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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 86

December 10, 2007

...complementary and alternative a scientific term for "something you heard about from your hairdresser, who thinks she saw it on 'Oprah'." --J. Adler

In this issue:

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary

There have been quite a few changes and additions since the last newsletter. Thanks to Cristian Popa, the SD has a new look. So far, all the feedback on the new layout has been positive.

I received word from my editor at Wiley & Sons that a publisher in Spain has bought the rights to translate The Skeptic's Dictionary into Spanish. The book is now available in Estonian, Russian, Japanese, Korean, and English.

There are six new entries in the dictionary:

  1. climate skeptics,
  2. World Association of Christian Fundamentalists,
  3. anti-vaccine movement,
  4. free energy machine
  5. perpetual motion machine, and
  6. anthropic principle.

There's been some feedback on the organic (food & farming) entry. It's posted with my usual unbiased, insightful replies bound to please everyone they don't offend.

There are four new entries in What's the Harm?

  1. Herbal wine kills six and herbal Viagra may be dangerous,
  2. Woman starves to death waiting for sign from God,
  3. Energy medicine machines and another cleansing scam, and
  4. Scientology in Germany.

There is also one update in What's the Harm? The parents of a 5-year-old autistic boy who died two years ago during chelation treatment are suing the boy's doctor.

There are four new entries in Mass Media Funk:

  1. Are FBI profiles just cold reading?
  2. Does wi-fi cause autism?
  3. Have the ID folks learned their lesson?
  4. An open letter to Benedict XVI

The faith entry has been revised in response to several scientists who confuse two distinct senses of the word 'faith.'

Seven dictionary entries were updated:

  1. Carlos hoax. A link was added to an article in The Village Voice about Jose Alvarez and his art.
  2. cold reading. A link was added to an article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell on FBI profiling as cold reading.
  3. Randi paranormal prize. A link was added to an article about a recent trial involving a person who claimed to be able to cause people to urinate by her psychic powers.
  4. homeopathy. A link was added to an article by Ben Goldacre (his Bad Science blog is highly recommended).
  5. memory. A link was added to an article by Elizabeth Loftus et al. that shows how doctored photos can affect memory, allowing devious folks to alter history.
  6.  psychic detectives. A link was added to an article by Ben Radford about how sloppy journalism helps the reputations of sleazy psychics.
  7. medium. A link was added to an article about how superstar medium John Edward turned away Justin Timberlake and his girlfriend who wanted a private reading.

Cell phones, cancer, scientists, and journalism

The headline on reads: Israeli study says regular mobile use increases tumour risk.'s headline reads: Cancer researcher: Children's cellular phone use should be limited. asserts: Israeli Doctor Links Cell Phone Use to Cancer. The study on which these news stories are based was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology and is called "Cellular Phone Use and Risk of Benign and Malignant Parotid Gland Tumors-A Nationwide Case-Control Study." The study was done by Siegal Sadetzki et al. (The parotid gland is a salivary gland near the ear.)

The abstract of the article does not claim that regular cell phone use increases tumor risk. The study had nothing to do with children; all participants were over 18. Dr. Sadetzki, a cancer and radiation expert at the Chaim Sheba Medical Centre in Israel, is the cancer researcher and doctor who was interviewed for two of the stories mentioned above. What she says in her interviews seems to go beyond the evidence she and her research team published in their report. The published study asserts:

For the entire group, no increased risk of PGTs (parotid gland tumors) was observed for ever having been a regular cellular phone user (odds ratio = 0.87; p = 0.3) or for any other measure of exposure investigated.

The entire group consisted of "402 benign and 58 malignant incident cases of PGTs diagnosed in Israel at age 18 years or more, in 2001-2003, and 1,266 population individually matched controls." So, how did the journalists and Dr. Sadetzki get from this data to the claim that cell phones are a cancer risk for anybody? They got there because Dr. Sadetzki's team didn't stop their data analysis with the general issue of risk to people in general. They dug deeper and found consistently elevated risks for "regular users" of cell phones and for those who use cell phones under "conditions that may yield higher levels of exposure (e.g., heavy use in rural areas)." They found that for tumors occurring on the same side of the head as usual phone use (ipsilateral use), "the odds ratios in the highest category of cumulative number of calls and call time without use of hands-free devices were 1.58 (95% confidence interval: 1.11, 2.24) and 1.49 (95% confidence interval: 1.05, 2.13), respectively." (An odds ratio of 1 means the condition is equally likely in both groups. An odds ratio of 1.58 means that there was a 58% higher incidence of the condition in one group.)

