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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 17

December 1, 2002

Ninety-four percent of university professors think they are better at their jobs than their colleagues. --Thomas Gilovich How We Know What Isn't So

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(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

Below is a copy of the e-mail regarding firewalking (among other things) from Mr. Nelson:

First of all, I identify myself as both skeptic and atheist. I must say that I'm troubled by your approach to many items in your list and I will use firewalking as the primary point. It bothers me to read skeptics that first dismiss any pseudoscientific explanation to a feat/theory/line of thought AND (in the Boolean logic sense) then dismiss ANY positive benefits to a human or human thought that might derive from it.

There are MANY cases in our history where phenomena once had supernatural explanations but when a scientific explanation was found the phenomena was still useful or led to useful research. For example, lightning had many supernatural theories, yet the phenomena is still interesting/useful. But to get to the source of my ire, I go back to firewalking, you say: "Should a person be elated at overcoming the fear of firewalking and successfully walking through the fire pit without getting too severely burned? No. The fear is due to ignorance and the elation will surely turn to bitterness when the firewalker finds out that what they have accomplished can be done by just about anyone."

Surely someone should be elated to overcome their fear and walk across the fire pit. It is the same elation we as skeptics feel when we overcome another myth that was presented to us. The fear IS due to ignorance but, to me at least overcoming ignorance is a source of elation. As well, you state that one will be 'bitter' when they find out what they have accomplished could be done by anyone. Well, while everyone could do it, not everyone would be willing to do it....That is because you would be telling yourself to do something that your body is naturally telling you to avoid. I think you have badly written about this event, I think the act of firewalking could be used by skeptics to enlighten people that gut feelings can be wrong, and that careful thought and analysis can show that what appears to be harmful is really quite safe.

reply: Here I won't comment extensively on Mr. Nelson's criticisms, since I have revised the firewalking entry after considering his convincing arguments. I have one small quibble. We're both wrong in saying that the fear is due to ignorance. It's probably due to instinct. In fact, ignorance in the case of firewalking might be bliss or blisters, depending on the situation.


Matt writes:

I am forced to challenge some of your information. I myself am a HUGE skeptic - a cynic even. I have never had any faith in anything. Until recently, I always knew that psychic and paranormal activity was total crap. Then I starting dating my ex-girlfriend. This girl has the most genuine, untamed ability I have ever witnessed. She is, at a minimum, unprecedented in her handling of her own premonitions. She was never even remotely a liar, in fact she despised me often for even the smallest (or largest) lies. So everything she said was something true, no exception.

reply: So why did you break up? She sounds perfect. Never lies and always tell the truth. What were her flaws?

Several times over the course of our 2.5 year relationship, she was able to nail me to the wall when I was even thinking of being unfaithful.

reply: OK. Now we see one of her flaws. Did it ever occur to you that she might have been a tad bit possessive and oversensitive? What you take for an ability to read your mind may just be an expression of her jealous nature.

And you might say, "Oh, you just suck at hiding stuff, she could just tell because you were giving it away," but I assure you this is not entirely the case. Most of the time, the occurrence was completely independent of any part of my life that she even knew existed. She could just tell. This one instance in particular. A girl in one of my classes at school poured her heart out to me as I was taking her very drunk self home from a end of school party. I was in no way attracted to this girl, and she had a fiancée, so it was of not even the slightest bit of consequence. Over a month later, after I had all but forgotten the incident, my girlfriend tells me about a dream she had, where she was sitting in a car with her friend, and in the back seat is me and one other girl, who was "flirting" with me and telling me things about how she felt, all the while ignoring the girls in the front seat. She swore up and down it really happened somewhere, somehow, yet I honestly couldn't come up with what she was talking about. She knew EVERYTHING; the actual occurrence HAD to have replayed in her dream the way she spoke of it, she knew what the girl looked like, what color hair she had, what she said, even that the girls name, which she couldn't quite remember, had a name that went very cheerleader like: something "-EE." After several minutes of her being convinced this happened and spilling details, I finally figured it out. "OHH, was it Stacy???" I asked her. Of course that was it. She had described every last bit of the event, which wasn't even of importance to me. I had definitely never mentioned it to anyone, much less her or someone who could have told her. She had no idea who the girl was, still doesn't to this day. Maybe if this event had affected me for longer than the few minutes it was happening, or at least if it had been someone I was around a lot socially (I wasn't at all; that was maybe the 3rd time I was around this girl outside of class.), then I could try and attribute this to some other factors, but there is no plausible explanation I have come up with for how this could have happened. Needless to say, it freaked me out.

reply: Matt, you must have a different meaning than I do for words like "skeptic." I certainly hope the "EE" didn't freak you out. There must be a thousand common female names with an "EE" sound in them. You've connected a few dots here, Matt. In your ex's dream a girl was flirting with you; in reality, a girl was drunk and poured her heart out to you. I don't know what you mean by that. Did she reveal some personal things to you or did she come on to you? Whatever she did, it made no impression on you by your own admission. You've given your ex-girlfriend's dream whatever significance you think it has. Her dream seems more likely an expression of a jealous person than of a psychic. In any case, I think you should be thankful this girlfriend is an ex. There are other qualities of importance besides being brutally honest.

