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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes)Newsletter 31

October 7, 2003

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." -- Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

In this issue: I'm back! A book giveaway program; the je suis enigma; new entries and other changes on the web site; The Skeptic's Dictionary selected as a Book Club featured alternate; Netsurfer review; a few words on dictionaries versus encyclopedias; Einstein as plagiarist; Arthur Koestler and parapsychology in Edinburgh; Highway 666 revisited; and some abominations.

Well, obviously I have sent another newsletter after announcing I would cease doing so. Several subscribers wrote with excellent suggestions as to how I could lighten the burden of maintaining the mailing list and keep on producing the newsletter. I won't bore you with the details but I am ceasing most housekeeping tasks and am making some changes in the newsletter.


I hope to see some of you in Albuquerque over the weekend of October 23-26 at the CSICOP conference on Hoaxes, Myths & Manias. I'll be speaking on Friday the 24th at 11 AM.


Amanda Chesworth let me know about a wonderful program called BookCrossing. The idea is to release "books into the wild to make the world one immense library." You simply take a favorite book and leave it in a public place. Amanda released a copy of The Skeptic's Dictionary on the campus of the University of New Mexico "where a lot of students loiter. It has a stick-it note on reading Free! Pick Me Up! Hopefully some poor, deluded soul will pick it up, enjoy the read, become a skeptic and pass it on a la 'and-they-tell-two-friends-and-so-on-and-so-on-and-so-on' shampoo commercial."

According to the BookCrossing web site, all you have to do to join in the fun is: (1) Read a good book;  (2) Register it at BookCrossing (along with your comments) and get a unique BCID (BookCrossing ID number), and label the book. Then, (3) release it for someone else to read (give it to a friend, leave it on a park bench, donate it to charity, "forget" it in a coffee shop, etc.), and get notified by email each time someone comes to BookCrossing and records journal entries for that book. Go to the web site for more details. So far, over half a million books have been registered.


I received a very strange phone message recently from a person identifying himself as "William Kind from England." He said he found my philosophy "interesting" and thought I would benefit from something he called "the je suis enigma." To make a long story short--though he didn't: He left about a ten minute message--William has discovered a word and pattern game. The idea of the game is to take a word, any word, and look for any meaning you can in the letters of the word. Je suis, French for I am, reveals I Jesus, though William assured me that there is nothing religious about this enigma. He suggested that I analyze a word that is significant to me or even the word significant and I would see what he was driving at. Sign can't if I.  I guess I don't have the intelligence to see all the patterns that Mr. Kind can see, but I understand what he's doing. It's called apophenia. David De St Croix, coincidentally from the UK also, recently wrote that he thinks the inability to recognize that one is creating patterns or meaning where there isn't any "leads to, or constitutes, psychosis." I agree that it is a sign that one has lost touch with reality when one fails to recognize that creating meaning or patterns where there is none is nothing but a creative act. It is amusing, perhaps, and some people are clearly much more talented at such games than others. And if you are aware of what you are doing, the game might be a rewarding exercise. But if you take it too seriously you'll end up like Michael Drosnin, David John Oates, or Uri Geller.

Mr. Kind has indeed taken his enigma very seriously. He informed me that it is through words that the spirits of the dead communicate in a paranormal fashion with the human brain. Thus, when I see the word 'spirit,' for example, and read into it the message spit it spri iri, I am conveying some sort of message that has been directed to my brain through the paranormal from some spirit.

It would be pointless to remind Mr. Kind that finding meaning and significance where there is some and where there isn't any, and finding confirmation for beliefs, are things most humans do quite well. Some seem to do it too well and it leads them astray.

But, perhaps there is something to this after all. Look at the words Governor Schwarzenegger and what do you see? Go vern! no war zen egg. Furthermore, it was all predicted by Nostradamus!

The barbarian at the gate
gray lies in money buried
the rose of Sharon weeps
shrove Tuesday blunders war in flames.


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

Since the last newsletter I added entries on infrasound, cognitive dissonance, and hidden persuaders. I've revised the Jeane Dixon entry. I've posted my report on The Skeptic's Toolbox. And, I've posted a page on How to Get Involved in the Skeptic Movement.

Check the What's New? page for other changes.


 The Skeptic's Dictionary, the book

My editor informs me that The Skeptic's Dictionary has been selected to be a Featured Alternate in the November 2003 catalog of The Writer's Book Club (part of F & W Publications).


There was a nice recommendation in Netsurfer Books on September 30. You can read it here.


Thanks again to those of you who have made sure that a copy of  The Skeptic's Dictionary has found its way into your local library.


