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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 9 No. 8

2 August 2010

"Nineteenth-century democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portions of the new world's surface." --Theodore Roosevelt

In this issue

What's new?
Coping with "irrational" thinking
Offensive art?
Homocysteine and Heart Disease
E-books, the iPad, and Kindle
Organic Photovoltaics
Free Expression Video Contest
Scum of the Minute

What's New?

SD entries: motivated reasoning and backfire effect. I also added a topical index page for critical thinking.

Book reviews: Scientific Paranormal Investigation by Benjamin Radford and Hitch 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Both books are recommended.

Skeptimedia: Dr. Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch sued for $10,000,000; Manipulating the Media to Promote Quackery (slick tricks used by Rashad Buttar); TAM8: Something for Everybody; Clayton College Closed? No Problem (the Institute for Integrated Nutrition fills the gap); and Shirley Sherrod: blogging the news (slander's ok if you're right).

Reader comments: Noah's ark, Joseph Mercola, atheism, intelligent design, free will, Scientology, and faith and science.

What's the harm?: Don't reject Islam in the Maldives and 10-year-old tortured in exorcism ritual.

Revised pages: substance abuse treatment, Shermer's March to Nirvana, fantasy-prone personality, and The Resurrection.

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

Coping with "irrational" thinking

A reader asks:

When you are aware that people are making thinking errors (because you have developed Critical Thinking skills and can examine situations with philosophical analysis) how do you cope emotionally when your reasoned arguments are not considered either due to not being processed, not being convenient, or not being what people want to believe?
I keep facing this problem and find it frustrating and upsetting when people make me feel I’m wrong or crazy when I, very diplomatically, describe a more rational, objective, or philosophical explanation, when other people follow irrational paths.
I do examine and check my own thinking and make corrections if I conclude I’ve make mistakes, but when you face irrational thinking how do you deal with the feelings that arise from challenging ignorance if those people refuse to question their irrational beliefs?

If you have any tips on how to deal with the emotions when these situations arise I would be very grateful to hear them.

The questions asked here open a floodgate of other questions that trouble many of us in the critical thinking "movement." The human species has not evolved to calmly seek the truth in a cooperative way. We've evolved to survive and breed. Yes, we cooperate, but we also band together in tribes that sometimes are at war with one another. We can be a harmonious bunch when cooperation in pursuit of the truth assists in achieving our goals. Truth, or even the closest approximation possible, is not an end in itself. Truth is a means to other things, such as security, comfort, power, control, knowledge, etc.: things that bring us pleasure or help us avoid pain, or things that enhance our chances of survival or of passing on our genes.

On the other hand, nobody actively seeks lies and falsehoods to believe. We might seek them unconsciously in order to feel better about ourselves or as a means to some end, but the people we argue with are not different from us with respect to the value of truth over falsity. We and our opponents think we have the truth and the other is in error or irrational. Yet, when we each present our strongest cases, we think the other is disingenuous or dimwitted for not accepting our arguments. There is no body of evidence, however, demonstrating that belief in the supernatural, the paranormal, or the pseudoscientific are related to level of intelligence. Nor is there compelling evidence that skeptics are brighter than non-skeptics. There are bright and dim skeptics, and bright and dim true believers.

Religious, political, and superstitious beliefs pose a special problem because they are usually entangled with strong emotions. Also, such beliefs don't exist in isolation; they are part of a network of beliefs. Giving up one belief often means that many more must also be abandoned, a very disruptive prospect.

Matters of taste don't pose much difficulty for the controversialist, since we don't expect everybody to have the same taste. Matters of indifference are also usually easy to resolve among disputants. But disputes where feelings run deep rarely end with one side going over to the other on the basis of evidence and arguments presented. We have a built-in resistance to the contrary opinion, and automatically strive to confirm our biases and undermine both the sources and the data contrary to those biases.

You might think you are wasting your time engaging in disputes where feelings run high. If you are a teacher, you might think it is impossible to teach students to think critically about important matters. People can't turn off their emotions at will. We can't turn off one hundred thousand years of evolution or even eighteen years of cultural and familial indoctrination. What is the point of arguing with people about beliefs no amount of evidence is likely to change?

