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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 13 No. 7

July 2014

"Religion is like a blind man looking in a black room for a black cat that isn't there and finding it."--Oscar Wilde

What's New?

Not much (it's been a rough month): revised the Empower Disc entry.

Believing Without Much Concern for the Evidence

I've been engaging believers in non-existent beings and powers for more than twenty years. It's been interesting and enlightening to try to figure out why people believe what they do, especially those who believe things for which there is overwhelming evidence that they're wrong. Equally interesting are those people who, after many years of holding a strong belief, give it up. For example, Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to the Mellon banking fortune spent millions of dollars hiring "journalists" to dig up dirt on Bill and Hillary Clinton. Later, Scaife became a supporter of Hillary, endorsed her for President in 2008, and donated $100,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative.*

David BlackenhornDavid Blackenhorn spent many years publicly opposing gay marriage. Sometime during the court hearings over the constitutionality of Proposition 8 in California, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, he changed his mind. He became a defender of gay marriage.

While many Republicans may agree with Louisiana state Rep. Lenar Whitney that anthropogenic climate change is "the greatest deception in the history of mankind," a few Republican state and federal legislators have changed their minds on the issue.

It seems like the explanation for these changes of mind is that the believers eventually gave serious consideration to all the evidence. Maybe the evidence changed over time; maybe they just didn't consider the evidence in the beginning and their original view was a mere prejudice. The interesting questions to me are "what distinguishes those people who are willing to seriously consider new evidence that conflicts with a strongly held belief from those who find a way to rationalize any new evidence?" and "what distinguishes those people who move from a mere prejudice to actually evaluating the evidence from those people who never move beyond their prejudiced beliefs?"

Many skeptics I've read and heard over the past two decades have answered the question about those who rationalize new evidence to fit their beliefs--even when the evidence seems obviously to undermine their beliefs--as due to a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. These skeptics also think those who don't consider contrary evidence to their beliefs are hidebound because of a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance, first identified by Leon Festinger in 1957, is defined as some sort of uncomfortable state that occurs when one's beliefs conflict with the evidence. I haven't heard anyone, however, try to explain why some people change their minds on issues that are important to them as being due to a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. Why not? Probably because most people would recognize that such an explanation would be pretty lame. It seems obvious that context and opportunity have a lot to do with who does and who doesn't change his mind when new evidence comes to light. Likewise for those who do and those who don't take seriously all the evidence. If you surround yourself with like-minded sycophants and self-assured backslappers whose essential being is driven by some religious, political, or philosophical ideology, it is very unlikely you are ever going to change your mind about things the rest of us recognize are blatantly wrong. If you find yourself one-on-one with a knowledgeable person you don't view as an enemy and are asked pointed question after pointed question and presented with evidence that you never considered before, there is some chance that you will change your mind. Avoiding cognitive dissonance doesn't explain anything in these cases. Nor does it explain anything in those cases where the hidebound remain hidebound.

People don't change their minds about things when confronted with evidence contrary to their beliefs for many reasons. One reason is that sometimes even though you know your belief is wrong, you don't have anything that is clearly true to replace your wrong belief with. This was the dilemma Charles Darwin faced when he tried to explain how traits were passed down from generation to generation, sometimes skipping a generation, sometimes affecting only males or only females. Darwin couldn't replace the standard view in the mid-19th century--blending--with genetics because the existence of genes wasn't known yet. He proposed a theory he called pangenesis to explain how traits could be passed on, even new traits that favored some offspring in the competition for mates and survival. (For more on Darwin's futile attempt to explain how traits are passed on to offspring, the reader might enjoy Mario Livio's Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe.)

