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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 28

July 20, 2003

"The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind." -- H. L. Mencken

Subscribers 2,300

(Previous newsletters are archived at


Reminder: I'll be doing a reading from The Skeptic's Dictionary in San Francisco at the Monticello Inn this Wednesday, July 23, from 5:30-6:30 PM. The Inn is located at 127 Ellis St. (I regret that I won't have copies of the book to sell or sign, but we will try to have some little memento available to mark the occasion.)

On August 16th I'll be in Eugene, Oregon, signing copies of the book at the Borders Bookstore starting at 7 PM. The store is located at 5 Oakway Center.

 1) Skeptic's Dictionary, the book

The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, warned me about finding errors in my book no matter how many times and how many people proofread it. I expected a few minor errors that would be easy to explain and just as easy to fix. I didn't expect major errors, but it looks like I made one in the cattle mutilations entry. A veterinary student, Greg Griffeth, has explained why lactic acidosis could not produce the effects listed as cattle "mutilations." I have corrected the Web site but it is too late to remove it from the book's first printing.

I can explain but I can't justify the error. An article on lactic acidosis came to my attention as I was finishing my last edits. I did some research--but obviously not enough--to substantiate the notion that some cattle "mutilations" might be the result of lactic acidosis. I am not a biochemist but I know a little about microorganisms and pH (from maintaining a swimming pool). I did not think that acid from rumen acidosis would spread to the internal organs, eyes, anus, etc., and dissolve them but I did think it possible that in extreme cases the decreased pH might create an environment for bacteria that might do the job. I was wrong. I should have done more research and should not have rushed to publish this notion.

On a more positive note, The Skeptic's Dictionary should arrive in the Wiley & Sons warehouse next Friday, July 25th, and begin shipping to stores soon thereafter. I'll send subscribers a brief announcement when the book is readily available with information about ordering the book both in and outside the United States.


 2) Changes in The Skeptic's Dictionary or Skeptic's Refuge

Since the last newsletter, I


 3) Responses to selected feedback & Critical Thinking Mini-lesson: The Wason Card Problem Revisited

I received several responses to my analysis of the Wason problem. Mathematician and author Jan Willem Nienhuys wrote from the Netherlands:

I don't think that the card problem as presented is compatible with the beer over 21 problem. What would happen if you said "vowels and odds are forbidden to go together on one card" and ask someone to check whether there are cards that are forbidden. That's the beer over 21 problem. Another problem with the example is that the beer problem has a known social setting. If you made some kind of funny restriction, like 'over 22 must drink coke', it's much harder, or you can make a restaurant setting, with a completely strange restriction like 'girls (or people with a polysyllabic name) must order broccoli', then it's much more difficult, for the problem solvers must then keep an odd fact in mind while analyzing several cases. The less unfamiliar facts one has to keep at same time ready in the mind, the easier it is. (And it is quite possible that not everybody knows what's an even number or what's a vowel, or that people with slightly deficient knowledge know at most one of these concepts, you'd be surprised how deficient people's knowledge is).

I replied to Jan that, unless I'm mistaken, both problems imply that two cards are forbidden together (vowel and odd number; beer and 19-years or under). I think I will try the problem on my classes with Jan's suggested instruction and see if the results vary significantly. (I'll send him the results and he, the mathematician, can tell me whether the difference, if any, is significant!) The social setting would be part of what I'm calling the context that might be why the beer problem is easier to solve for most people. It had not occurred to me that part of the problem might be in understanding the meaning of words like "vowel" and "even," but that is a consideration that should not be taken lightly (unfortunately) and maybe I should try the test with some set-up questions to make sure those taking it understand such terms.

Jan replied:

I will be very interested in what you find. You might try variations like: if there are two primes on one side, the other side must show their product. This means that if a card shows a single number that is the product of two primes, you don't have to turn it around. If it shows two numbers that aren't primes, you also don't have to turn it around. Obviously the difficulty is that lots of people don't know what are primes, and even if they do so theoretically, some know their tables of multiplication so poorly, that they are at loss what to do when the card shows 42 or 49 or 87 or 36 or 39. Or 10.

Yikes! Jan, I teach a general course in logic and critical thinking, not math! My students would lynch me if I posed such a problem to them.

I do think that one of the problems with solving this problem (and many others!) has to do with how one reads or misreads the instructions. (For those who don't recall the exact instructions, here they are again: Four cards are presented: A, D, 4, and 7. There is a letter on one side of each card and a number on the other side. Which card(s) must you turn over to determine whether the following statement is false? "If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side."

One reader wrote:

My solution to the problem is to check all cards (or a random sample if there are a large number of them) - Sometimes it's best to see what rules apply. (Sometimes "if" means if and only if...)

