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Robert Todd Carroll

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November 15, 2003. I didn't realize until I read Libby Copeland's article in the Washington Post that St. Francis of Assisi had appeared to pet psychic Sonya Fitzpatrick in 1994. "He said I'd eventually be doing God's work with animals," Fitzpatrick says. "Which is surely what she's doing right now," according to Copeland. So now this charlatanism is "God's work"? Well, if God's work is peddling hope, then she's doing God's work. She reveals to her audiences that because of reincarnation pets can return. It is interesting that she doesn't mention that that doesn't mean they'll ever see the dead pet again or if they do that it might have them for breakfast. Even more interesting is that Fitzpatrick has solved the problem of going on tour without having a menagerie of pets making "a little peepee or plopsy-wopsy" throughout the theater: She can do psychic readings from photographs of the pets. That makes it cleaner all around. Hundreds of people pay $40 each for tickets to her petfests.

Fitzpatrick may have read Ian Rowland's book on cold reading or she may just have picked up the tricks of the trade by chance, but she certainly exhibits knowledge of what Rowland calls the Win-Win situation. When she's wrong, she's right.

Sometimes Fitzpatrick is right on the money and sometimes she isn't. When she is, the pet owners look shocked. Sometimes, if she's telling them about a pet that "passed over," the owners cry. When Fitzpatrick isn't right, she explains that's because the animals (which, incidentally, she can see in spirit form swarming all over the stage) sometimes get their telepathic transmissions crossed. But she knows just how to remedy this. For example, she asks a woman with two cats which one was a "rescue cat." The woman says neither was, but Fitzpatrick still feels its presence, so she asks the other people onstage. None of them has a rescue cat. She turns to the audience. It was a tabby that passed over, she says. "It had trouble with its teeth toward the end." A woman in the audience stands up. It's her cat that is transmitting thoughts to Fitzpatrick! The description is dead on, aside from the fact that her cat is still alive. (Copeland)

Fitzpatrick has taken animalquackership to new heights. She dispenses advice to buy her new pet food, Sonya Fitzpatrick's Omega Natural, while doing her readings. She also explains her unique abilities to Copeland, who, good journalist that she is, passes this information on without any comments from a skeptic. According to Fitzpatrick, "Animals communicate on a higher level of consciousness than human beings." This requires her to keep switching back and forth between sides of her brain. One side is used for talking to people and the other side is used for getting transmissions from animals. She tells her followers that they too can be psychic. Here's the key:

"We have electromagnetic fields running through the body," she says. "And through the earth plane there's electromagnetic fields."

I guess that's about as sophisticated an answer as you need for people who bring a picture of a pet to a psychic reading and pay $40 to someone who will ask them questions like "When did you take him somewhere where he was outside by water?"

note: Justin Higgins' letter to the editor complaining about the pet psychic article was published by the Post. I reprint it here:

Saturday, November 22, 2003; Page A19

The article on "pet psychic" Sonya Fitzpatrick [Style, Nov. 15] states that the "science of telepathic communication with animals is murky." In fact, it isn't murky at all; it is nonexistent. This article was surprisingly uncritical of Fitzpatrick's ability, and its primary effect likely will be to convince people that she must be the real deal.

Fitzpatrick uses techniques that self-proclaimed psychics have been using for centuries to convince her audience that she is able to communicate telepathically. In fact her talent is in combining guesswork and a basic knowledge of her subject matter (in this case, animal behavior). As with "psychic" John Edward, the worst part of her act is that she exploits the grief of people whose pets have died under the guise of helping them communicate with them from beyond the grave. The most insightful statement in this piece was that "fans of Fitzpatrick are eager to help her interpret her psychic insights."

Psychics depend on the fact that most people want to believe in their abilities and want to be comforted by statements such as "your pet loves you."

Unfortunately, articles such as this only further cement many people's uncritical belief in the paranormal and help those who would exploit those beliefs to line their own pockets.

-- Justin Higgins

November 11, 2003. George Barna, the Christian pollster, has released the results of his latest research, in which he claims that morality continues to decay. Unfortunately, he didn't mean that crimes by CEOs and other corporate executives are increasing or that terrorism is on the rise, but that more people think it's ok to have sexual fantasies and other such really important moral issues. Barna, like many evangelical Christians, thinks the fact that 30% of Americans approve of homosexual sex is a very bad sign, not because we should be more tolerant but because we should be less tolerant.

