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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 15 No. 2

February 2016

The Ten Commandments are "a symbol that government derives its authority from god." --Antonin Scalia

"Jefferson Davis gave the Gettysburg Address." --Doonesbury

What's New?

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (focus on Jobs's favoring of intuition)

Reader Comments: urine therapy

Updates: natural cancer cures: the Cancer Control Society scam; Top Ten Worst Beliefs of 2015; Supplements: neither safe nor effective; the Trivedi effect: the guru loses another attempt to stifle a critic for telling the truth about his failures; pseudosymmetry; and 19 years after Stossel reported on the junk science of bite-mark identification, Texas is the first state planning to ban it.

Frontline on Supplements and Safety

More than half of the adults in America take some sort of supplement on a regular basis. In 2004, they spent over $20 billion on such products as vitamins, minerals, and herbs, and products made from plants, animal parts, algae, seafood, yeasts, fungus, powdered amino acids, or enzymes.*

On January 21, 2016, Frontline, a U.S. public affairs television program that produces in-depth documentaries for distribution via the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), took on Big Supplement. Frontline found that this largely self-regulated industry often manufactures and sells products that don't contain the ingredients that their labels say they do. Where is the FDA when you need it? While supplements are not subject to the same regulations as drugs, the FDA does have the power to shut down the manufacturing and distribution of supplements. The FDA doesn't monitor Big Supplement, however, and only investigates a supplement company when it gets a complaint. Frontline reported on several incidents Dan Fabricantwhere complaints were repeatedly made but repeatedly ignored by the FDA. Frontline asked Dan Fabricant, a former director at the FDA, about the lack of response to complaints by the FDA. Fabricant evaded the question and pointed out that once the FDA did respond it acted quickly and appropriately. In the meantime, people died. Fabricant is now the executive director of the Natural Products Association (NPA), which, according to Wikipedia, is " the largest and oldest nonprofit organization representing the interests of manufacturers and retailers of the natural products industry, which includes organic and health foods, dietary supplements, natural ingredient cosmetics, and other similar products. The organization includes more than 1,900 members accounting for more than 10,000 retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributors of natural products."

Fabricant's move in April 2014 from director of the Division of Dietary and Supplement Programs at the FDA to head an association that lobbies for the supplement industry was a wise move for the NPA. Who would know better the labyrinthine maze of FDA regulations than one who was in charge of enforcing them? Fabricant said the Frontline program was a rehash of familiar criticisms of the supplement industry and was, in part, “patently dishonest.” He criticized using DNA barcodes to identify substances in supplements. (For more information on the use of this method see "DNA barcoding detects contamination and substitution in North American herbal products" by Steven G. Newmaster et al.)

Fabricant, in speaking with NutraIngredients-USA [a pro-supplement "news" website] after the show aired, said that there was no attempt to put the assertions into proper context. In the discussion of DNA test results, there was no mention of the issue of products featuring herbal extracts being tested for DNA when little or no DNA of the parent material would be expected to be in the bottle. This critical issue was passed off by [Frontline correspondent Gillian] Findlay as saying that industry "disputed the methodology."*

The Frontline program was called "Supplements and Safety." Both a transcript and the video are available online.

The absence in the bottle of ingredients listed on the label may explain why the best scientific studies of supplements have found no health benefits and some harm from the daily use of supplements. Investigators found that many items tested included ingredients not listed on the label. According to the American Cancer Society:

Some dietary supplements are formulated under careful conditions in clean, controlled laboratories and labeled accurately. Others are made less carefully, and have been found to contain none of the substances listed on their labels. And many supplements contain other substances that are not listed on their labels – fillers, different herbs, or actual drugs that are known to be able to cause harm.

Fabricant was not the only vocal critic of the use of DNA barcoding to validate supplemental labeling. The American Botanical Council responded to the New York attorney general's investigation of supplements by stating: "relying on DNA barcoding technology alone to validate botanicals is premature."* The Society for Integrative Oncology agreed.

If DNA barcoding is 'premature' then why did GNC, the largest of the supplement retailers, agree to use DNA barcoding to authenticate its products?

Richard Dawkins is Recovering from a Stroke

On Friday, February 5, Richard Dawkins suffered a "mild" stroke. Fortunately, the stroke did not affect his speech or cognitive abilities. He has posted an eloquent description of the event and the early days of his recovery, with a brilliant reminder of the many different grips the brain allows the hand to make, allowing us to draw, type, throw a ball, etc. These powers become all the more evident when they are lost.

Wishing you a speedy and full recovery, Dr. Dawkins.

