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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 39

March 25, 2004

In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service.--John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In this issue: A new dictionary entry, some updates, and a few additions; good news from MetaFilter and James Randi; Newdow takes the pledge; gays, religion, and marriage; religion in America; the intelligent design on the stump gains a new ally from another planet; some feedback on teaching ID in the biology classroom; a howler; did George Harrison plagiarize Alice in Wonderland; an offer to make some fast cash; and two nominees for quackery of the hour.


Since the last newsletter I've added a new entry on displacement.

I updated the Bigfoot entry.

I posted several comments about science and the Bush administration:

Statement by Union of Concerned Scientists

The Council on Bioethics

European scientists concerned about political interference

Scientists denied permission to attend conference in Cuba

Chris Mooney comments

I posted some comments on ID and evolution:

Oklahoma joins the fray

Darby, Montana

The U.S. Department of Education Gets Involved

Nice essay on evolution and science in the Gainesville Times

I posted some comments on a polio vaccine boycott in Nigeria.

I updated the Dr. Fritz entry to include some comments on the Brazilian faith healer "John of God."

I added a comment about Phil Plait getting some publicity regarding his continuing battle with Richard Hoagland.

I updated the pariedolia page with two stories: one about a man in Louisiana who found the face of Jesus in his pecan tree and the other about a Palestinian whose lamb was born with Arabic markings that look like "Allah" on one side and "Mohammed" on the other.

Finally, our friends in Iceland have begun posting translations of SD entries.


We received some very kind words on MetaFilter recently, including these from Chris Gregory:

The Skeptic's Dictionary is a wonderful resource for all sentient individuals....It's where I send people when they start telling me nonsense. It is also a jolly good read....

But the really good news is that James Randi has announced that Richard Dawkins will be speaking at TAM3 (The Amazing Meeting 3) to be held once again in Las Vegas, this time at The Stardust, January 13th to 16th, 2005. Also speaking will be Joe Nickell.


On March 24th Michael Newdow, a part-time physician and part-time lawyer, argued before the Supreme Court of the United States that the "under God" phrase in the pledge of allegiance is unconstitutional. By all accounts, he did an excellent job stating his case and answering the Justices' questions, even though he is not a practicing attorney.

The pledge, as most of you know, was created by a socialist minister. According to the completely unbiased Cato Institute,

From its inception, in 1892, the Pledge has been a slavish ritual of devotion to the state, wholly inappropriate for a free people. It was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist pushed out of his post as a Baptist minister for delivering pulpit-pounding sermons on such topics as "Jesus the Socialist."

Right. Anyway, before the rise of National Socialism in Germany, the pledge was said while raising one's arm in a gesture that resembled the typical Nazi salute. After the war, putting one's hand on one's heart became more fashionable. Congress added the "under God" phrase in 1954 as a response to the "atheistic communism" of our archenemy, the Soviet Union. Twenty-six states now require the pledge of allegiance in public schools. Many school districts, even in states that do not require the pledge, make the pledge a daily requirement. The Court has already ruled that nobody can be forced to recite the pledge. However, the question that Newdow raises is: Does requiring public school children to say "under God" imply that the state is favoring a religious belief over a non-religious belief? Is the pledge some sort of prayer?

The "under God" issue has brought out some very interesting comments from defenders of the status quo. For example, Sandra Banning, the mother of Newdow's daughter in whose name he is carrying on this battle, is quoted as saying:

What we have here in this country is what other people move here from other lands seeking. We should be proud of our heritage and history and not succumb to popular culture.

Banning is a Christian and wants to keep "under God" in the pledge. But does she really understand what she is saying? The popular culture is on her side.

Jesse Stines, pastor of the Blue Ridge Mountain Church in Elk Park, N.C. said, "I want my kids to grow up in a country that acknowledges God. This whole country was built on the principles of God." Do we really want to live in a theocracy? It is one thing to allow people the freedom to worship and believe, or not, as they see fit. It is quite another to unite religious and secular institutions, as is done in theocracies and as various terrorist organizations would like to do in their countries. The "under God" in the pledge or the "in God we trust" on our money or the swearing to tell the truth "so help me God," etc., may seem like small things to some people. But they add up. They certainly don't constitute a theocracy or make this a "country built on the principles of God." You won't find principles like those embedded in the Bill of Rights in God's principles, at least not as they are understood by most Christians. God's principles--at least as they have been put forth by most Christians--are antithetical to freedom of speech, the press, and religion, due process, equal protection of the law, and so on.