In Michael Shermer's E-Skeptic Newsletter for November 10, he comments that Barna "publishes data not favorable to Christians or religion (such as the fact that the divorce rate among Christians is just as high as it is for non-Christians and atheists [not quite accurate;]). This increases my confidence in the integrity of his data." I don't question Barna's numbers or methodology, but I do question the integrity of his data because he is very selective in what kind of data he collects and in how he frames that data. Barna's survey tells me nothing important about morality. He tells me about people's views of what is acceptable to them, which is quite a different matter. Barna says things like “The data trends indicate that the moral perspectives of Americans are likely to continue to deteriorate,” which is codswallop. What kind of researcher imposes his own values on the data? It's one thing to ask do you think abortion is acceptable? but it is quite another thing to take the data and claim that it shows a decline in morality. It is the height of arrogance to claim, as Barna does, “Until people recognize that there are moral absolutes and attempt to live in harmony with them, we are likely to see a continued decay of our moral foundations.” Until people like Barna recognize that the kind of moral absolutes they are concerned with are smokescreens and distractions, we will continue to see a decline in intelligent polling.

Why didn't this pollster ask any questions about what he considers to be good behavior? Is it because he hasn't a clue? Is good the absence of bad? You're good if you oppose abortion, homosexuality, pornography, gambling, and drunkenness? Is that it? Oh, I forgot. You can't have any impure thoughts, either. That's what we used to call sexual fantasies. What about charity? Helping the poor? Visiting the sick? Forgiveness?

Why are evangelical Christians so obsessed with homosexuality? Why aren't they interested in stealing and lying, especially by corporate executives or political leaders? Why aren't they interested in fraud, especially religious fraud by the many phony faith healers who continue to prey upon the weak, the sick, and the old? Why aren't they interested in preemptive murder? Instead, they're interested in whether we approve of looking at pictures of nudes or of explicit sex. They're more concerned about a president cheating on his wife than they are about one who would allow his friends to steal from a pension fund (apologies to Chris Rock). I'd say these folks have their priorities screwed up and wouldn't know whether morality is going up or down if it slapped them in the face in both directions.

Maybe what really irritates me about Barna's poll is that he places me in the category of Elders, the last group on the right when it comes to age. This has led me to use more profanity than usual.

By the way, here's Barna's evidence for the continues to decay part of his message about morality: “Compared to surveys we conducted just two years ago, significantly more adults are depicting such behaviors as morally acceptable. For instance, there have been increases in the percentages that condone sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender other than a spouse, abortion (up by 25%), and a 20% jump in people’s acceptance of ‘gay sex.’" According to the numbers he posts, this means that two years ago only 10% of the population approved of gay sex and only 20% approved of abortion. Frankly, I don't even know what it means to say "I approve of abortion" but the stat regarding gay sex seems to me a sign our morals are improving. We're becoming more tolerant. Maybe some day those who keep looking to the Bible to support their fanatic interest in suppressing homosexuality will realize that just because some wandering shepherds a few thousand years ago stoned people to death for eating shrimp or eagles doesn't mean we should do it too. We ought to think for ourselves.

Maybe that is what Michael Shermer will advocate in his new book on the science of good and evil. He was recently interviewed by Fortune magazine about the topic. In the interview, Shermer commends "the Google guys" because "they have these grand visions for colonizing Mars and creating a new society somewhere. They aren't in it to make money, retire, and play golf." He also commends Bill Gates because he "wants to end problems in Africa. He's not building a golf course." Do I detect a theme here? An anti-golf theme? Maybe his next book will be Good and Evil Golf. My guess is that if we colonize Mars, the second thing we'll do is turn it into a retirement community and build golf courses there. The first thing we'll do is shoot anything that moves.