One reason for arguing with people whose minds you can't change is purely selfish. It is pleasurable to seek out the best evidence available and construct the best argument possible. It is pleasurable to explore a strong argument that goes against what you believe. Either you find weaknesses and fallacies in the argument (strengthening the confidence in your conviction) or you realize the error of your ways. Either way, you benefit. Examining arguments, especially arguments that seem counterintuitive, is the only way we can arrive at the most reasonable beliefs possible. Your opponent probably feels the same way. Neither of you wants to be wrong, and the only way to avoid error is do the research and let the chips fall where they may.

Of course, there are dozens of obstacles to critical thinking. The perceptual, affective, and cognitive biases that hinder our ability to be fair and objective in pursuit of the truth never go away. We can never be sure of our motives, our skills, or our outcomes. We have to always be open to the possibility that we might be wrong and our opponent right.

Every argumentative situation is unique, but one common scenario involves wishful thinking. We naturally seek to relieve anxiety and uncertainty, anything unpleasant, and to do so as quickly and as easily as possible. If we think a quick fix will do, we'll usually take it, without due regard to the long-term consequences. We all like shortcuts. If the quick fix is really unpleasant, however, we'll seek out another quick fix that's less unpleasant. Or we might revert to a favorite rationalization (e.g., science doesn't know everything; science has been wrong before; sometimes it's best to follow your instincts rather than the evidence). In either case, we base our decisions more on what we want to be true, rather than taking the time to assess the situation, look at alternative options, and consider the long-term consequences of any action we take. For example, in the annual termite inspection of a home, the inspector informs the homeowner that his house is infested with dry wood termitesthe kind that fly in, build a colony, and eat the framing of your house away over many years. The only way to deal with such critters is to tent and fumigate the house, a very unpleasant prospect, not just because of the fear it arouses that maybe the poison will linger and cause harm to you or your children, but because of the major inconvenience it causes. It is a major disruption involving cost, safety, security, and living off the premises for several days. Immediately seeking a second opinion, one that promises a cheaper and less disruptive alternative, is a common response. There's got to be a cheaper, simpler way. There isn't, at least not one that is safe and reliable, but for many people wishful thinking will kick in and they become easy prey for unscrupulous pest control people.

Also, we can't rule out laziness. Many people are just too lazy to bother with doing research, considering alternatives, and thinking things through.

There's something tribal and atavistic about the way some people fanatically adhere to beliefs, and there seems to be some sort of inverse law at work: the more their beliefs are undermined by evidence and argument, the stronger their commitment to those beliefs becomes. In any case, direct confrontation with contrary evidence and refuting arguments is rarely effective in such cases. The beliefs are driven by emotions and so is the defense of those beliefs. Something akin to a feeling of cowardice and defeat may be associated with admitting you're wrong when directly confronted by an opponent. It would be shameful to openly admit you're wrong. It also opens you up to further humiliation if your opponent is cruel. To save face, however, some people do change their minds because of being confronted with evidence, but they do so quietly and discreetly without admitting defeat and making it look like they arrived at their new conclusion by thinking it out rather than by being shown to be wrong or foolish. (This change of mind can happen, by the way, to people who have been ridiculed, called stupid, and made to look moronic. If the change comes, however, it will be later, when nobody's looking and face can be saved.)

Most passionate believers, however, won't bother with examining your claims. They know you're wrong, so they look for "explanations" for your stubbornness. You're "irrational" or a "pseudo-skeptic." You suffer from some sort of psychological disorder that drives you to defend materialism, atheism, or skepticism, and blinds you to the truth of God's existence, the spirit world, the paranormal, alien visitations, or the evils of vaccinations for your children.

The dynamics of changing minds are complex, but I hope for two things by confronting the errors of others in a public forum: I hope they will later reconsider their views in light of the evidence and arguments I present, and I hope others who are not directly in the fray, but who are interested in the subject and interested in getting it as right as possible, will read the discussion and see that I have the better evidence and arguments. I also remain open to the possibility that I might be wrong and that some observer will provide me with the evidence and argument to show me the error of my ways.

Most of the time, it isn't difficult to cope emotionally when my arguments are rejected by defenders of supernatural, paranormal, or superstitious claims.  I don't expect to change their minds and I'm grateful for the opportunity to present challenges to their claims. On the other hand, there are some people who are annoying and dangerous: the anti-vaccination crowd, the guys who sell dowsing rods to detect bombs, the quacks selling bogus cancer cures, the crooks promising pain relief with a talisman. These types are upsetting because they are causing suffering and death. With these types, however, I am more concerned that they be stopped by law enforcement or find their arguments falling on deaf ears than I am with changing their minds about anything.

