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Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge

In Mass Media Funk, you will find articles about news stories, magazine articles or TV programs of interest to skeptics, which do not pander to the public's appetite for the occult and supernatural.

Note: because many of the sites linked to here are newspapers or magazines, it is impossible to maintain the links.

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July 9, 2002. Cryonics is back in the news, thanks to the death of baseball legend Ted Williams and the decision of his son to have the body frozen in liquid nitrogen. Williams's daughter allegedly claimed that her half-brother had sent the body to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Apparently, the brother thinks that Williams's DNA might be worth some cash someday on the cloning market. I have no idea what happens to DNA when it is kept in liquid nitrogen for an extended length of time, but I have a pretty good idea of what happens to something that is mostly water when it freezes. It expands. And when it thaws it turns to mush. This is what happens to human cells when they're frozen and thawed. However, Dr. Richard Smalley, a 1996 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, has announced that he expects that cell repair machines should be developed as early as 2010. Of course, he may be suffering from the Moses syndrome and believers in cryonics may be suffering from the baby Moses syndrome.

According to the Cryonics Institute, cryonics "involves cooling patients to the point where molecular physical decay completely stops, in the expectation that scientific and medical procedures currently being developed will be able to revive them and restore them to good health later on." They charge $28,000 to store your body. I couldn't find any information on their site about who might be interested in my body in 50 or 100 years, and how much they might have to pay to have me thawed and fixed up. Maybe there will be a benevolent society of resurrectors who will go around freeing frozen bodies and performing the necessary surgery on them to get them up and running again. Maybe they will provide the resurrected with meaningful employment and quality recreation. They may need some counseling, too, to help them deal with living in a strange world full of strangers. Suicide among the resurrected might be a real problem if steps aren't taken to provide for the emotional needs of the reborn.

If all the bodies turn to mush when thawed out, the resurrectors might be able to clone the thawed DNA. Won't this lead to overcrowding on the planet? No, because poor people can't afford cryonics and the poor make up the vast majority of the world's population. Therefore, there will eventually be only  a few people and they will all be rich. They may even keep refrigerators full of spare parts taken from the poor. I know this isn't Robert C.W. Ettinger's vision. (He says he started the cryonics movement in 1962 with his privately published book The Prospect of Immortality.) He may be biased, however. Now, I'm not saying that cryonics can't be done. I'm just saying that maybe it's not such a good idea even if it can be done. Just because there might be thousands of rich woman willing to pay large sums of money to carry Ted Williams's DNA around for nine months and give birth to one of  his clones, doesn't mean we should allow it. Can you imagine the difficult life that awaits the future clones of Ted Williams? We'd expect them to be just as good at hitting a baseball as their DNA provider was. We might even expect to see a whole league of TW clones. But, what if they didn't want to play baseball? What if they wanted to swing their bats at the heads of those running the cryonics lab and turn them into mush?

Florin Clapa comments: I'm a little baffled by your comments regarding cryonics. You seem to think that cryonics might be possible but on the whole, that it is impractical and undesirable. Your objections seem more comical than substantive and tend to dismiss cryonics out of hand even though you agree that it may be feasible. A clarification of your views would be appreciated.

Reply: My objections to cryonics are ethical and aesthetic, and while you might appreciate a clarification of my views, I have to put some sort of limit on my comments. Maybe some day I'll be inspired to write an essay on the subject, but for now all I will say is that before the Ted Williams debacle I found cryonics undesirable. Now that there is talk of cloning from the frozen parts, I find the idea despicable. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should, though we probably will.

Contrary to what you state in your news item, there is information on the Cryonics Institute's site regarding "...who might be interested in my body in 50 or 100 years....": "Why would people in the future want to revive us?"

reply: I'm sorry but "Because people care about one another" seems like another way of saying that they'd be interested because they'd be interested.

There's also info about " much they might have to pay to have me thawed and fixed up." at Alcor's site: "How will the cost of resuscitation be met? Won't sophisticated nanotechnology be very costly?"*

reply: Right. They assert it won't cost much and they give an interesting explanation in terms of how the price of this and that has gone down, but the fact is they're just guessing here.

Also, it might interest you to know that, according to Alcor, Marvin Minsky is on their Scientific Advisory Board.*

reply: It neither interests nor surprises me.

