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From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 8 No. 1

January 8, 2009

"... there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. " --Abraham Lincoln

In this issue

What's new?
Best award award
Paranormal media
Acupuncture for Colorado
A new skeptical blog
Scum of the minute
Old-time religion
Defaming a faith healer

What's New?

new entries

I added three new posts to the Skeptimedia blog. "Framing the Medicine Wars" discusses the term 'scientific medicine' and why I prefer it to 'evidence-based medicine' or 'science-based medicine.' The triggering event was an article about "battlefield acupuncture," a practice to be introduced this month to our troops in Afghanistan.

"2009" spoofs numerology and prophecy, while masquerading as advice to our new president.

"PBS Infomercial for Daniel Amen's Clinics" rants against the PBS practice of promoting the product lines of quacks under the guise of innovative programming.

An entry on hindsight bias was added. It is with hindsight bias that I now realize the cause of all our economic woes was not Bill Clinton, as Michael Shermer claims, but Alan Greenspan. It was Greenspan who first offered federal money to bail out banks and companies so interconnected that if one fails, a domino effect can occur, bringing down the global economy. These federal bailouts were first kept secret. This is a free economy, after all. Now it seems that having the government pump billions of dollars into private banks and corporations so they can keep the "free market" going is de rigueur for any economics-wise politician. The only alternative our leaders can come up with seems to be the one that eliminates the middle man: cut taxes. Why tax us and give the money to the banks and corporations so they can give us money on loan or for work? Just give us the money directly by cutting our taxes. Obama, the man of change, has already announced some sort of tax cut in the area of $300 billion. That's a lot of change in my neighborhood.

Thanks to the British Medical Journal, I added four suburban myths covering hangovers, late night eating, wearing a hat, and poinsettias.

The What's the Harm? blog has three new entries:

  1. January 8, 2009. Witch burning in Papua New Guinea.
  2. January 7, 2009. Christian writer accused of stealing story from another Christian writer.
  3. December 19, 2008. Psychic arrested for elder abuse and Christian missionaries in Africa abusing children with exorcism rites.

    Stories of fortune tellers being arrested for stealing fortunes are becoming repetitious. I'm not going to list any more such cases on my What's the Harm? page.

revisions and reader comments

I revised the last newsletter to clarify why I brought up the issue of illegal immigrants.

Since retroactive clairvoyance is an effect of hindsight bias, I revised it to better connect with the new entry.

After news of the Madoff scandal hit I revised the Ponzi scheme entry to add a little history on Mr. Ponzi.

Comments from a witness to the plane flying into the Pentagon on 9/11 were posted.

Acupuncturist Rex responded to my comments and I responded in kind, as did a reader in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Comments were posted from a reader regarding my Statistics and Medical Studies article, which gave me an opportunity to clarify a couple of points.


acupuncture (material added on "battlefield acupuncture");

organic food and farming (material added on a scandal concerning synthetic fertilizers being sold as organic to big farms);

HIV/AIDS denial (link added to article on the death of Christine Maggiore);

anti-vaccination movement (link added to article on Amanda Peet and Dr. Paul Offit who are trying to combat the Jenny McCarthies of the world).

As a semi-joke, I posted the "psychic" predictions for 2008 made by financial forecaster Michael Brush in December of 2007. My favorite is: "The economy will be fine. Sure, the housing and auto sectors are a mess. But they represent only 9% of the economy, though you might not know it because they seem to garner 95% of the attention of the financial media...."

Best Award award

The Best Award award for 2008 goes to People for the American Way (PAW) for their Equine Posterior Achievement Award (aka The Honorary McPalin Award)

...created to honor that leader whose abilities to misrepresent an issue, manipulate his/her followers, brazenly disregard reality or pander to our baser instincts reach such ridiculous levels that we don't know whether to laugh or cry. In other words, a genuine "horse's patootie."

There are nine nominees awaiting your vote. I'm happy to say that I'd only heard of two of these swell folks before now. If I could, though, I'd vote for somebody not on the list: Diane Hennacy Powell, M.D.

