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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes)Newsletter 34

December 1, 2003

"I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong."  --Richard Feynman

In this issue: Greek translation of the dictionary underway; two new entries and a few changes; a few awards for pseudoscience, chutzpah, and gullibility; some comments on religion and medicine; another laundry ball; a complaint and a thank you; a new Penn & Teller Showtime event; and some end-of-the-year reflections.

Changes to the Web sites

George Moustris has begun posting Greek translations of Skeptic's Dictionary entries. George is a Ph.D. candidate at the National Technical University of Athens, where he is working in the intelligent robotics and automation laboratory. He believes that the translation will help spread skeptical reasoning in the .gr domain. I hope so. I am very grateful to George and the other translators who have volunteered their time to bring The Skeptic's Dictionary to a wider international audience.

The Portuguese Web site has moved to

Two new entries to the dictionary have been added: magical thinking and the autokinetic effect.

I posted a commentary on George Barna's claim that, based upon the results of his latest poll, morality continues to decline. His ideas about how to measure morality are very different from mine. I also posted a commentary on a very irritating article by Libby Copeland of the Washington Post about pet psychic Sonya Fitzpatrick.

I added the following paragraph to the entry on the law of truly large numbers (coincidences):

Carl Jung, like many people who have experienced an uncanny pairing of events, did not think such happenings are mere coincidence. He developed  the notion of synchronicity to explain "meaningful coincidences." He described synchronicity as an acausal principle that links events having a similar meaning by their coincidence in time. However, if you think of all the pairs of things that can happen in a person's lifetime and add to that our very versatile ability of finding meaningful connections between things, it then seems likely that most of us will experience many meaningful coincidences. The coincidences are predictable and we are the ones who give them meaning. Given the fact that there are billions of people and the possible number of meaningful coincidences is millions of billions, it is inevitable that many people will experience some very weird and uncanny coincidences every day.

The revised mini-lesson on fallacies is finished.

There were two additions to the New Books page: Consciousness: An Introduction by Susan J. Blackmore (Oxford University Press 2003) and Psi Wars: Getting to Grips with the Paranormal by James E. Alcock (Editor), Jean Burns (Editor), Anthony Freeman (Editor) (Imprint Academic, 2003).

There were several additions to the readers comments files: the Rorschach, the argument from design (much ado about chance, contingency, and speculative probabilities), homeopathy, and the ganzfeld experiments.

I'm experimenting with the homepage. Let me know what you think. Look in the upper right hand corner under What's New. I've added a link to an article or site of interest (e.g., the JFK assassination, my homage to Margaret Singer). Beneath that is a "Sample the SD" link to one of the 400+ entries in the Skeptic's Dictionary. I plan to change the links once or twice a week.

And, sadly we add one more name to the In Memoriam file: Margaret Thaler Singer.

Pseudoscience of the week award

Andy Ross turned us on to Computer Clear® from a company in East Sussex, UK, called Electronic Healing. Computer Clear is a CD for your personal computer that has "over 34,000 different homoeopathic type remedies" that it runs quietly in the background while you compute. Computer Clear is said to be "a subtle energy balancing software programme" that protects the computer user from "harmful electromagnetic radiation discharged from your screen and into your body." Check out their Kirlian photography "proof" of the healing power of their CD!

Chutzpah of the week award

Somebody is promoting  a CD and a book by Joel Engel that teach how to do graphology at home.  Fair play to them. However, one of the promoters wrote me the following note:

In order to bring the product ... to a wider audience, I would be grateful if you would post a link to our site on your reputable site.

Of course, if I did, my site would no longer be reputable, but never mind the minor details.

The author of the not to me said she'd be happy "to reciprocate, and place a link to your site on ours, if you would like."  She requested a copy of my "icon or logo" and wrote that she was attaching a graphic .jpg file with logo for my use. (It was actually a .gif file, but no matter.) \She said she was looking forward to hearing from me. I have no idea why. For the incurably curious, these efforts may be viewed here.

