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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 12 No. 2

February 2013

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” --Stephen Hawking*

What's New?

New Skeptic's Dictionary entry: Rosemary Brown and bias blind spot.

Updated: Lightning Process (There has now been one study on this therapy. It involved a non-random sample of 9 people with no control group. So, now instead of saying that there are no studies to examine, I must say there are no studies worth examining.)

Updated: NCCAM (Sen. Harkin is at it again, helping supplement/mlm operation, Herbalife.)

New Unnatural Acts blog posts: anecdotal evidence (testimonials), suppressed evidence, bias blind spot, and change blindness. note: the 59th and final Unnatural Acts blog post will be on February 4.

New on Unnatural Virtue podcast on Skepticality: organic food and farming (mp3) on Skepticality episode #199 and Brain Gym on Skepticality #200.

New: Interview with Stuart Campbell on Consider This

New: in memoriam Bob Steiner

New : book review The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body

Dr. Darla's Angelic Diamonds of Light & Nightmare Alley

darla diamondPsychics have flourished on the World Wide Web and there seems little chance of stopping them as long as there are millions of people who believe in their powers and seek their help. If you spend a few minutes on "Dr." Darla's website, your skepticism will turn to cynicism in a flash. If you want a deeper understanding of why so many people seek out psychics read Mark Edward's Psychic Blues: Confessions of Conflicted Medium and Lamar Keene's Psychic Mafia. You might also read the book (1946) or watch the movie (1947) Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Edward claims that whenever he starts to get too cocky about duping people with his psychic shtick, he rewatches Nightmare Alley to get his feet back on the ground. I recently rented the DVD and recommend it. The version I watched stars Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. The hot reading technique of vulpine psychologist Dr.Lilith Ritter (played by Helen Walker) used to bilk her spiritiualist patients is classic. Duping the duper Stanton takes the depiction of her craft to another level. Here's a sample from Edward's book:

The Great Stanton in Nightmare Alley starts out his ill-fated voyage as a carnival mentalist who climbs from the ragtag traveling carnival to the giddy heights of super-psychic stardom in a glitzy New York City club. In the beginning of the film, he witnesses the terrifying spectacle of a sideshow geek tearing the heads off chickens in the geek pit and asks the circus owner, “How could a guy go so low?” By the end of the film, Stanton has fallen from the summit of society’s psychic mountain and become that pitiful, alcoholic geek himself. The last lines in the film are between a circus owner and his stagehand, who again asks, “Gee, boss, how could a guy go so low?” To which the owner replies, “He reached too high.”

That line of dialogue echoes in me every time I’m told that I’m “blessed” or whenever I’m praised for how accurate my reading has been. That line never loses its sting.

Nightmare Alley is another reminder of the close connection between belief in the paranormal and belief in the supernatural. Scientific investigation of the paranormal began with testing spiritualist claims of contact with spirits. The popularity of mediums claiming to be in contact with the spirits of the dead has not waned but expanded exponentially with the introduction of modern mass communication media.

Here's a bit of related trivia. Gresham was a friend of James Randi and he wrote a book about Houdini. Gresham's brother was my wife's uncle.

Conspiracy Cranks Conspiring to Take Over Amazon and the World

I received the following e-mail from Steve Schonberger:

I just got a new Kindle, and I was shopping for a Kindle copy of The 9/11 Commission Report. (My wife and I already have this print version, but that's unwieldy in comparison.) I used Amazon's search, and got these results. [22 results, some of them dissenting opinions from conspiracy cranks--not that all dissenters are cranks]

(If that link doesn't work, I went to the "Kindle Store" and searched for "9/11 commission report", minus the quotation marks.) And what did I find? Lots of nutty reviews by conspiracy theorists! And worse, the conspiracy theorists' reviews were winning the "most helpful" vote totals.

.... readers of your web site and Facebook page might find that as disturbing as I do, if you were to broadcast the fact that conspiracy theorists have stuffed the ballots of the conspiracy-minded reviews. And, if you were to suggest that they go and vote some of the non-crazy reviews as "Helpful? Yes", and vote "Helpful? No" on the crazy ones, maybe the rational reviews would move to the main page for the various copies of the book.

And which version of the report did I ultimately buy? None of them. Instead, since there are no free Kindle-format versions of the report, but Kindle can read PDF, I downloaded the PDF from a link on the 9/11 Commission web site -- for free.

Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia

Susan Gerbic continues to recruit and train people to edit Wikipedia articles of interest to skeptics so that they are fair and balanced. The work is not restricted to the English version. Recent edits include a rewrite of the Portuguese page on Erich von Däniken, the Russian page on Paul Kurtz, and the Dutch page on yours truly by Herman Boel, the translator of The Skeptic's Dictionary into Dutch.

