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Robert Todd Carroll

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Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 4

June 19, 2002

Subscribers 575

(Past issues posted at



      1)   Skeptic's Dictionary, the book
      2)   New entries in the Skeptic's Dictionary and Refuge 
      3)   Responses to selected feedback
      4)   Translations of the SD
      5)   Weird stats
      6)   Books we're reading
      7)   News


 1)      Skeptic's Dictionary, the book

While revising the Skeptic's Dictionary (SD) for publication, I reviewed two books with similar topics: The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (Facts on File, 2000), edited by William F. Williams, and The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena - Mysteries and Curiosities of Science, Folklore and Superstition (Rough Guides Ltd., 2000) by John Mitchell and Bob Rickard, founder of Fortean Times. The former I found nearly useless, except for one article on the Wild Man of Borneo. As I approached puberty in the late 50s, I experimented with various hair and dress styles. My mother often told me I looked like the Wild Man of Borneo. I thought it was a figure of speech. Little did I know that in the 1880s an actor covered himself with tar and horsehair and posed as the Wild Man of Borneo in San Francisco's Barbary Coast district (Market Street). The civilized actor nearly died from the tar closing up the pores of his skin. Tar solvent saved him but ended his wild man farce. He then started a new career where people paid to hit him with a stick. This career allegedly ended when he foolishly allowed boxing champion John L. Sullivan to take a whack at him. His stage name seems fitting: Oofty Goofty.

Others have reviewed this alleged encyclopedia of pseudoscience, so I won't bother you with a lengthy commentary. I'll just mention that on the back cover it calls acupuncture, homeopathy, and therapeutic touch "serious practices moving forward into formal science." Yet, there isn't even an entry for therapeutic touch.

The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena, on the other hand, is worth reading, especially if you are a fan of Charles Fort or the Fortean Times. It's divided into twelve topics such as "Wild Talents," which includes entries on fire-walking, the stigmata, levitation, incorruptibility, and "miraculous provisions." The authors are unabashedly unskeptical, however, and really do believe in paranormal and miraculous explanations of things, despite the title. The value of the book--at least for me--is to see the wide range of weird things people believe in and their incredible gullibility. The book is also well-written and contains hundreds of reproductions of photographs and illustrations from the Fortean picture library.


 2) New entries

I've added an exchange with an Australian Ph.D. on the enneagram and the social sciences.


Readers have wondered why I haven't put up entries on Spiral Dynamics ("Tracking the emergence of human nature since 1978"), Ken Wilber, and the MOLE Programmable Detection System (the latest incarnation of the Quadro Tracker and the DKL LifeGuard). I can safely say that the MOLE doesn't work. Sandia Labs tested it for explosives detection and it failed to perform better than chance.

As for Spiral Dynamics, the jury remains out on that one until I can study it more thoroughly.

Ken Wilber's publisher describes him as "perhaps the most comprehensive philosophical thinker of our times." That's not much of an endorsement, if you think about it. Perhaps he is. Perhaps he isn't. (Q. What is the difference between nothing and virtually nothing? A. Something.) Yet, I must confess that I don't think I've ever heard of Wilber before now. I did find an interview with Wilber that makes me wonder if I would be able to understand him should I ever read one of his many works:

I would like to point out that a generalized type of New-Age belief is very appealing, not only to the prerational purple and red waves (magic and mythic), but also to the green meme (or the pluralistic stage of development), simply because this pluralistic stage is marked by its strongly subjectivistic stance. The green meme is around 25% of the adult population in America and Europe, so this part of the subcultural island is actually more like a huge continent, which both Habermas and I are doing our best to transcend.*

I think I would have to believe in reincarnation to seriously claim that I will get around to reading him soon.


 3) Responses to selected feedback

I received the following e-mail from someone I'll leave unnamed:

Those who have personally experienced phenomena, you dismiss as "bunk"? Is it that they are liars? Or simply deluded?

I ask because I myself have experienced numerous episodes of so-called "bunk" (from precognitive dreams to telepathic perceptions) which cannot be explained in any manner other than the "paranormal." I, of course, exclude all episodes which might possibly have other explanations, regardless of my impressions.