I don't debate people in public forums, where a number of issues can come up that might be upsetting. For example, I would not like it if my opponent kept diverting attention away from the main issue or made up stuff as he went along, stuff that I couldn't check out and respond to because I'd never heard it before.

A podcast on arguing with non-skeptics featuring James Randi, George Hrab, D. J. Grothe, and Steve Mirsky offers further perspectives on these topics. Julia Galef moderates. The panel met at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City. (It should be obvious that skeptics aren't all skeptical about the same things and some skeptics can be "irrational," too.)

Offensive Art?

A painting hanging in the Sacramento County Public Law Library offended some folks as being anti-Christian, according to a news story. The artist, Jen Wyrick, is a lawyer in San Francisco. She sold her piece for $500.

New Study on Homocysteine and Heart Disease

It has been known for some time that blood homocysteine levels are positively associated with cardiovascular disease. This fact has led many people to think that lowering homocysteine levels would reduce cardiovascular disease. Since no readily available inexpensive pill is available to lower homocysteine levels, there would be little point in doing routine checks of homocysteine. Well, you could scare or give false hope to the patient with the data, but other than that the knowledge would be of little use.

Now we know that increasing folic acid and vitamin B(12) can lower homocysteine levels. That's the good news. The bad news is that the lower levels don't correlate with decreased cardiovascular disease.

JAMA recently published the results of a double-blind, randomized study of 12,064 survivors of myocardial infarction. 6,033 were given folic acid and vitamin B(12) supplements. The mean reduction in homocysteine for this group was 28%, but the group suffered the same rate of cardiovascular disease and death as the control group.

E-books, the iPad, and Kindle

In the last newsletter, I mentioned I was reading Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens on my iPad, and was looking forward to reading The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley. I finished Bradley's book and am now hooked on e-books. In fact, I've ordered a Kindle. The 3rd generation will be out later this month and I am looking forward to a small and light book reader, and so are my increasingly arthritic hands. The convenience of selecting a book and having it on your reader in under a minute seems too good to be true. Plus, no more searching for a place in the bookshelves to stuff one more book. As most of you know, Amazon now sells more e-books than tree-based hardcover books. The future is here. All my books and all my musical recordings are now digital. I even downloaded Hume's Principles of Morals and read it again on my iPad rather than try to find it in one of the boxes I put in the garage when I retired from teaching.

The Imperial Cruise was a trip. I wasn't taught in my history classes that Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had inspired the Japanese with visions of superior races having the right to spread their culture and superior values to lesser races. The Japanese took a page out of the U.S.A.'s book when it began expanding into southeast Asia, Manchuria, China, and Korea. Superior people don't have to keep their word. They have a right to screw lesser peoples out of whatever they feel like taking. We expected Japan and a good chunk of Asia for ourselves. We had already taken Hawaii, the Philippines, and some other choice lands. After our invasion of Iraq for preemptive reasons (to prevent them from attacking us first), the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor doesn't seem as cowardly and dastardly as it was portrayed when I was a schoolboy.

The superior Germans were doing their expansion thing in Europe. The superior Americans were doing their thing in South America and the Pacific. Unfortunately, the Japanese had a long cultural history that they were very proud of, and felt themselves superior to other Asians and to white people. The Japanese looked at other Asians the way Europeans looked at Native Americans: inferior races to be lifted up by those superior to them. White people got in the way of their imperialism. Nothing personal, but blockade us, stop the flow of oil, and guess what? We'll try to take you out. Thanks to the bomb we were building to stop Hitler, we were able to crush Japan and keep them from stealing what we stole fair and square. History does repeat itself, even when we know the history and keep repeating that history repeats itself. The idea of bringing democracy to Iraq and other places where dictatorships have flourished is in line with this ancient tradition of the superior having a right and a duty to spread its superior values. I couldn't help but wonder if Mark Daily, who joined the U.S. Army and went to Iraq after reading Hitchens, would still be alive had he read Bradley instead.

