Table of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll


Newsletter Archives


logo.gif (2126 bytes)the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 49

November 21, 2004

"A recent Gallup poll found that nearly half of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, with a mere 13 percent saying God played no part in the process of human development."--news item

"Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent)." --news item

"Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?" --Gary Wills

In this issue:  several updates, a few revisions, and one new entry; a page for stats lovers; some feedback on Penn & Teller; new DVDs on Ghosts and UFOs from Unsolved Mysteries; a Hungarian translation of The Skeptic's Dictionary; and Consegrity quackery.

What's New in the Skeptic's Dictionary & Refuge

I've added some comments on the Dover School Board in York, PA. They're the first public school district in the nation to add intelligent design (ID) to the biology curriculum.

Not long after the move in York, the Grantsburg, Wisconsin, school board revised its science curriculum to allow the teaching of creationism.

Also on the ID front, we're still waiting for the decision by U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper who heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging a disclaimer inserted into Cobb County, GA, science textbooks that says evolution is "a theory, not a fact."

These events should be most gratifying to the Discovery Institute, which has been the main force pushing ID as an alternative scientific theory to natural selection.  Never mind that ID is no more a serious threat to natural selection than is the Raelian theory or Sitchinian theory that we were designed by aliens. I posted some comments on the assistance the ID folks are getting from journalists and added a link to an article by Chris Mooney on the role of the media in promoting fringe ideas. To be fair, not all journalists are falling for the "fair and balanced" argument, e.g., York journalist Mike Argento.

I favor Ken Miller's comment on ID: "the struggles of the intelligent design movement are best understood as clamorous and disappointing double failures – rejected by science because they do not fit the facts, and having failed religion because they think too little of God."*

R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, favors the Discovery Institute position. I posted my comments on Mohler's argument and explain why I favor Miller's argument regarding ID.


I added another item to the "What's the Harm?" page: beware of psychics claiming they need to take your money or valuables for a cleansing ritual (translation: you will be cleaned out).


Psychic detectives (PDs) are getting quite a bit of play from Court TV lately, which has brought in Dr. Katherine Ramsland to provide an online mini-book defending the use of psychics by police departments. It would be impossible as well as pointless to try to explain away each anecdote brought forth in support of the effectiveness of PDs. My own take on stories about psychic detectives is that the best explanation is in terms of apophenia and subjective validation. For example, here is a case put forth by Dr. Ramsland:

Police needed a body, but he [i.e., the confessed killer] wouldn't reveal the information, so they turned to a psychic, Greta Alexander. She said that a body had been dumped where there was a dog barking. The letter "s" would play an important role and there was hair separated from the body. She felt certain the body was in a specific area, although searchers found only a dead animal. She asked to see a palm print of the suspect—her specialty—and the detective brought one. She said that a man with a bad hand would find the body. Then searchers found a headless corpse, with the head and a wig nearby. The man who found it had a deformed left hand. There was water nearby.*

One interpretation is that Alexander got psychic impressions from some sort of other dimension (supernatural or paranormal) by some sort of mysterious process. Another interpretation is that the psychic, the detectives, and anyone else who connects the dots and gives significance and meaning to these facts is subjectively validating the psychic hypothesis in exactly the same way a sitter might validate John Edward's impressions of "father figure, big H, small dog, broken ashtray" as indicating communication from a dead uncle. The believers are seeing patterns where none exist, except the ones they create in their own minds. They aren't bothered by the stretch it takes to get from "hair separated from the body" (which covers a multitude of possible scenes) to "headless corpse, with the head and wig nearby." Certainly, head and wig near the body may be seen as a denotatum of the expression hair separated from the body. But so can a million other things.

One reason many believers don't accept this explanation is because they are impressed by the specific nature of some of the claims, which, they think, eliminates guessing or luck as a reasonable explanation for alleged accuracy. (See Gary Schwartz's Afterlife Experiments, for example.) "Deformed left hand" is not a vague generalization that could be true of many people, unlike the letter 's' or the claim that a body will be found in a shallow grave or near water. True. But "bad hand" is ambiguous. Thus, while it is possible that Alexander has clairvoyant powers and somehow peered into the future and saw something rather trivial (that the hand of the person who would find the body would be "bad"), it is also true that having a deformed left hand is just one of many thousands of items that would count as having "a bad hand."

In any case, I posted some comments about the Oxford, Ohio, police's inviting Noreen Renier to help them solve a missing-person case. Yes, this is the same Noreen Renier who predicted that President Jimmy Carter would be reelected in 1980 and assassinated on the White House lawn. Nobody's perfect, I know.


Elvis in the toastI updated the pareidolia page to include a link to an article about the eBayDiana Duyser's Mary in the cheese auction of a 10-year-old toasted cheese sandwich with the Virgin Mary's visage (or is it Madelyn Kahn?). Joe Nickell was called upon to explain to the world how it is that people can see the Virgin Mary in the discolorations of a sandwich.