The PAW folks favor nominees whose political views are simpatico with slave owners and televangelists, but I like the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine graduate. Hennacy Powell, a former Director of Research for the John E. Mack Institute, has a book out called The ESP Enigma: The Scientific Case for Psychic Phenomena. She was recently interviewed by Time magazine. "Experiments have shown,"  Hennacy Powell told Time, "that most psychic experiences occur when our sensory organs are muted, like when we're dreaming or having a near-death experience." Experiments have shown many false things, but this is not one of them. No number of experiments could show what Hennacy Powell claims.

Assuming that there are psychic experiences, there is no way that experiments could show when or under what circumstances most of them occur. Does this really need to be explained? Whatever any number of experiments have shown about psychic experiences, they cannot show that the results could not have occurred naturally or artificially by other means. Her belief in psi-conducive states shows a brazen disregard for reality and for other observers and defenders of the paranormal. Some equally competent observers maintain that psychic experiences occur only in an agitated state. There are others, equally competent, who swear that they occur only spontaneously and can't be induced by experiments.

Robert Jahn said that psi is irreplicable because it is "sensitive to a variety of psychological and environmental factors that are difficult to specify, let alone control." J. G. Pratt said that psi is a spontaneous occurrence in nature and that "predictable repeatability is unattainable." Freeman J. Dyson said that paranormal events occur only when people are under stress and experiencing strong emotions. Charles Honorton agreed with Powell's position, but he was contradicted by Susan Blackmore who claims in her book on consciousness that the psi-conducive claim has never been proven.

There have been some telepathy experiments where senders or receivers have been in a state of reduced sensory input, such as the Maimonides dream telepathy experiments, which have shown some apparent success. However, that success has been met with some serious criticism by Hansel, Hyman, and Marks. It is likely that sensory deprived states are not psi-conducive states, but are high suggestibility or hallucination states. Sensory deprivation stimulates auditory and visual hallucinations. Hypnosis works especially well with suggestible and fantasy-prone imaginations. Perceptions under alleged psi-conducive conditions are better explained as being generated by the imagination or by the brain itself rather than by some external psi-based stimulus.

So, I would say that Hennacy Powell misrepresents the issue and shows brazen disregard for reality. Not everyone agrees with me that magical thinking is one of our more base instincts, but I think Dr. Powell's pandering is on par with Dean Radin, John Mack, Deepak Chopra, and Gary Schwartz.

Hennacy Powell also told Time: "Some dreams actually are tapping into some other time and place, and there's real information in them. Others are just imagination. I think that's one of the reasons why psychics don't have 100% accuracy, sometimes it's just their imagination." How does she know this? Is she psychic? She assumes some dreams tap into "real information." She even thinks she knows where this information comes from: the future. How does she know? Because of quantum physics and Einstein's view on space-time. As soon as an M.D. promoting psychic experience mentions quantum physics and Einstein the ring tone on my crap detector goes off. (It plays "Jesus Christ Superstar" by the way, and is very annoying.) Consider her logic:

Our brain only allows us to experience time as a series of recurrent moments. What Einstein's saying is that when we're talking about time we're really talking about a psychological construct. Time is like any other dimension in that it isn't limited. Like space, we have up and down, east and west, they go bidirectionally. Why would time be something different than that? If we didn't have the constraints of our brain and our psychology that limit our experiences, we would be able to see that.

If Hennacy Powell doesn't win the Equine Posterior Achievement Award, she should at least win the Gary Schwartz Hoof in the Mouth Award for blowing smoke and air out of all her orifices at the same time while sounding vaguely knowledgeable and confidently arrogant.

If you want to know what the scientific evidence for the paranormal really shows, see my review of Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe and my Short History of Psi Research.