Sometimes people don't change their minds when confronted with evidence contrary to their belief because they also believe some other things that they consider to be solidly grounded. Thus, to them the evidence against their belief must be wrong because it conflicts with something else they believe to be true. Livio gives an example of this with Lord Kelvin. Kelvin discovered the physical laws of energy and heat. He used those laws to calculate the age of the Earth, now believed to be about 4.54 billion years, which is about 50 times longer than Kelvin's estimate. Livio asks: "How could he have blundered so badly in a calculation supposedly based on the laws of physics?" John Perry, one of Kelvin's students, produced some excellent arguments that showed Kelvin had greatly underestimated the age of the Earth. The arguments need not concern us here. What I find interesting is that Livio resorts to the notion of cognitive dissonance to explain why Kelvin stubbornly clung to his view about the age of the Earth. Yet, Livio notes that what motivated Kelvin to delve into the subject in the first place was his disbelief in natural selection. Kelvin was "profoundly convinced that the argument of design has been greatly too much lost sight of in recent zoological speculations." Kelvin believed that there were "strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design" all around us. There was no way natural selection could have produced the enormity of variety of species that exist now and in the past in a mere 20 to 100 million years. An omnipotent intelligent designer given such an amount of time, however, would have had ample time to ponder and create such things as demons, mosquitoes, and humans with S-shaped spines guaranteed to keep chiropractors in business until the Rapture. Kelvin's ability to find reasons for rejecting alternative views on the source of heat transfer in the Earth or to the Earth from the Sun, and his rejection of atomic theory and radioactivity, might be explained by appealing to a subconscious desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. I don't find that explanation very satisfying. His faith in an intelligent designer may have blinded him to alternative hypotheses that were contrary to his own calculations and led him to put more faith than he should have in his own work. Or, he may simply have lost some of his cognitive powers as he aged. There might be dozens of reasons Kelvin clung to his erroneous view, but the last one I'd look to is that he was trying to avoid cognitive dissonance.

In my Skeptic's Dictionary entry on cognitive dissonance I write:

On the other hand, who am I to disagree with more than a half-century of scholarship in the social sciences that has firmly established the concept of cognitive dissonance? As the authors of the Wikipedia article on the topic write: "It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology." I don't deny that the concept has been influential. Nor do I deny that it has been extensively studied. What I see, however, when I look at the kinds of studies used to support the validity of the concept is a lot of confirmation bias and something akin to the psi assumption in parapsychology. The general form of the studies in support of cognitive dissonance goes like this: we predict that x will happen if we do y; if x happens when we do y it is because of cognitive dissonance; x happened when we did y, so cognitive dissonance is confirmed.* What I don't see is any attempt to formulate a test of the hypothesis that could falsify the claim that cognitive dissonance causes anything. Researchers even go so far as to claim evidence for cognitive dissonance by finding activity (using an fMRI) in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula during a test that postulated that cognitive dissonance was occurring when those parts of the brain showed activity.* This reasoning seems circular at best. It begs the question. Of the innumerable possible explanations for seeing what was seen in the fMRIs, why should we assume they indicated cognitive dissonance?

Livio writes: "multiple studies show that to relieve cognitive dissonance, in many cases, instead of acknowledging an error in judgment, people tend to reformulate their views in a new way that justifies their old opinions." He then cites an experiment that demonstrated cognitive dissonance and says there are many others like it. The experiment, in my view, shows only that people rationalize to justify their beliefs. It doesn't show that they do so to avoid cognitive dissonance. To me, the death jolt to this notion is the fact that nobody would say, had Kelvin changed his mind, that he did so to avoid cognitive dissonance.

I'll conclude by asking: does anyone really believe that cognitive Dick Cheney snarlingdissonance explains why Dick Cheney continues to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that invading Iraq, executing Saddam Hussein, setting up a puppet government loaded with Shias while ousting most Sunnis was necessary to protect America from al-Qaeda being given those weapons to use against us?

Catholic Church Still Conjuring Devils to Scare the Faithful and Absolve the Wicked

Pope Francis may appear to be a fine fellow to some, but he's not much different from his predecessors when it comes to the devil. Perhaps he's getting ready for the second round of dealing with pedophile priests and the bishops and cardinals and popes who protect them. What better excuse for all the molestations and rapes of children than the devil? The Vatican trains about 200 priests a year in the ancient art of exorcising demons. We might have excused these antiquated notions a few centuries ago when little was known about mental illnesses and physical illnesses that manifest in bizarre ways. But what excuse is there for somebody in the 21st century to believe in devils and rituals to cleanse the possessed? Maybe they're just trying to evade responsibility for their own evil actions. Oh, I know; they're trying to avoid cognitive dissonance!