Some character now has a piece of toast with the image of Elvis for sale on eBay.


I updated the Satan page to include a link to a BBC article about Satanism and the Royal Navy. I also updated the Satanic ritual abuse page to include reference to an NBC Dateline program that interviewed several adults who, as children, had been coerced into testifying that they had been abused by their parents. They now tell the court that they lied as kids. It was clear from watching them that they most certainly had been abused--by social workers, law enforcement interviewers, and prosecutors. The program noted that while the media focused on the McMartin preschool trial in Los Angeles, a much more extensive witch-hunt was going on in Bakersfield, California. In the 1980s, the office of District Attorney Ed Jagels prosecuted 46 people in eight alleged molestation rings. Twenty-two of thirty convictions were later reversed. Eight had the charges dropped and eight plea bargained to keep them from doing time in prison. One of those convicted died in prison. The rest served out their sentences. The last of the accused, John Stoll, served 20 years in prison before his conviction was overturned last May (AP News).


I updated the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) entry to include reference to a new Swedish study that "suggests that people who use a mobile phone for at least 10 years might increase their risk of developing a rare benign tumor along a nerve on the side of the head where they hold the phone." It's not an alarming study, but in the interest of fairness, I thought I ought to include reference to it. The scientific consensus still is that there is no convincing evidence that EMFs cause cancer.


I updated the Transcendental Meditation page to include a link to an article by David S. Holmes about a study which concluded that "there is no evidence that meditation is more effective for reducing somatic arousal than is simple rest." In other words, if you are trying to relax, resting works as well as meditation.


I revised the cold reading entry and added an entry on hot reading. The revision consists of an extensive concluding section on cold reading and contacting the dead. I was inspired to add this section to the entry after studying Gary Schwartz's Afterlife Experiments. In my view, Schwartz has been misled into thinking that all cold reading involves fishing for facts, finding cues and clues in interpersonal communication, guessing, or making vague statements that might be true of many people. He does not give serious enough consideration to the role of apophenia/subjective validation in cold reading. He is not alone in this common misunderstanding of how cold reading works.


I posted some comments on a test done by some CSICOP fellows on Natasha Demkina, the Russian teenager said to have X-ray diagnostic vision. The testers are called Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health and they have posted a report of the test. Andrew Skolnik, who was involved in the test, explained to me that there were many difficulties the committee faced in examining Natasha's alleged skill. These problems don't come out in the posted report. He tells me that he and Ray Hyman will be publishing a detailed account of the test and what they found out about Demkina for the Jan/Feb 2005 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. I'll say no more then.


I posted some comments about some questionable research done on behalf of the U.S. Air Force, which paid $25,000 for a report that calls for $7.5 million to be spent on psychic teleportation experiments.


I updated my vitamin supplements page to include a link to an article about the potential dangers of taking too much vitamin E.


I posted a note about contradictory studies regarding a link between working at an IBM microprocessor plant and cancer.


I updated the astrology page to include a link to an article proclaiming that 3 of 4 leading astrologers in India predicted a Kerry victory.


I updated the Atlantis page to include yet another explorer who claims to have found the fictional lost continent. Robert Sarmast claims that Atlantis is to be found off the coast of Cyprus. Others have found Atlantis in Crete, Cuba, the Andes, the Azores, the Caribbean and Ireland. Some think it is in Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, or the Sahara. Maybe Atlantis is a state of mind.


I posted a comment on Sylvia Browne's revelation on the Montel Williams show to the mother of a girl who was almost 17 when she failed to come home after work one day two years ago. Said Brown: "She's not alive, honey."


Finally, I updated the chupacabra page to include an article about some sick coyotes in Texas that are being maligned as chupacabras.


New Statistics Page

Speaking of chupacabras...the little goat suckers page is the most popular SD entry for the third week in a row. I've restored the weekly What's Hot! page, listing the ten most popular pages. We're averaging about 1.5 million page views by about half a million visitors a month on all our pages (over one thousand). Uri Geller must have been in the news last week. He jumped from #34 to #2. For those who are interested in a more detailed look at what pages are popular, take a look at the WebLog Express report generated for the week.


Richard writes

I just found your website and am really glad it's there. Thanks! We need rational thinking more than ever these days. Who would have thought scientific thought would be considered a controversial world view in the 21st Century?

A question: Having been inundated by pseudoscience and manipulated reasoning from alternative medicine providers, ufologists, creation scientists, and the like, I was very disappointed to find the Penn & Teller show using equally specious fake science to back up their point of view. I did a little digging and found their Cato Institute connection, which explained a lot.