What I personally find repulsive about the "under God" phrase in the pledge is the implication that the United States has God on its side. No concept can be more dangerous than to believe that your nation is protected by God. Such a view will lead to arrogant leadership and citizenship that is overly aggressive on the one hand or too complacent on the other. If there is a God, there is no reason to believe that this nation is more likely than any other to be "under God."

In any case, it is doubtful that the Court will rule in Newdow's favor, but if it does, will there be a push for a constitutional amendment to require an "under God" pledge in all public schools, public agencies, and athletic contests? Why not?

One Nation, Under Hallmark, Indivisible - Is the God of the Pledge of Allegiance a deity or a greeting card? by Dahlia Lithwick (Slate)


Speaking of constitutional amendments, the so-called "Marriage Amendment" got a boost when President Bush gave his support to it. The proposed amendment would define marriage as the union between a man and a woman, effectively banning gay marriage for the second time. The Marriage Act, a federal law signed by President Clinton, has already defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman. The recent action seems to have inspired the Rhea County (Tennessee) commissioners, as they voted 8-0 to request an amendment to Tennessee's criminal code so homosexuals could be charged with crimes against nature. A few days and thousands of outcries later, they reversed their efforts to ban homosexuality. On the other hand, a Methodist minister went on trial in her church for being an avowed lesbian and she was acquitted. And Episcopalians recently ordained an openly gay bishop. Gay marriages, which were fashionable in San Francisco and a few other places in recent times, have stopped in most places until the courts can make some rulings. All of which brings me to the point of mentioning these things: gay marriage today is what miscegenation was yesterday, at least in one respect. It's an equal rights issue. Just as homosexuality is an equal rights issue, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June when it overturned Bowers v. Hardwick in Lawrence v. Texas. On the other hand, it's also a religious issue for many people in this very religious country, so expect the sparks to fly on this one for many decades or centuries to come.


 Speaking of religious issues, the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer has as its theme "Science & Religion 2004: Turmoil and Tensions." I found the article by Phil Zuckerman to be of particular interest. It's about the different religious beliefs and behaviors in Europe and the United States. Several reasons are given to explain why the U.S. is so much more religious and churchgoing than Europe. We are a nation of immigrants and people bring their religion with them. Religion provides some comfort and cultural continuity. We've never had a state religion, so religions have had to be very competitive. They advertise, proselytize, sermonize, and evangelize. This affects our educational system, which kowtows to religious sentiments when conflicts arise as they have in geology (age of the earth), cosmology (age of the universe), and biology (origin of species). Zuckerman writes: "Perhaps the Europeans have done a better job of conveying rational thinking, scientific methodology, and skeptical inquiry to their children than have American educators." Finally, there seems to be a correlation between the religiosity in a country and its social services. The fewer the services the greater the religiosity. I suspect the same holds true for superstition in general. Providing a great amount of social services would reduce a large amount of uncertainty in people's lives regarding employment, shelter, food, protection, education, health-care needs, etc. Stuart Vyse writes in Believing in Magic - The Psychology of Superstition: "If there is a universal truth about superstition, it is that superstitious behavior emerges as a response to uncertainty--to circumstances that are inherently random and uncontrollable" (p. 201). If so, we should see a continuing rise in superstitious belief and thus a greater need for skeptics to counteract the spiral of irrationality.


