A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 7 No. 9

September 2, 2008

"There is no god and I am his prophet." --bumper sticker spotted at Rocky Mountain National Park by Steve Snyder

In this issue

Skeptics' Circle
What's new?
Blind leading the blind
Congratulations, Phil Plait!
Scum of the minute
Politics as usual
Acupuncture: the miracle therapy

95th edition of the Skeptics' Circle

I will be hosting the 95th edition of the Skeptics' Circle at Skeptimedia.

To join the circle, submit your entry to SC95@skepdic.com by midnight (EDT) Sept. 10.

Click here to learn more about the Skeptics' Circle.
Click here to view the 94th Skeptics' Circle.

What's New?

There are two new dictionary entries: The Resurrection and seeding trial. The first was written in response to a challenge by a young Christian. The latter was inspired by the work of several bloggers, mostly physicians who responded to an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine about a study done by Merck to promote Vioxx.

There were only three additions to the What's the Harm? page. While California burned, I left for the north country to find cleaner air and cooler temperatures. I found both and a lot more. I highly recommend the San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island for serenity and beauty, at least in the summer. While I was cooling off and relaxing, albinos were being killed in Tanzania, quacks were passing off their deadly intuitions as nutritional advice, and women were being murdered in Pakistan as a matter of tradition and honor. This may sound horrible but remember: it's all part of a secret intelligent plan.

Parts 6-9 of my 13-part deconstruction of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe are now up.

Two posts were made in Skeptimedia: The FBI on Trial takes a look at the Bruce Ivins case in light of other FBI work, and Ancient Wisdom considers the age-old question: why do intelligent people believe in ancient rubbish?

A reader's comments on chi were posted.

Updates were made to the following: Uri Geller (some legal nonsense), auras (new form of synaesthesia discovered), angel therapy (video of a therapist and her 4th husband), placebo effect (expectancy effect material expanded), criminal profiling (new article suggests police believe in profiling for the same reasons they believe in psychics), organic (food and farming) (yet another study finds no great benefit to organic food), and meta-analysis (added a link to a Respectful Insolence post).

Russell Targ admits he is legally blind

Russell Targ was trained in physics, but he is most well known for his experimental work with people claiming to have paranormal powers like Uri Geller and remote viewers who might help the U.S. military do some psychic spying on our many enemies around the universe. His recently published autobiography is entitled: Do You See What I See?: Memoirs of a Blind Biker. In the book, Targ discusses his congenitally poor vision and his dealing with face blindness (prosopagnosia). His poor eyesight may explain, in part, why it was so easy for Uri Geller to trick Targ with his spoon-bending routine when he was at SRI. Can any experiment Targ ever did that involved using vision to evaluate data be trusted?

Congratulations, Mr. President!

Phil Plait has been named president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. Great choice. Phil is a dynamic, bright, popular astronomer who does not suffer fools lightly. The move will give Randi time to finish his books and Phil a platform to expand his media presence and educate more people about science and critical thinking. I assume Phil will continue his popular website Bad Astronomy.

Scum of the minute

I used to tell my students that any fallacy that can be committed can be committed with statistics. Now I have to add that any pseudoscience that exists can exist with software. Check out what these folks have done for physiognomy or face reading.

Another wonderful site is http://www.trivortex.com/intro.html, where you can't buy Brian David Anderson's "treatment chamber." It's eight feet long and 10 inches in diameter, about the size of a python's casket. Supposedly, it uses computer graphics and computer-generated electromagnetic frequencies to "significantly improve" the taste and quality of any solid or liquid placed inside the chamber. Items placed in the chamber can also help reduce pain and increase health and joy.

You can buy some trinkets allegedly empowered by the treatment chamber. For a few hundred dollars, for example, you can get an anklet that will provide you with all the vitamins you need. Didn't somebody try this scam with little pyramids a few decades ago? Then there was the Q-Ray bracelet, taken to court, defeated, and still in business!

Entrepreneurs have discovered that the law usually won't bother those who make absurd claims about the benefits of their products, especially if the products are sold by someone claiming to be connected to a religion or the paranormal. When the law does come after the crooks, they pay a little fine, change their claims, and continue to sell their junk merchandise unmolested. A cynic might suspect law enforcement of taking the position that if people are stupid enough to fall for these "miracle" products, it serves them right to get ripped off.

Politics as usual, even if making history

Neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency has given much public indication that science or science education will play much of a role in the next administration. No science debate will take place, but Obama has answered some questions regarding his positions on science, technology, and society. McCain promises to provide answers in the future. (McCain's answers are posted here.)

Obama needs Ohio, so he went to church there soon after his party's convention ended. McCain needs a judgment transplant. First, he says the U.S. Supreme Court needs more judges like Scalia and Thomas. Then he selects Sarah Palin as his running mate. Biden is qualified to become president if need be, but Palin? Her main qualification seems to be that she wants every woman who gets pregnant to be required to give birth, which should satisfy the Ben Stein contingent of the Republican party. Actually, since the Republican party has called for an outright ban on abortions with no exceptions and no freedom of choice for any woman carrying a fertilized egg in her womb, the Ben Stein contingent is in tune with the party.

