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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 77

April18, 2007
subscribers: 4,319

"Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got." --Art Buchwald

Previous newsletters are archived at

In this issue:

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

I've posted an article based on the critical thinking workshop presentation I gave at The Amazing Meeting 5.

I was surprised to find that the TAM5 6-disc DVD collection includes 2/3rds of the workshop: Diane Swanson's presentation and mine. The DVD can be ordered from the James Randi Educational Foundation. It includes more than 17 hours of material from the likes of Mr. Randi himself, Michael Shermer, Richard Wiseman, Phil Plait, Eugenie Scott, Harriet Hall, Ben Radford, Christopher Hitchins, Peter Sagal, Penn & Teller, Scott Dikkers, Adam Savage, and many more.

There are three new entries in the Dictionary: chemtrails (are there unknown people trying to to poison us with unknown chemicals for unknown reasons?), the Bloxham tapes (did Ann Evans really have seven lives?), and Ian Stevenson (the psychiatrist turned parapsychologist who collected past life experience stories and died recently). If your son was born after February 8, 2007, has bronchial problems, and grows up with an abnormal desire to identify birthmarks on people, he may be carrying Stevenson's reincarnate spirit.

I revised the massage therapy entry to eliminate an error and some misleading claims. The 9/11 conspiracies entry was revised to debunk some of the nonsense in the mockumentary called "Loose Change." The Consegrity/Consilience Energy Mirrors entry was rewritten to make it read more like an article than a bunch of notes.

I've also posted a rather negative review of Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters - William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death.

Finally, I got quite a bit of feedback regarding my comments on the morality of meat in the last newsletter. Read the postings.

Skeptiko (Alex Tsakiris) interviews the interviewer (D.J. Grothe)

The Skeptiko podcast for March 27 featured an interview with D. J. Grothe, the host of the Point of Inquiry podcast. (D.J.'s latest guest, by the way, is Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer.) One of the topics brought up in the Skeptiko interview was whether skeptics were hindering scientific inquiry. Some people apparently think that since parapsychologists are credentialed scientists and have published their work in peer-reviewed journals, any further criticism of their work by skeptics amounts to gratuitous debunking. Apparently, some people think that criticism hinders progress. In fact, criticism is essential for any science. Just because one has a Ph.D. from Harvard or Oxford and has published in peer-reviewed journals does not give one a free pass that exempts your work from further scrutiny. Any thinker, scientist or non-scientist, should be grateful for whatever criticism comes his or her way. How else are you going to correct your errors? The worst thing a thinker could wish for would be to be surrounded by a bunch of sycophants who won't tell the emperor he's naked. In any case, no amount of criticism is likely to put a damper on parapsychologists. They are not going to stop doing what they do just because a bunch of skeptics criticize or ridicule them. Some of the parapsychologists, like Dean Radin, have built up a defense mechanism to protect them against skeptics. Radin calls his critics "super skeptics" and has a chapter in The Conscious Universe where he describes skeptics of the paranormal as suffering from a range of psychological disorders. Chapter 14 of Radin's book seems to have as one of its goals to show that skeptics don't accept psi experiments as strong evidence of psi because they are deluded and guided by wishful thinking and other "hidden persuasions" rather than the evidence.

Speaking of Dean Radin....Tsakiris interviewed Radin for his January 28, 2007, podcast. I played the interview for my Critical Thinking About the Paranormal class. There may be some parapsychologists who are repulsed and intimidated by criticism, but Radin isn't one of them. (I noticed that Tsakiris's interview with Marilyn Schlitz is called "Skeptics Spit in my Face." I doubt if that's true, but it may reflect how she feels. I know she and Richard Wiseman, a skeptic, have worked together and published at least two papers together (on the staring effect). Their work together is one of the few instances of believer and skeptic working together in psi research. One other such collaborative effort involved John Palmer and Peter Brugger. I mentioned the grant they received from the Cogito foundation in my article on the psi assumption. I recently heard from Dr. Brugger that the work has been completed and he sent me a draft of the paper they will publish in Consciousness and Cognition: "Implicit learning of sequential bias in a guessing task: Failure to demonstrate effects of dopamine administration and paranormal belief." The study was a follow-up to research that had suggested that implicit sequence learning is superior for believers in the paranormal and individuals with increased cerebral dopamine.*

Another item brought up in the Skeptiko/Grothe interview was Randi's idea that parapsychologists should have experts in detecting deception in their labs. Tsakiris seems to take offense at the suggestion, but not all parapsychologists do. Stanley Krippner, for example, when he was president of the American Parapsychological Association, stated that he thought it was good idea. Read my short history of psi research to see why it's a good idea: too many scientists have been naive about deception and have been duped by amateurs, as well as by professional conjurers. I, for one, anxiously await Randi's promised book A Magician in the Laboratory. If it hadn't been for Randi, who knows how long it would have taken to discover what was going on in the homeopathic research of Jacques Benveniste. Anyway, I suggest Tsakiris study the investigation of the Creery sisters and their maid done by the Society for Psychical Research. I'd also look at Project Alpha and Randi's evaluation of Puthoff and Targ's tests of Uri Geller before dismissing the suggestion.