Pope FrankieNot that long ago, the Vatican formally recognized the International Association of Exorcists, a group of 250 priests in 30 countries who think they liberate the faithful from demons. Think of it, priests exorcising demons from other priests. Vatican approval of the association of exorcists led its head, the Rev Francesco Bamonte, to exclaim that it was cause for joy. "Exorcism is a form of charity that benefits those who suffer." Beautiful. It's the priests who suffered while raping children. And a billion people on our planet accept this nonsense while waiting to be taken into heaven and their eternal reward for not questioning their church leaders.

Pope Frankie isn't done making news, though. Fifteen months into his reign he met with six victims of what is euphemistically referred to as "clerical sex abuse." (Another abuse of language by the Catholic Church is calling itself "pro-life," a claim that seems empty given the evil behavior of many priests toward children and the Church's response to that evil behavior. The Catholic Church, like many others who call themselves 'pro-life,' is pro-birth, to be sure, but not pro-life except when it's expedient. A cynic might say that the call by the Catholic Church to honor the dignity of all humans rings as hollow as the call by patriots wrapped in the flag to honor freedom. A cynic might think the church is pro-birth to maintain a steady supply of children to abuse. A cynic might think that pro-birth patriots want to make sure there are plenty of bodies in the future for their ever-expanding markets and cheap labor force.) Sounding like President Obama, Frankie said he was really mad and was really going to do something about it if the wrongdoers don't cut it out. Frankie also asked for forgiveness from the victims, which is about as important as me asking forgiveness of the descendants of slaves for what some of my Catholic ancestors might have done to their ancestors.

Said the Pope:

Before God and his people, I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness. I beg your forgiveness, too, for the sins of omission on the part of church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse made by family members, as well as by abuse victims themselves.

Did this Pope meet with any victims of clerical abuse in his native Argentina when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires? No. Why not? I guess he didn't feel the need. What does he want now? For us to forgive and forget? Does he really believe that the raping, exploiting, and ruining the lives of thousands of children over many decades can be erased from memory if only we express our sorrow before the cameras?

The Irish Times seems to have been brought to its knees by Pope Frankie. Its headline called the pope's meeting a "historic day." One of the victims the pope met with was 43-year-old Marie Kane, who was abused by a priest in Dublin. The Irish Independent reports that Kane's "abuser was taken out of ministry but has not been defrocked." Kane is reported to have said: “Until people like [Cardinal] Sean Brady [the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland] are gone, I will never believe that there is change and I said that to the pope and he understood that. He heard what I said and understood where I was coming from.” Time will tell whether the pope's "gesture of compassion and solidarity" will be followed by any concrete actions that make a difference to the victims.

According to the Belfast Telegraph:

Cardinal Sean Brady has been criticised for swearing two boys to secrecy during a 1975 internal investigation into notorious paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth. The allegations were not handed over to the police, and Smyth continued to abuse children. Cardinal Brady publicly refused calls to resign, but it is thought that his private offer to do so was rejected by the Vatican.

A documentary about Brady, Smyth, and the priest shuffling that sent Irish priests to America where they could continue their molestations is available on YouTube:


Healers Who Kill

You've probably heard the story about the doctor who was renowned for his ability to diagnose typhoid fever back in the days before the medical profession understood how diseases spread. His method was to closely examine the tongues of patients. Each patient would stick out his tongue for the doctor to palpate with his bare fingers, of course; there were no latex gloves in those days. Pondering its texture and irregularities, he would diagnose the disease “in its earliest stages over and over again” and turn out, “a week or so later, to have been right, to everyone’s amazement.”*

Recently, a traditional healer in Sierra Leone was credited with spreading the Ebola virus, which he contracted from one of his patients. Both healer and his patients apparently have a belief system that denies the existence of the Ebola virus, the deadliest virus in the world. The death toll so far in Sierra Leone is 467. Maybe they reject science, even though it means death, so they can avoid cognitive dissonance.