The Electric Universe Cranks

Many of you may have known--I didn't until recently--that everything modern physicists have taught us about the universe is wrong. The truth is in the heads of some very bright lights, according to their own estimation. Here's a glimpse into what's really true:

[A]stronomy is stuck in the gas-light era, unable to see that stars are simply electric lights strung along invisible cosmic power lines that are detectable by their magnetic fields and radio noise.

Wallace ThornhillSo says Wallace Thornhill, co-author of The Electric Universe. The other author of this book is David Talbott (b. 1942), co-founder of the journal Pensée, a journal devoted to the work of Immanuel Velikovsky. Thornhill is also a Velikovsky enthusiast who believes that "stars are powered not by internal nuclear fusion, but by galactic-scale electrical discharge currents." (Retired physicist Tim Thompson provides a refutation of the criticism of the standard model by one electric sun enthusiast: Adam Scott. Apparently, Scott is the low-hanging fruit. At least that's the impression I got from reading another astrophysicist's reasons for rejecting the plasma-based electric universe theory: W. T. Bridgman's "The Electric Sky Short Cicuited.")

The idea that stars are electric lights is based on the work of

Nobel-Prize winning physicist, Hannes Alfvén, who pioneered the study of plasmas and founded the field of magneto-hydrodynamics (combining electromagnetism and fluid dynamics)....[Alfvén] is generally regarded as the ‘father’ of plasma cosmology. The underlying concept is that electromagnetic forces, being much stronger than gravitational forces, control much of the large-scale evolution of the universe. Alfvén has proposed large-scale circuits of currents flowing along magnetic fields as driving mechanisms in active galaxies. Other plasma cosmology advocates, such as Anthony Peratt have developed physics-based simulations of interacting currents forming structures similar to spiral galaxies. Some aspects of plasma cosmology enjoyed a revival of interest in the 1980s but began to die in the 1990s. This loss of interest was very possibly the result of the all-sky microwave maps of COBE and later WMAP, which exhibited no evidence of radio emission from these galaxy-forming currents.*

Rather than give up their hypothesis of an electric universe when the evidence didn't support their view, Thornhill and his merry band of Big Bang deniers, continue to write books and promote their ideas on a website dating back to 1999. Apparently the view is popular with some Velikovsky enthusiasts (who like his views on electromagnetism and orbital mechanics) and with some young Earth creationists (who like the idea that we don't know how the universe started and have no idea how old it is).

The following e-mail got me interested in this topic. I must admit that I have to work hard to tell the difference between a hoaxer and a crank these days. After reading a few lines from the website I was told about, I began to chuckle and think the letter writer was having a laugh. No hoaxer, however, is likely to go to the trouble the folks at this website have gone to since 1999. Here's the email with my comments in brackets:

I read with interest your pages of wisdom, but I see a page missing. I cannot find a page on the Big Bang theory, which satisfies a great many of your own "Bogus Science" warnings, i.e. it cannot be verified [no scientific theory can be 'verified,' but it can be confirmed or falsified; the Big Bang theory has been confirmed], no experiments can be performed to replicate any evidence for it [there are other ways to confirm a theory], it has endured for nearly a century, the scientists keep on making up more stuff (i.e. New laws of Nature) to ensure the validity of the theory [no new laws of nature have been made up], and each time they do, the "predictions" turn out to be wrong, and it's back to the drawing board - relativity (wrong), gravitational universe (wrong, unless you make up Dark Matter), Dark Matter (doesn't explain 75% Dark Energy), String Theory (wrong), that ALL matter was created out of nothing, in an instant, and continues to create more matter (violates 2nd law of thermodynamics, otherwise the Universe is a perpetual motion machine) plus other such claims (14 dimensions, twisted space-time) as being entirely without any possibility of finding evidence for. [whew! responding to all these claims is way beyond my pay grade.]

I do not profess to be a scientist, but rationally speaking, I can't see the logic in the Big Bang theory, it just doesn't stack up according to a skeptical viewpoint.

I prefer instead, the Electric Universe approach, which CAN explain the goings on in the Universe, without creating Dark Matter, Dark Energy, 14 dimensions, etc. etc., and without a perpetual motion Universe, and CAN be replicated in any good plasma laboratory anywhere in the world, and in fact has been replicated already, many times.

See http://www.holoscience.com/wp/ for an entry level description.

I would welcome your opinion on this.

My opinion is that you're wrong about scientists making up new laws of nature (name one, please) and you don't seem to know that there are other ways of getting evidence that confirms a theory besides doing experiments. There are good reasons the consensus of the community of physicists is not on your side: they're called data.