Am I a liar?

comment: I have no idea whether you are a liar, but I feel confident in saying you are confused. What does it mean to say that you've had experiences that can't be explained as anything but paranormal, except for the ones that can? You're begging the question when you claim there can't possibly be any explanation but a paranormal one for an experience.

Further, what degree of "proof" would be acceptable to you? What would you need to see/read/hear to accept, say, life beyond physical death? My guess is that there is NO degree which would alter your biased view, and in that sense, you are as deluded as those for whom no proof can convince them such a thing is false.

comment: All I would require would be for one or two people I know are dead to start communicating with me. For example, if my mother's face appeared in my Wheaties and she started scolding me for being an atheist, I'd become a believer. I'd probably be committed, but I'd still be a believer.

I totally agree that skepticism is a good thing, that there are countless frauds in the world (in all areas), but when "science" comes to mean a set of inviolate dogmas immune to honest, serious inquiry of certain "hot button" issues rather than an open, skeptical approach to proving or disproving in an objective manner, it can no longer be considered "Science."

comment: We are in complete agreement here. However, I suspect you think that since most scientists consider paranormal research a waste of time, that they are not really doing science. I disagree. Paranormal researchers are not persecuted. They are free to do their work and publish their results. If they are unable to convince the vast majority of scientists to take them seriously, it may be because they don't have anything serious to take.

What if I were to say to you, "Do you think it possible that there might be a large primate as yet undiscovered by Science?" What would you respond? Perhaps? Even the Mountain Gorilla was not officially discovered until the 1920's? I am open to the possibility until it is disproved.

comment: What does that mean? Open to the possibility until it is disproved? No one can disprove the existence of clairvoyance or other paranormal phenomena. I would never deny the possibility of the paranormal. I would argue that given all the evidence that is already in on the issue, the probability of paranormal phenomena is negligible.

What if I asked you if you though Bigfoot might exist? How might your response differ? "Oh, bunk! Bunch of idiotic nonsense!" (My best guess, here; only you can know for sure.)

comment: My thoughts on Bigfoot do not require clairvoyance to determine.

Point being, the two possibilities are essentially the same; only the perception that one is "science" and the other "myth"/"magical" separates the two.

For myself, I choose to remain skeptical but open to ALL possibilities, no matter how seemingly improbable, until they are disproved. If the current Institutionalized Science would do the same, we would all benefit.

comment: I doubt it. Some possibilities are inconsistent with things that are highly probable. What advantage is there to suspend judgment on just about everything just because a contrary position is possible, even if unlikely. Of course we should remain open to all possibilities, as long as they aren't contradicted by probabilities. You may not have stolen that watch in your pocket. It may have miraculously teleported itself from the jeweler's case to your pocket. We may never be able to disprove your claim of teleportation. But we should reject your claim because it is improbable. Neither science nor common sense would benefit from being open to all possibilities, no matter how improbable, until disproved. The only ones who might benefit from such thinking would be those guilty of crimes and their attorneys.


A reader from Nevada City, California, wrote about a little unscientific study he and a friend did.

I have an observation about New Agers that may interest you. I live up in Nevada City, a lovely town which is nonetheless a veritable beehive of New Agers. (I've had many people tell me they were "directed here" by a higher power.) Two years ago, a friend and I did a little research which, though quite limited, was still quite interesting. We went around to all the bulletin boards in town and studied all the New Age fliers posted (fire-walking seminars, past-life therapy, aura studies, etc.) We jotted down all the key points of all these things and discovered that the two themes that appeared in the vast majority of them were "empowerment" and "healing." These terms, or variations thereof, appeared in well over 90% of all the fliers. Our inevitable conclusion was that people attracted to these seminars/lectures/meets/etc., by definition, must consider themselves the opposite of "empowered" and "healed"; namely, "weak" and "sick." We've also discovered that the VAST majority of participants (I'd say at least 5-to-1) in these events are women. The questions that arise in my mind from this are: (1) Does the still-lesser status of women in our culture motivate those with low self-esteem to "elevate" themselves to an (illusionary) position of power and health? (2) If not, are women's brains hard-wired to be more reliant on supernatural/non-rational explanations than men? Any thoughts?

comment: I'll leave speculation about hard-wiring to the evolutionary psychologists, and the psychologists can handle the assumption that women (and men) who seek New Age spiritual life-guides suffer from low self-esteem. But I will say that your little exercise confirms what any viewer of Oprah already knows. The focus on power and healing is right on the money. If you want to write a can't-miss book and appear on Oprah, write one called Healing Power or The Power of Healing or Power Healing, or some variation thereof. lists 476 books under "healing power."

