Table of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue #2

May 20, 2002

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      1)   Skeptic's Dictionary, the book
      2)   New entries in the Skeptic's Dictionary
      3)   Responses to selected feedback
      4)   Weird stats
      5)   Books we're reading
      6)   Fourth World Skeptics Conference
      7)   A trip back to 1999


 1)  Skeptic's Dictionary, the book

I've learned a little bit about copyright law and free speech while preparing the manuscript for my publisher, John Wiley & Sons. I was provided an information sheet on copyrights and permissions by JW's legal department. One part says "the copyright law recognizes the value of the free flow of information in society and encourages authors to expand knowledge by building on the work of those who wrote before them." Another part says that permission is required of "material which includes all or part of a poem or song lyric (even as little as one line)."

Thus, I was led to request permission from Special Rider Music to quote five (5) lines from a Bob Dylan song in my revised entry on Nostradamus. The song has 30 lines (not counting the repeated chorus) and the lines I quote are from four different verses. Taken together, these five lines are as senseless as anything Nostradamus wrote, while still being ripe enough for speculative interpretation to make any metaphysician proud.

I got permission to reprint the Dylan lines, but it cost me $50. Free speech is fee speech when it comes to poems and songs. All other kinds of writing seem to follow a different rule, the "fair use" rule, which allows reasonable size quoting for purposes of commentary or criticism.


 2) New entries or revisions in The Skeptic's Dictionary and Skeptic's Refuge

The latest entry in the SD is on nocebos and the nocebo effect. Nocebos are things we believe will harm us and then they do, like beliefs in voodoo curses or in the harmful side-effects of a medication. (According to some researchers, negative side-effects of drugs are often due to anticipation and belief, not to active substances in the medication.)


I have not been diligent about maintaining the Skeptic's Refuge for the past couple of years. It was, and is, an ambitious project. I had hoped to do regular postings of book reviews, but the writing proved most difficult and the time needed to do a proper job rarely seems to be available. Even keeping up with new books of interest to skeptics has proved too time-consuming to do an adequate job. The Too Good to Be True section started out as a project to expose fraud on the Internet. (I can hear the roars of laughter.) Even reined in to cover only projects involving pseudoscience, this task became too much of a burden. So, I haven't written much in that area lately.

I also created a section that would expose false, misleading or deceptive information on the Internet regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events. But the Internet Bunk section petered out after only five exposés. Even something fairly simple like a page that posts a recommendation to visit a single good Web site (the Site to See page) proved to be too much of a burden to maintain along with everything else I am trying to do. Now, as I become aware of new sites of interest to skeptics, I just add them to my Skeptical Links page.


I started the Mass Media Bunk (MMB) page in February 1996. Each MMB file is about 30k (ca. 3000 words) and I'm now on the 19th file. I think the files serve as a chronicle of the media's descent into the depths of the occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific and miraculous in its never-ending quest for ratings. Over the past year, however, I have found little that interested me enough to add to the chronicle. Much of it is getting repetitious and there is precious little to add to the hundredth story about psychic fraud or the dangers of self-medicating with herbs. The success of Dead Can Talk TV, however, has riled me up enough to add some new comments (or rants) on that subject in MMB.

I've been most faithful in keeping up the Mass Media Funk (MMF) page, with comments on issues of interest to skeptics, and the Suburban Myths page. Three new myths have been added since the first newsletter. The myth that water runs down the drain differently in the northern and southern hemispheres is number 57 in our list of common misconceptions that are uncritically passed on as established truths by "experts" and non-experts alike. The reference for this myth is a page by Dorothy and Alistair Fraser of Canada called Bad Coriolus. (I was led to this interesting site by reading Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy and then being referred to it from his Web site.)

The myth that fertility is causally linked to lunar cycles is number 58. On a related issue, I've posted my responses to a letter from a defender of Dr. Jonas's lunar theory of fertility.

In MMF, I've posted comments from Dr. Stephen Barrett's QuackWatch on the report issued in March 2002 by the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy. The commission was loaded with quacks and the report reflects this quite loudly....

...Also in MMF, Bob Rickard, editor of the Fortean Times, claims that ufology is dead and we can thank the ubiquity of camcorders for its demise....

....Another MMF entry reports on a man who sued Scientology and not only won but got paid $8.7 million...of course, it took him 22 years to collect....

...I also posted some comments on California Congresswoman Diane Watson's bill that would prohibit dental amalgam because it is 50% mercury and mercury vapors are escaping our fillings. Salt is 50% chlorine but nobody wants to ban it because they think they'll get chlorine poisoning. The notion that the mercury in amalgam is poisoning people is now listed as Suburban Myth # 59.


...A devotee of Ramtha, the Cromagnon warrior via Atlantis who allegedly speaks through J.Z. Knight, formerly a Tacoma housewife, defends her belief....Our exchange is posted in Reader Comments


I've updated the shroud of Turin entry in response to a reader's question as to why I don't take seriously the notion that the carbon dating of the shroud (ca. 1350) by three independent labs was wrong because the shroud had been in a fire in the 16th century. Microchemist Dr. Walter McCrone calls this “ludicrous” because “the linen cloth samples were very carefully cleaned before analysis at each of the C-dating laboratories” and the samples “are routinely and completely burned to CO2 as part of a well-tested purification procedure.”