Search for Yeti May Prove Worthwhile

Scientists have been testing dozens of samples of fur allegedly belonging to the legendary Bigfoot. So far, the investigators have found the samples belonged to "cows, raccoons, horses, dogs, sheep, a Malayan tapir, a porcupine, and, in the case of one sample from Texas, a human being. And also a blade of grass and a strand of fiberglass." But all is not lost. Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics at Oxford and an expert on ancient DNA, launched the project.

The scientists found something quite interesting in two samples of bear fur from Bhutan and the Indian Himalayas. "One is reddish brown and the other golden brown, the bear's closest relative turned out to be a precise match for DNA extracted from fossil remains of a polar bear that lived 40,000 years ago. The samples were quite unlike modern polar bears. This raises the intriguing possibility that descendants of a prehistoric polar bear are at large in the Himalayas." Not quite Yeti, but extraordinary and worth further investigation.

Wakefield's Other Legacy of Harm

Andrew WakefieldAndrew Wakefield's main legacy is the continuing fear many parents have about having their children vaccinated. But there's another side to his legacy: the effect on all those who were encouraged to blame vaccines for any neurological problems their children had and to sue scientists, physicians, and pharmaceutical companies.

You do remember Andrew Wakefield, the M.D. who lost his license to practice medicine in the U. K. for his unprofessional and unethical behavior in gathering data and receiving money from lawyers who wanted to discredit the MMR vaccine? A team of lawyers, led by Richard Barr, funneled £3.4m to doctors and scientists who would provide evidence they could use to file lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. Wakefield received £435,643 in fees, plus £3,910 expenses for his role in the scheme.*

Recently, Matthew McCafferty, who was diagnosed with autism three years after receiving the MMR vaccine, has taken legal action over a legal claim that he says had no chance of succeeding. He is suing the legal firm of Hodge Jones & Allen for their "unjust enrichment as officers of the court by litigating a hopeless claim funded by legal aid by which you profited."

More than 1,000 families were involved in a class action that was dropped in 2003 after research by Andrew Wakefield on the link between autism and the MMR vaccine was discredited. He was later struck off as a doctor for offences relating to dishonesty and failing to act in the best interests of vulnerable child patients. The lengthy group action cost an estimated £15m in legal aid. Michael Shaw, McCafferty's solicitor, said his claim was the first, but his firm had been in contact with several former MMR vaccine litigants who it believed were entitled to compensation from former lawyers.*

Sounding like many American politicians who have been caught in wrongdoing, Hodge Jones & Allen denies negligence either in the timing of the issuing of proceedings or in proceeding on the available evidence. The law firm said: "The suggestion that Hodge Jones & Allen would knowingly run a hopeless case is nonsense and completely contrary to our principles and ethics ...To suggest that we took legal aid funds to investigate the case knowing it was hopeless in 1998 and 1999 is completely untrue." I wouldn't want to serve on the jury that has to listen to lawyers wrangle with each other about their intentions.

Wakefield continues to portray himself as a victim and hero. Why? To avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance? Maybe he's just an evil, conniving SOB. Maybe he's deranged.

Discriminating Against Atheists

A recent Pew study examining political polarization found that “Roughly half of Americans (49%) say they would be unhappy if a family member were to marry someone who doesn’t believe in God.” Even better: 73% of those who identify themselves as consistently conservative say they've be unhappy if an immediate family member were to marry an atheist. Who really cares? Who needs more ignorant, bigoted in-laws? Now, if these family members had the power to ban atheists from marrying whomever we want to, then I'd be worried. But they don't and I'm not. Let them isolate themselves from us. It's their loss, not ours.

On the other hand, fewer people are less likely to vote for an atheist now than in 1967: the percentage has dropped from 63% to 53%.

Mail from Someone Who Knows What He Knows

This brilliant little piece of unedited self-affirmation comes from Jeff B.

I guess there has to be skeptics to the reality as there is darkness to light. If there where a wager whether or not your correct in regards to the Psi phenomena, I would bet with 100% certainty that you would loose . As far as what exactly your wrong about is another matter entirely. Is obvious is clear for anyone who isn't scared to embrace something there not familiar with. I honestly would have preferred you to be correct though, it would be far easier to grasp the simplicity of life. Unfortunately I know that your not. Good luck on your venture.