I went to Amazon.com to confirm my bias and find a reviewer who would list the flaws in Hennacy Powell's book. It didn't take me long to find what I was looking for. The first and only review I read is from Publishers Weekly:

In science it is axiomatic that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Powell, a neuropsychiatrist who has taught at Harvard Medical School, certainly makes extraordinary claims about the four basic psychic abilities: telepathy, psychokinesis, clairvoyance and precognition. But her evidence is consistently below par. She relies on self-reported claims by psychics, hundred-year-old newspaper accounts and the results of studies published by organizations like the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research rather than in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journals (and sometimes she cites no source at all).

Powell is woefully short on mechanisms to explain the phenomena she claims are so common, although she does turn to quantum physics to assert that molecular resonance and the space-time continuum are likely responsible, and she finds evolutionary explanations for the existence of psychic phenomena. She claims, for instance, that psychic events are related to dreaming, which may have evolved so babies, who mostly sleep, can detect threats and communicate them psychically to their parents. Undaunted by the weak evidence, Powell asserts that she is on the forefront of a Copernican revolution of the mind.

On the off chance that I might be missing the read of a lifetime, I know I should oppose my instincts and buy this  book. My self-control is strong, though, and I think I will be able to resist temptation once again thanks to my religious upbringing.*

I might mention that the Time piece was written by M. J. Stephey and was entitled The Junk Science Behind Psychic Phenomena. Not really. I added the word 'Junk' because it should be there.

The paranormal and the media

Occasionally, a reporter contacts me for a skeptical verbal byte. Sometimes the reporter is actually interested in what I have to say, but most of the time he thinks he's fulfilling some sort of "balance" requirement by having a few token words from "the other side." The latest contact I had came from a reporter writing about a report done by "some paranormal investigators who spent the night at a local 'haunted' train depot (converted to a restaurant)." The reporter said he wanted my thoughts on the following:

How otherwise normal-seeming people can delude themselves into believing a supernatural explanation for everything that goes bump in the night.

Whether there's anything inherently wrong with that self-delusion. Can it be seen as just harmless fun?

Whether you've seen a rise in supernatural beliefs and, if so, what is driving it?

This reporter was obviously different from most who contact me. He wasn't buying the ghost story, but he wasn't quite sure how he should deal with these "otherwise normal-seeming people," who probably don't differ too much from his newspaper's readers. The balance needed here is tricky. How do I convey that this is bunk without offending my readers and risking the loss of more customers from a rapidly diminishing base? I have no idea how to do that, of course, but I responded anyway.

I said that I'd be careful to distinguish those who believe in the paranormal from those who believe in the supernatural. The ghost hunters belong in the first category. The folks who pray on All Souls Day in their churches belong to the latter. They don't always overlap, though they often do. Many devotees of the supernatural consider the paranormal the work of the devil. On the other hand, many devotees of the paranormal think they are doing God's work. It's a bit messy and I admit that the easiest way to deal with them is to treat them as members of the same lunatic fringe group, while being tactful, of course, and referring to them as "alternative thinkers" or something inoffensive like "seekers" or "students of the occult."

I'd say the main reason for the continued popularity of both the supernatural and the paranormal has to do with the desire to stay connected with loved ones who have passed away and to join them someday where there is no death. The mass media movies and especially television (Oprah, Larry King, and shows like Medium)—often feature supernatural and paranormal themes, which have always been popular with the masses, and these programs create a kind of feedback loop. The desire leads to the creation of media that fuel the desire.

Another reason for the popularity of supernatural and paranormal beliefs is that most people don't study perception and cognition the way psychologists do, so they are not knowledgeable of the many cognitive and perceptual biases that can deceive and mislead us. As a result, they're not prepared to question many of the beliefs their communities have reinforced every day of their upbringing. Or, they do study the biases, but only after they've developed a strong belief in the supernatural or the paranormal. Thus, they're able to see the biases as affecting opponents of their beliefs, but they develop elaborate rationalizations to immunize themselves against the charge of self-deception.