Speaking of irrationality, there is some very disturbing news regarding the status of science in this country. I've posted several comments on the Bush administration's assault on science (see Changes above). And, as most of you probably know by now, on March 9th the state board of education in Ohio approved by a 13-5 margin what is called a "Critical Analysis of Evolution" plan. An early draft of the plan made an explicit reference to Icons of Evolution, a book by Jonathan Wells, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, the energy behind the intelligent design movement. The final plan made no mention of Wells or his book, but critics of the plan say it contains many of the concepts in Icons.  It is likely that the plan will be challenged in court. Defenders of the decision call it a victory for common sense over scientific dogmatism. In reality, it is a victory for those who would have politicians deciding what is proper science. The first question in the "student reflection" portion of the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" is "Why is it important for scientists to critically analyze evolution?" We call this a loaded question in my critical thinking classes. The question assumes that most scientists haven't or don't critically analyze evolution, or that they don't realize it is important to do so. It assumes that scientists need to be reminded of both the question and its importance. To provide students with a lesson plan that implies that scientists have put forth their views on evolution without critical analysis would be ludicrous if it weren't so dangerous. Gary Daniels of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio says the ACLU is considering a lawsuit. The National Academy of Science and the science faculty of Case Western Reserve University have criticized the lesson for allowing intelligent design, which both consider to be a pseudoscientific version of creationism. Bettysue Feuer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, says that the "wedge theory" is at work here. If you teach that there is a controversy over evolution, intelligent design advocates get their foot in the door and can push their religious agenda.

Meanwhile in Missouri Rep. Wayne Cooper has sponsored legislation calling for the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution in public elementary and secondary schools. Says Cooper: "We just want people to quit passing on their philosophic bias as though it is the truth when it's not proven." He also asserts: "If we're just a piece of matter in a meaningless universe, you're going to treat yourself different than if you're a designed product." Call me old-fashioned but I can't think of anything more degrading that being a piece of matter designed to fulfill some divine being's plan. I don't have quite the admiration Mr. Cooper does for the idea of being created to worship and obey a master. This might give his life meaning but it seems demeaning to me.

Finally, this just in from the Raelians:

His Holiness Rael draws the exceptional accuracy of his scientific and humanitarian vision from the Message He received in 1973 from the Elohim, a very advanced race of human beings from a distant planet within our galaxy. The Elohim created all life on Earth scientifically using DNA (including humans in their image) and were mistaken for God, which explains why the name Elohim is present in all original Bibles. The Bible is, in fact, an atheist book describing the scientific creation of life on Earth. The new concept of "Intelligent Design" fits perfectly with this explanation of our origins. Thirty years ago the Elohim explained to Rael that human cloning coupled with memory transfer would one day allow humans to live forever on Earth. Today this prediction is close to becoming a reality, as it has been for millennia on the Elohim's planet. It is, in fact, how the Elohim resurrected Jesus, their messenger, as well as many others whom they sent to guide humanity and who now live on their planet.

I don't see why a "critical analysis" of evolution shouldn't include Rael's vision, especially since the master himself thinks ID fits with his godless religion and an atheistic Bible. Now, that's certainly an "alternative" viewpoint that you won't find in most science texts. I recommend that Ohio include it in the "Critical Analysis of Evolution" plan.

Instead of having our students spend valuable class time discussing ID and other "critical analyses" of evolution, they should be requiring them to read articles like this one from The Scientist: "A single mutation may have caused gross anatomical changes that spurred human evolution."

Evolution lesson renews intelligent design dispute By: Marrilyn H. Karfeld
Science teachers wary Fear new lessons based on religion by Crystal Harden
Area educators prepare for 'intelligent design' lessons by Jessica Burchard
Intelligent design bill unlikely to be an easy sell by Jay Janner


Jeff Stein writes: "Ive been enjoying for years. Today I read your recent posts about Intelligent Design. If I were a biology teacher, I would welcome teaching ID if I had to teach it. Id use ID to explain the difference between good scientific reasoning and religion."

Jeff, if ID isn't defeated in the courts, then plan B will have to be to use it against those who oppose the teaching of evolution. In the meantime, however, I think the fight has to be try to persuade the public that politicians shouldn't be deciding how to teach science. The likelihood that evolution is the only idea in science that hasn't been critically evaluated enough by scientists so that science teachers need to be forced to consider "alternatives," i.e., be told that maybe some things can only be explained by bringing in a skyhook like "intelligent design," seems ludicrously implausible. The scientists working in this area are most likely just as intelligent, dedicated, knowledgeable, and critical as scientists working in other areas. So, why do politicians need to require teachers of evolution to "critically analyze" this one area of science? It has nothing to do with common sense or fairness. It has everything to do with trying to bring God into the science classroom to combat materialistic atheism (or is it atheistic materialism?).

