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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 62

December 7, 2005

"For every complicated problem there is a solution that is simple, direct, understandable, and wrong." -- H. L. Mencken

In this issue:

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

Entries have been added on frontier medicine and healing touch. I posted a rant on asbestos and fair play.

A link to an article about a man who has recanted his claims of molestation has been added to the entry on satanic ritual abuse. I updated the intelligent design entry to include news of the latest events in Dover, PA, and Kansas.

A link was added to the Amway entry about that company's recent activity in China.

I also added a link to the Mary Kay support group on the MLM page.

The Pleiadians page was updated to include some more data on hoaxer Billy Meier.

I revised the selection bias, paraskevidekatriaphobia, and animism entries.

I also posted a few items regarding a Kansas University professor's battle with intelligent design and its defenders. (See the next section.)

Skeptics and Party Time

"Aren't skeptics party poopers? Aren't you the ones who are raining on everybody's parade?" Like other skeptics that I've heard answer this question in an interview, I lied and told my last interviewer that being rational and asking others to be rational was really good for the party. Things are so interesting when understood scientifically rather than magically. Yada, yada, yada. However, I wish I'd said the following:

Yes, skeptics are the destroyers of dreams and beliefs that many people cherish: beliefs about God, the soul, and immortality. Even our criticisms of ESP, EVP, UFOs and other non-religious notions can strike nerves that threaten the core beliefs of people. The ideas we deal with may be considered fringe ideas by us but they are core ideas to the people who hold them. We're a threat. If we're right, everything they believe in may collapse. We are party poopers. We do rain on the parade.

Criticizing intelligent design (ID) or supporting evolution, for example, is seen by many religious people as a threat to their core beliefs about the Bible. If evolution is correct, then it would not be right to persecute homosexuals or transgender persons. If the Bible is right, then there are just two sexes and the only normal sex is intercourse between a married man and his wife. If the evolutionists are right, then the variety of sexual identities and attractions found in human and other species is a fact of life, the way it is, and all identities and attractions are natural. To condemn any as 'unnatural' would be absurd, if evolution is right. Thus, evolution can't be right because it would mean the Bible-or at least the way a large number of people read the Bible-is wrong.

When a conservative Christian group like the American Family Association (AFA) calls for a boycott of Ford Motor Co. products because its leaders think Ford has a "homosexual agenda," it is just protecting its core beliefs. Anything that suggests that homosexuals or transgender persons should be treated as normal human beings with dignity and respect is a threat to the group's core beliefs. The AFA has also called for a boycott of Walgreen's drug stores and Kraft foods because of their perceived "homosexual agenda." Likewise, the Christian group known as Focus on the Family was just protecting its core beliefs when it dumped Wells Fargo as its bank because of its perceived "pro-homosexual agenda."

So, yes, skeptics are party poopers. When we attack ID and support evolution, when we defend argument and reason over traditional prejudices, or when we challenge an alleged weeping statue of the Virgin Mary and call it a hoax without even investigating it (as Joe Nickell did recently), we are seen by many people as a threat to the beliefs that define their values. A skeptic may find it appalling that grown people believe that a red mark on a statue's cheek is a miracle, but to the believer it's a validation of their other religious beliefs. Challenge the alleged miracle and you're seen as challenging the believer's faith.

Skeptics are rarely challenging isolated beliefs. The beliefs we challenge are interconnected with many other beliefs and if one of the beliefs is threatened the others are threatened also. Whether "in God we trust" is on our money may not matter much in itself. Whether President Bush sends out cards that say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas might not matter much in itself. But to many people such issues are connected to their core beliefs about God, the Bible, and Jesus. Threaten those and it's as if you put arsenic in the punch bowl. Just ask Paul Mirecki, the head of the Religious Studies Department at Kansas University, who was hospitalized recently after being attacked by two unidentified men who'd been tailgating him in a large pickup truck. The men, described as white and in their 30s, made reference to Mirecki's recent Internet rants against conservative Christians, Catholics, and Jews. The men punched Mirecki about the head and shoulders and struck him with a metal object. Who knows what the men might have done had Mirecki ranted against homophobes.

No mas!

Readers continue to ignore the announcement on my feedback page that I'm not accepting feedback on Amway, Landmark Forum, and substance abuse treatments. The Landmark Forum writers are especially annoying. Like the Amway folks, they don't like criticism. Apparently, they think I'm taking money out of their pockets by steering thousands of potential customers away from them. I even received a single page letter in a large post office envelope from a Landmark lawyer who wants to sit down with me for an hour and "correct" a few things. The last e-mail from a Landmark defender went on for dozens of lines about how perception is subjective and reality isn't what it appears to be and other mundane things that he considered to be great insights. The substance abuse writers seem to think that the fact that some people quit abusing drugs or alcohol after a treatment that any criticism of the treatment is unjustified.

