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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 15

I find every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly; and where it fails them, they cry out, "It is a matter of faith, and above reason." - John Locke

November 9, 2002

Subscribers 1,479

(Past issues posted at



      1)  New or revised entries
      2)  Responses to selected feedback
      3)  News

 1)  New or revised entries in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

Since the last newsletter, I have


 2) Responses to selected feedback

I didn't get a mandate from readers of the last newsletter regarding putting warning stickers on Bibles (contains myths, not scientific theories, etc.), but I did get an offer from Bruce who said he'd put them in Gideon Bibles when traveling.


Mark suggested that I put an entry on myself in the Skeptic's Dictionary, to remind readers "to look sideways at the skeptic as well as at everything else." I'm not sure what it means to look at something "sideways," but if he means readers need to be reminded to be skeptical of what I write, I don't think they need to be reminded. They remind me of my faults to a fault. I've learned to handle most of the abuse (that little trash can icon is a blessing), but I still get hot and bothered when it is pointed out to me that I've made another major error. (I get over it, though, as soon as I correct it. Then I feel good and confident for another ten minutes, until the next blunder is revealed.)


F.B.I. profiling

I've received several inquiries like the following from Gina Martin.

I am a big fan of, and love the newsletter too. I noticed that I couldn't really find anything about "profiling" - as done by the FBI to find serial killers. My B-S-O'meter keeps chiming in that this just does not seem to be a valid and useful "science practice" in criminology, despite the public fascination with it. Remember Richard Jewell (sp?) - not to mention the nonsense surrounding the latest sniper attacks.

Anyway, I checked as many skeptic sites as I could find on Google, but didn't really see any info relating to any statistical analyses on profiling's accuracy, and how often it's helped find the right criminal, vs. regular old detective work (connection of dots, as it were). Do you have any suggestions as far as info sources on that?

I'd begin with Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work by professor David A. Harris. His book thoroughly debunks racial profiling--using race or ethnic appearance to predict criminal behavior. However, there will be serious problems with any kind of profiling.

The data itself is inherently unreliable. Many, perhaps most, crimes are not reported. Data can only be gathered from reported crimes. The profiler must assume that those who commit crimes that are not reported are significantly similar to those who commit crimes that are reported. The profiler's assumption could be right, or it could be wrong, but there is no way to ever find out. But this should not be too serious a problem for most of the kinds of crimes profilers would be interested in, e.g., the serial rapist, the serial killer, the burglar operating within a fixed geographical area.

Secondly, not all reported crimes end in arrests. The profiler must make another assumption, namely, that those arrested for reported crimes are significantly similar to those who are not arrested. Again, there is no way to ever find out if this is true.

Thirdly, not all those arrested for reported crimes are convicted. They may be innocent or there may not have been enough evidence to convict them even though they were guilty.

Fourth, not all those convicted are really guilty.

Fifth, some crimes are so rare that the data will always be sparse, yet this may not prevent the profiler from speculating with confidence.

Finally, applying a profile has to be done without knowing whether the data you have collected regarding crimes committed by the one you are profiling is complete. For example, it was only after the Beltway killers were caught that investigators found out that they probably committed several other murders in several other states.

Thus, for every profile there is data in the database that shouldn't be there and data that should be there is absent.

Profiling is more guesswork and art, than science. It seems that there is likely to be a great deal of wishful thinking, self-deception, selective thinking, and confirmation bias among the profilers and their advocates. Thus, one should not make too much of highly touted success stories. All the evidence has to be considered when evaluating the effectiveness of profiling in lessening the time to apprehend and convict lawbreakers. When all the evidence is considered it will appear beyond a reasonable doubt that profiling is another law-enforcement pipe dream on par with the polygraph, voice stress analyzers, brain scanners, the Quadro Tracker, the DKL Lifeguard, and psychic detectives.

A few examples might help cast some reasonable doubt on the efficacy of profiling. What profile did the FBI use when they interrogated Cary Stayner about the Yosemite murders? Whatever it was, they let him go because he didn't fit the profile. He then went on to kill Joey Armstrong. (Gina has already reminded us of the Richard Jewell fiasco.) Some think the investigation of Steven Hatfill is another example of profiling gone awry. Another example is that of  Edward Humphrey, who was all but tried and convicted by the police and the press for a series of horrible murders of young women in Gainesville, Florida. Eventually, Danny Rollings, the real killer, was apprehended. The police were using Ted Bundy as their model to profile this killer.

In the October 21, 2002 issue of Newsweek there is a graphic on page 27 regarding geographic profiling and "hunting" the "Tarot card killer." Eleven attack sites are plotted and we are told that "a map of the killer's probable home base is created with a program that takes into account known patterns of serial killers." But we now know that these killers lived in their car and had a mobile home base. Furthermore, we now suspect that these 11 crimes provide an incomplete list of the total number of shootings perpetrated by Muhammed and Malvo. This illustrates one of the problems with geographic profiling: you don't know until after the fact whether you have all the data. (When the two were caught while sleeping in their car, they were nowhere near the area the profilers had designated as being the "most likely" place for their home base. They had no home base.)

On the other hand, behavioral profiling would have eliminated half the human race as suspects in the search for these snipers. Women serial killers don't use sniper tactics on strangers. It was a pretty safe bet that the sex of this killer or killers would be male.

