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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 59

September 29, 2005

"Look out people now, we're going to get fleeced
by a wolf masquerading as a man of peace."
--Eliza Gilkyson "Man of God"

In this issue:

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary

Two new entries have been added to the dictionary: microacupuncture and radionics. An interview I did with KXJZ public radio in Sacramento is available for a limited time on the KXJZ Web site.

Several entries have been revised: unconscious mind, teleportation, psychic, Zener ESP cards, and the chameleonic Kevin Trudeau,

There have been updates to the following dictionary entries: spontaneous human combustion, intelligent design, Matthias Rath, and homeopathy.


Earlier this month, Daniel Dennett wrote an op ed piece for the New York Times. Dennett wrote, among other things, that intelligent design (ID) may be "one of the most ingenious hoaxes in the history of science."

The proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic.

It gets better. The anti-evolutionist folks at the Discovery Institute sent out a press release recently that says, among other things, that

While the Discovery Institute opposes efforts to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, it even more strongly objects to the ACLU's Orwellian efforts to shut down classroom discussions of intelligent design through government-imposed censorship....The courts should not be used to censor scientific ideas or instruct scientists and educators in what are legitimate avenues of scientific research....The debate over evolution should be decided through scientific discussion and debate, not by gag orders imposed by the courts.

So, after you have created a controversy where there is none, you can now claim that those who oppose teaching your side of the controversy are enemies of free speech and of science itself! Never mind that the idea you are advocating did not emerge in the free-for-all debates among evolutionary scientists but came from outside the mainstream of scientific investigation, publication, and argument. Never mind that the view you are advocating is the quintessential anti-scientific viewpoint: (1) You claim science cannot now and never will be able to explain how some part of the biological world evolved; (2) you claim to have an explanation for the item science cannot explain; and, (3) you claim that your pathetic, fallacy-ridden metaphysical explanation is actually scientific.

The main goal of the anti-evolutionists is to discredit evolution. They have waged a very sophisticated and clever war against evolution. Granted, their task was made easier by the fact that about 20% of adult Americans are so scientifically illiterate they think the sun revolves around the earth once a day. If anything is Orwellian, it is the way the anti-evolutionists have convinced many politicians, school board members, and a good percentage of the general public that anti-science is science and that the anti-science is "a legitimate avenue of scientific research" and should be taught in the science classroom. It is just this side of brilliant the way the leaders of the anti-evolution (AE) movement have hoodwinked millions of people. On the Orwellian scale, the AE terrorization of evolution ranks right up there with what Republicans did to the word 'liberal' over the past thirty years. That campaign was so successful that liberals have given up and are now calling themselves "progressives." (See George Lakoff's essay "Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust." Better yet, read his book Don't Think of an Elephant.)

If anything is Orwellian, it is the notion that ID is a scientific theory that challenges natural selection. ID "researchers" have only two moves, both completely predictable and neither leading anywhere. One is to claim that something like the bacterium's flagellum can't be explained scientifically and that the best explanation is that an intelligent designer put the parts of the flagellum together. When scientists explain how the parts of the flagellum evolved and came together, the anti-evolutionists ignore the explanation and find some other scientific puzzle to declare scientifically insolvable except by appeal to an intelligent designer. This lateral process can go on for at least as long as there is life on earth. There is no light at the end of this tunnel; there is only more darkness. The other move is vertical. The anti-evolution "researcher," instead of finding more puzzles and declaring them insolvable until they're solved, can ask questions about the alleged intelligent designer. How intelligent must the designer be? Does its intelligence have to be infinite or would a finite amount of smarts be enough to pull off the task at hand? It would have to be very powerful, too. But how powerful would the designer have to be? Would it have to be omnipotent? Or, would a finite amount of power be sufficient to put the parts together? Could the designer have been designed? If so, who or what designed the designer? Will we ultimately be led by our intellectual musings to the undesigned designer? And, where did the designer get the parts? Could they have occurred naturally or would they need a creator? This vertical process is vaguely reminiscent of thousands of years of philosophical gibberish that has not led to a single item of scientific interest. Orwellian? If not, give me a synonym.

