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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Issue # 22

March 7, 2003

"Eternal damnation awaits anyone who questions God's unconditional love." --Bill Hicks

Subscribers 1,888

(Past issues posted at



      1)   Skeptic's Dictionary, the book
      2)   New or revised entries
      3)   Responses to selected feedback
      4)   News


 1) Skeptic's Dictionary, the book

The page proofs are off my dining-room table. For the first time in three weeks we may sit down to a meal in proper style. The finished product has 379 entries and runs about 450 pages. It will retail for $19.95 when it's released in July and  will be available from any fine bookstore in your neighborhood. It will also be available from and the John Wiley & Sons web site.


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

Since the last newsletter, I have

I've also been working with Dario Ventra to start publishing his Italian translations of various Skeptic's Dictionary entries. We should have the first few entries up shortly.


 3) Responses to selected feedback

Because I have a few articles on "alternative" medicine and various forms of quackery, I get the odd letter asking me for advice on things I've never heard of, such as coral calcium as promoted by one "Dr." Barefoot. (I put "Dr." in quotes because Barefoot has no doctorate in medicine or anything else, but he is referred to as a "Dr." on many web sites.) I usually send such inquirers to my source for such things: the Quackwatch pages of Dr. Stephen Barrett. It turns out that Robert Barefoot and coral calcium is one of Dr. Barrett's "hot topics" right now. Barefoot is a classic example of what is wrong with "alternative" medicine. I have an entry on a similar figure: Joel D. Wallach.


Ronaldo Cordeiro, who translates Skeptic's Dictionary entries into Portuguese from his home in Brazil, has asked me to publicize a manifesto signed by a number of Brazilian scientists and physicians and sent to the State Medicine Board expressing strong opposition to the treatment of homeopathy in Brazil. In a recent letter, Ronaldo told me that

Brazil is probably the only country in the world whose regulatory agency recognizes homeopathy as a medical specialty, along with cardiology, urology and other conventional medical practices. This means that physicians, not laymen, practice homeopathy in Brazil, thus shifting the burden of deciding which practices are scientific to the public. And to make things worse, an internal ethics code prohibits physicians from criticizing one another. A doctor can be punished if he publicly criticizes homeopathy. For this reason, most critics of homeopathy come from biologists, physicists and journalists instead from the medical community.

Thus, even signing this manifesto, which gives many reasons for rejecting homeopathy on scientific grounds, can bring sanctions to a Brazilian physician. If you are a physician or scientist who would like to support the Brazilian movement to oust homeopathy and would like to see, and perhaps sign, a copy of the manifesto in Portuguese or in English, contact Ronaldo.


I recently received the following e-mail from a person I'll call Barbara, who was very much taken in by a chance meeting with James Van Praagh.

I have at times heard of your site and today took a peek. I can agree with the premise that it is important not to believe in everything that one is told. I personally believe in testing things myself. I wanted to let you know that I tested James Van Praagh and found something of note. I was present at a store where one of his book signings was to be held. I was there entirely by accident and some lady asked me if I was staying to see the medium. I had no idea what medium was other than a size that I used to wear - I joking responded to her - so the dude's a medium. Great. I am a large.

I thought okay if this guy can really talk to the dead - let's see if he can pick up on thought. I know it was probably rude to do such testing in the middle of his reading another - but it was impressive to see. Not only did Van Praagh pick up what I was thinking of in my mind but he was able to start giving furniture lay-outs of my apartment along with descriptions of strange electrical flux I'd been having. I was not the person in front of him - I was hidden in a bookcase area 6 rows away. He not only picked up the thought - but when the person in front of him said no she did not have an antique china cabinet in her bedroom handed down from a dead relative- he did not rattle or lose his ground. He explained to the audience that one in the crowd had very good concentration and then he went looking for the face in the crowd. When he found me - I gave a slight head nod and he nodded back. He did not draw me into the presentation - which I appreciated.

Did it prove he talks to the dead -hmmmm. Well honestly I can't say that. It proves that somehow he was able to pick up what I was thinking and things about me that I already knew about myself and my life. I have yet to be able to come up with a test that would prove that someone was actually talking to the actual dead. Telling someone something they already know doesn't prove it. And how does one prove the dead person they are talking to is actually who they think it is and not some other dead person?

I think your site is wrong to claim that Van Praagh is fraudulent. He does possess a high degree of something that is unexplainable. Should such things be looked at closely to determine what they actually are - Yes!! But to deny all that is beyond the normal scope because you can't control or explain it is stupidity.

Barbara shows a good deal of skepticism, as well as a good deal of open-mindedness. She obviously is ignorant, however, of cold reading techniques and of proper ways to test a psychic. The antique china is a common ploy. Every good "psychic" has a mental list of a dozen or two things likely to be around somebody's home: an outdated calendar, an old newspaper, old photographs, special silverware or dishes, and so on. The items won't resonate with everybody, but in a crowd there is usually one person who will be quite emotional over the item and will begin to make deep connections with the item and some dead person. The responsibility for these connections is transferred to the "psychic." Likewise for the furniture layout and the "strange electrical flux" (whatever that means). Maybe he's really in touch with the dead. Or maybe you just connected the dots for him. But it shouldn't take much deep thought to wonder why a dead relative who knows about your strange "electrical flux" wouldn't just say "Hi, this is Aunt Hildy." Why the game? Because the dead are playful? That's one possibility, but I wouldn't give it much weight. More likely, Van Praagh is playing the game because he knows people like to play the game, too. And they will help him out by finding meaning in his images.

