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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 83

September 12, 2007
3,954 subscribers

Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism? --Ayn Rand

In this issue:

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

There are two new entries in the dictionary: Littlewood's law of miracles and pseudosymmetry.

Unfortunately, the In Memoriam page has two new entries: Perry DeAngelis and Jerry Andrus.

There is a new entry in the Mass Media Funk page regarding two experimentalists who have induced out-of-body experiences.

The What's the Harm page has a new entry regarding superstition and aircraft maintenance in Nepal.

I revised the reincarnation entry to clarify the difference between channeling and reincarnation.

There were several updates to dictionary entries since the last newsletter: in Ramtha I corrected an error by John Olmstead regarding brain cells dividing [thanks to John Renish for pointing out the error]; in glossolalia I added a link to Karen Stollznow's article on the subject; in Dianetics I added a link to an article about a Belgian prosecutor who has been investigating Scientology for ten years and considers it a criminal organization that should be charged with fraud and extortion; in polygraph I added a link to an article about a judge who allowed polygraph results to be admitted in a sexual battery case; and in homeopathy I added a link to an Ars Technica article that is a full frontal assault on the nonsense that is homeopathy (especially amusing is the analysis of the alleged selective memory of water).

San Francisco's Wisdom Festival

While in San Francisco over the Labor Day weekend my wife and I visited the Book Bay Bookstore in Fort Mason Center. The shop is run by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library and is a great place to pick up high quality, seemingly unread, wonderful used books on almost every subject except New Age Rubbish (NAR). You have to go to the lobby between the bookstore and the Italian cultural center for your NAR. It was in the lobby that I picked up a a flyer for the 2nd annual international angel day and a program guide for the Wisdom Festival to be held at the Center on September 15th and 16th. When you call your event the "Wisdom Festival" it's hard to come up with a catchy theme line, so this one is just billed as "a 2-day celebration on the waterfront."

The first thing that struck me about the program guide were the pictures of the workshop leaders. The smiles and grins of these folks are positively otherworldly, which is odd because most of them think the world and everyone in it is sick and in need of healing, transformation, renewal, or retuning so that we can move into a new age and a new set of dimensions for our consciousnesses. Another weird thing is that most of the leaders at this celebration find their wisdom in ideas that they think our ancient ancestors, real or imagined, discovered millennia ago but somehow lost. Apparently, our wise ancestors weren't wise enough to realize how wise they were.

One of the leading lights at this celebration is Richard Hoagland, who bills himself as a former NASA consultant and "former science advisor to Walter Cronkite and CBS News." Those familiar with Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy site probably know more about Hoagland than anyone needs to in this lifetime. For some time now, Phil has been making mush out of Hoagland's preposterous claims about Mars and NASA as part of a giant conspiracy to keep the truth from us about alien civilizations. The Wikipedia article on Hoagland says he was "a minor fact-checking assistant to Cronkite" and says nothing about his alleged work for NASA.

Hoagland has mastered the art of NewAgespeak: gobbledygook aimed at impressing non-scientists and the unread with scientific and literate sounding terminology. Like many others in the Wisdom crowd, Hoagland is riding on the 2012 bandwagon. Expect to hear a lot more of this 2012 nonsense in the next half-decade. It has everything the New Age transformation artists desire: fear; lost ancient wisdom and secrets uncovered by the special few who understand these things; drama; wild and untestable speculations in defiance of scientific knowledge; and a savior or two to lead the masses out of our ignorance and out of the inevitable chaos and morass into which our planet is heading.

Hoagland's workshop is called "Ancient Hyperdimensional Wisdom: Redirecting the Energy of 2012." He says he has studied "ancient ET ruins in the Solar System" (his imagined Martian ruins of Cydonia) and has figured out the ET's "geometric code" that points to "an extraordinary Hyperdimensional HPhysics of 'the End of Time'." Right. He promises to show the harmony between his imaginary Martian geometry and some ancient notions from India, the American southwest, and ancient Egypt, as he brings together threads from Martians, the Vedas, the Maya, the Hopi, the Aztec, and the Anasazi. As a bonus to those who like stories about conspiracies and people who claim to be able to unlock ancient secrets with their special intuitive gifts, Hoagland is doing a post-conference talk on "The Secret History of NASA." Tickets are $85 at the door and I imagine he will fill the house.

I'd love to go on about Sri Ram Kaa and Kira Raa, who will be the keynote presenters at this mind-blowing event, but what can you say about two hipsters who promise to reveal "what the New Age Mainstream does not want you to hear"? Conspiracies within the New Age mainstream. Who knew? Kaa and Raa will also do a post-conference talk...on the ascension of your divine being. They will teach you how to "interact directly with the Archangelic Realm as Kira Raa In-souls the Divine frequencies and offers participants direct communion with the 33rd Crystalline Dimension." (I'm not making this up.) Seats are limited and they are $60 at the door. I predict that these non-materialists will take in quite a haul.