What I find most offensive about ghost hunters is that they pretend to be scientists and in their television programs or movies they encourage stupidity and scorn for science. They don't encourage people to consider alternative explanations for their observations; they misuse scientific or normal camera and recording equipment. They come up with paranormal explanations for various bumps in the night, but they ignore physical explanations like wind, animals scurrying about, infrasound from electronic equipment, etc. Confirmation bias is just one of many cognitive errors they encourage. All the equipment they use was designed for some other use than detecting ghosts. They improvise and call blips on an EMF meter indications of a "presence" or say any blur in a film indicates a specter. If postmodernists wanted to create their own science, this is how I imagine they would do it. Start with a belief, cherry-pick data, and make up whatever you want to support your bias.

Is it harmless fun? It might look like it, but the combined effect of all these ghost hunters is to encourage people, especially children, to believe things that are palpably not true. There are dozens of these "investigative" folks out there. I started keeping track of them after reading in Skeptical Inquirer that Paul Kurtz thinks nobody's interested in the paranormal anymore. I listed about twenty ghost-hunting groups at the end of an article I wrote about a year ago on using ghost stories to teach critical thinking. I've stopped following the news stories about these irritating morons, however.

These stories also scare people and there's enough real stuff that we should be more worried about. These junk scientists are getting a lot of press and there is a danger that many kids or their teachers might see this stuff on television or in the movies and think this is good science. It isn't. It's junk. But it has helped me understand why those in power used to burn at the stake anyone who annoyed them.

Coloradoans on Medicare may get acupuncture for their spinal injuries

Why? "To save the government money," says state Rep. Nancy Todd. She says that she plans to revive a bill that was vetoed last year, a measure that would provide alternative therapies like acupuncture and chiropractic treatment for Medicare patients with spinal cord injuries. I think we all knew this was coming. Will it save money? Time will tell, but bad medicine usually isn't a good bet.

Another skeptical blog

There is a new blog on the block called Free Thinking and it features nine writers from the Center for Inquiry, including Joe Nickell, Ben Radford, Tom Flynn, and D.J. Grothe. I updated my blog roll for the new year and now list about 100 skeptical/science blogs. I'm sure the list is incomplete, so take a look at it and inform me of blogs that you think should be listed.

Scum of the minute

I heard about Aqua Mantra on Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Whole Earth stores feature this "water that resonates with the energy and frequency of your well-being." No, no, anything but resonating with the frequency of my well-being! How did they figure out my frequency and what do they do to make their water resonate? They write mantras (words) on bottles of aqua. They're banking (literally) on the primitive instinct for magical thinking. They claim:

The thoughts inherent in those words permeate the liquid, influencing the taste and beneficial properties of the water. If you are drinking ‘I am Healthy’ for example, you will resonate with the energy to be healthy. ' I am Loved' will encourage you to feel loved and 'I am Lucky' will encourage you to feel gratitude for your life and how you want to be lucky!

They couldn't say it if it weren't true. And guess where these folks got their inspiration? Ben Stein? No. Jenny McCarthy? No. Matthias Rath? No. Oprah? Maybe. They say that their product was inspired by the film What the Bleep Do We Know?!

This movie discussed the underlying quantum mechanics of our world.  It showed how reality is changed with every thought. Dr. Masaru Emoto, who was featured in the film, wrote a book called “Hidden Messages in Water.” He showed us the basic principles of quantum theory, whereby the molecular structure of water was changed by a Zen Buddhist monk’s thought.

Doctor? Yes, he bought a doctorate in alternative medicine from the Open International University for Alternative Medicine in India.* If a Dr. says it, it must be true or else he couldn't say it in a movie. Of course, Emoto's critics couldn't say what they say unless what they say is also true. Critics say that what Emoto says isn't true. Furthermore, I couldn't have written the previous sentences unless they were all true. This is known as the truth-tellers paradox.