What motivates people, especially women, to seek empowerment and healing through New Age spiritual movements? Maybe it's low self-esteem, but it may have something to do with what's available to them that requires minimum risk or investment while promising maximum fulfillment. If mainstream culture is debasing, demeaning, humiliating, weakening, sickening, threatening, etc., then alternative culture may look more promising, especially if promoted by cheery, feel-good, optimistic, confident folks who portray themselves as eternally happy and completely self-fulfilled.


4) Translations

In my first newsletter, I mentioned that  the Japanese and Spanish translations of the SD have disappeared from the Internet. I was wrong. Sort of. Remember  the WayBack Machine, mentioned in the last newsletter? I found an archived copy of the Spanish translation of the SD at the WayBack Machine. Also, Luis Alfonso Gámez of ARP (Society for the Advancement of Critical Thinking), the Spanish skeptic's organization, has contacted me about a group of volunteers ready to do a Spanish translation. So, we will soon have a full translation up in Spanish.

I also found an archived copy of the Japanese translation and posted it as well.

5) Weird stats

Since moving to Yahoo! Geocities last April 10th, there have been about 930,000 hits on SD html files, an average of about 13,500 per day. There have been about 60,000 hits on the Skeptic's Refuge (SR) html files, an average of about 850 per day. These stats do not include the hits on the Homepages, What's New page, and the Table of Contents page. Mass Media Funk is the most popular SR page. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® is the most popular SD entry, averaging over 400 hits a day. (Leroy: Velikovsky gets about 25 hits a day.)

Most of the traffic seems to be coming via Google.


6) Books we're reading

Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press has convinced me that I have not been skeptical enough regarding the mass media. Those who have read my chapter on Sources in Becoming a Critical Thinker will probably find this hard to believe, but it is true. Buzzsaw validates many of the claims I make about the mass media, but even this hardened skeptic was sickened by some of these stories about trying to get stories published.

7) News

John Renish may now be blamed for any errors in the SD or SR. John is my new editor, another volunteer trying to keep me intelligible. I have been very fortunate to have had two others who gave of their precious time to read my work carefully, and offer corrections and criticisms. Richard Herren was my first editor. Rich drove me to find a consistent voice and to try to define my audience more clearly. He gave up a career in radio and went back to school to study computer science. Tim Boettcher was my second editor. Tim works in computer science and was relentless in finding even the smallest of errors, forcing me to be more careful and attentive to details. He once described himself as "a right-wing redneck, fanatical Christian fundamentalist." Given our fundamental differences, I was amazed that he would help me at all, much less do yeoman work editing for several years before moving on to more rewarding pursuits like traveling to Ireland and fishing in Canada.

John Renish described himself to me as a "retired technical writer and editor," but I have found that there is no such thing as a retired editor. Editors remind me of the sentiment attributed to Thomas Edison: I can't see anything without wondering how I could make it better. My thanks to John for taking on the burden of responsibility for all errors falsely attributed to me.


David Martin writes regarding the continuing threat of terrorism:

Our President and other political leaders called for unity in the face of this crisis. They also rallied the nation to prayer and religious ritual, thus excluding tens of millions of citizens who are loyal and patriotic, but profess no religious beliefs.

Thus, American Atheists, Inc. has set up a Secular Memorials page for "Atheists, Agnostics, Freethinkers, Rationalists, Humanists and others-of-no-religious-faith" who want to participate in official, but non-religious, remembrances for the victims of September 11th.


The next newsletter will be mostly a report on the CSICOP 4th World Skeptic's Conference.