Speaking of Republicans, one wonders what the Swift boaters would do if Obama had been a prisoner of war for six years. Would they question his patriotism? How did he survive if he didn't cooperate? McCain admits he cooperated, yet he's still considered a "hero." Why? The Democrats don't seem to have the stomach for such degrading politics. Maybe that's why they keep losing.

Anyway, don't look for this precedent-setting, historical election to involve clean campaigns, and don't expect the media and the pundits to be fair and unbiased in their coverage. I would have said that the media has already picked Obama as our next president until I watched the lack of anything resembling a critical commentary on McCain's choice of Palin as the one to become president of the United States should McCain die or become incapacitated while in office. Talk about the fast track. She could go from mayor of an unknown small town in Alaska to president of the most powerful nation on earth in less time than it takes most college valedictorians to find a job after graduation. The media tried to make something of the fact that Palin's husband had a drunk-driving conviction 22 years ago and her 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant, but the Republicans are suddenly the party of forgiveness and grace.

In any case, it may not be Palin, but George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who are McCain's biggest obstacles to getting elected.* Lucky for McCain, both were obliged to skip opening night of the Republican convention. They were on the job in the South just in case their expert advice and deciding were necessary regarding a storm named Gustav. The convention wasn't disrupted and Texas was spared, demonstrating once again the power of prayer.

reader comments

It was to be expected that I would get a few emails objecting to the above comments. Any political comments offend somebody. I appreciate comments that say "you're wrong and here's why." I have little interest in comments that say "you shouldn't be making such comments." I'm not going to respond to the latter, but I will respond to the U.S. Navy veteran who objected to my comments about John McCain and explained why:

Probably under your standards set in the last newsletter, the only heroes of the Hanoi Hilton are those that died under torture. I am not much in judging who are heroes and who are not. Whether he is a hero or not, I am glad John McCain survived his captivity. In war you just try to do your duty as best you can while trying to keep your humanity in tact. I do not know how I will vote in the next election, but one thing I do know is the Unites States owes a great debt to the three generations of McCains. We are a stronger country because of them.

I, too, am glad John McCain survived his captivity. My comments were not directed at McCain but at those like the Swift boaters who will do anything and say anything, no matter how false or hurtful, to get their candidate elected. I was speculating, based on what they have done in the past and what they are doing now, as to what the Swift boaters would have done had Obama been in the Hanoi Hilton. I have no opinion on whether McCain should be given hero status because he survived a POW camp or whether, for that matter, John Kerry should be considered a hero for his actions in Vietnam. I do think Kerry learned an important lesson from Vietnam that McCain didn't learn, and his POW experience may have made it impossible for him to learn: Vietnam was a colossal mistake. (To the two Republicans who thought my comments were made by a shill for the Democrats, I note: it was John F. Kennedy who led the charge in that colossal mistake and Lyndon Johnson who extended it.)

In any case, I'm not interested in what John McCain did 40 years ago or Obama did 6 years ago. I think we should all be more interested in what they, or their VP choices, are likely to do over the next four or eight years than what they did many years ago. Party platforms are a good indication of what kinds of decisions each is likely to make should he become president.

The first major decision either one had to make, and the first indication of what kind of decision-making we can expect should either be elected, was the decision regarding who would be leading this country should the president die or become incapacitated in office.

As for the rest: the media continues to focus on the wrong things, the politicians are attacking the media for bias, the oratory of the politicians is bombastic and self-serving, and the dirt is already starting to fly. Like I said, politics as usualeven though we will have a black president or a female vice-president next year. Either way, we'll make history. Will it be progress? Only time will tell.

p.s. After posting the above, another Navy veteran wrote me:

You have my permission to tell the world that another U.S. Navy veteran with 21 years' service and three tours in Vietnam wrote to say he agrees with you on this matter in every particular.

Acupuncture for mental illness and rape victims

Is there nothing acupuncture can't do? Bogus studies abound on how sticking needles in your ears or other parts of your body can enlarge your breasts, help you get pregnant, relieve your headache, cure your drug addiction, relieve menopausal problems, end your smoking habits, or stop your craving for chocolate. Now comes the claims that acupuncture is good for treating mental illness and rape victims.

According to RedOrbit: "Acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment option that, along with other CAM treatments, patients with psychiatric illness choose far more often than do nonpsychiatric patients." If any patients know what's best for them, it's psychiatric patients. Of course, it helps if you also believe that illnesses like depression are caused by such things as "stagnation of liver Qi caused by repressed anger" or "innate deficiency of kidney Qi."

That's not all. "According to the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization, acupuncture is effective in treating post-traumatic symptoms." So say officials in Alachua County, Florida.*  "Victim Advocate Therapist" Linda Murray says acupuncture will also help survivors of rape. She says it, so it must be so. Free acupuncture will be available as part of support-group therapy for survivors of rape trauma. The program is being sponsored by the Rape Crisis Trust Fund.*

I'm sure we haven't heard the last of the million-and-one things you can do with acupuncture. Stay tuned.

* AmeriCares *

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