Finally, Skeptiko announced that he is underwriting work on survival of consciousness at Gary Schwartz's lab with the understanding that the work will be "open source," i.e., the design will be posted on a website and anyone will be able to critique it, offer advice or criticism, etc. Being the skeptic that I am, I'll believe it when I see it. My students are reading The Afterlife Experiments for their final assignment and I can guarantee that all of them will have plenty of advice for Dr. Schwartz after they learn how he designed and carried out his previous experiments. Schwartz, by the way, consulted with experts on cold reading and a professional mentalist while working on the afterlife experiments. Why? He said he wanted to avoid being deceived by mediums who might be doing cold reading rather than authentic spirit communication. It didn't do him any good, but at least he seems to have recognized that it was a good idea to bring in experts in trickery for consultation.

Want to gain weight? Go on a diet.

Researchers at UCLA analyzed 31 studies on diets and found that no matter what kind of diet you go on, most people will not only gain back what they lost but will add a few extra pounds as well.* Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study, said: "Sustained weight loss was found only in a small minority of participants, while complete weight regain was found in the majority. Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people."* This fact will probably not deter the diet industry any more than the fact that vitamins are useless or harmful has deterred the supplement industry. What's really being sold here is hope, which turns out to be a very expensive commodity.

(I first heard about this story and the one below from Websurdity while listening to another of my favorite podcasts, The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.)

Primordial Soup

Scientific American reports that chemist Jeffrey Bada and his team at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, have created the building blocks of life, amino acids, in a laboratory experiment. Will this lead the Discovery Institute to redefine irreducible complexity?

In 1953, chemist Stanley Miller of the University of Chicago and Harold Urey used a sparking device to excite a mixture of methane and ammonia in an attempt to mimic a lightning storm on early Earth. The result was a brown broth rich in amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Since scientists now think that early Earth contained mostly an inert mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen, but very little methane and ammonia, the experiment was repeated by Miller in 1983, but with disappointing results. He got no brown broth and very few amino acids.

Bada discovered that the reactions were producing chemicals called nitrites, which destroy amino acids as quickly as they form. They were also turning the water acidic-which prevents amino acids from forming. Yet primitive Earth would have contained iron and carbonate minerals that neutralized nitrites and acids. So Bada added chemicals to the experiment to duplicate these functions. When he reran it, he still got the same watery liquid as Miller did in 1983, but this time it was chock-full of amino acids.*

What does it all mean? It means that maybe life did start on early Earth all on its own without being carried here by comets or meteorites. Or maybe not. Maybe something extraterrestrial was needed to produce nucleic acids. Or maybe it was something subterranean. If we keep looking, we call it science. If we stop and say it's a miracle, we call it religion. Your choice.

Counting species

More than one million species of living things have been catalogued by scientists who aim to arrive at a (virtually) complete listing of about 1.75 million plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and viruses by the year 2011.* Yes, this will be on the test, so start memorizing!

Did you know that there are 4,554 mammal species known to exist today? Neither did I until I read a New York Times article by John Noble Wilford about a new study recently published in the journal Nature. Molecular and fossil data on 4,510 of those species were examined and one of the conclusions drawn was that the catastrophe "that wiped out dinosaurs and other life 65 million years ago apparently did not, contrary to conventional wisdom, immediately clear the way for the rise of today's mammals." The mammalian explosion occurred long before that extinction event. A similar analysis for birds found that more than 40 avian lineages also survived the mass extinctions. "But it was not until at least 10 million to 15 million years afterward that the lineages of living mammals began to flourish in number and diversity." The scientists aren't claiming that the Flintstone scientists are right about humans and dinosaurs living at the same time, but they are claiming that the mammalian species that led to primates was already flourishing before the dinosaurs were destroyed.

Which artificial sweetener is the natural one?

Merisant, the maker of Equal is suing McNeil Nutritionals, the maker of Splenda, in Federal District Court in Philadelphia for misleading consumers by claiming on its packaging and in its advertising that Splenda is made from sugar, which implies that it is natural. Every little packet of Splenda reminds the user: "Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar."

Merisant is arguing that Splenda is misleading consumers into thinking it is sugar and therefore is natural. Equal, also known as aspartame, is composed of two amino acids and a methyl ester group. It, too, has no sugar in it, but it is promoted as having a "sweet, clean taste, like sugar." Clean taste? I guess if whiskey can be smooth as silk and wine velvety, then sugar can be clean.

At one time Equal dominated this market, but now Splenda has a 62% market share. Hmm. Is that what this is about? You betcha. In 2002, McNeil added the line "but it's not sugar" in its Splenda ads and guess what happened to sales. They went way down. When they dropped that line, sales shot back up. Coincidence? McNeil doesn't think so and neither does Merisant.