The Center for Inquiry and the Richard Dawkins Foundation are Now One

Robyn BlumnerThe Center for Inquiry has merged with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Operating under the Center for Inquiry name, the newly combined organization is being led by Robyn Blumner, previously CEO solely of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Blumner has been described as "a brilliant and passionate advocate for science, reason, and humanist values, with deep experience and expertise as an activist, lawyer, and journalist. She is a proven and effective leader of major nonprofits, having run two state affiliates of the ACLU and the RDFRS to great success and wide acclaim. She is also a respected journalist, having spent 16 years as a nationally syndicated columnist with the Tampa Bay Times."*

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science will continue as a division of CFI and Richard Dawkins will join CFI’s board of directors. After eight years as president and CEO of CFI, Ron Lindsay is stepping down. He will maintain the title of President of CFI for a brief period. The new CFI will continue to be headquartered in Amherst, New York, with an office in Washington, D.C.

Reason Rally 2016

Speaking of Washington, D.C. On June 4th, thousands of secular humanists, atheists, and freethinkers will rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Confirmed speakers include Carolyn Porco, Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, Kelly Carlin, and James Randi. Click here for more info.

Halloween in Las Vegas with James Randi and many others

2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of CSI and the Skeptical Inquirer.  What better place to celebrate than that bastion of rationality and anti-superstition: Las Vegas! The dates will be October 27-30, the weekend before Halloween (Monday 31) at the Excalibur Hotel. I've never been to the Excalibur (as far as I can remember), but one recent reviewer on Trip Advisor had this to say: "This location is good for the far end of the strip. It is next to the Luxor and Mandalay Bay with a tram to connect all three resorts. There is also a moving walkway to New York New York. Both save lots of walking."

Antonin Scalia 1936-2016

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia's defense of "originalism" and "the dead Constitution" were put forth by him as if they were not elements of his political philosophy. They were. As such, they are as valid and as worthy of consideration as many ideas regarding how to interpret and apply the United States Constitution. That document comes with no instructions on how to interpret or apply it. Scalia's view that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the intent of the authors has a patina of respectability and authority because it is obvious that one must consider the intentions of the author of a document to correctly ferret out the meaning of that document.

Scalia never acknowledged that his way of interpreting the Constitution is just one possible way, not the only correct way. As has been pointed out by legal scholars such as Ron Dworkin, even those whom Scalia would condemn as subverting the Constitution because of their "liberal" interpretation (that is, one which led to a consequence opposed to his political philosophy) can legitimately maintain they are being true to the original intent of the authors. Scalia may have been a powerful philosopher, but he either willfully ignored or was ignorant of the philosophical distinction between a concept and a conception. On his view, one must interpret the Constitution according to the conceptions held by the authors (or by others living at the same time in the U.S.). On Scalia's view, the authors intended their conceptions to restrict all further discussion of application and interpretation. On Scalia's view, whatever the authors' conception of, say, "speedy trial" or "jury of one's peers" happened to be, we must not apply the conceptions of those concepts living two hundred years later. That was his view, but it was never recognized by him as a philosophical position of no more validity than the notion that the authors never say nor did they intend that people living two hundred years after the writing of the document should be disallowed from recognizing that while concepts may be expressed by the same words the conceptions evoked by those words evolve and change over time.

While Scalia's political philosophy may be equally valid with philosophies that allow for the evolution of concepts embedded in the Constitution, I don't think his approach is equally reasonable. In fact, I think his approach is irrational because it makes the framers look like morons. I don't think Madison and the rest of the framers were morons. They may not have been the foresightful geniuses many of our history books make them out to be, but they surely did not intend to restrict all future generations to accept their conceptions of "reasonable doubt," "justice,' "general welfare," "excessive bail," "liberty," "freedom of speech," "well regulated Militia," "Arms," "cruel and unusual punishment," etc. To assume what Scalia assumed is to believe that the framers did not want America to progress beyond the 18th century. Conveniently and hypocritically, Scalia does not limit "Arms" to muskets, pistols, knives, and the like, nor does he limit bearing Arms to state militias to defend a free State. He invented the "right to keep a handgun for self-defense" in District of Columbia vs. Heller. No such right is stated in the Second Amendment. He also went beyond original intent in the Citizens United case when he declared that "freedom of speech" includes the freedom of corporations to give as much money as one wants to a political campaign. The early presidents and vice-presidents considered it unseemly to even campaign for office, much less to ask for money to help them get elected. Scalia was famous for saying  “The Constitution says nothing about abortion,” but he should be infamous for not saying that the Constitution says nothing about the right to a pistol for self-defense or the right of corporations to contribute to campaigns.