Anyway, the reason I stopped taking feedback on those topics is because in each case I had received numerous repetitious letters over at least a year-long period. Of course, I am always thankful for corrections of any factual error I have made.

Homeopathic Overdose?

What are friends for, if not to bring you medicine when you're sick. The problem with New Age folks, however, is that they think everybody's sick all of the time and in need of some herb, oil, tea, juice, mineral, or vitamin to restore equilibrium, balance, alignment, harmony, or some such item. Homeopathy is no exception. J. A. writes:

Earlier today a friend of mine, noticing that I was suffering from catarrh, very kindly offered to go to the supermarket and get me something for it. Unfortunately she came back with "a homeopathically prepared biochemic remedy" for catarrh and sinus disorders - a bottle of 450 molded tablets manufactured by New Era, containing: Ferr. Phos 6X Kali Mur 6X Kali Sulph 6X Nat Mur 6X (The above are apparently "combination Q tissue salts", whatever they may be), and Lactose.

Were it not for the fact that homeopathy is such utter drivel the instructions would be funny:

"You have selected one of 18 New Era Combination Remedies. The tablets are formulated from completely natural ingredients designed to counteract the imbalance in your body that may be causing the ailment." (Since when has catarrh been caused by an imbalance?)

"Tissue salts are part of homeopathy. Homeopathic treatment does not fight your symptoms, instead it aims to encourage your body to rally its own defenses to fight off the root cause of your symptoms." (So, even if your catarrh doesn't improve, it doesn't mean that the pills aren't working. By the time your body has rallied its defenses the symptoms will no doubt have run their course anyway. And how can the body fight off an imbalance?)

"The benefits: Natural, active ingredients, homeopathically prepared. No unpleasant side effects from the active ingredients such as drowsiness or addiction. They can be taken by the whole family. There is no risk of overdose. They are non-habit forming." (In other words you could scoff all 450 tablets with no ill effects BECAUSE THEY ARE A PLACEBO! In fact, this being a homeopathic remedy, surely the fewer tablets you take the more effective they will be. Which makes you wonder why the dose for adults is 4 tablets, that for children 2 tablets...)

"You should tip the tablets into the lid of the tub and then straight into your mouth. Homeopathic preparations are best if not contaminated by handling." (Yes, I'm sure they were untouched by human hand at all stages of the manufacturing process.)

"If you are allergic to lactose, you should consult your doctor or pharmacist before you start to take New Era Products." (There is nothing "natural" about human beings eating the milk products of another species. You'd think that New Era would have been able to come up with a suitable alternative.)

The tablets cost £4, half the price of a conventional catarrh remedy which I know from previous experience would have worked. New Era must be making a nice living by exploiting the scientific illiteracy so depressingly common nowadays.

I'm reminded of the story James Randi tells of the many times he has swallowed a box of homeopathic sleeping pills ("Calms Forté") in front of audiences just before launching into an energetic lecture. I should note, however, that not all homeopathic remedies are inert placebos.

Billy Meier

A curious reader wanted to know how I would explain the prophetic knowledge allegedly received from 'Semjase', a Pleiadian who befriended Billy Meier? The reader thinks Semjase had "highly technical scientific information he [?] received about Venus, Jupiter and its moons etc., years before it was known by our scientists." I hate to be the one to break it to this person, but Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter a few hundred years ago. So, if Billy thinks he got a scoop on this point from his alien friend, it just shows Billy's ignorance.

The reader also thinks that Semjase predicted both Iraq wars and that she allegedly gave a metal alloy to Billy who had it "examined by IBM scientist Marcel Vogel and others which revealed highly unusual properties which they could not explain."

Billy Meier is a known hoaxer. Semjase is not a Pleiadian. Her picture is a photocopy of a model from an old Sears catalog. The alleged alien metal has mysteriously disappeared. Any alleged prophecies from Billy Meier should be taken with a micro-grain of salt.

George W. Bush preparing for intergalactic war?

Paul Hellyer was Deputy Prime Minister in the cabinet of the late Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Recently, Hellyer announced: "UFOs are as real as the airplanes that fly over your head."* Hardly newsworthy stuff. But he also accused the Bush administration of preparing for intergalactic war. According to Hellyer, the U.S. has "finally agreed to build a forward base on the moon, which will put them in a better position to keep track of the goings and comings of the visitors from space, and to shoot at them if they so decide." Hellyer is confident that "the United States military are preparing weapons which could be used against the aliens, and they could get us into an intergalactic war without us ever having any warning."