[Velikovsky acolyte-turned-critic Leroy Ellenberger writes: The "electric star" model proposed by Ralph Juergens in 1970s (in Pensee II, IX & X, SIS Review, & Kronos) and revived by Wallace Thornhill in The Electric Universe (1998), part of his "holoscience" project, (in which the Sun is a non-convecting, isothermal ball of plasma powered by infalling galactic electrons and many craters in the Solar System are the result of gigantic electric discharges, etc.) {as deus ex machina} cannot rescue the "polar configuration" from its fatal flaws because the model is a non-starter. It is disproved by practically everything known about the actual behavior of the Sun and heliosphere. This was first explained by this writer in Kronos X:3, 1985, pp. 15-23, and recently in more depth on e-mail list-serves by Robert Grumbine, Karl Hahn, Burch Seymour, Tim Thompson, and Wayne Throop. Thornhill either ignores or dismisses all the negative evidence such as (i) the absence of x-rays in coronal holes (which should be produced by infalling electrons for which no evidence exists beyond the wishful thinking of Thornhill and star-struck acolytes such as Amy & Mel Acheson writing for Thoth and Atlantis Rising, and Don Scott, an electrical engineer, who in parroting Ralph Juergens in Kronos IV:4, 1979, also fails to understand the importance of the Reynolds Number in defining turbulence in photospheric granulation.), (ii) the proof that granulation in the Sun's photosphere is an expression of convection, (iii) the mere existence of the solar wind in which no inflowing electrons have been detected, (iv) the absence of characteristic particles from the nuclear fusion claimed to occur in the photosphere, etc., etc. The model lacks rigorous mathematical support. No one has ever shown that the electric charge required to produce the cited craters, e.g., Aristarchus on the Moon, is feasible, while rigorous mathematical modeling to explain the high temperature in the Sun's corona, a favorite anomaly cited against standard theory, in conventional terms is progressing steadily. The simplistic analogies to plasma and electrical discharge phenomena that are invoked to support the model {as in Talbott & Thornhill's Thunderbolts of the Gods (2002)} cannot nullify the verdict of the overwhelming negative evidence and serve only as an example of invincible ignorance, showing the proponents do not know, for example, the  difference between a plasmoid and a pair of opposed lotus blossoms used by the Greeks to represent the thunderbolt held by Zeus. Other examples of so-called electric discharge effects on planets, asteroids, and satellites (such as Europa) can be explained by conventional means without invoking cosmic electricity.]


W. T. Bridgman, cited above, has written a lot more on the Electric Universe on his blog Dealing With Creationism in Astronomy.

Marketing-Based Medicine for the Brain

Some readers may know that "Cho and Bero reported that 98% of company-sponsored drug studies published in peer-reviewed journals or in symposium proceedings between 1980 and 1989 favored the company's drug."* Many readers would have suspected as much. As good as Big Pharma is at promoting its wares, however, there is one industry that surpasses it for chutzpah. The industry I have in mind has a 100% track record. Every study it's ever done, published anywhere between then and whenever, has found positive results for the product. I'm talking about the Brain Training Industry, Big Braintrain for short. Specifically, I'm talking about folks that promote the following and dozens more like them: Brain Gym, Brain Typing, Dr. Amen's change-your-brain diet, chiropractic neurology (Dr. Carrick says he can heal the blind and raise the comatose), Lumosity (improve your brain with games), and Dr. Sponaugle's Florida Detox ("pioneered the use of modern brain science to heal drug-induced brain damage and to stop drug craving"). Expect more of this kind of stuff as the so-called baby boomers creep toward senescence and dementiaphobia. We have "sucker" written all over our foreheads.

Yes, there is such a thing as neuroplasticity. ("Neuroplasticity refers to any change in neuron structure or function in response to input from the environment.") There is also some structural redundancy in the brain. Several areas of the brain can do the same thing and this fact allows for "both neural recovery (restoring the function of injured brain tissue) and compensation (residual neural tissue takes over a lost function). The brain can heal itself to some extent and the functions formerly performed in areas now damaged can sometimes be taken up by other parts of the brain. Yes, if you don't use your brain it will atrophy. Yes, there are new impairment-based therapies being developed by neuroscientists and science-based therapists who work with stroke victims, for example. These new therapies are helping many people recover lost brain functions.