July 14, 2003. One of the stupidest stories I've ever read in a newspaper appeared in today's (Florida). It's called "Astrologer says nation's future is in the stars" by David Hackett. Some clown did a natal chart on the U.S.A., using  July 4, 1776 at 5:10 p.m. as the moment of the birth of the nation. It just gets more moronic after that.
[thanks to David Martin]

Actually there was an equally idiotic article on a couple of days ago about a witch trying to cast a spell to lure Nessie out of the Loch.

Dressed in his white witch robes, he will make a circle of stones and burn incense while casting a spell invoking earth, air, fire and water.

Worse. Some jackass is going to take a movie of the whole thing.
[thanks to Duncan Gill]

March 23, 2003. Parade magazine, the Sunday supplement that used to feature articles by the likes of Carl Sagan but which now favors articles on natural healing and complementary medicine, features a cover story with the teaser "Can Prayer Really Heal?" It is described as a "report" by Dianne Hales, an author of several books on health. The Parade cover leaves open the nature of this report: "In the last 10 years, hundreds of scientific studies--at some of the nation's top universities--have probed a link between health and religious faith. The data may surprise you." But the article itself, which begins on page 4, has a more suggestive, even if misleading, title: "Why Prayer Could Be Good Medicine [my emphasis]." Note the weasel word "could." The teaser reads "New research exploring the connection between biology and spiritual practice--once derided as scientific heresy--may offer insight into how the body heals [my emphasis]."

My main reason for calling this article bunk is not, however, because the author weasels. No. The main problem with this article is that is biased and selective in what it presents. You don't need to do any studies at all to know that prayer might be good medicine. And if the best that hundreds of scientific studies can show is that new research may offer new insight into how the body heals, then this article is clearly overhyped.

The article also fails to clarify what is meant by prayer. Did the researchers in the hundreds of studies define prayer? Did they all use the term to mean the same thing? She notes early on in her article that a particular man and his family prayed for his recovery from a heart attack and the man believes that "God answered those prayers." We are to infer from this, I suppose, that prayer is a request to God. This seems reasonable since she later distinguishes between petitionary prayer (for oneself) and intercessory prayer (for others). But what about those who don't believe in an anthropomorphic god who listens to requests and grants some but not others? I'm not talking about atheists, either. Furthermore, she mentions meditation studies in her article. But meditation is not prayer, at least not prayer that involves making requests of a god. Should studies that involve meditation be clearly separated from those involving prayer?

I would like to say that I have nothing against prayer. I used to pray in my younger days. I prayed to give thanks for what I thought were my blessings. I prayed to God to do things for me and for others. I even prayed for general things like peace and good will. I know that prayer can be beneficial. It can make one feel good, especially in situations where things are really not in your control. I also think that those who pray to bring about good things to themselves, their loved ones, or total strangers are affecting their attitudes in a good way. The benefits of a good attitude are tangible and not to be scoffed at. I have no doubt that prayer or meditation can be an integral part of some people's daily health regime.

But I do have problems with trying to measure something like the effect of prayer on healing. I also have problems with writers who claim to be giving a report on an issue when they don't tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The article begins very strangely. It starts off in common fashion with an inspirational story about a man, his family, and how he thinks prayer cured him of a serious heart condition. Then Hales takes a strange twist by claiming that researchers at the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., are going to monitor this man "to see whether his faith and prayers do indeed have a measurable impact on his long-term recovery." If this is an indication of what the "hundreds of studies" are like that have been done on the healing power of prayer, then any intelligent person should stop reading the article after this first paragraph. Anyone who thinks you will learn anything important about the relationship of faith and prayers to health recovery by studying one man over a period of time doesn't think. If this man dies of a heart attack tomorrow, what would that prove? Nothing. If he lives to be one hundred, what would that prove? Nothing. No scientist worthy of the name would monitor a single individual in hopes of learning whether faith and prayers have a measurable effect. I assume that the people at Geisinger have set up some sort of meaningful controls for their study and that there will be hundreds of individuals in the study, not just this one heart patient. But Hales gives no indication that this is the case or that such details might be important to the issue she is writing about.

She just tells us that this study--whatever it might actually consist of--"represents a new frontier for medical research." Let's hope that the researchers are a little clearer about what they are studying than Hales is.