As most of you already know, there is a case in federal court involving a suit by several parents against the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board. Last October, the Dover Area School Board voted 6-3 to add “Intelligent Design Theory” to the district’s biology curriculum. A month later, the board changed its mind and instead said it would require teachers to read the following statement to all biology students:

The state standards require students to learn about Darwin's Theory of Evolution and to eventually take a standardized test of which evolution is a part. Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book 'Of Pandas and People,' is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.

The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life up to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses on the standards and preparing students to be successful on standards-based assessments.

Eleven parents, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school board for requiring biology teachers to present "intelligent design" as an alternative to the scientific theory of natural selection. The trial began September 26th in Harrisburg federal court.

Even if the ACLU wins in Dover (which they probably will), it will be a small and short-lived victory. The cry of persecution will be heard throughout the land. What are the evolutionists afraid of? Why won't let their view be challenged? No matter how anyone responds to the anti-evolutionists, their case is made: the controversy grows. If the anti-evolutionists  win the case, they win and if they lose the case they win.

A few years ago I reported on a session that took place at the World Skeptic's Conference in Los Angeles. The session featured Ken Miller, evolutionist and scientist for the plaintiffs in Dover, and William Dembski, Christian apologist for ID. I noted that the session was billed as Evolution vs. Intelligent Design and commented "Was this going to be a contest with a winner and a loser? If so, then we need no debate and should declare ID the winner. Why? Because 'vs.' implies they are competitors and the main point of the ID movement right now is to get people to believe that ID is a scientific theory that is in competition with natural selection." I stand corrected: the main point is to conjure up negative thoughts and feelings whenever the word 'evolution' is used. I now doubt that the ID folks really care whether ID is taught anywhere. (What is there to teach, anyway?) The main goal is, and always has been, to discredit evolution.

Our illustrious governor hasn't weighed in on the anti-evolution issue, but California's Superintendent of Public Education, Jack O'Connell, has: "Our state has been recognized across the country and around the world for the quality and rigor of our academic standards. Just like I will fight tooth and nail to protect California's high academic standards, I will fight to ensure that good science is protected in California classrooms." Translated: no anti-evolution here!

More on Science and Fluoridation

New Scientist recently reported that, according to epidemiologist John Ioannidis, most published scientific research papers are wrong. (How can you trust such a paper?) He doesn't "show that any particular findings are false. Instead, he shows statistically how the many obstacles to getting research findings right combine to make most published research wrong." The result is that there is "less than a 50% chance that the results of any randomly chosen scientific paper are true."

"We should accept that most research findings will be refuted," Ioannidis says.

That's my lead-in to another story. In an earlier newsletter, I commented on a controversy over fluoridation and an allegedly suppressed paper that found a causal link between fluoridated tap water and osteosarcoma. The plot thickens. Chester Douglass, chair of the Department of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, is being investigated for claiming that there is no correlation between fluoride and osteosarcoma when his own doctoral student analyzed data from Douglass’s own study and concluded that: “Among males, exposure to fluoride at or above the target level was associated with an increased risk of developing osteosarcoma. The association was most apparent between ages 5-10 with a peak at six to eight years of age.” He's being charged with attempting to falsify and cover-up his data. Douglass's critics claim that "he was editing a newsletter funded by Colgate-Palmolive Co., which creates a serious conflict of interest since Colgate-Palmolive manufactures toothpaste with fluoride." We're not told how many millions he was paid for editing the newsletter, but it must have been significant to warrant the claim of "serious conflict of interest."

In any case, if Ioannidis is right, there is a greater than 50% chance that both Douglass and his graduate student were wrong. Where this leaves us is anybody's guess.

The Psychic Who Wasn't

I received a very interesting e-mail from a woman claiming to be psychic. However, for some reason she has me confused with James Randi. She starts off her missive with the following:

My family could really use that challenge money you offer...but there's no way anyone could ever prove their psychic power to you. If I walked up to you today and told you every detail of your past you would simply say I had done my research well. If I told you your future and 98% of it came true you would say, "Lucky guess, but what about the other 2%?"

