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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 67

May 1, 2006

Religious fundamentalists who support intelligent design will be quite upset when they find out that some of the best designers are women or gay men. --Ron Yasbin

Previous newsletters are archived at skepdic.com/news/ Go there for subscription and feedback information.

In this issue:

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

An entry on faith healing was added to complement the new entry on Consegrity, a New Age energy healing scheme developed by Mary A. Lynch, M.D., and Debra Harrison, a massage therapist. Harrison died from complications of untreated diabetes while her daughter and Dr. Lynch used their minds to remove bad energy from Harrison's body. Lynch, who inherited half a million bucks from Harrison, signed over her interest in Consegrity to Harrison shortly before the latter's death. Debt-free, Lynch moved to another town and started up Consilience Energy Mirrors where she continues to teach others how to remove bad energy. Read all about this sordid tale in the new Consegrity entry.

The first installment of a review of Uffe Ravnskov's The Cholesterol Myths is up.

If you're worried about your dental fillings leaking and poisoning your brain, read this.

The cellular memory entry was revised to include new nonsense from Gary Schwartz and five other scholars.

The NDE entry was updated to include a link to an article about a new study linking sleep oddities to NDEs and to Keith Augustine's article Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences.

The Falun Gong article was updated to include a link to Rick Ross's article claiming that the shrieking Falun Gong woman who recently tried to catch the president's attention at the White House was a publicity stunt.

Canada and intelligent design

In Canada, McGill University professor Brian Alters applied to the Ottawa-based Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for $40,000 to fund his research into how the rising popularity of intelligent design in the U.S. is eroding acceptance of evolutionary science in Canada. In their rejection notice, the Research Council told Alters that he had not provided ''adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent design theory, was correct.''*

SSHRC executive vice-president Janet Halliwell and Memorial University Prof. Larry Felt, who was on the council's grant selection committee, expressed regret about the wording of Alters's rejection letter. "But both said there are limits to what evolutionary biology can explain about the natural world, and that scholarly institutions needed to encourage open-mindedness among researchers toward competing or complementary theories."*

Alters has no need to do further research. We now know how far the ID movement has eroded the acceptance of evolutionary science in Canada. And it only cost a few dollars in paper and postage to find out.

Cornell and intelligent design

Cornell University will offer a class through the undergraduate biology program on intelligent design this summer.

The course will include texts that oppose and support the theory of intelligent design. Lecturer Allen MacNeill, an evolutionary biologist, will teach the course. The course is supposed to be "a history of biology class that looks at ethics and philosophy." Why a history of biology class would include anything but a passing mention of intelligent design is not clear to me. MacNeill said: "I'm not going to be bashing (intelligent design), but I'm also not going to be advocating it. I'm going to be using it - and evolutionary biology too - to think about these very complicated ideas."

Hunter Rawlings III, Cornell's President has condemned the teaching of intelligent design as science, calling it "a religious belief masquerading as a secular idea."

Hannah Maxson, president of the Intelligent Design Evolution Awareness Club at Cornell, said she is glad the issue is being taken seriously. I'm seriously sad that such a club exists on the Cornell campus.

"We'd just like a place at the table in the scientific give-and-take," she said.

That's the whole point of the ID movement. Give them a place at the table and make them look like they belong there with the other scientists.

The Royal Society and intelligent design

The Royal Society has joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science in dismissing intelligent design as having ''far more in common with a religious belief in creationism than it has with science.'' Unlike ID, it said, evolutionary biology is ''an essential part'' of a modern science education.

Gary Schwartz and intelligent design

Gary Schwartz has jumped on the ID bandwagon with a book called The G.O.D. Experiments: How Science Is Discovering God In Everything, Including Us (Atria 2006). The title alone will attract a large number of folks who are seeking any shred of evidence to prop up their desire to believe in God and that there is some purpose to this seemingly mad universe. Schwartz tells his readers that 21st-century science provides clues to G.O.D.-the "Guiding, Organizing, Designing" process animating the universe. Publisher's Weekly writes that many "will have trouble accepting Schwartz's sophomoric ... experiments." Many won't have trouble, however, because they have even less understanding of proper scientific testing than Schwartz does.