Ever since I began publishing The Skeptic's Dictionary on the WWW, I've had complaints that it's not a dictionary but an encyclopedia. Webster's give the following as def. 2 for 'dictionary':

a reference book listing alphabetically terms or names important to a particular subject or activity along with discussion of their meanings and applications

For 'encyclopedia' it gives the following definition:

a work that contains information on all branches of knowledge or treats comprehensively a particular branch of knowledge usually in articles arranged alphabetically often by subject

The Skeptic's Dictionary will never be comprehensive. It couldn't hope to be. The kinds of things I write on multiply like Hydra heads. For every folly uncovered, ten more spring up. Anyway, skepticism isn't a branch of knowledge, like psychology or medicine. Skepticism is more of an activity than it is a subject. It is an activity that involves a certain attitude and the application of knowledge and critical thinking skills to various topics. That knowledge includes not just knowledge of the subject matter at hand but knowledge of the kinds of perceptual and cognitive illusions human beings are prone to. That's true whether we are talking about philosophical skepticism or ordinary skepticism.

Should Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary or Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary be called encyclopedias? Maybe I should have followed the lead of Diderot. He called his magnum opus an Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of Science, Arts, and the Trades. At one time I toyed with calling my book The Skeptic's Enchiridion or the less pretentious Skeptic's Handbook. I gave up that notion for two reasons: It seemed contradictory to call an Internet book a handbook. Anyway, I couldn't spell 'enchiridion' the same way twice.

One reviewer of the book on Amazon--a physicist--quibbles that the book is not skeptical but 'fact based.' As far as I know, the two aren't mutually exclusive and I have no idea what this physicist means by 'skeptical.' Perhaps he expects a skeptic to suspend judgment on all subjects. In any case, I expect to get many more critics complaining that the book is not fact based but opinion based. These critics will especially dislike the fact that my opinion differs from theirs.

Actually, if there is one thing I wish my book had more of it is facts, especially historical facts. For example, I am currently revising the entry on homeopathy to include more of the historical background of its origin and development. (I was encouraged to do this by the critical remarks of Jan Willem Nienhuys, co-author of Tussen Waarheid & Waanzin Een encyclopedie der pseudo-wetenschappen (De Geus 2002) or, in English, Between Truth and Delusion: An Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience.)


 Responses to selected feedback

Richard Moody wrote to inform me that he is "setting up a Special Interest Group (SIG) in Mensa called the Truth Seekers in order to set up a factual basis for the charge of Capital Plagiarism against Einstein." He went on to say, "According to Christopher Jon Bjerknes in his book, Albert Einstein was an Incorrigible Plagiarist. I agree."

Why did Richard write to me? I asked him and he replied: "We could sure use a good philosopher in case you might be interested."

Maybe I'm being hoaxed. I don't know. I'll say this. If Einstein were one of my students, I'd be interested in investigating charges of plagiarism. I'm sure Mensa has some fine philosophers who what?.....make the true appear false and the false appear true? Towel off the physicists and the historians of science after a hard day of capital litigation?


Richard Cadena writes in response to the fellow who laments on Amazon that there is no love in The Skeptic's Dictionary:  "Love without evidence is stalking."


Andrew Snape writes that while reading an article in The Telegraph News he was surprised to find that the University of Edinburgh has a parapsychology unit that honors a select person (currently Robert Morris) with the title Koestler Professor of Parapsychology. The position is paid for from the proceeds of the estate of writer and critic Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). Before his death, he established the Koestler Foundation to promote research in parapsychology. Koestler thought ESP could be explained by quantum physics and he was a defender of Jung's notion of synchronicity.

Edinburgh not only has a resident parapsychologist, but a very active program. Prof. Morris has been the Koestler  Professor since 1985 and during that time he has had seventeen students complete Ph.D.'s under his supervision.

His main recent funding sources have been The Institut fuer Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg, Germany, and the Fundacao Bial in Porto, Portugal. His postgraduate students have received funding from these sources, plus the Perrott-Warrick Fund at Cambridge University, the Society for Psychical Research in London, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Bjorkheim Fund in Stockholm, the Parapsychology Foundation in New York and the University of Edinburgh itself.*

Who said there is no funding for parapsychological research?


Phil Beebe writes to inform us that the reason the states of New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah have renumbered highway 666 which runs from Gallup to Monticello to highway 491 was because too many signs were being stolen. Phil assures us that it had nothing to do with pressure to remove the "number of the beast" (Revelation 13:18)  from the public highway.



Some of you may have seen the open letter to Dr. Laura Schlesinger regarding her comments on homosexuality being an abomination (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). It turns out that there are many things that were considered abominations by the ancient Jews: shellfish; eagles, ospreys, and vultures; storks, herons, lapwings, and bats; snakes and reptiles; silver and gold; sacrificing children to other gods; serving other gods; sacrificing blemished bullocks or sheep; divination; wizards and necromancers; transvestites; making weird vows; taking back a woman you've divorced; making graven or molten images; pride; and hundreds of others things. Most of these abominations are punishable by stoning until dead, which certainly seems reasonable for anyone who would eat an eagle or shrimp, or wear the wrong kind of clothes, but unreasonable for sacrificing a blemished bullock.

Some people think this book contains the answers to all our problems.


Click to order from Amazon