I have always been a very logical, rational (often over-rational) person, completely void to the idea that things could fail to be explained with a structure-ful [?], physical explanation. I certainly never believed in anything of the sort, until I was attacked by it several times over the course of the relationship; it still blows my mind to this day.

reply: To be brutally honest, Matt, I think you're right. This girl definitely affected your ability to think logically and rationally.


Paul writes:

May I add my name to the people encouraging your efforts. If you give up, I might turn to god. Now there's a threat!


Nick writes

Lately, I've seen people at health food stores do the following. To determine if some product will be good for them, they grasp the product in one hand, hold it to their breast. Extending the other arm straight out, they have someone try to push/pull the extended arm down. If the arm can be pulled down, then the product is bad for them. Else, the product is good for them. I nearly bust out laughing every time I see this embarrassing display. Does this behavior have a name? Can you check it out and report back your findings? Perhaps these people REALLY DO need a vitamin. Thanks.

reply: What they're doing is a bit of quackery known as applied kinesiology. It's not surprising that you'd see people doing this a health food store. The main advocates of this nonsense are naturopaths and chiropractors. These folks in the store must think the products can sap the body of some sort of vital energy. Thus, the arm goes down when the product is bad; it is sapping them of energy. What's really going on is explained by the ideomotor effect. Psychologist Ray Hyman tells a very interesting story about this subject.

Some years ago I participated in a test of applied kinesiology at Dr. Wallace Sampson's medical office in Mountain View, California. A team of chiropractors came to demonstrate the procedure. Several physician observers and the chiropractors had agreed that chiropractors would first be free to illustrate applied kinesiology in whatever manner they chose. Afterward, we would try some double-blind tests of their claims.

The chiropractors presented as their major example a demonstration they believed showed that the human body could respond to the difference between glucose (a "bad" sugar) and fructose (a "good" sugar). The differential sensitivity was a truism among "alternative healers," though there was no scientific warrant for it. The chiropractors had volunteers lie on their backs and raise one arm vertically. They then would put a drop of glucose (in a solution of water) on the volunteer's tongue. The chiropractor then tried to push the volunteer's upraised arm down to a horizontal position while the volunteer tried to resist. In almost every case, the volunteer could not resist. The chiropractors stated the volunteer's body recognized glucose as a "bad" sugar. After the volunteer's mouth was rinsed out and a drop of fructose was placed on the tongue, the volunteer, in just about every test, resisted movement to the horizontal position. The body had recognized fructose as a "good" sugar.

After lunch a nurse brought us a large number of test tubes, each one coded with a secret number so that we could not tell from the tubes which contained fructose and which contained glucose. The nurse then left the room so that no one in the room during the subsequent testing would consciously know which tubes contained glucose and which fructose. The arm tests were repeated, but this time they were double-blind -- neither the volunteer, the chiropractors, nor the onlookers was aware of whether the solution being applied to the volunteer's tongue was glucose or fructose. As in the morning session, sometimes the volunteers were able to resist and other times they were not. We recorded the code number of the solution on each trial. Then the nurse returned with the key to the code. When we determined which trials involved glucose and which involved fructose, there was no connection between ability to resist and whether the volunteer was given the "good" or the "bad" sugar.

When these results were announced, the head chiropractor turned to me and said, "You see, that is why we never do double-blind testing anymore. It never works!" At first I thought he was joking. It turned it out he was quite serious. Since he "knew" that applied kinesiology works, and the best scientific method shows that it does not work, then -- in his mind -- there must be something wrong with the scientific method. ("The Mischief-Making of Ideomotor Action," in the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine 3(2):34-43, 1999.)

I might add that the chiropractor's notion that glucose is bad sugar and fructose is good sugar is nonsense. Your brain runs on glucose and fructose (the main sugar in corn syrup) has been associated with the obesity epidemic. (The amount of fructose in fruits is very small, by the way, so, if you are thinking there is no way eating lots of fruits will make you obese, you are right.).


3) News

"The Amazing Meeting" sponsored by The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) will open with a reception on Friday evening, January 31, 2003, at the Renaissance Fort Lauderdale-Plantation Hotel. Saturday and Sunday will feature several speakers and panel discussions aimed at educating, energizing, and entertaining registrants and presenters alike. Randi will be there the entire weekend and will be the main speaker on Saturday evening. I have been informed by Randi that I will be speaking on Saturday and will be participating in several panel discussions.

Other speakers include Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine and the Skeptic Society, astronomers Jack Horkheimer and Phil Plait, magicians Jerry Andrus and Jamy Ian Swiss, ex-Scientologist Dan Garvin, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack formerly with the US Department of State, and Marvin Minsky. Registration is $135 for JREF members and $155 for non-members.

For more information check out the JREF website or contact Linda Shallenberger at (954) 467-1112 or