Throughout his long political career, Hellyer has supported the Space Preservation Treaty, which would ban space weapons. It was nearly forty years ago-on June 3, 1967-that Hellyer officially inaugurated a UFO landing pad in St. Paul, Alberta. The sign beside the pad proclaims that it is "a symbol of our faith that mankind will maintain the outer universe free from national wars and strife."*

Hellyer believes he has seen a UFO and was moved to his belief in their current presence on earth after watching the Peter Jennings special on UFOs that aired on ABC last February and after reading Philip J. Corso's book The Day After Roswell. Hellyer is certainly open-minded, but he's not much of a critical thinker. If you doubt that last comment, read the material on the previous two links.

Hellyer has joined the Toronto Exopolitics Symposium, the U.S.- based Disclosure Project, and the Vancouver-based Institute for Cooperation in Space (ICIS) in requesting Parliamentary hearings on Exopolitics-relations with "ETs."

May the force be with them, but personally I'm more concerned about the weapons aimed at aliens on this planet than I am about the one's aimed at those in space.

Religion and Politics

On November 22, 2005, The New York Times ran an editorial about the I.R.S. threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, because of an anti-war speech by the rector.

I.R.S. officials have said about 20 churches are being investigated for activities across the political spectrum that could jeopardize their tax status. The agency is barred by law from revealing which churches, but officials have said these targets were chosen by a team of civil servants, not political appointees, at the Treasury Department. The I.R.S. argues that freedom of religion does not grant freedom from taxes if churches engage in politics.

That should mean that the 2004 presidential campaign would be an extremely fertile field. While some churches allowed Democrats to speak from the pulpit, the conservative Christians last year mounted an especially intense - and successful - drive to keep President Bush in office. Some issued voter guides that pointedly showed how their own religion was allied with Mr. Bush's views. Several Roman Catholic bishops even suggested that a vote for John Kerry would be a mortal sin. Since the election, Republicans have held two openly political nationally televised revival meetings at churches to support Mr. Bush's judicial nominations.

If the IRS is pursuing any of those churches, we certainly have not heard from them about it.

But that was different, since the bully pulpit was used for the forces of good and righteousness. These anti-war ministers are using their pulpits to give comfort to the enemy. What next? Will they be screaming from the pulpit not to revoke Roe v. Wade? or to make Plan B available without a prescription?

Oxygenated vs. Oxidized

In response to my criticism of oxygenated water products, Gary Bakker, an investor in a company called Oculus, wrote to inform us that Oculus "has developed a technology to super-oxygenate water in a stable form which can be used as a disinfectant because it kills bacteria." You can read all about it in Dermatology Times. I don't want to be too picky but the article on Oculus talks about super-oxidized saltwater, not oxygenated water. To oxidize water you use electrolysis to kick out of orbit single electrons from oxygen atoms. To oxygenate water you pressurize water with oxygen gas.*

I can't vouch for the financial wisdom of the investment, but at least it doesn't look like an investment in quackery!

Environmental Evangelism

Sarlo writes

I have recently learned there is another interesting class of believer who ... believe that since God made the world, they should take care of it rather than trash it so that they will be Raptured up faster. Their movement is called Creation Care and is championed by some of the leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals...

Sarlo is right. The group has even issued a statement: an "Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." "The environment is a values issue," said the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals. "There are significant and compelling theological reasons why it should be a banner issue for the Christian right."

According to the group, it's every Christian's duty to care for the planet.

"We affirm that God-given dominion is a sacred responsibility to steward the earth and not a license to abuse the creation of which we are a part," said the statement, which, according to the Washington Post, has been distributed to 50,000 member churches. "Because clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order, government has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation."

Signatories included Haggard, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, and Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

As my mother used to say: "Will wonders never cease?"

Skeptic's Circle and SkepticWiki

The 21st meeting of the Skeptic's Circle is now up and in dialogue form for your reading pleasure.

SkepticWiki, the Encyclopedia of Science and Critical Thinking, is also up and running.

Both of these resources offer an opportunity for skeptics to share their writing. I will admit, however, that I have some reservations about the Wiki movement and its anonymous authors. One of the key pieces of information I believe I need to have is the author's name when determining whether to trust something I read on the Internet. The reader has to already know most of the stuff you read in a Wiki piece to be able to judge whether it's trustworthy or not. Also, many of the articles are redundant. The opportunity for hoaxing and subterfuge may be too tempting for some miscreants. Do the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks? I don't know.

The Skeptic's Circle, on the other hand, gives skeptical bloggers a place to meet, publish, and find out what others are writing.

Vlado, Where Are You?

If anyone knows the whereabouts of Vlado Luknar, please let me know. Eight years ago, Vlado contacted me about translating the SD into Slovakian. Four years later we met in San Francisco and got briefly acquainted. The last time I heard from Vlado was two years ago. He was on his way to Greece, but he was living in Bratislava with his wife and son.

Amazing Meeting 4 (January 26-29, 2006)

I hope to see some of you next month at the Stardust in Las Vegas for the James Randi Educational Foundation's Amazing Meeting 4.

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