Gullibility of the week award

Duncan Gill referred us to an article in The Australian about a man in India who claims he hasn't eaten or taken a drink in 68 years, a veritable inediate. Prahlad Jani also claims he hasn't gone to the bathroom in all those years. The story claims that Mr. Jani (whose name means Lying Through My Holy Palate) was put under round-the-clock surveillance at a hospital. Neurologist Sudhir Shah (whose name means I Am Too Smart to Be Fooled) said Jani was under watch for 10 days with a closed-circuit camera running and they didn't see him eat or drink anything or go to the bathroom. The story was sent to The Australian by "correspondents in Ahmedabad, India" Ahmedabad means City of the Credulous and is the commercial capital of the western state of Gujarat (which means Gotcha!). When The Australian was contacted and asked if they had verified their sources' claims, they replied: "No. Why do you ask? It could be true, you know." Skeptics accuse Jani of surreptitiously sucking in prana through his nose ring.

The award must be shared with the BBC, CNN, Der Spiegel, China Daily, and the Hindustan Times. All report that Jani says he survives without food or water because of a hole in his palate and that his followers call him "mataji" or goddess. He also says he has lived in caves since he was eight, so how he attracted a following is not known, nor is it clear how a man who lives in caves and doesn't eat grew in size from a child to an adult as if he were an eater.

reader comments (11 May 2010):

Dear Sirs,

I am a skeptic and a strong atheist. This feedback refers to the report on Prahlad Jani. I, too, do not believe such stories; there are many in India.

What I object to is the language used in the report. The meaning of names (given in brackets) is wrong and in very bad taste. There is no need for such ad hominems (if my English is correct). Given below as the instances:

Mr. Jani (whose name means Lying Through My Holy Palate): Mr. Jani's first name is Prahlad. It is the name of one of the greatest devotees of Lord Vishnu in hinduism, and it does not mean 'Lying Through My Holy Palate'. Prahlad possibly means 'first born'.

Neurologist Sudhir Shah (whose name means I Am Too Smart to Be Fooled): Sudhir means 'one of great patience', it does not mean 'I Am Too Smart to Be Fooled'.

Ahmedabad means City of the Credulous: Ahmedabad was founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmed Shah and is named after him.

Gujarat (which means Gotcha!): Gujarat is possibly derived from the name of a hephthalite tribe (White Huns), whom the Indian chroniclers called 'Gurjaras'. "Chinese chronicles they were originally a tribe living to the north of the Great Wall and were known as Hoa or Hoa-tun. Elsewhere they were called White Huns. (

It is good to be a skeptic, but it is not good to be a cheap stake skeptic. With regards,

Yours sincerely,

Amar Nath Reu

RTC replies: Thanks for the "corrections." Humor is a matter of taste. What I find funny, you find insulting. Fair enough. Making fun of names may be in bad taste, but it is not a logical fallacy (as the ad hominem is).

For more on Jani see Open-mindedness and Skepticism and Dr. Sudhir Shah and Prahlad Jani.

Religion and Medicine

The November 10th cover on Newsweek featured a woman in hospital garb, hands clasped over her chest, and eyes aimed heavenward. The focus of the cover story was God & Health - Is Religion Good Medicine? Why Science is Starting to Believe. Believe what, you might ask? Newsweek claims there is persuasive evidence that attending religious services “promotes a longer life.” This claim is apparently inferred from the fact that, on average, people who attend religious services live longer than those who don’t, even after controlling for social support and healthy lifestyle. Although only Christians were in the study, epidemiologist Lynda Powell thinks the findings “should apply to any organized religion.” Maybe. But would the findings apply to those of us who don’t belong to any organized religion? She doesn’t say.

Dr. Richard Sloan of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center says that “By suggesting that religious activity promotes health, you also imply the converse, which is that bad health is associated with insufficient devotion and insufficient faith.”* The evidence for that implication is lacking. 

Personally, I think the evidence is near zero that such things as praying or meditating can stop cancer or diabetes, or that praying for people can have any effect on acute illnesses. 

There is evidence that stress hinders recovery from illness and can negatively affect the immune system. There is also evidence that a sign of reduced stress is a lower heart rate and lower blood pressure. Pills can produce this effect. So can meditation, chanting, or other repetitive muscular activities such as knitting, crocheting and needlepoint (See the Relaxation Response at the Mind/Body. Medical Institute at Harvard.)