In another case, the profilers were way off the mark in their predictions. The FBI profile of the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski) was

  • late 30's or early 40's (Kaczynski was 53 when arrested);

  • white male, 5'10"-6' tall, 165 pounds, with reddish-blond hair, a thin mustache and a ruddy complexion (Kaczynski is a white male, 5'8", weighed 143 when arrested, with brown hair, bearded and pale skin);

  • a blue collar worker with a high school degree (Kaczynski hadn't had a job in the last 25 years and has a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan in addition to being a graduate of Harvard University);

  • a meticulously organized person, reclusive and having problems dealing with women (Kaczynski was a recluse who apparently did not deal with women at all, and he was slovenly and unkempt).

Outside of being right about his being a white male and a loner with no girl friend, this profile does not strike me as being "strikingly close to Kaczynski." Yet, that is how the Sacramento Bee described the FBI profile in its headline on April 7, 1996. There were also media reports that claimed that the composite drawing of the Unabomber released by the FBI was a good likeness of Kaczynski. Judge for yourself.

Next, consider something like trying to profile a serial killer by gathering facts about known serial killers. John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, Angelo Buono, Ken Bianchi, Richard Speck, Edward Gein, Tom Ridgway, Richard Ramirez, Ted Kaczynski, Jeffry Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, Dorothy Puente, Juan Corona, Carlton Gary, Wayne Williams, and Andrew Cunanan were all serial killers. Most of them were white men. Buono and Bianchi worked together, but most serial killers don't have partners. After collecting as much data as is available about serial killers, the profiler concludes that most serial killers are white males who act alone and are in their late 20s to early 30s. But, there won't be just one type of serial killer, so there won't be just one profile for the serial killer; there will have to be several. The danger is that a profiler will apply one of the profiles too early in an investigation and not only prevent the real killer from being caught sooner rather than later, but may well be driven by confirmation bias to track down and find the evidence necessary to arrest and convict an innocent person who happens to fit a good part of the profile the investigator is working from. It may even ultimately be the case that the profile serves more to convince the investigator that he or she is on the right track, than to actually aid in the arrest and conviction of the guilty. It is only after the fact that we can ever be confident that the profile and criminal fit like a hand in a glove, was partially correct and partially incorrect, or was totally off the mark. To assume you know what kind of person committed a crime before there is adequate evidence to justify that conclusion can have serious consequences. Because of this attitude, innocent people have been treated as if they were guilty, guilty people have been allowed to go free and commit more crimes, and some poor people have ended up dead.


3) News

  • One of my editors at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., has informed me that The Skeptic's Dictionary is in production and that bound copies should be hitting the streets next July. While most people are preparing for the winter holidays, I'll be editing the manuscript, correcting all the errors I've become aware of since I turned in the typescript last April.

  • An interview I did with the New England Journal of Skepticism is in the current issue (Vol. 5, issue 2).

  • For those who are curious as to what I look like, check out James Randi's latest newsletter (Nov. 8). He reveals that my topic for his Amazing Meeting is "Christian Terrorism - The War Against Science."

  • For those who are really curious as to what I look like, I'll be dining with the  Sacramento Skeptics at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 15th, at Shandiz (a Persian restaurant), 2310 Fair Oaks Blvd (between Fulton and Howe) in Sacramento. We'll be discussing many things, I imagine, including the war being waged against science in the name of religion by the folks at the Discovery Institute. For more information, contact Terry Sandbek at

  • On October 30th I did a phone interview with Larry Potash of WGN-Chicago on the work of James Van Praagh. Mr. Potash plans to interview Van Praagh. I suggested he ask him how he knows the noises in his head are messages from spirits rather than messages from Satan, aliens, psychics in Milwaukee or Spain, or just misfirings in his own brain? I also suggested that Van Praagh submit to a Dynamic MRI, to see if he has any hot spots in his brain while he is allegedly receiving messages from heaven.

  • On October 30th I also received an e-mail inquiry from Stefan Maiwald of SHAPE Germany (a magazine dealing with fitness and health) who is writing "an article on this incredibly stupid Reverse Speech thing" [his words] that has reached Europe. He wanted to quote from my article on this incredibly stupid reverse speech thing. I didn't ask why a fitness magazine was bothering with such nonsense, but it might be important to learn how to read food labels backwards for hidden messages from Satan or from a misguided spirit trying to reach James Van Praagh (or is that Garp Nav Smage?).

  • On October 31st I did a phone interview with Scott Craven of the Arizona Republic on Chet Snow, a regressive-memory therapist who believes 80 percent of crop circles are created by an Intelligence working in the 4th or 5th dimension. Actually, Dr. Snow does future-life progressions, not past life regressions. This allows him to hypnotize people into becoming prophets. He's even written a book about it. (There must be a tear in the fabric of reality that these people are crawling through.)

  • I also received a phone message from a reporter in Memphis who is doing a story about a local psychic. She wanted to know why I doubted the powers of psychics. Unfortunately, when I tried to call her back all I got was a busy signal. It was Halloween, after all, a kind of silly season for some journalists.

  • The most important news of the day, however, was that astronomers have discovered the oldest star in our galaxy. It is virtually metal-free and may be 14 billion years old.

  • Also in the news was a story about NASA commissioning James Oberg to write a 30,000 word monograph to debunk the theories of those who claim NASA faked the six manned lunar landings and to examine how such theories take hold, gain popularity, and spread. I guess at NASA they are used to redundant systems. The job's already been done by Phil Plait. I'm sure the folks at NASA are aware of Phil's book and Web site. I fear, however, that if NASA is seen as protesting too loudly, it will only arouse more suspicion from those who would put their trust in the FOX alien network in the first place.