The Wisdom Festival program could be a deep well of amusement for skeptics, especially those of you who think you have heard of everything. For example, how many of you have heard of an` enlightened chiropractor named Jon Schreiber? He's invented a "process of self-discovery through the body" called Breema®, which seems to involve having someone push and tug on various parts of your body. Jon is kind enough to share insights like this: "When you're present, everything that exists in the entire universe is present with you." Where else would it be, one wonders?

Last Saturday was angel day at Fort Mason. For $55 I could have spent a "fun-filled day with the Angels," experienced angel healing, and received a personal message from the Archangels. This would have prepared me for the 6th anniversary of 9/11 by helping me "focus on the light and love that is within and around us." At least this would have diverted my attention from what is going on in Washington, D.C.

The goal of these wise and angelic folks is to create a civilization of enlightened beings. Why am I skeptical?

The Summer of Love Revisited

The New Agers aren't the only ones seeking to transform the world. A few miles across town from Fort Mason, in Golden Gate Park, about 50,000 of us gathered on September 2 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the so-called Summer of Love. It was in the summer of 1967 that the hippies/flower children moved into the Haight-Ashbury district and created a counterculture that was soon to be co-opted by corporate America, a testament to its flexibility and ingenuity since the hippies were basically homeless people who defined themselves by their love of marijuana, hashish, LSD, booze, sexual promiscuity, and free stuff. In a nod to the fact that, in the words of Bob Dylan, we still ain't goin' nowhere, the nine-hour celebration began with blessings from Native American shamans who, you all surely remember, played a very large part in the hippie movement.

photo by Leslie Carroll Sept. 2, 2007

Today, the Haight, as it's called, is an array of chic shops, some of them catering to the New Age crowd who will be attending angel day and the Wisdom Festival. The flower children were going to change the world, too, and bring about a new age of enlightenment. In forty years, what was accomplished? We're once again mired in an unpopular war and led by an imperial President, but there are now women and people of color in high places. Most of them, however, think pretty much the same way as the white men they've replaced. Terrorists have replaced communists as the bugbear of the day. Gays are still persecuted and nobody in power cares much about those of us who don't live faith-based lives. It seems like there's less poverty but who really knows, since the issue is rarely dealt with by politicians or the media any more.

Most of the people who filled Speedway Meadow in 2007 were there for the free music by bands, or what's left of them, such as Quicksilver Messenger Service, Canned Heat, and Jefferson Starship. Nobody from the Grateful Dead showed up, but Taj Mahal still sings the blues as good as anyone and Barry "The Fish" Melton and his band had 'em rocking in the grass. Very few of the bands that emerged from the counterculture have been able to maintain harmony among themselves, much less bring it to the rest of the nation. Country Joe McDonald was there leading a childish cheer of the F-word to set some sort of record in his mind. Word is that he and The Fish, now a public defender in my home county, don't speak to each other.

Marijuana has been replaced by methamphetamine as the drug of choice for those who seek enlightenment via chemicals. Hard to call that progress. The music's still pretty good, though.

Francis Collins and C. S. Lewis

Francis Collins, the scientist and god-believing head of the human genome project, revealed the basis of his religious convictions in an interview with DJ Grothe (Point of Inquiry, August 31, 2007). One of the turning points in his conversion from atheism to belief was reading Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis's attempt at a philosophical defense of theism. Some critics think Dawkins was out of his element when reviewing philosophical arguments for the existence of god but Dawkins looks like Kant compared to C. S. Lewis. Particularly weak is his presentation of "the moral argument," i.e., the argument that holds that moral rules require a moral rule-giver. I don't see why moral rules require a rule-giver any more than the rules of carpentry require a Master Carpenter handing down rules for building houses that don't collapse. If they do require a rule-giver, humans can make up rules and claim they are universal and eternal just as easily as god can.

When I taught courses in the introduction to philosophy, I used an anthology that had excerpts from Lewis's Mere Christianity, including the moral argument and another howler based on the fact that we desire immortality. That desire, according to Lewis, can be taken as evidence of the existence of something that would satisfy it. Right. And what about those of us who don't desire immortality? Is that evidence in support of the view that there is no afterlife? I admit that I used Lewis as a punching bag. It wasn't really a fair fight. All the other authors in the anthology had far superior arguments to those offered by Lewis.

Collins considers it "arrogant" to claim there is nothing "outside of nature." Maybe. But it's worse than arrogant to talk as if you understand what the expression "outside of nature" means. It looks like a meaningful expression, but so does "purplish side of rectangular." "Outside of nature" seems to be a marker for "unknowable." I don't know of anyone who says there can't be things that are unknowable. How could you know such a thing? In other words, the expression "outside of nature" is just another in a long list of negative expressions  theologians have created for their godtalk. God is outside of space and time and the physical, etc.