Amazon has kindly posted a long excerpt from chapter one of the book, so we can get a glimpse of the kind of science Schwartz is still doing. I don't want to spoil it for anybody so I'll just note that I continue to be nonplussed by the fact that this Ph.D. in psychology doesn't understand the nature of subjective validation and the uselessness of vague predictions that can be validated by hundreds or thousands of items.

On the negative side, Schwartz has had a falling out with medium Allison DuBois, who was validated by him as a real psychic.

For four years, Schwartz tested DuBois in his lab. He came out with a book last October called The Truth About Medium: Extraordinary Experiments with the real Allison DuBois of NBC's Medium and other Remarkable Psychics. There used to be photo of DuBois with Schwartz and his psychic buddy Laurie Campbell on DuBois's website. Not any more. There is now an "editorial" lambasting Schwartz for his duplicity. DuBois writes:

... I do not endorse Dr. Gary Schwartz. I was disappointed to find out that the four years that I spent in the lab for "science" are, in my view, being misused by Dr. Schwartz -- even after I expressed my disapproval.

Gary says that I asked him to write a book about me which is a figment of his imagination. I actually asked him to NOT write a book about me which his publisher Hampton Roads is well aware of since they were served by my attorney before it released....He points to an e-mail from a year ago that he cut and pasted and only shows part of the e-mail trying to make the argument that I said I'd endorse his book.

Participating in lab studies with Dr. Schwartz was never to be a for-profit venture. I always understood that we were participating in scientific studies to help us and the world gain a better understanding of our abilities. Several of our "sitters" in the lab, unknown to many of the mediums, turned out to be writing their own books. In turn, Dr. Schwartz wrote forewords for those books or was mentioned in them. I was promised complete confidentiality and anonymity in how Dr. Schwartz and the University would report the results of these studies. Needless to say, I as well as other mediums were surprised to find our participation in the lab featured in so many other books.

As DuBois found out the hard way, Gary Schwartz does not do science the way it is supposed to be done. For example, in 2001 he and Linda Russek published a paper in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research entitled "Evidence of Anomalous Information Retrieval Between Two Research Mediums: Telepathy, Network Memory Resonance, and Continuance of Consciousness." The actual experiment used three sitters but only the results with sitter George Dalzell (GD) were reported in the published paper. No explanation is given as to why two-thirds of the data disappeared. (He omits inclusion of all his data in other published studies, as well.) The medium was Laurie Campbell. She was blind to the selection and identities of the sitters, but GD knew who Laurie was and knew that she might be a reader. He is also a medium who had a book coming out on the evidence for the continued existence of his "dear friend" with the unusual name of Michael who had died.

In any case, Dalzell said he asked four ghosts ("departed hypothesized co-investigators") to come to the reading. Part of the success of the reading would be judged by how many of these ghosts were identified by Campbell. They concluded that all four made contact with Campbell: Michael (dear friend), Alice (an aunt), Bob (father), Jerry (close friend). One problem with the design was that Dalzell confirmed that he'd invited just these four ghosts after the reading. Schwartz writes: "It is unfortunate we did not think to have GD write down the names of the people invited 24 hours before the reading, and have this document notarized." To add insult to injury, all the data that dazzles Schwartz is validated by GD himself.

Dembski quits and Beckwith is denied tenure

William Dembski, a leading proponent of the ID hoax, was brought to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville about a year ago to found a think tank on science and theology. He now says he wants to work closer to his home in Waco, Texas. "Family considerations (especially a son dealing with autism) drove my decision," he said.