T. Roosevelt fans will surely despise Bradley's book, as it portrays their hero as a girly "PR" man who worked hard at portraying himself as strong and virile. It also portrays Roosevelt and Taft as pushing the "Christian Aryan" cause into the Pacific and the Japanese as "honorary Aryans" because they had defeated the Russians ("the first non-White, non-Christian country to defeat a White Christian power"). Do any of you remember Daniel Webster, U.S. secretary of state, saying it was reasonable for the U.S. Navy to take Japan's coal because it was "a gift of Providence, deposited by the Creator of all things in the depths of the Japanese island for the benefit of the human family"? I suppose the Brits could have made a similar argument when they stole all that opium from India to sell in China in the 19th century. Many Brits will probably take offense at Bradley's calling Queen Victoria "history's largest drug dealer." I wouldn't blame them. I don't think she was that large at all.

Graphene Organic Photovoltaics

A University of Southern California team has produced a flexible material only a few carbon atoms thick that may open the door to production of cheap solar power. Sophia H. Walker of the solar panel battery charger blog writes:

In a paper recently published by the journal ACS Nano, researchers stated that organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells have been proposed as an approach to create low priced energy due to their ease of manufacture, light weight, and compatibility with flexible substrates.

This work indicates that graphene, an extremely conductive and highly transparent type of carbon consisting of atoms-thick sheets of carbon atoms, has high possibility to fill this role.

While graphene's existence has been known for many years, it has only been studied extensively since 2004 because of the difficulty of manufacturing it in high quality and in quantity.

OPV devices aren't as efficient as silicon cells, but they're cheaper and have more flexibility. Some day it may be possible "to run printing presses laying extensive areas covered with inexpensive solar cells, much like newspaper presses print newspapers." Clothing or home curtains could become solar panels. Your hat could power your iPod or iPhone. As you make your way into the wilderness to escape the noise and chaos of civilization, you can be charging your iPad from a graphene sheet on your backpack. Storage of energy is always a problem, but I'm sure these folks will work it out. Maybe underwear batteries will do the trick.

Free Expression Video Contest

Center for Inquiry's Campaign for Free Expression video contest has begun! Participation is easy: create a short public service announcement video about the importance of free expression, upload the video to YouTube, and tag it with "Campaign for Free Expression Video Contest."

Videos must be submitted by September 20th, 2010. The grand prize is $2,000. Second place gets $1,000, and third place gets $500.

Winners will be announced on International Blasphemy Rights Day, September 30th, 2010. See the full instructions and rules before creating your entry.

Scum of the  minute

The AMwand from Amega Global is the thumbs down winner. You not only get a piece of pseudoscientific paratrinketry, but a chance at multi-level marketing (or whatever it's called these days).

Rocco Castoro of Vice says of Amega Global:

"Basically they are the Amway for people who think a metal tube full of 'granulated minerals and crystals' can fix your bad back, make crappy wine taste better, reduce the acidity of lemons, energize your food, etc."

Want to get in on the ground floor? There are millions of little old ladies out there who will probably believe you if you tell them you can relieve their arthritis with a pen filled with sand and dirt. Tell them that using the wand under a pyramid magnifies the effect tenfold. Tell them that wearing a tinfoil hat while using the wand turns your head into an FM receiver. Tell them that if they microwave the wand before using it, their IQ will elevate 6 points beyond the Mozart effect. And don't forget to call it a zero point energy device that works by quantum mechanics and boosts the immune system. Of course, those claims would be lies.

You could quote from a website that sells the wand. I'm sure these claims are true and have been verified by rigorous scientific experiments:

1.Discharges blockages in your body allowing universal life force energy to have a clear path to flow.

2. Removes the distortions in your Bio energetic Field.

3. Reminds the cells where they originated and promotes the body’s own self healing [sic]. [This one is especially creative, don't you think?]

4. Energizes your food and drink which will in turn increase the potency of the minerals and vitamins within them.

5. Use it on your pets and foliage to supplement any energy deficiencies that they may have.

6. Balances and energizes any imbalances that your body may be experiencing.

7. Helps to remove aches, pains and discomforts from accidents, arthritus [sic], bruises, nasal passage blockage, tinnitus, tendinitis and virtually any other pain you may be experiencing.

8. Energizes your surroundings within your own dwelling as well as those around you. [You do have surroundings within your dwelling, don't you?]

If the wand isn't your style, the gizmo is also available as a pendant or bracelet. Both are guaranteed to be equally effective.


Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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