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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 19

January 6, 2003

"If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." --George Harrison

Subscribers 1,690

(Past issues posted at



      1)   New or revised entries
      2)   Responses to selected feedback
      3)   News
      4)   Books we're reading

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

Since the last newsletter, I've

  • added comments on Gary Schwartz's response to Ray Hyman;

  • added comments on a feature article about John Edward;

  • added comments on Newsweek's feature on alternative medicine;

  • added a link to an article about the Indigo children;

  • posted the revised preface to The Skeptic's Dictionary;

  • and added comments on the death of astrologer Sydney Omarr, whose horoscope on the day of his death predicted that he would beat the odds much to the astonishment of experts and which advised him to bet on the fourth horse in the fourth race.


 2) Responses to selected feedback

Julio Cesar de Siqueira Barros of Brazil writes:

In your Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter, Issue # 10, September 1, 2002, you say:

"Many skeptics will find it difficult to take [Dean] Radin seriously after they read the introduction to his book [The Conscious Universe - The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena]. He seriously distorts the ideas of Carl Sagan and Ray Hyman by quoting them out of context."

Radin's book may be trash from head to toe but if anyone who thinks of himself as a skeptic identifies what Radin wrote about Carl Sagan (in his introduction) as a "distortion of Sagan's ideas," then mankind can truly have no hope whatsoever of any rational future. Actually, it seems very hard to find any true skeptics, the late Sagan and Susan Blackmore probably being the only two who really deserve this highly honorable ranking. If you--a fellow skeptic--misread Sagan's book so deeply, what can we expect of your analysis of....Radin?

I suggest that you include true skeptical viewpoints in your newsletter as soon as possible. Mankind will be greatly indebted.

We try. Sometimes we fail, but this is not one of those times.  Here is the part of the passage from Sagan that Radin quotes:

At the time of writing, there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images "projected" at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation (Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, Random House, 1995, p. 302).

Radin calls this "an astonishing admission" and goes on to crow about "other signs of shifting opinions" regarding the reality of psi phenomena "cropping up with increasing frequency in the scientific literature."

However, immediately after the quote in question, Sagan writes: "I pick these claims not because I think they're likely to be valid (I don't), but as examples of contentions that might be true." They "have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong." He then goes on to relate how in the mid-1970s he found himself unable to sign a manifesto called "Objections to Astrology" not because he thought astrology has any validity, but "because I felt (and still feel) that the tone of the statement was authoritarian." Sagan was not admitting anything about the likely reality of psi phenomena. He was merely being Sagan: No claim should be dismissed out-of-hand or rejected because it seems absurd or stupid, or because of the motivations, scientific qualifications, or moral character of its proponents. Claims should be accepted or rejected only if the evidence warrants it. Sagan was simply defending the view that a good skeptic must be open-minded. He is not saying that any of these three claims is true or probably true. He is stating the claims as those who believe them would state them and he is saying they deserve "serious study," that is, they should not be dismissed out-of-hand. He said the same thing about astrology.


Alberto Correa writes:

There is something missing in your skepticism  You wrote that false ideas and pseudoscience may be dangerous, but I have not seen you write about the fallacies of biological psychiatry.

Biological psychiatry is a pseudoscience much more dangerous than other kinds of pseudo-medicine.

If you read the writings of Peter Breggin, Allan Horwitz, and others like them, you would agree with me.

Don't be gullible skeptics! Get well informed!

I looked at Breggin's web site. My impression is that he is dangerous. He is a psychiatrist who thinks brain disorders are not brain disorders and, if he had his way, no one with a mental illness would be taking drugs. He is also one of the leaders of the anti-Ritalin crusade.

I checked Dr. Stephen Barrett's Quackwatch page to see what he had to say about Breggin. Barrett calls him "a harmful nuisance whose views can undermine trust in the medical profession and frighten people away from helpful treatment....He would like you to believe that his personal experience and judgment enable him to out-think and outperform the collective wisdom of the science-based mental health community. Some of the things he describes may reflect genuine problems. However, he is prone to exaggeration...."