Another problem with Scalia's "originalism" is that the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments were not the work on a single person. The intentions of the various minds behind those works were varied and many. To assume they were one and that we, 200 years later can figure out what that one intent was, is ludicrous.

I recognize that Scalia's political philosophy regarding social change initiated by government--that the legislature should be the branch of government that brings about such social change--is as legitimate as the philosophy that holds that the executive and judicial branches must, at times, be the governmental agents of social change. But I think he was wrong to hold the position, for example, that since the Constitution says nothing about abortion, it's not up the Supreme Court (or any court, for that matter) to stop states from imposing legislation that forbids abortion to any women for any reason. Abortion may not be mentioned in the Constitution and the practice may have been considered an abomination by most people in the U.S. in the 18th century, but both of those facts are irrelevant to whether the Supreme Court should determine whether a state law regarding abortion is Constitutional. The Constitution may not state explicitly that U.S. citizens have a "right to privacy," but it does explicitly name several other rights that would be nearly meaningless without assuming a right to privacy. I don't deny that determining implicit rights is problematic, but that fact does not render the idea invalid. Determining implicit rights is no more onerous than the burden put on the Court to apply the 11th Amendment: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

Over the years, I have made several references to Antonin Scalia. My memory of him does not coincide with the adulatory comments filling the airwaves and news media shortly after his death.

Scalia Praises Irrationality as Rational

scaliaAssociate Justice Antonin Scalia, appointed by Ronald Reagan, apparently has studied theology and has convinced himself that the irrational is rational.

“It isn’t irrational to accept the testimony of eyewitnesses to miracles,” said Scalia. "What is irrational is to reject a priori, with no investigation, the possibility of miracles in general and of Jesus Christ’s resurrection in particular — which is, of course, precisely what the worldly wise do.” [This is a false dichotomy and a straw man argument. There is a third option. Some of us reject the Resurrection and the miracles of Jesus after investigating these claims and determining that they are not justified. Many of the "worldly wise" do investigate these claims before rejecting them. To assume that none of those who reject these notions have even thought about them is a false assumption from which Scalia drew the conclusion that many atheists are irrational.] The "worldly wise" is code for "non-believers." In his speech before the St. Thomas More Society, Scalia did not reveal where he gets his information about why non-believers reject miracles and other supernatural claims. Divine inspiration, perhaps. [He obviously has not read why even some believers, such as Kierkegaard, admitted that belief in miracles and the Resurrection are absurd.]

These unwise words on what's rational come from a man who not only believes stories that claim there were eyewitnesses to The Resurrection, but who also believes in the virgin birth, the stigmata, the Trinity, and that the cracker he eats at Sunday Mass has been transubstantiated into a godman. By the way, five other Supreme Court justices apparently share Scalia's religious views: Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alioto, and Sonia Sotomayor. I say "apparently" because, although they are all Roman Catholics, one can't be sure they all believe everything the Roman Catholic Church teaches, much less what Scalia thought about doctrinal matters.


The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "public schools cannot allow student-led prayer before high school football games." The case was brought to the court because the Sante Fe Independent School District in Galveston, Texas, had tried the ruse of allowing students to initiate a vote for a student "speaker" to address the crowd via a public address system before football games. The speaker, in theory, is allowed to say anything he or she wants. In practice, the elected "speaker" is expected to lead a prayer....During opening arguments last March, Justice Antonin Scalia indicated that he thought the ruse was pretty clever and that he was going to vote to keep the loophole open. He said "You can't say that in every case [the practice is] going to produce a prayer." Just because it always has produced a prayer and just because the policy was created in order to introduce prayers onto the public school's football field doesn't mean it will always be used that way. Right.


We do have a problem in this country because the First Amendment forbids Congress from "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. Apparently, the Framers didn't realize that some religions consider it the duty of its members to kill or enslave anyone who doesn't accept their religion. Some religions consider anyone born to a father in the religion to be a lifetime member of the religion with no right to leave. They also consider it a duty to kill anyone who tries to leave the religion. This is not an unsolvable problem, since the members of such religions, if they did not modernize their views and abandon their ancient killing customs, would be violating many other laws under which they could be prosecuted. But there is an obvious problem with the language that the Framers used. The words seem to imply that religious exercises are all benign or at least socially acceptable. We have our Constitutional fundamentalists, like Scalia, who think we must apply these words literally. But even Scalia admits we have to look to the time at which the words were used to get their intended meaning. In the context of the 18th century, the Framers clearly did not intend to give people the right to enslave or kill other people as part of a religious exercise. [To do so would violate other explicit and implicit rights of the people.] It is simply not true that the Constitution forbids the making of any law restricting the activities of people who hide behind the shield of religion. It is not true to say: I'm an American. I can do anything in the name of religion because the First Amendment says so.


