Table of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll


Newsletter Archives


We are an associate. When you purchase something from through one of our links we earn a commission, which helps pay for the maintenance of this website.

logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 72

October 26, 2006

Common sense and cognitive psychology alike support the Jeffersonian view that critical thinking always depends upon factual knowledge. -- Prof. E. D. Hirsch, Jr.*

Previous newsletters are archived at Go there for subscription and feedback information.

In this issue:

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

Oprah Winfrey devoted a whole hour to asking whether truth matters and whether Americans should be better critical thinkers when it comes to evaluating what we are told in the media and by our political leaders. I posted some comments on the show.

I revised the confabulation and Rolfing entries.

Last January I posted a commentary on the bizarre case of Richard Hamlin. The story involves claims of torture, murder, rape, incest, Satanic cults, snuff films, death threats, pistol whipping, mind control, Stockholm syndrome, depression, child abuse, infidelity, bankruptcy, the rise and fall of a couple of rich lawyers, and the destruction of a family.  Hamlin has been sentenced to life in prison, so I revised and updated the commentary.

The Baylor Religion Survey

The folks at Baylor University call it "the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted....It plumbs all facets of American religion and spirituality in depth − nearly 400 items cover such matters as religious beliefs and practices, including religious consumerism, as well as nonstandard beliefs (astrology, "Bigfoot," alien visitors, etc.) and practices (meditation, New Age therapies, etc)....the Baylor Religion Survey is a nationally representative survey of 1,721 respondents." The latter is not strictly true, which is scandalous for a religious institution doing a survey on religion.

The study was conducted by the Gallup Organization from October 8, 2005 to December 12, 2005, for the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. It was funded by the John M. Templeton Foundation. It is true that the survey had 1,721 respondents. It also claims to have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points. Gallup recruited potential respondents through a nationwide random digit dialing telephone survey. 3,702 potential respondents were contacted and 1,721 returned completed surveys (46.5% participation). Thus, it is inaccurate to claim that this is a "nationally representative survey of 1,721 respondents." A randomly selected nationwide sample of 1,721 people would probably be representative with a margin of sampling error of under plus or minus 3%. The sample in this survey is a self-selected sample. Whether there were 3,702 or 30,000,000 potential respondents is irrelevant to the issue of representativeness. Gallup calls this a mixed-mode sampling design. I call it a waste of time. Such a method might have value in some situations, but I don't think this is one of them. It does not give us reliable data from which we can confidently infer what people believe.

The self-administered mail survey consisted of 15 pages of questions. The cover read: "The Values and Beliefs of the American Public - A National Study." Baylor calls the study "American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the US." Any insights should be taken with a grain of salt, given the method used to get the data. The study covered a lot of ground, asking questions about both religious and paranormal beliefs.

The first line of the introduction to the published study expresses my sentiment exactly about the study itself: "Some European observers dismiss American religiosity as "a mile wide and an inch deep."" The first section of the study begins with a misrepresentation of data:

Are Americans losing their religion? Prior national studies with questions on religion, such as the General Social Survey and National Election Study, show an increase in the percent of the population with no religion over the past quarter century. For example, the 1988 General Social Survey reports that eight percent of the population have no religion. By 2004, the percentage had risen to 14.3%. This growth in "religious nones" is often used by academics and the press to indicate growing secularization in the United States. But are Americans really that detached from organized religion?

The Baylor folks then proudly note that in their survey only 10.8% state they have no religion (and 5.4% identify themselves as atheists). However, the claim that there had been a jump from 8% to 14% of people identifying themselves as having no religion is misleading. In earlier surveys the question asked was loaded: What religion do you identify with? Later surveys added if any. The Baylor survey asked: With what religious family do you most closely identify?  And then gave the respondent about 40 choices, one of which (at the bottom) was "no religion." The other choices were listed alphabetically from Adventist to United Church of Christ. The Baylor folks concluded:

This three to four percent difference is significant. Based on the current population, it means that researchers have previously over-counted the religiously unaffiliated by 10 million Americans, and may have overlooked as many or more Americans who are actually affiliated with Evangelical congregations and denominations.

No it doesn't. Previous researchers may not have over-counted anything. Given the methodology used in the Baylor survey, the different questions asked in the different surveys, and the margin of sampling error in the Baylor study, the three to four percent difference is insignificant.

If this is what passes for science today at Baylor University, then God help us all.