Dembski will become research professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Before coming to Louisville, Dembski was a controversial researcher at Baylor University in Texas, a Baptist school. Biology professors there were critical of his work, saying ID is not science.*

Baylor has recently denied tenure to Francis J. Beckwith, associate director of Baylor's J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies. His supporters say that Beckwith's affiliation with the Discovery Institute, the main propaganda machine for the ID hoax, and his conservative religious views, are the real reasons he is not being promoted. They say he has an impeccable record of scholarship and publishing. Baylor's provost, J. Randall O'Brien, said Beckwith's "writings on intelligent design has absolutely nothing to do with the decision."*

Dean Radin Jumps on the Quantum Mechanics Bandwagon

Dean Radin - the self-appointed designated hitter for the promotion of parapsychology - has a new book out called Entangled Minds: Extrasensory Experiences in a Quantum Reality. Like his previous book, The Conscious Universe: the Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, this one lays out the scientific evidence for psi as seen from the eyes of a true believer. In The Conscious Universe, Radin uses statistics and meta-analysis to prove that psychic phenomena really do exist even if those who have the experiences in the labs are unaware of them. Statistical data show that the world has gone psychic, according to the latest generation of parapsychologists. You may be unconscious of it, but your mind is affecting random number generators all over the world as you read this. The old psychic stuff - thinking about aunt Hildie moments before she calls to tell you to bugger off - is now demonstrated to be true by statistical methods that were validated in 1937 by Burton Camp and meta-validated by Radin 60 years later when he asserted that meta-analysis was the replication parapsychologists had been looking for. The only difference is that now when you think of aunt Hildie it might be moments before she calls her car mechanic and that, too, may be linked to activity in your mind that you are unaware of.

Radin's new book sees entanglement as a key to understanding extrasensory phenomena. Entanglement is a concept from quantum physics that refers to connections between subatomic particles that persist regardless of being separated by various distances. He notes that some physicists have speculated that the entire universe might be entangled and that the Eastern mystics of old might have been on to something cosmic. His speculations are rather wild but his assertions are rather modest. For example: "I believe that entanglement suggests a scenario that may ultimately lead to a vastly improved understanding of psi" (p. 14) and "I propose that the fabric of reality is comprised [sic] of 'entangled threads' that are consistent with the core of psi experience" (p. 19). Skeptics might suggest that studying self-deception and wishful thinking would lead to a vastly improved understanding of psi research and that being consistent with a model is a minimal, necessary condition for taking any model seriously, but hardly sufficient to warrant much faith.

Readers of The Conscious Universe will be pleased to know that Radin has outdone himself on the meta-analysis front. In his new book, he provides a meta-meta-analysis of over 1,000 studies on dream psi, ganzfeld psi, staring, distant intention, dice PK, and RNG PK. He concludes that the odds against chance of getting these results are 10104 against 1 (p. 276). As Radin says, "there can be little doubt that something interesting is going on" (p. 275). Yes, but I'm afraid it may be going on only in some entangled minds.

On the bright side, Radin continues to ignore Gary Schwartz and self-proclaimed psychics like Jon Edward, Sylvia Browne, Uri Geller, and Ted Owens. He still has a fondness for remote viewers like Joe McMoneagle, however, who seems impressive if you ignore the vast majority of his visions and aren't bothered by vagueness in the criteria as to what counts as a "hit" in remote viewing. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Radin predicts that some day "psi research will be taught in universities with the same aplomb as today's elementary economics and biology" (p. 295). Perhaps psi research will be taught in the same classroom as intelligent design, though this seems unlikely as parapsychology attempts to reduce all supernatural and paranormal phenomena to physics. Maybe they could both be taught in the same curriculum: things that explain everything but illuminate nothing.

A missing link? Fishing for Jesus

It only took a few hours of examining everything but the evidence (e.g.,Tiktaalik their conscience, their belief system, and newspaper accounts) for creationists at AnswersInGenesis.org (AIG) to declare that Tiktaalik does not represent a transitional fossil between sea and land animals, as scientists are claiming.

The AIG folks claim:

This website has consistently demonstrated that fossil creatures are essentially the same (stasis), or have degenerated (lost information, the opposite of what evolution requires). This is predicted in the creation model (animals reproducing "after their kind"; Genesis 1:24-25). Also, creationists have shown that the evidence found in the fossil record is highly consistent with catastrophism (i.e., a worldwide flood such as the Flood of Noah in the book of Genesis).