This approach represents a common mistake in problem-solving: self-imposed rules. The instructions do not imply that there are more than four cards, nor does "if" mean "if and only if." (See James Adams' Conceptual Blockbusting for a good discussion on common hindrances to problem-solving.)

The reader continues:

A simpler explanation for people choosing A and 4: Given that people tend to satifice, it makes sense that many will just check the cards where they see a vowel or an even number. It's a quick solution made with the immediate data on hand, requiring no additional thought (about the implications of the statement or anything else). Classic satisficing behavior.

Whether this solution is satisficing or satificing, it's wrong.

Another reader, Jack Philley, wrote:

Thanks for a great newsletter. I am a safety engineer and incident investigator. I also teach a segment on critical thinking in my incident investigation course, and I have been using the Wason card challenge. I picked it up from Tom Gilovich's book How We Know What Isn't So. About 80 % of my students get it wrong and some of them become very angry and embarrassed and defend their logic to an unreasonable degree. I use it to illustrate our natural talent to try to prove a hypothesis and our weakness in thinking about how to disprove a suspected hypothesis. This comes in handy when trying to identify the actual accident scenario from a set of speculated possible cause scenarios.

For those who haven't read Gilovich (or have but don't remember what he said about the Wason problem), he thinks that people turn over card "2" even though it is uninformative and can only confirm the hypothesis because they are looking for evidence that would be consistent with the hypothesis rather than evidence which would be inconsistent with the hypothesis. He also finds this behavior most informative because it "makes it abundantly clear that the tendency to seek out information consistent with a hypothesis need not stem from any desire for the hypothesis to be true (33)." Who really cares what is true regarding vowels and numbers? Thus, the notion that we seek confirmatory evidence because we are trying to find support for things we want to be true is not supported by the typical results of the Wason test. People seek confirmatory evidence, according to Gilovich, because they think it is relevant.

As to the notion I put forth that it is because of the context that people do better when the problem is in terms of drinking beer or soda and age, Gilovich notes that only in contexts that invoke the notion of permission do we find improved performance (p. 34 note). This just shows, he thinks, that there are some situations where "people are not preoccupied with confirmations."

4) More Feedback

Reader Dave Harris says that he's concerned about fundraising appeals on skeptical Web sites. "For a minute," he writes, "I thought that I was looking at a TV evangelist website instead." I don't know what Web site Dave has in mind, but it wasn't mine. I'm able to cover most of my costs by being an associate. Once again, I thank those of you who purchase books from Amazon via my site. The small commission (5%) pays for my disc space and DSL connection, and helps defray the cost of books and magazines I buy in a fruitless attempt to keep up with world's folly. I don't have a staff and I don't put on educational programs and conferences. I don't publish a magazine or sponsor speakers. Others do these things and they cost money. Of course they try to raise funds. How else are they going to accomplish all the great things that they do? If you don't want to give money to the James Randi Educational Foundation, the Skeptics Society, CSICOP, or Quackwatch, that's your prerogative. But don't begrudge these folks for asking for money. They need it and, from what I can see, are spending it wisely.

Now, if you would all like to help me become a millionaire so I can quit my job and become a full-time skeptical writer and lecturer, then help me sell my book. Spread the word. Copy and distribute bookmarks. They're available in printable form here. Or make posters and put them in your churches (right!) and schools. Give the bookmarks to politicians and stockbrokers. Leave them in Gideon Bibles in hotels and motels. Give a few to your favorite bookstore proprietor. Let there be no city in the world where the SD bookmark or poster is not known to every citizen. Well, that may be a bit much, but you get the idea.


A spiritual healer named Melvyn wrote me the following broadside. He asks that I not give out his address to others "because I don't want and haven't the time to deal with every crank in the cosmos writing me. I am far too busy making people well, practicing macrobiotics, spiritual healing etc., er, the real things in life that really do work, really, because I experience them and know!" Writes Melvyn:

I appreciate your time reading this. Just think about lungwort or digitalis [foxglove] - the appearance of parts of these plants and their relationship to the healing process. And this is orthodox medicine accepting by use what was known before by appearance - logic. Or the time a friend's daughter had cystitis, and of finding out she drank a lot of orange juice, I told her to cut it out. She did. The cystitis cleared up in three days. Orange juice looks like pee - an indication of it's relationship. Just logic, or 'sympathetic magic'. Call it what you will, it works.

Orange juice may look like pee where you live, Melvyn, but here in northern California we advise those whose pee looks like orange juice to get to a clinic. I'm assuming you're talking about a urinary tract infection. That would be caused by bacteria and is usually successfully treated with antibiotics. Not drinking orange juice is good advice, however, because OJ turns alkaline in the body (not because it looks like pee). Water looks more like pee than orange juice does. I hope you didn't tell her not to drink water because that would be bad advice.