Any opinion on this topic? I think it's important that the anti-superstitious, analytical point of view not be co-opted by equally questionable reasoning (often in support of ideology or corporate funders) that presents itself as 'skepticism.' Your piece on the 'Junk Science' page is exactly the kind of work we need.

What's your take on Penn & Teller? They are probably the best-known 'skeptics' out there today, and I'm concerned about where this might be taking the whole movement (if that's not too grand a term.) Any thoughts?

P & T might be the inner child or the primal scream of the skeptical movement. I was in the Bullshit! episode on creationism (series one) and thought it was put together in a pretty sophomoric way, using ridicule and insult to demean the opposition. But, having used insult and ridicule myself on occasion to dismiss a particularly obnoxious opponent, I can hardly justify criticizing them for it.

P & T were publicly criticized at Randi's Amazing Meeting 2 for their shoddy research on the secondhand smoke episode. [I HAVE RETRACTED THE FOLLOWING CLAIMS ABOUT THE EPA REPORT (SEE NEWSLETTER 41). I NOW BELIEVE IT IS BASED ON GOOD SCIENCE AND PROPER STANDARDS. THE STANDARDS USED BY P & T'S RESEARCHERS ARE THOSE DEVISED BY THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY AND THEIR REPUBLICAN CRONIES. THE CATO INSTITUTE IS AN ALLY IN THE ORWELLIAN WAR ON SCIENCE (SEE SILENCING SCIENCE), WHERE "SOUND SCIENCE" MEANS JUNK SCIENCE AND "JUNK SCIENCE" MEANS SOUND SCIENCE. SEE CHRIS MOONEY'S THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE.] I investigated their claims and found that P & T were right about the claim that Environmental Protection Agency report in 1993, which is used by many people to defend the claim that passive smoking causes 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year, was tainted and didn't justify the conclusion regarding the dangers of secondhand smoke and lung cancer. However, it is clear that P & T focused rather narrowly on a single issue and a single study. They did not address secondhand smoke in all its aspects, such as any connections with other diseases or the effects on children.

Their rant on secondhand smoke fits with their libertarian politics and their Cato Institute affiliation. Personally, I don't see any necessary connection between their skepticism about John Edward's claim to get messages from the dead and their libertarian political views. I don't see how this gives skepticism a bad name or has any effect on whatever skeptical movement might be going on, any more than being lousy magicians would wreck the efforts of skeptics. (I'm not saying they are lousy magicians, by the way.) WHAT MAY GIVE SKEPTICISM A BAD NAME IS BEING DUPED AS I WAS, AND AS P & T WERE, BY POWERFUL LOBBIES THAT HAVE INSTITUTED UNREALISTIC STANDARDS FOR SCIENCE AIMED MORE AT DEREGULATING INDUSTRIES THAN AT PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY. WE'VE BEEN BETRAYED BY OUR LEADERS.

I understand they did an episode in their current series which featured Bjřrn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World as providing good arguments against various environmental groups. Others have written about this and their views are worth looking at (A Skeptical Blog). (THIS BLOG DOES MORE THAN CHIDE P & T FOR BEING DUPES. IT ACCUSES THEM OF BEING SELECTIVE IN THEIR PRESENTATION OF DATA AS WELL.) Anyway, P & T are big boys and can defend themselves. They don't pretend to do serious scholarly work. They're entertainers. And they sure didn't do it for the money. They've got a bully pulpit and they're using it. I don't think they care one way or the other what you or I think about the series. Nobody is likely to mistake them for the voice of learned scholarship, though there are moments of poignant lucidity in some of the shows. For example, exposing the methods of Rosemary Althea and the lengthy contract required by James Van Praagh of his audience not to tell anybody what goes on at his shows provide some powerful evidence about the genuineness of these psychic @#$%^&s.

But by and large they make fun of people and what they think are stupid ideas. For example, in the ESP episode they go after some lame pet psychic and her clients, a guy who charges $300 to get people to draw silly pictures in the hopes that they are using psychic powers, and a very odd guy who invites people into his home to bend cutlery in the name of PK. They don't go after the very litigious Uri Geller, however. In some ways they're like the proverbial bull in the china shop. As long as we're not on the receiving end of their horns, they provide a good belly laugh while debunking pet psychics, "grief counselors," and dentists who do past life regression therapy. I don't think their libertarian work  has a significant effect on what most people think about their work as debunkers of paranormal or supernatural claims. When you back a lot of different horses, you're bound to back some winners and some losers. In any case, there is so little media that is skeptical of anything paranormal or occult, I don't think we should worry about what other kinds of ideas or arguments skeptics like Penn & Teller or John Stossel (another libertarian skeptic) are making. By the way, the Showtime folks must think the P & T show is okay: they've signed them up for a third season.