Actually, the first thing I'd say is that you don't need to be psychic to know that I don't offer any challenge money.

Your claim that no one is ever tested scientifically is ridiculous. I can't possibly be the only person that ever was. My entire 7th grade class was tested by a reputable scientific facility studying psychic phenomena back in the early 1970's, and I know they tested thousands of others. I made the first cut, not the second.

Another thing you don't need to be psychic to know is that I've never claimed that no one is ever tested scientifically. (I'm not psychic, however, and have no idea who tested these 7th graders, but it may well have been Rupert Sheldrake, Russell Targ, or Hal Puthoff.)

You are sceptical about all things psychic. I am often sceptical about scientific "proof." In this research all psychic abilities were lumped together and the same tests performed. The first test had our teacher looking at cards with shapes on them...relatively normal, but distinctive shapes. We had to mark on our paper which shape she was thinking about. I scored far, far higher than the odds of even a "lucky" guesser. The next phase of the test was supposedly involving distance. Could we do the same thing while we were in our classroom in Arizona and the cards were in the facilities back east...the Carolinas, somewhere, I think. The problem with the experiment? They didn't just add distance....the first round my teacher was looking at and concentrating on each card....the second round...they were locked in a vault...nobody was thinking about anything. The great scientists changed two variables at once and it didn't even seem to dawn on them that they had.

I admit that it's hard to concentrate when locked in vault with two variables at once.

There is nothing anyone can say that will ever convince you that there are your mind we are all either frauds, ill, or delusional.

Actually, I say that psychics are most likely frauds or delusional. You may be the exception that proves the rule.

There are fakes out there, I can spot 'em in a heartbeat. Usually, they are the ones performing in nightclubs and they are right 98 to 100% of the time. Anybody who gets everything right is doing research and running a scam, not using psychic abilities. The real psychics, and yes, we know each other when we meet, have a lot higher success rate than simple guessing, but not perfect. There are two major reasons for this.

I don't know how old you are, but if you are at least middle-aged then you remember the old days of radio. Not as many radio stations as today, not as powerful and the radios themselves weren't as good. Especially when traveling you would have to fuss with the dial, sometimes you'd get a station in loud and clear, sometimes you would get it, but it would be full of static and cut in and out, and sometimes you couldn't receive anything at all. Your reception depended on how close you were to the station, how good their transmitter was, how good your radio was, and whether or not there was any interference.

Psychic ability is the same way. How clearly the messages come through depends a lot on how clear the "transmissions" are, whether or not there is any interference and how good the receiver is.

I see. Your psi-radio receiver is fussy. That explains a lot.

The other factor is the reason why predicting the future is not, nor ever will be 100% accurate, no matter how good the psychic doing the prediction. Our lives are not predestined. The future is not cast in stone...some pre-built highway where we merely stumble along blindly. When we see the future, we see the future as it is this minute. You could do something, by choice or by accident, to change that future at any time. When we get a glimpse of the future we see what will happen if you continue on the path you are currently on. That's all.

I see. You can predict the past because it's already happened and is fixed in stone but you can't predict the future because it hasn't happened yet and until it happens you won't know what was going to happen. That's as clear as a crystal ball.

Something else that I have found with every other real psychic I've ever met... our own lives are almost completely shut off to us. Other than panic attacks when something is about to happen to one of my children, I know nothing of my own life. If I try to look at my immediate future I see a brick wall. The glimpses I get of my own future come when I'm not trying and they're stupid things that later come true exactly, but they are ordinary little things that knowing ahead of time has no benefit whatsoever. Frustrating, to say the least.

I can get the clearest, most accurate readings on total strangers that are open to the possibility of psychic phenomenon. The better I know someone the more my personal thoughts and feelings about them get in the way.

There's a lesson here. Does anyone else get it?

Why can't we predict and prevent disasters? Again, what we receive is only as good as the transmission. I have no idea why I receive what I do and it's frustrating as hell.