Splenda's core ingredient is sucralose. McNeil Nutritionals has dozens of patents for different processes to make sucralose. One method starts with sucrose, but others start with non-sugars.

To make sucralose, McNeil adds three chlorine atoms that are naturally found in foods like salt and lettuce to a molecule of sucrose. The sucrose disappears in the manufacturing process, but the result - sucralose - is 600 times as sweet as ordinary table sugar. Splenda then mixes two bulking agents, dextrose and maltodextrin, into the sucralose.*

By this logic, Splenda might as well claim that their product comes from salt and lettuce, so it tastes like salad. I'd complain about the non sequitur. Just because it's made from sugar doesn't mean it will taste like sugar. It all depends on what kind of atoms you add to the sucrose. If you add a couple of plutonium atoms, will it still taste like sugar? Would it have a clean taste?

If I were the makers of Splenda, I'd call my product homeopathic. Then I wouldn't have to worry about the Food and Drug Administration's prohibition against listing ingredients that vaporize during the manufacturing process.

Tai Chi and Shingles

A study in the April issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggests that tai chi may help prevent shingles, a painful skin rash that occurs in some people who have had chickenpox.

The UCLA study involved 112 healthy adults, ages 59 to 86, who have had chickenpox.

Half of them took tai chi classes three times a week for three months and the rest attended health education classes where they were taught good diet habits and stress management. Then both groups were vaccinated with a chickenpox vaccine. Researchers took periodic blood tests before and after vaccination to determine their level of immunity against shingles.

After six months, the tai chi group had nearly twice the level of immunity against shingles than the education group.

Those who performed tai chi before vaccination had an immune response that was similar to what a vaccine would produce in a younger population. Tai chi combined with the vaccine showed a 40 per cent increase in immunity than the vaccine alone, researchers found.*

I think I'll wait for the replication study before I sign up.

58th Skeptic's Circle

The 58th edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up. There's lots of stuff on pseudomedicine, a couple of book reviews, some stuff on evolution, and one posting on the kind of science that bugs people.

Objets Volants Non Identifiés

France put its UFO archives online at and within 24 hours the daily hits on the Skeptic's Dictionary UFO page increased 8-fold (from about 200 to about 1,600 visits). I know. Who cares?

What would Pat say?

Pat Robertson is always blowing smoke about how his God is busy sending signs that he's angry at us for opposing bigotry and demanding equality and liberty for all. So what message was his God sending when Rep. Pete Stark admitted that he's an atheist? And what was the point of letting Hugh Hefner celebrate his 81st birthday? Shouldn't he have been Sodomed and Gamorrahed long ago? And what was the point of letting Kurt Vonnegut live so long? And what's with letting Julia Sweeney enjoy herself so much at Amazing Meetings? His Lord works in mysterious ways! Look what he's done for the Bush White House with all its graduates from Regent University (founded by Pat and boasting 150 grads working in the Bush administration), Liberty University (Falwell's base), and Patrick Henry College (interns for Christ and liberty).

Clayton doctorates

I mentioned in the last newsletter that Gillian McKeith, the UK pseudo-nutritionist, got her diploma in some kind of natural health nutrition from a  correspondence school called Clayton College. Apparently, the school was named appropriately. An Australian reader notes that in Oz "Clayton" is a common term for a fake and is named after an alcohol substitute with the same name.

The Skeptical Psychic

What happens when a skeptic gets a job as a psychic? Read Karen Stollznow's article to find out.

The Silence of the Psychics

Where were all the psychics before Cho Seung-Hui went on his deadly rampage at Virginia Tech? Don't be surprised if we hear many of them claim after the fact that they predicted it.

Media reports were quick to describe the shooter as mentally ill, though they were careful not to use those words. Even if not diagnosed, his writings, behavior, and alleged medication for depression, indicate he was in treatment or at least should have been. One of the more disturbing things I read was the following:

Some news accounts have suggested that Cho had a history of antidepressant use, but senior federal officials tell ABC News that they can find no record of such medication in the government's files.*

This ABC News report seems to be saying that the federal government has a record of what medications our citizens are taking. Is this the part of the Patriot Act that I didn't read?

One event like this rampage will trump one hundred studies that show that most mentally ill people are not mass murderers and most violent people are not mentally ill. A mentally ill person is more likely to be victim of violence than a perpetrator.* Alcohol and drug abuse are much greater contributors to violence than mental illness. Most mentally ill people are not violent.*

By the time the media is done with their usual superficial but frenzied coverage of the Virginia tech murders, we'll be convinced it was either his medicine or his illness that caused his deadly behavior. What's the answer? I don't know. Maybe Cheryl Wheeler's response is the best one.


If you like good satire (which we haven't seen much of since Art Buchwald died), check out this spoof on the 9/11 conspiracies. You will especially like this if you are a Star Wars fan.


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