If the battle with the politicians (i.e., school boards) is lost, and it looks like it is being lost, the first response should be a court challenge where the ID movement and the disingenuous tactics of the Discovery Institute will be exposed. But, in those states and communities where "critical analysis" of evolution is being required as part of the teachers' lesson plans, it would be a good idea for teachers to use the time to discuss the politics of ID and the danger of letting a few vocal critics with a religious agenda control the science curriculum. It would be better, of course, to spend the time studying science, but that is the last thing the ID folks want.

Howler of the Day

A group of creationist anti-evolutionists who want intelligent design taught in the biology classroom call themselves Missourians for Excellence in Science Education. The group is pretty slick. They got Eli Kintisch of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to write that intelligent design is "a relatively new concept that amounts to an intellectual critique of evolution." (Actually, Kintisch's article is an otherwise fair and balanced account of the science/creationist debate.)

More Feedback

Julian Workman wrote to let me know that the quote I use from George Harrison belongs to Lewis Carroll.

Just found your site and will be having a look at it tonight [and] want to point out however that "if you don't know where your going any road will get you there" is not George Harrison's. It comes out of "Alice in Wonderland" and it was the Cheshire Cat's answer to Alice when she asked him how to get there and he asked her where she wanted to go and she said that she didn't know. So Lewis Carroll is the owner of that quote.

Actually, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Chapter VI. Pig and Pepper) reads:

'Cheshire Puss,' she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. `Come, it's pleased so far,' thought Alice, and she went on. `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'

'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.

'I don't much care where--' said Alice.

'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.

'--so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation.

'Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, 'if you only walk long enough.'

Yet, I found several places on the Internet where people attribute to the Cheshire Cat the line Harrison uses in his song "Any Road."


Fast Cash

I received the following e-mail recently with the subject heading New Business Development- Webmasters

Dear Robert,

Our New Business Development team has identified your website as a constant top performer in Google under "fast cash", and one in whom we are interested in discussing a partnership with.

comment: It's true. If you do a Google search for fast cash my Too Good To Be True page about chain letter scams comes up fourth.

We realize that the effort put forth to garner top positions in the major search engines under competitive keyword sets is an extremely labor intensive task and when you reach this plateau, it is critical that your company immediately maximizes its ROI to ensure that your pay back is optimal.

To this end SpeedDog Inc. has developed two distinct application forms for our partners ( a long version that pays you up to $10 per completed application, and a shortened version which pays up to $5 per completed application). This gives you the opportunity to split run test each form to see which one performs the best for your customer set.

Wow! How can I pass this up? Especially if it maximizes my ROI.

Apart from this we offer our partners a variety of free custom and co-branded initiatives so that you can concentrate all your efforts in marketing and SEO development. Our recently added IP tracking software shows you exactly where your customers are coming from and where your advertising dollars are being best utilized, a welcome addition to any web marketer.

Our accounts payable department reconciles with our payday loan partners every 7 days, so your money is never very far away

If you are interested in discussing how our two respective companies may developed possible synergies to maximize traffic and our customer bases to increased ROI, then we would like to set up an amiable time so that we may introduce ourselves to you.

Synergies! Maximizing my ROI and SEO! I'm hooked!

We look forward to you quick response as we are limited in the number of companies we can work with on this new initiative.

Kindest Regards,

Trent Houg
Director of New Business Development -

Well, Trent, I'll have to think about it for a millennium or two, but that bit about synergizing my ROI with an SEO almost hooked me.


Quackery of the Hour

1) The Doctor Buteyko method claims that the origin of many diseases is incorrect breathing. Dr. Buteyko opposes conventional medicine because it "mechanically tries to eliminate symptoms of an illness using drugs. It does not touch the origin of illness." This method is the brainchild of Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko of Kiev  who became inspired by observations of the breathing patterns of dying patients.

2) Brandon Bays claims that she has uncovered a means to get "direct access to the soul" and to the "boundless healing potential inside all of us." She claims that she was able to use this method to make a tumor the size of a basketball disappear without the use of drugs or surgery. She has them waiting in line around to world to learn the craft and to take one of her programs. I'm thinking of signing up for the Seduced by Enlightenment weekend, which promises "A retreat offered solely for genuine lovers of truth who long to sit in the magnifying blaze of grace and have concepts and limitations stripped away in the obliterating fire of truth." She calls her work The Journey. I'd call it something else but this is a family newsletter.


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