Collins agrees that evolutionary psychology can explain reciprocal altruism but he denies it can explain why people admire and consider people like Mother Teresa to be morally good. He uses Mother Teresa as a model of someone whose altruism has no ulterior motive and, for that reason, is universally admired as morally good. Collins seems to think that evolution (i.e., natural selection) would be unlikely to produce beings who were capable of completely unselfish acts, or, if evolution produced such people, evolution would not produce people who would universally admire them as good. Why? Because he seems to think that evolution aims at producing only behaviors and values that favor passing on one's genes.

I don't think it is obvious, however, that a species would not survive if every member had a tendency to unselfishness that disregarded one's own well-being in favor of anyone else, kin or not. A species couldn't survive if every member had a tendency to, say, commit suicide or whose sexual behavior was exclusively homosexual, unless reproduction could be accomplished without sex or heterosexual sex. But there doesn't seem to be any compelling reason for claiming that our species couldn't survive quite well even if a good percentage of our members are suicidal or homosexual. Collins seems to be perpetuating the myth that evolution works by individuals choosing only those behaviors that favor their chances of passing on their genes. It is my understanding that all that is necessary for a species to survive is that many individuals reproduce, that many of their offspring survive and live to reproduce, that their environment provide sufficient nourishment; that they not evolve behaviors like universal suicide; and that they not be wiped out by some environmental catastrophe. The human species is rather new and will probably go extinct like most other species have. But I doubt if non-reciprocal altruism is going to lead to the downfall of our species. So, I see no reason why one has to bring in god to account for altruism.

Collins's point that non-reciprocal altruism is universally considered morally good is easily dismissed because it is false. He should read Nietzsche or Ayn Rand, though they are not the only ones who think this way. Not everybody considers altruism intrinsically good, socially beneficial, or morally admirable.

I don't understand why Collins thinks god is a better explanation than evolutionary psychology, cultural transmission of values, or personal preference for why self-sacrificing people emerge and why most people admire them.

He also contradicts himself in the interview. On the one hand, he criticizes Dawkins for making the existence of god a scientific issue, yet he claims that what he learned as a scientist investigating the natural world provided support for his belief in god. Dawkins doesn't claim that science can prove god doesn't exist. Like Collins, though, he thinks science can inform the debate. However, for Dawkins the evidence makes it overwhelmingly probable that a being like the one portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures is extremely improbable.

The Democracy Delusion

In newsletter 81, I jokingly suggested that Richard Dawkins follow up The God Delusion with a political treatise he might call The Democracy Delusion. Too late! It's already been done by Bryan Caplan. He's an economist and, like Dawkins, wishes everybody had his values. Caplan's new book is called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. I haven't read it and I don't plan to because, as Caplan wisely notes: "It is irrational to be politically well-informed because the low returns from data simply do not justify their cost in time and other resources." Or as Louis Menand puts it in his review of Caplan's book: it isn't worth my while to spend time and energy acquiring political information since no matter how I vote or whether I vote my life won't be any different.

If Caplan had his way, only people who pass an economics competency test would be eligible to vote and the more economically competent one is the more votes one would get. Menand isn't so sure this is a good idea. He writes:

Most people do not think politically, and they do not think like economists, either. People exaggerate the risk of loss; they like the status quo and tend to regard it as a norm; they overreact to sensational but unrepresentative information (the shark-attack phenomenon); they will pay extravagantly to punish cheaters, even when there is no benefit to themselves; and they often rank fairness and reciprocity ahead of self-interest. Most people, even if you explained to them what the economically rational choice was, would be reluctant to make it, because they value other things--in particular, they want to protect themselves from the downside of change. They would rather feel good about themselves than maximize (even legitimately) their profit, and they would rather not have more of something than run the risk, even if the risk is small by actuarial standards, of having significantly less.

Some day man may become a rational animal, but until that time the philosophers, economists, scientists, and politicians who want us all to think as they do and share their values will be doomed to be frustrated at the fact that they are not welcomed as liberators.

Perry and Jerry: Farewell

First came the news that Perry DeAngelis died. Perry was a founding member of the New England Skeptical Society (NESS) and a regular on the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe (SGU) podcast. Download podcast #109 for the fastest overview of a skeptic's view of paranormal beliefs you'll ever hear. Perry covers in twenty minutes what it took me twenty years to figure out. Podcast #110 is a tribute to Perry and to Jerry Andrus, who died a few days after Perry did.

I never met Perry, though he interviewed me for the NESS newsletter a few years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed his commentaries on SGU and I imagine it will be impossible to find someone to replace him who could have the same "chemistry" with Rebecca.