Melvyn doesn't tell us whether the girl also got antibiotics or what else she did to relieve her condition and I have a feeling he doesn't care. He's convinced it was his "OJ looks like pee" reasoning that did the trick and probably thinks it would be pointless to investigate further. He continues:

Every time I do any research your site comes up with no warning as to it being you. Such a waste of your time in producing such stuff when you have such doubts. Such a waste of other people's time in keep on finding you and the others will feed off your doubts, like a disease. That we waste time on keep on [sic] finding you. And yet you have so much to say that is useful. If only you would see the positive and not the negative, you could be a force for good. Stop stabbing everything in the back. All that you mention, that I have seen and experienced works, so why do you knock it? There isn't any logic to your stance. Just a sadness. Stop being so destructive - you are far too intelligent for such behavior. Meditate on the wonder of life and learn. Will this e-mail make any difference? With kind regards.

You bet it makes a difference, Melvyn. I'm happy to hear that the search engines are bringing up my Web pages. Maybe others will be more open-minded and learn something form my writings. Why do I knock what you know works? Because you spiritual and magical healers are full of self-deception and often do more harm than good. You encourage people to believe that if they have urinary tract infections they should avoid orange juice because it looks like pee. You are not even interested in the fact that while you may give good advice you are teaching people to think in a very dangerous way. Furthermore, you are not encouraging them to think for themselves. Because you will give good advice occasionally, maybe even quite often, some people may come to trust you when you don't know what you are talking about. Remember, even a broken watch is correct twice a day. You may have helped this girl today, but what will happen when she comes to you when she's older and wants to get pregnant. Will you tell her to eat lots of peanuts because they look like little embryos? What do you advise for baldness, coconut shells?

Melvyn wrote a lengthy reply, which I will use later in a critical thinking mini-lesson on fallacies or common errors in reasoning.


Duncan Rosie wrote from South Africa:

Thanks for your web site and the newsletter. Both are interesting and informative and, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air in the polluted ether of the internet! My other weekly dose of skeptical information/amusement comes from the Straight Dope web site.

I have a couple of comments on your Nigerian Bank Scam article: I receive these emails on a weekly basis, one interesting variation which you might not be aware of is the Lotto winnings scam which has a different story (you don t know it but you have won the Dutch/EU/Spanish lotto) but the same mechanism (to release the funds we need an account with funds to cover admin costs, transfer fees etc.).

A tiny bit of checking will punch large holes in the stories; for example, in South Africa, where I write to you from, there are no Gas or Oil Depts. The correct Government Dept is the Dept of Minerals and Energy.

We have a problem locally with the proliferation of Pyramid and Ponzi schemes, aimed at the financially unsophisticated and covering all race groups, income groups and geographical areas. We are, unfortunately, a society that believes you are not doing something right if you can t get rich quick. Our Consumer Affairs Dept (part of the Dept of Trade and Industry) does its best to shut down these scams. Some of their reports can be found on my Acts Online web site at

Keep up the good work and thanks again for your efforts so far.

We try, Duncan; we try.


Finally, on July 3rd I received this from a defender of the Q-ray bracelet.

I just wanted to let you know that I read your thoughts on this particular bracelet. I just talked to a woman yesterday who since I have known her, about four years, she has worn a brace for carpal tunnel syndrome. She had one of the Q-Ray bracelets on yesterday, which at first I didn't notice. I did notice she was minus her brace so I asked her if she had had surgery. She said no, I wear this bracelet. Well, all I can say is that it did help her, and she thinks it's a wonderful thing. Perhaps it could be all in her mind, but I seriously doubt it. Just thought you might like to know that they really do work for some people.

On June 2nd, the Federal Trade Commission charged the Q-Ray folks with making false and unsubstantiated claims. The FTC alleges Q-Ray "violated the FTC Act by deceptively claiming that the Q-Ray Bracelet is a fast-acting effective treatment for various types of pain and that tests prove that the Q-Ray Bracelet relieves pain." Why do some people believe that wearing a bracelet is a viable alternative to surgery? Once again I recommend Barry Beyerstein's little essay: "Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work."


5) News

To try to foil the spammers, I've had to change the e-mail addresses for feedback, subscribing to, and unsubscribing to the newsletter. I now post  these addresses on-line only as graphics rather than, for example, as or In the newsletter itself I now use the word 'at' instead of the '@' sign. Sorry for the inconvenience, but like most of you I am overwhelmed with spam and must make some efforts to reduce it.

The next time you hear from me it should be to let you know that The Skeptic's Dictionary is at long last published!