Another outfit that relies on unscientific polling methodology is, a source used weekly by Newsweek. Their method is to put up questions on their website and ask people to take the survey. There is nothing random about their sample, which is self-selected by visitors to their spiritually oriented website. I was asked by a reporter from Beliefnet to comment on a survey they conducted on the ways people talk to and hear from God. I doubt if my comments will make it into the reporter's story, so here is my reply:

Thank you for the request. I take it that this is a survey of people who come to the website. The size of the sample [9,867 respondents] indicates that the sample  was not selected randomly from the general population. And the response to the first question [97.5% talk to God] indicates the sample is unrepresentative of the general population, where we know that about from 10-15% do not relate to the idea of a personal God.

The results may be of interest to the folks who produce I must say, though, that the questions asked and the responses given are not very illuminating. To find out that most of the people who come to a "spiritual" site on the internet think they communicate regularly with God should not be news. That more than half have argued with God and that about half of those who have argued with God think God responded to them isn't surprising. These folks think God is like them. He talks and responds. That about 2,000 (or about a fifth of those responding) hear "a voice" could be troubling, but we don't know what they mean by "hear a voice."

Truthfully, the only question I find of the slightest interest is #12. Most of the respondents seem to realize that when they hear God they may be hearing themselves and that when they talk to God they are talking to themselves.

Question 12 on the survey was "Have you every felt that your own inner thoughts or intuition were God speaking?" To which, 91.3% answered yes. It troubles me that Newsweek reports on these Beliefnet polls as if they provided "the pulse of the nation."

The God Delusion

If you are wondering whether Richard Dawkins has a death wish, read his latest book, The God Delusion. Fanatical believers won't get past the title and some might consider it their duty to punish anyone who would dare claim that God is deluded about anything.

Of course, that's not what the book is about, but it will hardly matter to some of Allah's self-anointed jihadists. (For some reason, my spell checker suggests I replace jihadist with nihilist. Go figure.) I've started reading the book and have found the first 100 pages or so very interesting. I also listened to DJ Grothe interview Dawkins about the book on his Point of Inquiry podcast. I now understand why Dawkins considers the existence of god to be a scientific question and why he feels no necessity to avoid offending religious evolutionists who might be allies in the fight against the intelligent design fanatics. I won't spoil it for those of you who have yet to read the book, so I will only note that I have come to agree with him that there is no special area of expertise when it comes to theology and philosophy regarding the existence of god. Stephen Jay Gould was wrong about "nonoverlapping magisteria" when he tried to argue that science and religion are compatible because each has its own domain and they don't overlap. There is nothing magisterial about irrational faith. Truth is truth. There is not a truth for reason and a truth for faith. To consider the musings of theologians about the Trinity as protected from rational analysis because it is a matter of faith is to abandon reason and admit that irrationality is as good as rationality as a basis for belief. That position can't even be argued for because it requires rationality to argue. Believing on faith is not something to be proud of; it is something a human being should be ashamed of. If we value truth, we must value reason. Faith is not the road to truth but the road to anything goes because we say so. To allow someone off the hook from having to defend his beliefs because he throws up the shield of faith is not only to grant him the right to be irrational, it is also to grant that his irrationality is on an equal footing with your rationality. We shouldn't allow that. We should make it clear that we think a human being should be embarrassed to think it a good thing to believe something on faith. And we should not confuse faith with trust or probability.

Feedback: Experience vs. Science

Over the years, I've received several letters similar to the following, each claiming they know from firsthand experience that something is true despite what science might have to say about the subject:

I have been reading topics on your site. I appreciate much of it, enjoy the humor and like the critical thinking aspect of it. However, there is one point that kind of bothers me. What I dislike about scientists and those who promote science is the tendency to deny individual experience.

I know for a fact, from consistent experience long before Rupert Sheldrake mentioned it, that I have felt, I do feel and I will feel when others are looking at me. Now, sometimes it can be explained as that I have heard something and then I look back at someone or that sometimes that I may see others out of the corner of my eye. But, here's my point: There have been numerous occasions where I have distinctly felt the sensation of someone looking at me and then checked this sensation visually and confirmed that it was so. Now, how can that be called anecdotal just because scientists don't have the wherewithal to conduct the proper test and to confirm this phenomenon. I think that scientists are just theoretically challenged!

First, we're not really neutral observers of our own experience, are we? In some cases, scientists do have the wherewithal to test claims. Randomized double-blind experiments are conducted to mitigate our inherent bias and tendency toward self-deception. Several such tests have been done on the staring effect with mixed results. Sheldrake seems to always get positive results for his paranormal tests, whether he's testing humans and staring or dogs who know when their owners are coming home. Skeptics like Richard Wiseman gets negative results. Critics have found fault with Sheldrake's randomization methods. Sheldrake finds fault with his critics.