 Even more interesting, I think, is the fact that 70% of Americans say they pray often for the health of a family member. And 84% think that praying for the sick improves their chances of recovery. The vast majority of Americans do not think religion and medicine should be separate. I am in a minority. I don’t care about my physician’s religious beliefs. I only care about his or her medical beliefs and abilities. If my physician asked me if it would be all right if she prayed for me, I’d say, “sure, if it makes you feel better.” Anyway, it’s never been an issue, not even when I was admitted to a Catholic hospital for surgery. I vaguely remember the admissions form having a question about religion or chaplains, and there being a box for me to indicate ‘none’. Whether anyone prayed for me behind my back, I can’t say.

 Richard Sloan thinks that religion is a private matter. He doesn’t think it is ever acceptable for doctors to pray with patients. He says his biggest concerns in this area of religion and health are “manipulation of religious freedom,” “invasion of privacy,” and “causing harm.” “It’s bad enough to be sick, it’s worse still to be gravely ill, but to add to that the burden of remorse and guilt for some supposed failure of religious devotion is unconscionable.”

 I think Sloan is wrong. Even though religion is a private matter, a significant majority of people practice it publicly and not just in buildings on days of worship. Religion is a major factor in the emotional life of many people and therefore can be a significant factor in a person’s recovery and well being.  

I don’t think this is one of those areas where there should be too many hard and fast rules that cover all situations. There are bound to be awkward moments. What should an atheist doctor do if a dying Christian asked him to pray with her? What should a Jewish doctor do if a Muslim asks her to pray with him? There may be some times when a doctor and patient know each other well enough for the doctor to ask the patient if he’d like it if they prayed together. For a doctor to ask a patient who is a total stranger if he’d like to pray with you, when the patient has given no indication of any interest in praying, is certainly crossing the line. 

While Sloan says he doesn’t answer when asked if he is a religious person, I think it might be an appropriate question to ask a patient. If she says no, the physician has no business going there. But if she says yes, then why not try to discover whether the patient will feel better if religion is brought into the equation?

 My guess is that many physicians get a reputation for being religious and that is why many people go to them. Personally, if my surgeon leaned over before surgery and said, “Let’s pray,” I’d be off the table and out the front door before he could say “Amen.”


Tristram Wyatt of the UK writes:

I've not been able to find a debunking of the 'aquaball' not least because like everything else in the world it includes chemicals but claims 'no chemicals'. This is in the UK but I imagine it is in the USA too.

The aquaball, from 21st Century Health Products, makes unsubstantiated claims similar to dozens of other laundry products. It promises to save you money, protect the environment, and get your clothes cleaner than clean by a very scientific sounding process. The aquaball ad says it

cleans by releasing ionised oxygen, which increases the PH level of the water in your wash and activates the water’s molecules. These then penetrate deep into the fibres of your clothes lifting dirt away without damaging the fabrics.

 Pretty technical, eh?

The ad goes on to say that you can get 120 washes for £14.95 (that's about $25 or  $0.20 per wash). How good is that?

Anyway, some time ago I wrote an article in my Too Good To Be True pages about these devices. Judging by the picture of the aquaball in the ad, it is the reincarnation of the CW-10 Laundry Ball. To see pictures of two dozen of these devices, go to

On another note, Pete Charlton writes:

I have been reading the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter for some time. In general, I enjoy it thoroughly. And I agree with much of the content. I might be characterized as a practicing but not proselytizing skeptic. There are two recurring newsletter subjects with which I have some issues. The "Book": Personally, I feel that the promotion and comment is getting a little too self-aggrandizing and is more than is necessary. I am happy that you did the book and will eventually acquire it. I hope it sells well for you but I don't need to know every breathless thing that is occurring in its launch and afterlife.

 Bright(s): Aligning with or creating a category of advocates some of which share common thoughts and feelings is a bad move, in my opinion. Personally, I feel that a true skeptic reads, sees, considers, acts and responds independently. Aligning with a group may be enjoyable socially and perhaps beneficial politically, but inevitably those that do must lose some degree of their independent thought and convictions to join the rest of the sheep in the flock. I would no more identify myself as a "bright" than I would as a "liberal" or "conservative" or "wuss" or any other amalgamation. To do so means that I must inevitably compromise my standards to fit into the overall thrust of the organization. While it is certainly nice to associate casually with those who in some degree are in agreement with my personal view of the world, I would find it difficult to lose my independence of thought by joining a formal or informal group that had an agenda. My skepticism of the actions of any group is even more pronounced than that which I have of individual thoughts of others. This is not to say that I am a cynic. The cynic is the dark side of a skeptic.