I was fortunate enough to have met Jerry several times at the Skeptic's Toolbox and Amazing Meetings. The last time I saw him was at the dinner table at TAM5 last January. He was an amazing man and I will miss listening to his poems and exploring his many optical illusions. Here are links to tributes from Randi, Michael Shermer, and the Albany (Oregon) Democrat-Herald.

 Two more candles in the dark snuffed out.

The Biggest Douche and Biggest Douche Bag in the Universe

Excuse my French, but I'm trying to avoid being sued for referring to David R. Hawkins. He's the retired psychiatrist who thinks applied kinesiology (AK) is a perfect lie detector in the hands of someone like himself who calibrates his own level of consciousness as just below god or some such thing. Anyway, for some time there was an article about him in Wikipedia but his lawyers apparently have had it removed. Some authors of the article think Hawkins is a god; others think he is a nut case in need of therapy for his megalomania and other delusions. I was brought into the fray because I have a critical article on AK on my website and I also wrote about the good doctor in a newsletter. Some Wikipedia authors refer to my writings when criticizing Hawkins. Hawkins got into the fray by getting involved in the discussion section of the articles on himself and AK, complaining that I should not be used as a source because my consciousness calibrates as just below that of a tree frog. Andrew Patterson of has written an article about the mysterious disappearing act of the Wikipedia article on Hawkins. When he checked the article earlier this month, the article was nearly blank. I checked today (Sept. 10) and the article has vanished completely. Some people just don't like criticism. They're so sensitive that they hire lawyers to try to scare people into saying nothing negative about them by threatening to sue them. These censorship lawsuits have a chilling effect, but in this day and age it's nearly impossible to freeze out all criticism. These New Age gurus really don't need to bother. They'll have a huge following no matter what the skeptics have to say.

In case you don't follow South Park, John Edward was named biggest douche in the universe in episode 615. You can guess who the bag award goes to. Here's a hint: it has to be big enough for his oversized ego.

HIV/AIDS Deniers

In addition to the website, two excellent sources regarding the HIV/AIDS deniers have recently become available. Nicoli Nattrass provides a good overview of the kinds of misrepresentations and errors prevalent in the work of AIDS deniers like Peter Deusberg. Her article, "AIDS: Denialism vs. Science" appears in the September/October issue of Skeptical Inquirer.

Steven Novella and Tara Smith have co-authored "HIV Denial in the Internet Era" for PLoS Medicine, in which they address the issue of scientific illiteracy on the part of the public. Our lack of understanding of the scientific issues involved makes it easier for HIV/AIDS deniers to spread misinformation and myths about AIDS. Both articles address the issue of the popularity of conspiracy theories and distrust of authority that plays into the hands of deniers like Duesberg and Christine Maggiore. The latter was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992 and died of pneumonia in 2008. She claimed that she never took anti-retroviral drugs, believing they are toxic, and breast fed her daughter Eliza Scovill, who died of HIV-related pneumonia in 2005, though Maggiore denies her daughter's death was AIDS-related. In 2007, the Maggiore's sued Los Angeles County and others on behalf of their daughter's estate, charging that the autopsy report lacked proper medical and scientific evidence for the declared cause of death. You can read the autopsy report and decide for yourself. In addition to being influenced by Peter Duesberg's view that AIDS symptoms can be caused by recreational drug use and malnutrition, Maggiore believed that flu shots, pregnancy, and common viral infections could lead to testing positive for  HIV. Whether her death from pneumonia was AIDS related will probably remain controversial. Since she was under a doctor's care at the time of her death, there will be no autopsy unless her widower requests one.

Smith and Novella note that none of the HIV/AIDS denial literature appears in scientific, peer-reviewed journals. The case has been made directly to the public via books or Internet postings. Hence, many scientists aren't even aware of the kinds of rhetorical ploys being used and aren't prepared to counter the misinformation with facts. The deniers provide yet another example of how easy it is to produce a cogent-sounding case for a patently false idea with a little misinformation, self-deception, fear mongering, and a good bit of selective thinking and misdirection aimed at a scientifically untutored and unsuspecting audience.

For an extensive list of links on this subject see AIDS Denial is Pseudoscience, posted on the website of the Southern Methodist University physics department.

Update (9/17): I've added an entry on HIV/AIDS denial to the Skeptic's Dictionary.

The Mind of Man
Jerry Andrus

It is physical,
And its output mental?
What a Wonder!

It knows that it is
And it tells us so.
What a wonder.

A spark jumps,
A cascade forms,
And somehow,
The language of the cells
Becomes the language of Man.
Somehow - reason flows.

From the concrete to the abstract,
From cells to thoughts,
From matter to the mind.

So runs the Machinery of the Mind,
That a unique arrangement
Of subatomic particles
Becomes the Mind of Man.

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