest plausibility to the idea that waving one's hands over a cancer patient would be an efficacious cancer treatment.

A reader suggested that Dr William Li's Angiogenesis Foundation is also cancer quackery. Li's treatment is to try to control disease by controlling the blood vessels that feed them. I would not classify this treatment as implausible. There is some basis in biology and what is known about cancer treatment that is consistent with this approach being successful. It may be experimental, but it is not implausible and certainly not in the same league as the laying on of hands as a cancer treatment.

The CDC report on causes of death

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the leading causes of death in the USA are

  • Heart disease: 599,413
  • Cancer: 567,628
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 137,353

The HealthGrades Patient Safety in American Hospitals study reports that an average of 195,000 people in the USA died due to in-hospital medical errors from 2000-2002.

As Neo at The Skeptic Arena notes: that would make hospital errors the number 3 cause of death in the USA.

A New Kind of Acupuncture (new to me, anyway)

A reader provided the following information regarding recreational acupuncture or 'play piercing,' something I'd never heard of. That shouldn't be surprising since I'm very unhip and out of touch with the latest recreational fads. For all I know, I'm being punked.

Here is my feedback on your acupuncture article:

I am not sure if you are familiar with the practice of "recreational acupuncture", also known as "play piercing". If you are not, then it is basically "sham" acupuncture with larger gauge needles, typically 22 or 23 gauge though it ranges anywhere between 18-25 gauge. [rtc comments: standard acupuncture needles for sale on the WWW run from 28 gauge to 40 gauge.]

Unlike therapeutic acupuncture (which is what your article is about), the desired result is not relief from pain but a full blown endorphin high often comparable to morphine/heroin in intensity. [rtc comments: Good luck with that!]

In other words, for certain people getting stuck with a bunch of needles causes a release of endorphins far more intense than it should be given the level of pain involved. Assuming the same thing is going on with regular acupuncture that would explain why it is unreliable as not only is it necessary to have the right brain wiring but the person's mental state (called "headspace" in the fetish community) is important, which is why meditation/breathing techniques are used to enhance the so called "endorphin rush." [rtc asks: Is there such a thing as hyperventilation meditation in the fetish community?]

So in my view, is (therapeutic) acupuncture effective? Yes, but no more so (and in fact significantly less so) than a play piercing "scene" at a local fetish club.

I looked up 'fetish club' on Wikipedia, but the needles that might be used in the kind of place described there don't resemble acupuncture needles.

Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome

According to Wikipedia:

Scotopic sensitivity syndrome [sometimes called Irlen Syndrome] is based on the theory that some individuals have hypersensitive photoreceptors, visual pathways, and/or brain systems that react inappropriately to some wavelengths of light.

American therapist Helen Irlen believed that colored lenses could improve the reading abilities of people with scotopic sensitivity. According to the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia:

The supporting evidence is almost entirely anecdotal. The syndrome is becoming associated with an even more diverse array of maladies, tinted lenses now being offered for relief of problems far removed from reading difficulty. The procedure for determining the specific tint has not been divulged and remains a type of "trade secret." Finally, a financially rewarding franchise activity is at the basis of the Irlen Institute activity.

According to Wikipedia:

A 2009 report by The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not believe that there is any scientific evidence or basis for the use of colored lenses (the treatment used for Scotopic Sensitivity Syndrome). When discussing its scientific basis, the AAP mentions that "[t]he method used to select the lens or filter color has been highly variable, the color selection has also shown considerable variability, and the test-retest consistency has been poor."

The American Optometric Association's (AOA) position on tinted lenses and colored overlays is that while colored overlays and tinted lenses are not cures for dyslexia, they may be useful reading aids for some individuals with reading difficulty. The AOA also states that "when patients exhibiting the Irlen Syndrome were treated with vision therapy, their symptoms were relieved. These patients were no longer classified as exhibiting this syndrome, and therefore did not demonstrate a need for the colored overlays or tinted lenses."

We might want to wait a while before getting on the Irlen bandwagon The vision experts (ophthalmologists and optometrists) aren't sure the syndrome exists. If it exists, they aren't sure what vision or other problems it causes. And, if it causes problems, they aren't sure what the appropriate treatment should be.

The Irlen folks treat not just learning disabilities or reading problems but children and adults with ADD/HD, Autism, Asperger Syndrome (which I read will be removed as a separate disorder in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-5]), and traumatic brain injuries.

During my short time at Google University--where I went to learn about scotopic sensitivity syndrome--I came across the very interesting case of Donna Williams. Ms. Williams was diagnosed with about a dozen different serious disorders over the years, including autism by a leading expert on the subject in Australia. She has written several books and gives a lengthy account on her website of her progress to a more or less normal life thanks in part to colored lenses.

Can colored lenses help all people with autism? That's unlikely. The DSM-5 will use the now-common designation of "autism spectrum disorder," rather than try to separate out different disorders that share some similarities. Can colored lenses help some people on the autism spectrum. It seems that colored lenses can make life better for some people on the spectrum, even if it is not a cure for the disorder.

new update Stephen Novella of Science-Based Medicine wrote about Irlen syndrome in his post of 7 August 2013. Many "medical treatments or systems, after being discarded by science because they failed in rigorous evaluation, continue on as scientific zombies – unkillable, immune to evidence and reason, going through the motions of life without actually being alive. In my opinion, Irlen syndrome is one such scientific zombie." [/new]

Scum of the Minute

Marilyn Jennet is a lifelong student of "universal laws pertaining to the creative powers of the mind." Here's a copy of a letter she sent to one of my readers after hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern seaboard (I especially like the reference to the "licensed professional prayer practitioner"):

Dear Conrad,

My heart is reaching out to those who have been devastated by the hurricane. I asked Spirit to tell me the best way I can help. I feel guided to share at no cost a powerful program I conducted last year, The Power of Affirmative Prayer for Fast Results.

The recorded teleclass is described on my product page as follows: This teleclass is about "affirmative," or scientific prayer. Marilyn will teach you what it is and why it works, when traditional methods of prayer often do not. She'll also explain how it's related to the prosperity principles she teaches in the Feel Free to Prosper program. This will be a remarkable experience that will expose you to another dimension - a dimension of life where real success, real solutions and real healings occur. It will sweep you away from the superficial, addictive world of effects to the creative, genius world of cause.

The program includes: True remarkable stories from several people who are not my students and whom I did not know before. Two are guests on the call and I interviewed the others prior to the call and the recordings are included. Their experiences are mind boggling and inspire us to believe in and use the power of prayer -in the right way - for ourselves.

My guest co-host, Rafe Ellis, a licensed professional prayer practitioner, conducts prayer treatments right on the call. The famous affirmative prayer that was taken along on the first Moon landing in history and also used by millions worldwide.

Contact information for two renowned non-denominational prayer ministries available 24 hours a day, every day, at no charge. (I've used them for decades) In today's mobile world, I am trusting that those who need this help will be able to listen to the audios and see the pdf material on their mobile devices or wherever they may be staying. Please use this if you need it and please be sure to send this to anyone you know who needs help right now...

Actually, none of Marilyn's prayers are free. The cost of her program is about $500 plus the agony of reading through her testimonial page.

If you don't think prayer will resolve the problems caused by a hurricane, you might try Joe Vitale, who calls himself "Mr.Fire." In case you've forgotten, Joe was one of the stars in the movie The Secret. He says he's an expert on the law of attraction, the law that you will not find mentioned in any science text. Apparently, Joe's been known to wear rudraksha beads to enhance his powers. For proof of his testimony, go to this archived page on hypnotic marketing.

On second thought, maybe you'd be better off just rereading this newsletter.

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