Hales mentions that "investigators at Johns Hopkins are studying a group of women with breast cancer who say a meditative prayer twice daily." She doesn't bother to define "meditative prayer." Nor does she mention anywhere in her article that one of the leading researchers on prayer and healing died of a rare form of brain cancer while conducting a study on prayer and that particular rare form of brain cancer.* It is hard to imagine anyone having more prayers said for her by more people around the world than Elisabeth Targ had said for her. But not only did the prayers not save her life, they have not been able to save her reputation, either. Her famous study on prayer and AIDS patients, published in the Western Journal of Medicine in 1998, has come under fire for not being what it claimed to be and for committing the Texas sharpshooter's fallacy. Victor Stenger comments:

Targ's paper is not the only questionable study on the efficacy of prayer that has been published by medical journals. The editors and referees of these journals have done a great disservice to both science and society by allowing such highly flawed papers to be published. I have previously commented about the low statistical significance threshold of these journals (p-value of 0.05) and how it is inappropriate for extraordinary claims (Skeptical Briefs, March 2001). This policy has given a false scientific credibility to the assertion that prayer or other spiritual techniques work miracles, and several best selling books have appeared that exploit that theme. Telling people what they want to hear, these authors have made millions.

One of the people who has made millions by claiming prayer heals is Larry Dossey, who is mentioned favorably by Hales. No mention is made of his critics such as Vic Stenger or Robert Baker. Only one skeptic is mentioned by Hales, John Chibnall, who is quoted as saying that "the premise behind distant healing isn't scientific." Hales makes no effort to explain what that premise might be or why Chibnall, a psychologist at St. Louis University, might think it isn't scientific.

Hales claims that "dozens of studies have shown that individuals who pray regularly and attend religious services stay healthier and live longer than those who rarely or never do--even when age, health, habits, demographics and other factors are considered." I would like to know the name of just one such study. I have seen studies that have shown, for example, that people of faith who frequently attend religious services have a significantly lower mortality rate than those who don't. But I have never heard of such a study that found this result when health, habits, and other factors were considered. The Duke University study that Hales mentions is briefly evaluated in my article on prayer. My view is that Dr. Koenig, who directed the study, may well have found a causal connection between being healthy and attending religious services, but the evidence doesn't demonstrate that spirituality causes good health. In any case, there is a big difference between studying the effects of different lifestyles on health and studying the healing power of prayer. The two may be related but the relationship is certainly not self-evident.

Here is a summary of some of the studies mentioned on the Parade web site:

A nine-year study of the mortality rate among 21,000 adults found that those who attended religious services more than once a week lived up to seven years longer than those who did not.

In a study of 108 women with gynecological cancers, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered that 93% said religion bolstered their hopes for treatment.

Researchers at the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Michigan, studying self-esteem in seniors, found that religious faith was the most important factor linked to feelings of self-worth. The study of 1005 seniors over age 65, who did not live in nursing homes, found that those with low self-esteem tended to be nonreligious.

A review of more than 80 studies on the link between religion and depression found that people who are not involved in organized religion are 20 to 60% more likely to experience a major depression.

These are interesting results but what do they have to do with the healing power of prayer? The studies Hale mentions are of the same type. However, having hope or good self-esteem, or feeling good are not what we usually mean by healing.

On-line, Parade listed the following links, presumably so the reader could get better informed:

Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health
Located at Duke University, the center is leading research into religion’s effects on health. Find out about speaking engagements by the center’s scientists and read about the center’s past and present research.

International Center for the Integration of Health and Spirituality (ICIHS)
Founded by the late Dr. David Larson, a pioneer in the study of spirituality and health, the ICIHS coordinates research efforts among doctors and other investigators. The center’s site offers research summaries on a vast number of health topics.

Research News & Opportunities in Science & Theology
Contributors to this independent monthly newspaper include many of the top names in the fields of science, medicine and theology. The journal’s site offers several free articles each month.

John Templeton Foundation
Through the foundation that bears his name, retired Wall Street tycoon John Templeton is a major funder of research into the nexus of spirituality and science. Learn more about the foundation’s many programs and awards.

It is not surprising that none of these links offer anything skeptical about the studies of prayer and healing. But, if the reader wishes to see the other side, read my article on prayer and the articles I link to there, which I will post here:






©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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