 3) Responses to selected feedback

I receive a lot of negative feedback (to use a euphemism) and hate mail (to speak bluntly), but I receive many more letters like the following. I put these letters in a file called "good vibes" and they inspire me to continue doing the Lord's work.

---I am a mother of 2 boys living in Southern California. As a pretty tough-minded skeptic I often feel isolated and lonely among the myriad cults out here. They're all nutters - the whole lot of 'em. So coming to your site in the evening and seeing that I am not actually as alone as I feel does my anxious mind good. Thanks for taking the time to do this site and keep up the good work!

---I am an (American) English teacher here in Saudi Arabia. For the past few months I have been toying with the idea of establishing a "Hall of Shame" web site to cover all the scallywags out there. Your Skeptic's Dictionary is it already! (Now I have to find a new project.) As a Skeptic, I will now follow you blindly and believe everything you say. (Hold on, that doesn't sound right!)

---(from Dublin, Ireland). I’ve been reading the Skeptic’s Dictionary on the web for a couple of years now, and I just thought I’d write a little note of appreciation for all your work. BS is the ultimate renewable energy source, and how you keep patience with the never-ending tide of the stuff I’ll never know. Sometimes I despair, I really do.

I’d just about given up arguing over these matters before I found your site, but now I make my little stand where I can. I’m sure you’re familiar with the outcome: incredulity, anger, and a stream of fourth-hand anecdotes that I am challenged to explain. So I gird up with the little store of knowledge gained from your site and elsewhere, and do battle even though I know the same battle will have to be fought over and over again.

Thank you for all your work, and your tireless point-by-point rebuttals. Got to go now, I just heard someone say something about life energy.

---(And this one from Feb. 1999). This is John Catalano who runs "The World of Richard Dawkins" unofficial website. Thanks again for The Skeptic's Dictionary! This is the first place I go to help me understand the latest claims. In fact, just last week a co-worker called up to 'sell' me on the Lardmark Forum. I had never heard of the forum, but luckily your site had it covered! And your review also seemed honest and fair. I would like to feature The Skeptic's Dictionary for my book of the month. Will it be a print book at any point soon? If so I will wait. If not, I can feature your book site as a book just as well.

I wonder what John would say if I replied after three years to let him know the book will be out in 2003. (On a related note, since the last newsletter, I've posted some comments from a man who lost a friend to Landmark Forum.)


Occasionally, a reader will send in an interesting quote, such as this one:

H. L. Mencken on the argument by design

"The theological argument by design, made popular in the English-speaking countries by William Paley, is very far from convincing. The creator it adumbrates shows only a limited intelligence compared to His supposed masterpiece, man, and all save a few of His inventions are inimical to life on earth rather than beneficial. There is nothing among them that is at once as ingenious, as simple and as admirably adapted to its uses as the wheel. I pass over the vastly more complicated inventions of the modern era, many of them enormously superior to, say, the mammalian heart. And I also pass over the relatively crude contrivances of this Creator in the aesthetic field, wherein He has been far surpassed by man, as, for example, for adroitness of design, for complexity or for beauty, the sounds of an orchestra. Of the irrationality and wastefulness of the whole natural process it is hardly necessary to speak. Nothing made by man resembles it here, save only government. It is hence no wonder that the overwhelming majority of men, at all times and everywhere, have inclined toward the belief that government is of divine origin."

One of my favorite Mencken quotes is "No one in this world, so far as I know...has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people." Although, I think the sentiment would be more accurate if we replace 'intelligence' with 'gullibility.'


Speaking of quotes...a reader who took Werner Erhardt's est training in the 70s chided me for my "profoundly inaccurate quote" from Erhardt that I use at the top of that entry: "In life, understanding is the booby prize." The reader's est trainer didn't put it that way. He quoted the master as saying "In life, intelligence is the booby prize," which may be inaccurate but is certainly more profound than the original.


4) Weird stats

There are 121 html files in The Skeptic's Refuge and 450 picture files in the SD and SR combined.

5) Books we're reading

I've purchased my copy of Stephen Jay Gould's latest work, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Just looking at the massive volume sitting on my desk is intimidating. At 1464 pages, this one may take me through the entire summer and part of next fall. Lifting it should give me plenty of exercise, so I should be in great physical shape by August as long as I don't drop it on my foot. Apparently, this is Gould's total case against mainstream evolutionary biology and in support of his own version of how evolution occurs.


6) News: Prospects for Skepticism: The Next Twenty-Five Years is the theme of CSICOP's Fourth World Skeptics Conference, to be held June 20-23 in Burbank, California. I'll be attending and I will post a report in a future newsletter.


Rob Beeston of the Iowa Skeptics has started up a very ambitious project,, a portal for seemingly anything that might be of interest to skeptics, including a Forum and a Web chat room. The site is new, so give it time to fulfill its potential, but those of you who expressed an interest in a forum for skeptics might check in at Rob's site.


7) A trip back to 1999. For a laugh, take a look at what the homepage of the Skeptic's Dictionary looked like in January 1999. Courtesy of the WayBack Machine.