I don't have access to the full report, but it is likely that the actual number of cases that fit the category of "regular users"  or "high exposure" users (two categories that are subjectively defined and whose limits can be set wherever the researchers see fit) would be significantly smaller than the 58 malignant cases in the study. Thus, finding a 50% greater chance of having a tumor by your right ear if you hold the phone to your right ear and are a heavy user might sound more impressive than it is. Are we talking about the difference between 6 cases in one group and 4 in another?  Before any grand conclusions are drawn about cell phone use and either tumors or cancer, replication is needed to rule out the possibility that these data are a fluke. In fact, the researchers conclude very weakly: "our results suggest an association between cellular phone use and PGTs." The data suggest an association. But a news story about a study that suggests an association between cell phones and tumors, most of which are benign, is like a story about there being a full moon and nothing happened. It has no hook to grab the reader's attention. But what reporter would let the truth get in the way of a good story?

One who promises to do so is medical writer Jerry Adler of Newsweek. In the December 10th issue he has an essay called "A Big Dose of Skepticism," in which he says that after reading biostatistician R. Barker Bausell's Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine he vows that he will "not report on any amazing new treatments for anything, unless they were tested in large, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind clinical trials published in high-quality peer-reviewed medical journals." For about five years Bausell was director of research for the University of Maryland's center to study complementary and alternative medicine. "Bausell's book," writes Adler, "could give one the idea that the two most dangerous words in medicine are 'studies show.'"

Now, if we could just get Adler and other journalists, as well as editors of conventional medical journals, to extend their skepticism to conventional medical studies, we might hear even less about the next faux miracle cure or deadly poison in our shopping carts.

Woo-woo of the minute

First prize this minute goes to Quantum-Touch.

Whether you are a complete novice, a physician, chiropractor, acupuncturist, reflexologist, Qigong practitioner, massage therapist, or other health-care professional, Quantum-Touch offers you a dimension of healing that, until now, has not seemed possible!

It's so simple, even a moron can do it.

Quantum-Touch was invented by a guy named RichardRichard Gordon Gordon, an "impassioned promoter of Life-Force Science." He says anyone can learn this stuff, "regardless of your age, culture, religion or belief system."

As the master says: "Only we can heal ourselves, just as only we can digest our own food." How true. Have you ever tried to digest someone else's food? It's not very pretty.

This Road Goes On Forever

The Forever Family Foundation (FFF) aims to "further the understanding of Afterlife Science through research and education while providing support and healing for people in grief." In an effort to achieve this goal, FFF is bringing together under one roof in the great city of San Francisco for two days only Dean Radin and Gary Schwartz. Next January 19th and 20th at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center, these two giants of the alternative science community will be joined by such luminaries as Dianne Arcangel, "an expert in the field of facilitated apparitions," Bruce Greyson, an expert in the field of looking for evidence of spirit leaving the body during an OBE, and reincarnation scientist Jim Tucker (Ian Stevenson's successor). The focus of the two-day extravaganza is captured in the thematic title: Investigations of Consciousness and The Unseen World - Proof of an Afterlife?

 A press release announces that this will be "a groundbreaking conference that will bring together world-renowned scientists, medical doctors, researchers, and mediums with a goal of educating the general public." What do you think the public will learn from the likes of Fred Alan Wolf? (He likes to claim that ancient eastern mysticism and quantum physics are simpatico and provide a real explanation of consciousness.) I think they'll learn that there is a ton of scientific evidence for the SOC (survival of consciousness) hypothesis and that after death everybody will be reunited with their pets and loved ones, while the people and animals they didn't get along with here on earth will be vaporized.

One speaker who sounds like he might be interesting is Arthur Hastings, who is listed as doing "psychomanteum research." I found a psychomanteum website and apparently these folks have intercourse with apparitions, not necessarily of a sexual nature. This stuff is said to be "a highly effective approach to healing bereavement" and looks to Raymond Moody for inspiration. He's the one who loves to scry with celebrities and gave a kick start to the NDEs-prove-SOC movement.

On the evening of Saturday the 19th, psychic entertainment will be provided by Loyd Auerbach, an expert on ghosts who will be performing as Professor Paranormal. I know this sounds like it's patterned after the Amazing Meetings, but one difference here is that these folks take a break after every talk and the breaks are specifically designated as times for book signings, concessions, and vendor sales. Click here for a copy of the complete, though tentative, schedule. The cost is only $275 for non-members like me. There is an additional charge of $45 for the Professor Paranormal show. For another $35 Continuing Education Units are available through HCH Institute of Layfayette, California. HCH is a hypnotherapy school that also offers Energy Therapy Certification. This is the kind of stuff that sometimes passes for vocational education in my home state.

Each day will conclude with a mediumship demonstration of spirit communication, one by Hollister Rand and the other by Robert Brown. Unfortunately, no video cameras are allowed, but audio taping of the spirit communication sessions are okay. Sorry, there are no refunds, not even for those who die on the way to the conference and show up during the spirit communication sessions.

Skeptic's Circle

The 75th edition of the Skeptic's Circle is up at Kristjan Wager's Pro-Science page. Go there for links to some of the finest blogging by defenders of truth, justice, and the rational way.

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