Allan Horowitz, on the other hand, does not call biological psychiatry a pseudoscience, but he is critical of the way psychiatry classifies mental disorders. Horowitz is a sociologist and the author of Creating Mental Illness (University of Chicago, 2002). He offers the kind of thoughtful and thought provoking analysis that can lead to a better understanding of the truth about mental illness and how we deal with it. Horowitz is on the mark, I think, when he examines the trouble caused by micro-definitions of "treatable mental disorders"  as listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, now in its 4th version (DSM-IV). Both our medical and legal professions would probably do better to think of mental illness as a matter of degree rather than of hundreds of distinct kinds. And many things that are now classified as mental disorders probably shouldn't be. But there will always be serious difficulties with diagnosis of mental illness because these disorders manifest themselves in thoughts and actions rather than in physical symptoms such as blood sugar or blood pressure readings or tumors. The range of ideas and behaviors that we consider normal greatly overlaps those we consider symptoms of a brain disorder. Furthermore, some brain disorders can be the effects of other physical disorders that, when treated or cured, can eliminate the brain disorder. Of course, some brain disorders are the effects of physical disorders that can't be treated. I know of one young girl who was misdiagnosed with several mental illnesses from the time she was two until about a year before her death of a degenerative brain disorder more than a decade later. But the inevitability of misdiagnosis should not be a justification for abandoning diagnosis altogether.

In an area like psychiatry there are bound to be many misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatments. There are also many devastated people hoping to find something or someone to blame. And there will always be people like Breggin who see themselves as saviors. They will always be able to find cases that confirm their notions.


3) News

There were 42 hits on my RaŽl page the day before Brigitte Boisselier announced that Clonaid had cloned a human called "Eve." The day of the announcement there were 2,156 hits. I have nothing to say about the alleged cloning for now because that is all it is, an alleged cloning. Many of the experts are skeptical of the claim. But even if this is just a way for Ms. Boisselier to get attention for herself and the cult she belongs to, the ethical issues should be addressed immediately.

The RaŽlians hope to achieve immortality by cloning themselves endlessly. Immortal DNA? What a concept. The implications are outrageous. Why stop with just a replacement clone? Why not clone yourself repeatedly. Say, wasn't there a movie starring Gregory Peck with a perverse twist on this theme?

Boisselier promised that one week after her announcement of the birth of a human clone she would provide DNA evidence to prove it. When the week was up she announced that the parents have changed their minds about allowing the DNA test. The parents were reconsidering the DNA testing because Bernard F. Siegel, a Miami lawyer and former wrestling promoter, had petitioned a court in Broward County, Fla., asking it to appoint a guardian for this baby who may not even exist. Even though no proof of either existence or cloning has been given, Siegel announced that "the child has potential medical defects." Why is that any of his business, you might wonder. He says he is following a Florida law that allows an individual to seek court protection for a child who has been abused, neglected, or abandoned. "This child," said Siegel,  "more than any child on earth, needs a guardian." The alleged child supposedly exists in some foreign country, but since Boisselier announced the birth of the clone in Florida, Siegel argues that Florida law is applicable. Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court should weigh in on this one.

Sensing a gullible press and free publicity, Clonaid announced that a second human clone--Eve II?--has been born. This time the country of the birthmother was identified: Holland. Furthermore, the mother is a lesbian but not a RaŽlian. No word yet on whether DNA tests will be made to verify that the baby is either human or a clone. Clonaid claims that there are three more human clones due in January. It also claims to have a list of 2,000 people willing to pay $200,000 to have themselves or a loved-one cloned. It has another list of media outlets willing to stand in line to listen to this stuff and pass it on to the rest of us as newsworthy. Soon the tabloids will be put out of business.


On the lighter side, it seems that is about 20% faster than even though it's 30% longer.


On January 24 at 11:00 pm Showtime cable network will present the first episode of its controversial new series PENN & TELLER: BLLSHT! The 13-part series will examine such things as chiropractic, feng shui, Ouija boards, psychics, creationism, miracles, religious cults, and the purity of bottled water. (I don't get Showtime, so if someone would tape the program for me, I would appreciate it.)

4) Books we're reading

Banvard's Folly by Paul Collins (Picador, 2002) is one of the best-written books I've read in a long time. The subtitle reveals what the book is about: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World. This is a book about some brilliant or eccentric people with ideas that didn't work out. Two of the thirteen failures are featured in The Skeptic's Dictionary: John Symmes and Renť Blondlot. I won't spoil it for you by going into details about the various characters Collins writes about, but I will mention the feat of John Banvard. He put on display a painting he did of both sides of the Mississippi river from St. Louis to New Orleans. As you can imagine, it was a very long painting. It also made him the wealthiest artist in history up to his time. So, why did he die in the poorhouse? Read the book to find out this and many other curiosities such as who invented the first musical language and who founded the first vegan community in America known as Fruitland? And who wrote Shakespeare's "lost play" Henry the Second?