Anybody who suggests otherwise is anti-creation. That includes the New York Times and Scientific American, which wrote:

Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago and his colleagues found Tiktaalik on Ellesmere Island, some 600 miles from the North Pole, in deposits dating to 375 million years ago. Like all fish, Tiktaalik possesses fins and scales. But it also has a number of distinctly un-piscine characteristics, including a neck, a flat, crocodilelike skull, and robust ribs. As such Tiktaalik neatly fills the gap between previously known tetrapodlike fish such as Panderichthys, which lived some 385 million years ago, and the earliest tetrapods, Ichthyostega and Acanthostega, which lived about 365 million years ago. "Tiktaalik blurs the boundary between fish and land animals," Shubin observes. "This animal is both fish and tetrapod; we jokingly call it a 'fishapod.'"

According to AIG:

All they have actually found is a fish that is another example of a lobe-finned fish (one of which still lives today-the coelacanth) that has bones similar in position to those seen in the arm and wrist of land-walking creatures-except these structures support fins with rays in them, not digits like fingers and toes (and as has been stated, they are NOT connected to the axial skeleton).

Blogger jeffperado comments: "In other words they agree that it is an intermediate, but disagree with calling it transitional."

Someone should inform the paleontologists who discovered Tiktaalik about the coelacanth before they make fools of themselves, just as Darwin and those after him did when they forgot that the second law of thermodynamics made evolution impossible. Dummies.

This is an infinite regress argument, as well. Whatever transitional fossil is found, it can never be the missing link. In fact, each such discovery now creates the need for two more transitional fossils, one on either side of the discovery and if those are discovered, that will create the need for four more discoveries, ad infinitum.

On the other hand, if you are really interested in what the fossil record has to do with evidence for evolution, read Dr. Penny Higgins's articles Use and Abuse of the Fossil Record: Defining Terms and Use and Abuse of the Fossil Record: The Case of the 'Fish-ibian'.

Hi! I'm psychic and I'm here to help!

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) suspended a senior officer who sought advice from Elizabeth Walker, a Scottish-born clairvoyant from Cooma, about a threat to kill Prime Minster John Howard. "The AFP does not condone the use of psychics in security matters." It didn't say whether it condoned their use in other matters.

Walker is a friend of the federal agent who's being investigated for misconduct. She specializes in reading "auras and past-life energies." The unnamed agent allegedly shared secret information about the assassination warning with Walker, even though he was not part of the team investigating the death threat.

Labor's homeland security spokesman, Arch Bevis, said the government should conduct its own investigation and make the findings public. He said: "Consulting a psychic about death threats is hardly standard operating procedure. The outcome of that investigation must be released if public confidence in the important work of the AFP and other security agencies is to be maintained."*

The Scotsman reported the story, but its headline read: Psychic helps probe plot to kill Australian PM. And it began the story by claiming that a "Scottish psychic was called in to help an Australian police officer investigate a plot to assassinate the Australian prime minister."

In another bad-news day for psychics, it was reported that Philippines judge Florentino Floro has been removed from his post. Floro claimed he has psychic powers and supernatural abilities. He said he had made a covenant with "dwarf friends" and can read the future. He also admitted that he conducted "healing sessions" in his chambers. The Philippines Supreme Court said: "His mental problems for now appear to render him unfit with the delicate task of dispensing justice."

Audio cables: no testing allowed

Daniel Horn writes that there is a forum devoted to headphones that has a section on cables, power, etc., that specifies that double-blind testing isn't allowed. Daniel's concerned that people might be duped into buying extremely high-priced audio cables that, when tested, don't give measurably better performance than well-constructed cheaper cables.

Daniel is right to question the motives of those who won't allow testing under controlled conditions, especially those who claim that the reason their equipment (or psychic powers or AK ability or homeopathy) fails is because such tests don't work. If the tests are set up properly, there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to demonstrate the objective superiority or not of one set of audio cables to another. The power of suggestion by a sales person could easily sway a listener to hear the superiority of the expensive equipment. According to Milbourne Christopher, hearing is the easiest of the senses to deceive.