McCain commented on the Supreme Court decision that says the President doesn't have the constitutional right to order people held indefinitely without filing charges or taking them to trial. He called it the worst decision ever made. While McCain would like to pack the court with more hypocrites like Antonin Scalia, Obama is courting the religious right by promising to extend Bush's faith-based support with government money. Scalia is a hypocrite because he claims that the federal constitution should be true to the words of the framers, yet he complains about the consequences of the court's decisions that he disagrees with. He says his is a minimalist Constitution and that if you want social change, legislate it. Yet, he voted to go against more than 200 years of legal thinking and opposed the right of Washington, D.C. to ban guns. To a true originalist, the social consequences of a court decision should be irrelevant. When Scalia is in the minority on a decision, he has a penchant for criticizing the motives of his fellow justices....as if his motives are pure or as if motives matter more than legal arguments. He disrespects the Constitution and the Court, and by his words encourages others to do so, too.


How did we get from an era with men and books like Ethan Allen's Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1794) and Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason (1804) to Antonin Scalia and Joseph Lieberman (not to mention Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity)? Depravity, I suppose. Maybe the Bible thumpers are right. Actually, the devil is in the details and you'll have to read Jacoby's book [Freethinkers] for those details as she takes the reader from the battle to pass Virginia's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) to Scalia's speech proclaiming that government rules by divine right, not the consent of the governed as declared in our Declaration of Independence. 


Obama needs Ohio, so he went to church there soon after his party's convention ended. McCain needs a judgment transplant. First, he says the U.S. Supreme Court needs more judges like Scalia and Thomas. Then he selects Sarah Palin as his running mate. Biden is qualified to become president if need be, but Palin? Her main qualification seems to be that she wants every woman who gets pregnant to be required to give birth, which should satisfy the Ben Stein contingent of the Republican party.

[new] reader comments

Feb 16, 2016

You've gone off the tracks. Since when is calling someone a "loudmouth" and a "hypocrite" a rational argument rather than ad hominem?

reply: Calling someone a loudmouthed hypocrite is neither an argument nor an ad hominem. My characterization of Scalia was not put forth to refute his position on anything nor was it put forth to argue for or against anything. Not every case of namecalling is an ad hominem, which is a fallacy in argumentation whereby one attack a person rather than the person's argument. To call someone a buffoon because you think he's a buffoon isn't an ad hominem, unless you are trying to prove some conclusion in so doing. My characterization of Scalia as a loudmouthed hypocrite may have been rude, but it wasn't an ad hominem.

If someone wrote "that loudmouth hypocrite Richard Dawkins" you'd be fine with it, right? That would be merely the expression of sound, rational, skepticism-based argument?

reply: No, calling Dawkins a loudmouthed hypocrite would not be any kind of argument. I'm for free speech, so if anyone wants to call Dawkins names, I guess you could say I'm fine with it, even if I think the namecaller is wrong or misguided.

The article you reference at "The Progressive" by loudmouth hypocrite Rothschild is laughable. Have you even read Washington D.C. v. Heller? The three objections mentioned by Rothschild are clearly and specifically addressed by Scalia in the opinion (including his responses to Breyer's dissent arguments), yet Rothschild writes as if those stunningly brilliant arguments were overlooked by Scalia. You and Rothschild may not agree with Scalia's arguments about those issues, but they were addressed, and which arguments are strongest are arguable.

reply: We all know that the second Amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." All you gun-rights wingnuts delete the first thirteen words of the Amendment. You ignore the context of the Amendment, which has nothing to do with hunting, sport, or personal self-defense. 

You and Shermer are both irrational and lacking in any sound evidence-based arguments and data that will withstand critical scrutiny in the matter of law-abiding citizens' ability to keep and bear arms.

reply: Why bring in Shermer? Am I supposed to defend him? I think he can defend himself. If you have a quarrel with his position on gun control take it up with him not me.

What irrational assumptions and bad data are you basing your apparently a priori positions upon?

reply: Personally, I don't think the Constitution says anything about the right of 'law-abiding citizens' ability to keep and bear arms.' The second Amendment is about the right of people to live in a free state, which requires that the state be free to have their own militias made up of citizens with arms. This Amendment is completely obsolete. We no longer have state militias, nor do we have a general fear that a U.S. military force will run roughshod over any state as it did during the Civil War.

Plus, what's really puzzling, of course, is with such pathetically weak arguments and data that you'd be such a loudmouth about it all.

George Pace

reply: I have a feeling you're easily puzzled, but I thank you for not taking anything out of context and for not stooping to ad hominems or namecalling in your defense of whatever it is you're defending. [/new]


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