And this from John Renish regarding the passing of Betty Hill: Something none of the recent articles mention is that Hill was white, her husband black, it was the early 1960s, and they were childless--the fact that the abductors were child-sized and gray--and carrying out apparent fertility studies--certainly seems to be a bit of wish-fulfillment.

The Times (of London) did mention that Barney was black. They write that Betty Hill "was also an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a founding member of Rockingham Community Action. Her marriage to her black husband Barney was highly unusual America in its day. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 1969. In the last years of her life Hill became far more interested in tracing her ancestry than in UFOs."

Unsolved Mysteries

As an example of what the mainstream media is likely to do with a subject like UFOs or Ghosts, one need go no further than the television series Unsolved Mysteries and host Robert Stack. I was recently sent review copies of two collections of shows on these topics that have been released on DVD: Unsolved Mysteries - Ghosts and Unsolved Mysteries - UFOs. The DVDs cover some of the more interesting stories on these topics, but they are covered primarily from the non-skeptical point-of-view. In the UFO series, the vast majority of time is spent making the case for the event happening as reported by believers. A small amount of time is given to a skeptic to offer alternative explanations. Actual skeptics appear in several episodes, but eventually no skeptic appears and Stack simply notes something to the effect that "of course skeptics think otherwise." In the ghost stories, most episodes either have no skeptical moments or a token comment by Stack, usually in the form of a question: could it be explained by the power of suggestion or an overactive imagination? In short, the stories are heavily weighted in favor of the believers, with little effort being made to seek out alternative explanations. Frankly, I prefer the P & T episode on ghosts (which is a bonus episode on their DVD). They do a thorough investigation of two ghost hunters who authenticate a hoax ghost sighting in a parking lot. The Robert Stack volume on ghosts has more interesting and complex stories, but minimal effort at skeptical analysis.


Szkeptikus szótár magyar nyelven

A Szkeptikus szótár a címen elérhető Skeptic's Dictionary magyar nyelvű változata. A szótár Robert T. Caroll szellemi tulajdona, és szerzői jogokkal védett.

I have no idea what that says, either, but it comes from the computer of Lovasi Péter, who has volunteered to translate The Skeptic's Dictionary into Hungarian. Besides English, this will make eleven languages for the SD online. A twelfth language, Russian, will be available in a print version only. For those of you who understand Hungarian, take a look at Lovasi's effort. At last check, he had over 50 entries translated.

Quackery of the Minute

Consegrity is this minute's winner. This is the brainchild of a retired physician, Mary A. Lynch, M.D., and Debra Harrison, a massage therapist. Lynch is a graduate of Georgetown University Medical School who specialized in orthopedics and Sports Medicine. Harrison is a graduate of the Myotherapy Institute of Utah. In case you're wondering, myotherapy is a method for relaxing muscle spasm, improving circulation, and alleviating pain. The therapist applies finger pressure to “trigger points,” usually in the muscle tissue or area surrounding joints. The success of this method, developed by Bonnie Prudden in 1976, depends on the use of specific corrective exercise of the freed muscles."

Anyway, the folks from Consegrity tell us that this is a new word that "encapsulates" CONsciousness awareness; tenSEGRITY of the body — the ability to withstand tension and pressure; and CONsilience — "the ALL KNOWING aspect of us." They have a very lofty mission:

We choose to create an opportunity to provide personal growth, performance and expansion of Awareness that we are all ONE. By observing what works and letting go of that which no longer serves us, we can, each and everyone, bring Order to Chaos, Unity to Mind/Body/Spirit and awaken to a planet reborn through remembering Who We Really Are.

You might think they are just a bunch of pragmatists hiding behind some mumbo jumbo, but you'd be wrong. What they have found by observation is that what works is believing that our trillions of cells will repair and rebuild themselves forever "if the environment around the cell stays clean and clear."

However, as we live life, our cells are exposed to physical, emotional, spiritual, inherited and/or environmental trauma. Between the two cells (see picture ), you can see the energy of accumulative trauma represented by the dots. When this energy satiates the cell to a certain point, communication is lost, tension builds and the cell undergoes a loss of tensegrity (the ability to balance tension and compression)....If the accumulative energy in the connective tissue is removed, the cell reverts to normal, the DNA unlocks and healing occurs. Clearing this extraneous energy is what Consegrity supports.

What we need to live forever, I guess, is to clear out "extraneous energy" that is trapped between our cells. I get it. Consegrity is another form of energy medicine! I'll have to revise my article on the topic to include it. Consegrity looks more promising that chakra healing because the dots in the picture prove there is something real to this energy trapped between cells. Plus, they have testimonials. Who needs more evidence than that? It works. And you can become a certified Consegretist by taking a six-day course for $1,500. Maybe they are pragmatists after all.
[thanks to Daniel Tsadok]


You can purchase your copy of The Skeptic's Dictionary online from or from your local bookseller. The perfect Thanksgiving gift!


Click to order from Amazon