Barbara also doesn't seem to be aware that her interpretation of what happened may not be at all what Van Praagh thought was happening. She took him to be nodding at her. Maybe he was. Maybe he was nodding at someone else. Maybe he wasn't nodding at all. Maybe he didn't draw her into the presentation because he didn't sense she was making the connections she was making. He may have misread her face as well as her mind.

Barbara is an example of how a person need not be weak and vulnerable to be ensnared by the cold reader. I have known very intelligent people who are generally skeptical and good critical thinkers in most areas but who have expressed amazement that a psychic could know intimate details about them. This one "fact" leads them to think I am closed-minded because I am not impressed by the psychic's apparent ability to see things beyond the normal. When I try to explain that the psychic doesn't know intimate details, that it only seems so, it is to no avail. As Pascal said: We want to be deceived. This makes the mentalist's job easy. We are willing participants in the deception. There are people who have studied this kind of deception and self-deception and I have recommended their work many times before but I will do it again. Ian Rowland's The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading (237 pages) is the most detailed account. (I am going to have to put up a lengthy review of this book so I don't have to keep repeating myself about Rowland's insights into this process.) Ray Hyman's essay on the subject is available on-line from the Australian skeptics. It is also detailed and explains how strangers can seem to know personal details of your life. Finally, there are two works by Bob Steiner, mentioned below in the News section.

Unlike Barbara, I don't find a high degree of inexplicability about Van Praagh. That is probably because I know something about cold reading and I have seen him perform on television several times. I agree that it would be stupid to deny the reality of something simply because one can't control or explain it. But it is also stupid to believe something is "beyond the natural" just because you can't explain it by naturalistic means.

By the way, I don't call him fraudulent. This is something Barbara has inferred from what I do say about Van Praagh. Though it seems like a safer inference than the ones she drew about Van Praagh based on her chance meeting with him in a bookstore. I make it clear that I don't think he is psychic, but I can't say whether he is intentionally deceiving others or is simply self-deceived. It is possible that he came upon his cold reading talent by accident and was encouraged by communal reinforcement from people significant in his life to believe he has a "gift." So, he may not be a fraud. He may be deluded.


4) News

The big news is that on Friday March 14th at 11 P.M. on Showtime I'll be on the Penn and Teller special on creationism. The program is called "Bllsht!"  When I was interviewed last October, the series didn't have a title. Unfortunately, I don't remember what I said. I hope somebody tapes the program because I don't get Showtime and I plan to be in Folsom that night listening to Providence. (Some of you may find that ironic.) They're not a religious group, but a band from Dublin. The creationism episode will be rebroadcast on the 15th at 12:30 AM, the 20th at 10 PM, and the 27th at 10:30 PM (all times ET and PT).


For the past six months or so, nobody in the media has contacted me about anything. But during one busy week, while I was editing the page proofs for the Wiley book, I was contacted four times. On the 19th of Feb., the BBC's Josie Milani e-mailed me regarding quack therapies in the UK. I turned her on to Stephen Turoff, psychic surgeon and therapeutic touch practitioner. The next day I did a phone interview with Karen Peterson of USA Today regarding Rupert Sheldrake's new book and his  notions of morphic resonance, staring, and dogs that know when their owner's are coming home. I told her about his poor randomization methodology, how he blurs the lines between science and metaphysics, how he has poor controls in his controlled studies, how he ignores coincidence, and how he seems oblivious to confirmation bias. I plugged the work of Richard Wiseman and John Colwell, and the JREF, CSICOP, and the Skeptics Society. Ms. Peterson called me the day the story ran to let me know that my comments ended up on the cutting room floor.

On the 24th of February Shanna Franklin of Fox 40 in Sacramento called about setting up an interview for a program on atheism. The Infidel Guy will be involved too. Should be fun. Then, on the 26th I did a phone interview with Bill Lindelof of the Sacramento Bee on anthroposophy for a story he's doing on the Waldorf school method.


On the 28th it was time to relax. Bob Steiner has an annual leap year party. You have to stay until midnight to find out whether it is possible to have an "annual" leap year. Bob is an accountant and magician who does some sort of mathematical legerdemain at the witching hour to prove that "17 1/2 of the last 23 years were Leap Years." I didn't stay that long, so I don't know whether I was at a leap year party or not. I did find out that Bob, who is a former president of the American Society of Magicians, authored the cold reading entry in Michael Shermer's recently published The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (available from the Skeptic Society for $99). Bob's approach to the subject is from the inside out. That is, he gives examples of how one would do a cold reading if one were reading Tarot cards or pretending to be psychic, and so on. Bob didn't do any cold readings at his party, but he did consent to do some magic to the delight of the crowd. He even did a card trick that showed that either he is psychic, a master of misdirection and conjuring, or my wife helped him cheat. (He had her pick a card from a deck spread open on the table with the faces up. She picked a card and, when he turned it over, it had her name on it. He showed us the other cards and they all had different names on them.) Good host that he was, Bob allowed another magician to perform. He was also very good. The party offered a few hours of respite from the tedium of  proofreading. Also, it was good to see Richard Cadena of the Australian Skeptics and San Jose, California, again.


I leave you with the recommendation that you read Nicholas Kristof's article "God, Satan and the Media." I will quote just one passage: "A new Gallup poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe in creationism, and only 28 percent in evolution (most of the rest aren't sure or lean toward creationism). According to recent Gallup Tuesday briefings, Americans are more than twice as likely to believe in the devil (68 percent) as in evolution."

[Many thanks to John Renish.]