Promoting religion the old-fashioned way

Over the years I've had several religious people thank me for criticizing belief in the paranormal. They seem to think that there's hope for me if I can see the error of the ways of the psychic. Someday, perhaps, I'll see the error of the ways of the atheist. Or so they hope. Another example of the religious distaste for the paranormal came to my attention recently. A fellow named Peter Cannon has produced a 13-part series called "Stories of the Supernatural." The subjects of these shows are demons, exorcism, the occult, ghosts, dreams, visions, angels, and legends. It features interviews with "experts" and those who have had "first-hand supernatural experiences."

As far as I know, the only station showing these programs is KAIL (Channel 53) in Visalia, California. The first episode was to air on January 2, 2009. I don't live in Visalia, so I don't know whether the show went on as planned. Bob Jenkins, KAIL program director, said that his station wants "to broaden our programming options for the viewers. And if we can do that with a locally produced show, all the better." For his part, Cannon said: "We really want to explore the spiritual side of the supernatural." What? As opposed to the natural and fictional side? Cannon created his programs to counteract the inaccuracy of TV shows and movies that "portray demons as harmless and ghosts as the souls of the dearly departed." Is this the beginning of the anti-medium movement?

Cannon's "experts" discuss the harmful effects of the occult. They include exorcist and self-promoter Bob Larson; Mary K. Baxter, author of A Divine Revelation of Heaven; former occult practitioner Curtis Kelley; and Bryan Melvin, author of Hell's Dominion: A Land Unknown. Sounds like an all-star cast to me. To his credit (and in accord with his budget), Cannon used local actors to create dramatizations of his stories.

If there is a positive response to the shows, Cannon will produce a Spanish-language version. For a sneak peak at the show click here.


In the film "Charlie Wilson's War," CIA agent Gust responds to Wilson's optimism about something resulting from their action by telling the story of the Taoist parable of the farmer. The story has many variations but one goes something like this:

A farmer's best stallion gets loose and runs away. His neighbor consoles him and says this is bad. The farmer says, "Who knows what is good and what is bad?"  The next day the stallion returns bringing with him three wild mares. The neighbor congratulates the farmer on his good fortune, but the farmer says again: "Who knows what is good and what is bad?" The next day the farmer's son falls off one of the wild mares and breaks his arm and his leg. The neighbor offers his condolences, but the farmer says again: "Who knows what is good and what is bad?" The next day the army comes to the farm to conscript the farmer's son for war service, but since the son is now an invalid, the army leaves him with his father. The neighbor gets it now and says:  "Who knows what is good and what is bad?"

Looking back at the CIA's coup in Iran in 1953, I'm sure many in our government thought this was good and nobody said: "Who knows what is good and what is bad?" After 9/11, which is not that hard to see as an endpoint emanating from CIA action in Iran and other places, what American didn't say "this is evil"? Some Muslims, Iranian or not, might have celebrated the event as good. We're in two wars because of our government's reaction to 9/11. Good or bad? Who knows what will unfold 20, 30, 50 years from now as a result of those wars, though I must admit my imagination goes blank in trying to envisage great good arising from these ashes.

If a girl is raped but gives birth to someone who finds a cure for cancer, will the rape become good? This parable, like most other parables, probably had a simple point that disappears on close inspection. Sure, we never know what the sum of the consequences will be of any action. What seems to be a great misfortune today, like failing to get into the college of your choice, might turn out great if you meet the girl of your dreams at your local community college and live happily ever after. What appears good or evil now may have tremendously evil or good consequences down the line. In this sense of good or evil, there are no absolutes: everything is relative to those affected directly by the action. So, the same thing can be both good and evil, even to the same person at different times. But this parable has nothing to say about anything being good or evil in itself, without concern for its consequences. Some of the consequences of a rape may be good to some people, but that doesn't make rape good. Murdering someone might bring about great good; that doesn't make murder good.

I bring these things up because many of us are wondering what good will come from the events of the previous year. For many, 2008 was a year that brought us the worst of times and the best of times. As I look back, I think that one of the best things that happened in terms of giving skepticism a boost was the failure of the economy and the Madoff rip-off. These events should make us more uncertain about things in general.