But no, you will not prevent Alzheimer's by doing the daily crossword or sudoku or by taking a daily multivitamin. You will not prevent the long-term effects of concussions on athletes by giving them vitamins, herbs, and minerals and having them do balancing exercises or meditation. (That doesn't mean that the rest of us shouldn't be concerned about what we put into our bodies. We should, and that should go without saying. Nor does it mean that there is anything wrong with relaxation activities like meditation.) The best thing you can do for your brain is to eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, get some exercise if you are able, and get a good's night sleep. If you want to get good at crosswords, do crosswords. If you want to get good at sudoku, do sudoku If you want to improve the flow of oxygen to your brain, do physical exercise, not "brain gymnastics." As I noted in my review of The Invisible Gorilla: "About the only uncontested effect of cognitive training is that training in a specific area improves performance in that area but does not transfer to other cognitive tasks. Even learning to memorize long lists of numbers doesn't help one learn to memorize long lists of letters." As Chabris and Simons note: "Practice improves specific skills, not general abilities." (See also Dr. Steven Novella's "More Trouble for Brain Training." Brain training products. writes Novella, "either do not work or have a minimal effect below the resolution of research to detect.")

Besides continuing to be vigilant regarding alternative cancer cures, I think we elder folks need to dust off our crap detectors and be supervigilant about these alternative brain fixers, especially since some of them have become the darlings of public television.

On a related note, the family of Junior Seau is suing the National Football League for hiding information about the link between repeated head hits and brain damage. Seau committed suicide last year. He was 43 and had played 20 years at linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and other teams. Like Dave Duerson, another NFL player who committed suicide, Seau shot himself in the chest. Duerson reportedly did so because he wanted scientists to examine his brain. They did and found that he had traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of brain damage identified in more than 20 other deceased NFL players. It's just a matter of time, I suppose, before the Big Braintrain folks start offering their help to reverse CTE in former football players.

While I'm on the subject of sports that lead to brain damage, I have to ask how can we allow boxing and kick boxing and Xtreme cage fighting? These are sports?

QuantumMan's Downloadable Medicine & Extraterrestrial Technology

quantum manI know that David Gorski has this one covered, but it is too delicious to pass up. When I first looked at the QuantumMan (QM) website, I thought it was a Poe. It isn't. They sell digital medicine and vaccines, which they are able to do because they have adopted alien technology from the future. At least, that's what seems to come through when wading through their gobbledygook and technobabble.

These folks recently set up a booth in Las Vegas at The International Consumer Electronics Show. Here's a blurb from their exhibitor details page:

Use your cell phone (your pc, laptop or tablet) to instantly diagnose and medically treat your pet at home with guaranteed results with a radical new technology of extraterrestrial origin. Using pure data, QuantumVET Tricorder Plus treats by programming the brain of the species with biodirectives.

In addition to Quantum Detox and Renal Renew, QM offers MalariaSafe, a digital download to protect one against malaria. They claim that it is because of "the sad state of the immune system of the inhabitants of developing countries that make [sic] them so vulnerable to the ravages of malaria." Their product allegedly works by repairing "the biological terrain of the immunologically compromised individual typical of the indigenous people of the malaria regions." Their digital "vaccine" makes it possible for "the individual's immune system ...[to]... better withstand the attack by the parasite to where the parasite is either killed or so hindered that the person's symptoms are of such a mild degree that there is no loss of life." Their product, they say, repairs the biological terrain, whatever that is. They also claim that "MalariaSafe™ has extreme killing power against the parasite itself and any other pathogens that often co-exist during an infestation." There's more:

MalariaSafe™ is derived from a radical new quantum information technology developed by ZAG, the private humanitarian medical research group that employs QuantumMAN™. This quantum information technology is based on discoveries employing the principles of quantum physics under which the entire universe including the human body operates. Chemical based drugs are essentially not compatible with such operating systems as evidenced by their adverse side effects. On the other hand, QuantumMAN™'s downloadable MalariaSafe™ malaria vaccine is a quantum medicine that is completely compatible with the operational systems of the human body. A person simply purchases MalariaSafe™ and receives a number of its "Portal Access Keys™" (PAKs™)" . Accessing these PAKs via a personal computer, smartphone or tablet allows the person's body to quantumly receive (upload) MalariaSafe™'s master programs.

In case you're interested, call or fax one of their company contacts:

J S Van Cleave (Media Director)
866-276-9513 (P)
877-991-8787 (F)

Michael H. Uehara (Director and Export Contact)
866-276-9513 (P)
877-991-8787 (F)

Nicholas Brandon Zynda (Technical Support)
866-276-9513 (P)
877-991-8787 (F)

I'd be careful with what you say to them, though. They might upload some digital disease through your cell phone.


* The quote is attributed to Hawking in many places, always unsourced. Anyway, this version seems more elegant to me than historian Daniel Boorstin's "The history of Western science confirms the aphorism that the great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge" (Cleopatra's Nose: Essays on the Unexpected, 1995). Then there is humorist Josh Billing's sentiment: "I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain't so" (Everybody's Friend, or; Josh Billing's Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, 1884). The problem is that we often can't tell the difference between knowledge and the illusion of knowledge until it's too late or doesn't matter anymore.

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