In any case, the staring effect is certainly testable by scientists and we need not rely on our interpretation of our experiences. Nor should we always rely on what seems obvious to us from experience. We often arrive at beliefs without careful consideration of what is actual or true. We're naturally driven to be selective about the information we draw from experience and we then combine it with information that has been selectively remembered. The result is that we produce new beliefs that are generally consistent with our old beliefs. We might end up with a set of consistent beliefs that are functional, but they are as likely to be false as true. Furthermore, these functional beliefs, even if false, will condition how we interpret future experiences and what data we selectively store in memory. In light of this, we should be skeptical of taking all our perceptions and memories at face value. We should be ready and able to examine what psychological and logical processes drive us to our beliefs, whether they be scientific or paranormal or supernatural. Many people can do this but won't because they are not disposed to ask questions or look for rational explanations. Such people tend to be dogmatic and not inquisitive. They have strong opinions and are not inclined to doubt what they believe. For example, they would rather reject double-blind experimentation than give up their belief in such things as applied kinesiology. They would rather accept a ludicrous rationalization than admit they were wrong. They know what's true and nothing you say can change their mind. For example, a new reader recently wrote to me:

You are a real idiot; only a college educated man could be such an idiot as you definitely are. I hope there is no afterlife for you. I personally have seen a good friend AFTER he died and he conveyed info only he, not me, would have known, as I found out later. You could have had this experience and still said it was unreal. None of your education can explain what happened to me.

He's personally seen a ghost and the ghost told him things that only the ghost would have known. Trying to get such a person to consider alternative interpretations to what he experienced, if he did indeed experience what he says he did, would be like trying to nail pudding to the wall. Without skepticism and open-mindedness about our own experiences and memories, critical thinking can't happen. We can see and hear things that aren't there. And we can find meaning and significance in things that have no meaning or significance except what we give to them. If you're not willing to learn all you can about perception and how the brain works, you cannot think critically about your own experiences. If you're not willing to study psychology and learn about things like subjective validation and confirmation bias, you cannot think critically about "meaningful coincidences" and other similar things. Also, just as you can't read or write in general, you can't think critically in general. You have to read something and write about something. Thinking critically has to be about something. Without factual knowledge a person may be able to think logically, but critical thinking requires knowledge. It requires not only knowledge of psychology to understand how we come to believe things, but knowledge in the various sciences and social sciences. Without understanding some of the fundamentals of how perception works, how physical energy is transferred, and a host of other things, you can't think critically about your own experience. You don't have to be college educated to think critically, but you do need to be educated.

It should go without saying that scientists also must be careful how they interpret their experiences, even if they are very controlled experiences.

Darwin Online

The University of Cambridge has posted "every Darwin publication as well as many of his handwritten manuscripts. All told there are more than 50,000 searchable text pages and 40,000 images." Go to and have fun with the searchable index.

Merv Griffin back with the dead

He's created game shows like "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" but now Merv Griffin is entering the 21st century. He will be producing a new series called "Lisa Williams: Life Among The Dead" for the Lifetime network. The "reality show" will center on a medium getting messages from dead people. What a concept! Unlike Kelsey Grammar's hit show "Medium", which is "based on a true story," Griffin's show will be the true story, or so he thinks.

"I am not a skeptic anymore because I have seen this woman do some of the most incredible things," says Merv. "I've seen all the psychics, but I've never seen one like this. She's extraordinary!"

I'm sure she is, as long as you don't set your standards too high. For those who might find Lisa Williams too lowbrow, there is Karen Peterson, a professional "psychic medium" who says she has helped people overcome their grief at the loss of a loved one. She's featured in a cable television program on "psychic healing" produced by Soroptimist International of Novato, in the prestigious county of Marin, California.

Scam of the minute

If you thought chiropractors had reached the end of the line with applied kinesiology, you were mistaken. Dr. William C. Gustafson of The Order of HoloDynamic Kinesiologists, whatever that might be, has developed a new system "to Honor the Wisdom Within." He calls it "The XK Project" and claims that

"X" does not stand for any one thing. X is a variable. An unknown. The Unknown. XK is the extreme use of kinesiology. It is not another diagnostic system, although it contains one. XK is kinesiology turned back on itself. It is a way of using kinesiology to find out how to do kinesiology in any given situation.

Instead of using a predefined protocol, XK practitioners "log on" to the body's "biocomputer" and ask it to create its own protocol. By connecting directly with the Innate Intelligence that runs, maintains, and heals the body, XK gives the final authority on all aspects of treatment back to the patient.

The sad thing is, he'll probably have them waiting in line on the train with their "biocomputers" in tow.

PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD! Tell your friends and foes about The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter. Remind them that the newsletter is FREE.

Support our work! You can purchase your copy of The Skeptic's Dictionary online from or from your local bookseller.


Click to order from Amazon