Don't get the wrong impression. I'm not suggesting that everybody who believes in psi is as inarticulate or as arrogant as Jeff B. Believers in psi, like believers in gods and spirits, run the gamut from total dopes to geniuses. Most of the ones who write me, however, tend to cluster around the total-dope pole. They don't consider how implausible their beliefs are. They don't consider alternative explanations of a mundane or naturalistic order. They know what they know because they've experienced things that can't be explained except by appealing to the paranormal or the supernatural. Don't argue with them. They're trying to avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. Or, maybe not. Maybe they're just incompetent thinkers or maybe they're delusional.

It might be worth noting that Leon Festinger's original case study involved an obviously mentally ill person who had convinced a small band of followers that Earth would be destroyed by a massive flood on December 21, 1954, and that "the Guardians" would pick them up in some sort of spacecraft and save them. When the flood didn't happen on the prophesied day, the deluded leader of the pack declared she'd gotten a telepathic message from "the Guardians" saying their faith had saved Earth from destruction! I think it's pretty obvious this crazy person was making stuff up, but was it because she wanted to avoid cognitive dissonance? Or was it because her brain wasn't working very well?

What appears as an attempt to avoid psychological discomfort might actually be due to cognitive incompetence or mental illness. Of course, I can't deny that even the mentally ill and those inept at critical thinking might also strive for psychological comfort, even if it means abandoning any pretense to sanity or critical thinking.

Scientists Defy the Bible...Once Again!

Pelagornis sandersiBlaspheming scientists have taken over three decades to determine that a fossil found at an airport in South Carolina is 25 million years older than all of creation! They say that the fossil is that of a bird that had a wingspan of 20 to 24 feet, but there is no mention of such a creature in the Bible, so we know the scientists are wrong.

They weren't wrong about everything, however. They did recognize that Charleston was inundated by Noah's flood; they just miscalculated as to when this happened. Or was it deliberate? Perhaps they were mocking the good people of South Carolina who moved there to establish a government based on the Ten Commandments and conservative Christian values.

Kudos to Susan Gerbic and the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia editing team

I recently looked at the Wikipedia article on mediums and was struck by the obvious impact that Susan Gerbic and her team have had on making this article one that tells it like it is. This article is an excellent example of what great work Gerbic and her team are doing. Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia recently celebrated its third birthday. Congratulations!

If you're wondering what all the fuss is about, I encourage you to read the Wikipedia article on mediums. No kowtowing to John Edward or the Long Island Medium! No blather about Sylvia Browne or James Van Praagh or the dozens of others currently exploiting the human desire to live forever and contact deceased loved ones. Just the straight scoop about an area of interest to millions of people, skeptics and non-skeptics alike. Well done!

A Bad Month

I noted above that it's been a bad month. On June 2nd, I found out I had a cancerous growth on my pancreas and several tumors in my liver. The ultimate diagnosis is stage IV pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer with metastasis to the liver. There are several kinds of PNETs (pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors); mine are non-functional, grade II. I'm told I've probably had this cancer for several years. I had no symptoms until a couple of months ago. I'm currently doing chemotherapy. Surgery at this time is not an option for me. (Yes, I got a second opinion--from the Stanford Medical Center--about the diagnosis, the treatment, the lab work, the surgery, and the reading of the CT, PET, and MRI scans.)

I'm feeling pretty good these days, but I don't know how much longer I will continue writing. One thing I do know is that I won't be praying or drinking gallons of carrot juice or taking any coffee enemas. Nor will I be loading up on vitamins or anti-oxidants. I know that chemotherapy is not a cure for my kind of cancer, but there is hope that it will slow down the growth or even shrink the tumors. As the man said, "I'm not dead yet; my bell still rings."

Written by Bob Carrol
with the assistance of John Renish
Follow the SD on Facebook and Twitter

Books by R. T. Carroll

cover The Critical Thinker's Dictionary

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter is sponsored by Pyropus Technology.


Print versions available in Dutch, Russian, Japanese, and Korean.

This page was designed by Cristian Popa.