For three weeks beginning in mid-August of 2001 my husband and I bolted up, wide awake, at exactly the same time every morning. We would be in a panic and didn't know why. We kept dreaming about an American Airlines jet crashing into a building in Phoenix, which we knew was ridiculous, because it wasn't in the flight path and it was too short. I was filled with unease and every time I looked to the east I would see fire raining from the sky.

Wow! A folie-à-deux, synchronous dreams, and transmission problems!

Sept 11th rolled around and it all made sense - the time we kept waking up was the time of the first hijacking....the dream about the plane hitting the building, fire in the sky.....yep. Afterwards it all made sense. Before hand it was just a jumble, so what good did it do anybody? Even if we had known more details, what can we do? If you call an airline and tell them their plane is about to crash, you tend to get arrested.

It is amazing how much clearer things are once they've happened.

I don't charge for my "services." I'm picky about who I give readings to and they usually bring me a bottle of wine or flowers. I don't advertise, I don't hang out a shingle. Friends call and say, "I have a friend..." and I try to help them. My accuracy rate is about 80%.

I don't want to be the one to burst your bubble, but most studies on subjective validation tend to get the same success rate as you claim to have. It started with Forer and hasn't got any better since.

In addition to these frustrating bits of precognitive activity, I am slightly telepathic...actually, I'm just a fairly decent receiver when I'm around strong transmitters. Primarily I am psychometric. I can touch objects or people and I get...well, the best way to describe it is a slide show in my head. My other "gift," if you want to call it that, is seeing death. I can walk into a room and know who the next person to die will be. Do I tell them? No. And no decent psychic would. Why? The person would run out and do something foolish that would lead to their death. Or they would sink into depression and give up the will to live.

Or they'd punch you in the face or laugh in your face. It is thoughtful of you not to tell the nearly-departed about their condition. On the other hand, this alleged ability of yours would be very easy to test. You should contact James Randi (he's the one who has the money for psychic challengers) and I'll bet he'll set up a test. If you can walk into ten rooms of ten people each and predict correctly who's going to die next in 8 out of ten cases, I'll bet he'll give you the million dollar prize. Unless, of course, you or an accomplice are found guilty of murdering the 8 victims.

Nothing is ever definite. Anything can happen. The future can turn on a dime. If I get something specific that would help them, then I need to see a doctor, such and such a type of specialist, I'm sensing a health issue that needs to be looked into...or when you're driving on a poorly lit road late at night watch out for a dark blue alert....that type of thing. (Yes, both of those really happened and serious problems were averted in both cases).

We have your very precise and carefully chosen words for it, right?

Nothing I or anyone else will say will ever convince you. You are safe in offering money, not because you are right, but because you are stubborn. Just remember that scientists were also absolutely certain that the earth was flat, that bleeding people would cure them and they ridiculed Louis Pasteur for his absurd notion that there were organisms too small to see that were making us sick.

As the late Carl Sagan once noted, they also laughed at Bozo the clown.

Don't quite know why I wasted my time doing this. Guess every once in a while I need to preach.

I don't know why I shared your e-mail with all these nice people. I guess every once in a while I need to open the window to let the ghosts out.

Quackery of the Minute

Light Harmonics Institute is the spirit child of Linda Lancaster. Her Web site claims that she has been spreading light and energy in the name of medicine since 1981. She's the founder and principal of Keys College of Radionics. Radionics is a bit of quackery that should have died out long ago but, like some bacteria, nothing seems capable of destroying it. Believers in radionics will tell you that it's a form of holistic treatment (vibrational medicine) that helps the body repair itself. Skeptics will tell you that radionics is another example of the pernicious effects of not understanding ideomotor action.

Inquiring Minds Newsletter

The second issue of the Inquiring Minds Newsletter is now available. Inquiring Minds is an educational program sponsored by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and Skeptical Inquirer magazine - part of the Center for Inquiry International.


Derek Colanduno, co-host of the Skepticality podcast remains hospitalized due to bleeding in his brain. It's been about three weeks since he was rushed to the hospital. His prognosis remains uncertain. If good will could cure, Derek would be back broadcasting tonight.


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