Retrodicting 9/11

A reader asks how did Ellie Crystal, psychic and reiki master, make it look as if she had predicted the September 11 attacks? She has a page titled "Ellie's Predictions for 2001" that has a large graphic at the top that reads: Predictions 2001. Among the items listed on this page is the following:

Terrorism - War - Military:

Something happens in NYC in September after which nothing is ever the same. I see airplanes - smoke - and the Twin Towers. I will witness these events. Bush, a war president will takes [sic] us to war in the Middle East - Afghanistan - near the end of the year- then later lead the US into another war in Iraq which will be the beginning of the end. I see people around the world opposed to the war - protestors. Anthrax will not turn out to be a major threat - but creates fear factor. The search is on for Osama bin Laden at the end of the year. Bush creates a better antimissle [sic] defense system. We begin a war on terrorism and worry about attacks on US soil and form a new government organization to this end.

The easiest way to do this stunt is to post your predictions after the events have occurred. That's how Tamara Rand "predicted" the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. I haven't followed Ellie's pages, so I can't say for sure what she had posted before 2001. But the Wayback Machine, which keeps track of many websites, lists February 6, 2005, as the first instance of this page of predictions for 2001.

Another thing I'd look for is her page of predictions for 2006. Is it posted? Not that I can see. But her predictions for 2005 are. And they seem to have been posted as early as February 6, 2005. Nothing much of interest here except this: "hurricane season will be bad but nothing like 2004." I think the Katrina victims might disagree.

If the reader is interested in Sylvia Browne's predictions, see this site on America's loudest windbag.

The gospel according to Judas

I gave up reading the gospels long ago and I don't plan to read The Gospel of Judas, but I did watch the hour-long National Geographic special that tried to convince the viewer just how special this disintegrating bunch of fragments really is. The show and the gospel are a reminder that, as Adam Gopnik put it: "religions actually have no fundament ... inerrant texts and unchallenged holies of any faith are the work of men and time. Any orthodoxy is the snapshot of a moment." Christianity's gospels are a snapshot taken by Bishop Irenaeus in the second century. That Irenaeus and other church fathers dumped more than two dozen other gospels means that groups like the gnostics were the losers and declared heretical by the winners. It doesn't mean that the "truth," if there is any in these gospels, can be found only in the four gospels deemed orthodox. Those who accept the four canonical gospels have faith that Irenaeus was guided by God. Nobody knows for sure what criteria he used to choose which gospels stayed in and which were thrown out, except that he considered anything related to gnosticism to be wrong. In any case, many people will probably be amused or annoyed by two messages in the gospel according to Judas: Jesus laughed at his disciples a lot and he chose Judas to betray him so a prophecy could be fulfilled. Yes, the man who has come to symbolize betrayal was actually doing the Lord's work when he turned in his master. Maybe Germany will have to change its laws. It remains illegal to name a child Judas in Germany.*

The man who was almost pope

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini was a close runner-up in last year's papal election, according to the BBC. Had he been elected, the Catholic Church might have taken a slightly different approach to fighting AIDS. Pope John Paul II called condoms "intrinsically evil" and the Vatican's policy is still that condoms should never be used, even to stop AIDS spreading from one married partner to another. The Church teaches that abstinence is the only way to deal with the disease. Cardinal Martini, however, said that in couples where one had HIV/AIDS, which could pass to the partner, the use of condoms was "a lesser evil."  I presume he meant using condoms is a lesser evil than passing on HIV to one's spouse. That's not quite the same as approving the use of condoms, but it's a start. The Vatican is reviewing its condom policy and perhaps the lesser evil will be given limited approval.

Skeptic's Circle

The 32nd and 33rd meetings of the Skeptic's Circle have been posted. These are collections of skeptical blogs on a variety of topics.

Camp Inquiry

The Center for Inquiry will be launching Camp Inquiry July 12-17, 2006, a program for young people ages seven to sixteen, with special junior counselor programs for young adults seventeen to twenty. The summer camp is located in Holland, New York, and is called Camp Seven Hills.

The goal of the camp is "to introduce young people to skepticism and free inquiry and to help them develop an appreciation for science and humanism."


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