The "Book" Mr. Charlton is referring to is The Skeptic's Dictionary, which he failed to mention is available at your local bookstore, from, or from several other on-line sources. I won't say any more about it except to mention that it received a very favorable review from Roy Herbert of New Scientist.

And this from Barry Karr, Executive Director of CSICOP in response to my wondering aloud whether CSICOP thought the Albuquerque conference on hoaxes, myths, and manias was a success:

Just a little note. There were just under 300 people at the CSICOP conference [in Albuquerque]. And yes, overall, we think it was a great success. Thank you again for taking part!!


It's a pretty sad commentary when we get elated over the fact that a school board took the courageous step of requiring biology texts to have biology instead of religion in them but that's what we're doing over the Texas textbook vote. It's a sad day when scientists are called dogmatists because they won't allow a dogmatic religion to replace science. What is really sad is that other states have given in to the Discovery Institute and their claim that intelligent design is a scientific theory and a worthy competitor to natural selection.


I received a call from Kevin Barry, whose production company put together the Penn & Teller Showtime series Bullsh!t, about being in the second series. They want me to be in an episode about Christmas. I have no idea why. They're doing an episode on The Press and I'd much rather be in that one. If you're wondering why, take a look at one of the 21 files I've posted under Mass Media Bunk.

They've already included John Gray in an episode on True Love. I suppose so they can bash him later in an episode called BSU (Bullsh!t University), which will be about bogus degrees. Gray and his ex-wife Barbara De Angelis, also a relationship guru, got their doctorates from Columbia Pacific University (CPU), which was shut down by California state officials several years ago. CPU “graduated” over 7,000 students with mail order degrees. “Records showed that most faculty members who sat on students’ doctoral committees did not have degrees related to the field of investigation.”*  A judge called it a "giant scam" and a "diploma mill." CPU had been operating without state approval since June 1997. According to an Associated Press article in the Sacramento Bee,* the state had been trying to shut down the school almost from the day it opened, saying CPU "had virtually no academic standards." Another graduate of CPU was mentioned in newsletter 30: Dr. David R. Hawkins who refers to himself on his web site as "a nationally renowned psychiatrist, physician, researcher and lecturer." He publishes his own books from an outfit he calls Veritas Publishing.

Perhaps Penn & Teller will also feature Dr. Francine Shapiro--the creator of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy--whose doctorate came from the now defunct and never accredited Professional School of Psychological Studies. In any case, P & T won't be the first to investigate diploma mills.

In case you're wondering, I got my Ph.D. some time in the last century from the University of California at San Diego, which, as far as I know is accredited and still has high academic standards. Don't get me wrong. I don't think you need a degree to demonstrate your intelligence or your talent. James Randi is certainly the intellectual equal or superior of most Ph.D.s I've met. He's certainly my superior. What I don't like are people who call themselves "Doctor" after buying a degree and then trying to use that degree to give credibility to their "weird" ideas. On the other hand, there are certainly many people with "legitimate" PhDs or MDs who are peddling rubbish, but my lawyer tell us not to mention them by name.


The past year has been a very good one for me. I got to meet two of my heroes, James Randi and Ray Hyman. Even better, I was introduced as a speaker by each of them: by Randi at the Amazing Meeting in February and by Ray Hyman at the CSICOP conference in October. In between, The Skeptic's Dictionary was published. (Sorry, Pete!) But the highlight of the year for me--as a skeptic--was the few days I spent in Oregon at the Skeptic's Toolbox. I think my appreciation of this workshop is evident in my report. This is a don't-miss-event and will be offered again next August.

Speaking of The Amazing Meeting. Number II will be held next month in Las Vegas (Jan. 15-18). I hope to see many of you there. This event should prove to be very entertaining and enlightening.


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