Or am I being too optimistic? We've lived through eight years of leadership by an uncompromising patriarchal autocrat who may have reminded some people of a strong-willed leader but reminded me of the captain in "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." Is the recession good or bad? Is losing your home good or bad? Is losing your nest egg good or bad? Is losing your son or daughter in war good or bad? Does it all depend on how you look at it? Does it depend on where you're looking from? Maybe the moral of the parable is something simple like "what seems good today may turn out bad tomorrow and what seems bad today may turn out good tomorrow."

All of which reminds me of the advice Maya Angelou gave Dave Chappelle: Don't pick it up and don't lay it down.

And that reminds me of my reaction to an e-mail I received recently:

Tonight was my first discovery of your wonderful web site. My friends call my (what I think is healthy) skepticism "negativity." But it's not. I am a "realist," and after all of my initial resistance to this supposed "Bible code," after having found your web site and reading your very clear and concise explanation of WHY I am so uncomfortable with this supposed hidden "code," I am now very comfortable and feel completely validated. You know a lot more about how it works than I do, but you have given me a viable defense to send on to my circle.

I have added your web site to my Favorites. Thank you!

My reaction was not: Thank you. This is why I do this work. No, my reaction was: If you keep reading my site, you will eventually find something that repulses you. I won't seem so wonderful then. When that happens, I hope my new reader will not resist the urge to let me know how wrong I am. Who knows what is good or bad?

Algerian reporter and her boss jailed for defaming charlatan

El Watan newspaper, one of Algeria's leading independent dailies, said manager Omar Belhouchet and reporter Salima Tlemcani were sentenced to three months in jail for an article that accused a faith healer of using "charlatan-like practices." They were also fined 50,000 dinars (500 euro or $700) each. The two were charged with defamation of the faith healer.

Dr. Sebabou Mohamed claims he can exorcise ghosts from patients. The reporter went undercover and sought the faith healer's advice. He told her she was possessed and prescribed honey and olive oil. After the article appeared, the Ethics Committee of the Algerian Physicians' Syndicate investigated the healer and shut down his practice. The Order of Algerian Doctors confirmed that Sebabou Mohamed was not registered as a medical doctor. After the Ethics Committee stopped his practice, Sebabou Mohamed sued the newspaper for defamation.

Aidan White of the International Federation of Journalists said that the journalists are being prosecuted for exposing bogus healers who are taking advantage of the most vulnerable people in society.

"This ruling fails to take account of the vital role the press play in protecting the public from fraud and deception. When media are penalized for exposing humbug and duplicity the fundamental basis of press freedom in a democratic society is weakened."

Their lawyer is appealing the case.

El Watan publicly opposed President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's reform of the Algerian constitution last month to abolish presidential term limits. There are about a dozen separate lawsuits now pending against the newspaper. Coincidence?

[Note: The above story is based on several Internet news reports, which do not tell a consistent story. I know nothing about Algerian law, but in the U.S. civil and criminal courts are separate. Nobody here goes to jail for losing a defamation suit, as far as I know.]

A milestone

The next newsletter will be my 100th. Time will tell whether that's good or bad. The real milestone, of course, will occur on January 20, when Barack Obama is inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America. Some skeptics have been howling about his choice of Rick Warren to give some sort of prayer or blessing at the event. Obama's also invited Joseph Echols Lowery to pray with him and those in attendance. I'm howling because he's praying. Period. Give it up. The 43rd president claims he came up with some of his best ideas while praying. To which I can only say, God help us. Even worse, Obama is being sworn in on a Bible. Why not Leaves of Grass? If our new president really wants to change things he might have invited poets instead of preachers to celebrate this milestone. Although judging from the reaction to poet and atheist Jennifer Michael Hecht's comments to D.J. Grothe, many skeptics would be outraged to hear a poet when Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are available for free. How about a compromise and have Obama take the oath with one hand on Neil deGrasse Tyson's The Sky is not the Limit and the other pointing at the Lincoln Memorial.

* AmeriCares *

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