July 9, 2002. Say what you will about Jesse Ventura, but he's no coward. The former wrestler and current governor of Minnesota once called religion a crutch for weak people (it's actually a wedge for politicians). Now he has further alienated the politically religious by declaring today Indivisible Day and reading a proclamation written by a group calling itself Atheists of Minnesota for Human Rights. The proclamation declared us to be one nation, indivisible, but no mention was made of us being "under God."
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

July 8, 2002.  A five-year study involving more than 20,000 people aged 40 to 80 found that a daily dose of vitamin C, vitamin E and beta carotene does not reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, or mental decline. Prof Rory Collins, a co-author of the report at Oxford University's Clinical Trial Service, said: "Over five years we saw absolutely no effect." At the end of the trial, people taking vitamins had exactly the same risk of heart disease, cancer, cataracts, bone fractures, asthma and mental decline as those who took a placebo. In contrast, cholesterol-lowering drugs reduced the risk of heart disease and stroke by around one third.

July 2, 2002 James van Praagh, George Anderson and John Edward may think they have cornered the market on the dead, but these three stooges are tyros compared to Chico Xavier of Brazil who died recently at the age of 92. Xavier published over 500 books of messages from the dead. They still call this chicanery spiritism or spiritualism in Brazil, where it is even bigger business than in the U.S.A. Xavier sold 20 million copies of a book of poems he claimed were dictated to him by the dead. That was in 1932. When he died, his city and state declared three days of official mourning. According to Ronaldo Cordeiro (the Brazilian translator of the SD into Portuguese), letters from dead people allegedly channeled by Xavier were accepted by Brazilian courts as valid evidence in at least 2 murder trials.

July 2, 2002. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who voted with Judge Alfred T. Goodwin in the recent federal court ruling regarding a public school district's policy and practice of requiring a teacher-led recitation of the pledge at the start of each school day, says his colleague "caved in to public pressure and should not have frozen its original ruling." Goodwin's action, said Reinhardt, was "a public relations gimmick." This story comes from the Associated Press. However, Associated Press writer David Kravets, like most politicians, television "talking heads," and your average citizen distorted what the federal court ruled regarding the Pledge of Allegiance. He claims that the court declared "the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional." That's absurd. The court could no more rule that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional than it could rule that the Lord's Prayer or the sign of the cross is unconstitutional. This was no slip of the pen on Kravets's part. He asserted twice in his short article that "The court said the pledge is unconstitutional because the phrase "under God" was added by Congress in 1954." The court did not say the pledge is unconstitutional.

What the court ruled was that the Elk Grove School District policy and practice of teacher-led recitation of the pledge with the words "under God" violates the constitution. If teacher-led prayer and Bible reading in public school is unconstitutional, why should leading students in pledging allegiance to a nation under God be allowed? Because we've been doing it for years? Because it would confuse the children? Because it would be unpopular and cause civil unrest? The same irrelevant appeals were made in 1954 when the Warren court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling that took us one giant step closer to living up the ideals of freedom and equality.

In 1954, Congress turned the pledge from a statement of allegiance to the nation to a statement requiring that allegiance to be joined with a belief in God. I hope the ruling stands and that the next challenge will be to those little oaths we're asked to make when serving on a jury. I had to interrupt a judge and tell him that I did not recite the little oath he just asked us to recite because I don't believe in God. He then asked me in front of the other jurors and whomever else was in the courtroom, did I swear to tell the truth? I said yes and he said ok. Now, why couldn't he just ask us do you swear to tell the truth? instead of do you swear to tell the truth, so help you God?

further reading

June 28, 2002. After seeing that almost nobody, not even the leader of the law and order party, planned to obey the law, the judge who yesterday said that the Elk Grove Unified School District's policy and practice of teacher-led recitation of the Pledge with "under God" included violates the Establishment Clause has put the ruling on hold. The Judge's action underscores the courageous nature of Dr Newdow's challenge. Newdow's name was in lights for a few hours alongside that of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whose courageous actions ended coercive prayer and Bible study in public schools. The future looks bleak, however, for those atheists, agnostics, polytheists, and non-anthropomorphic monotheists who hoped yesterday's ruling might signal the end of government-sanctioned marginalization. The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that using state money to pay for vouchers for religious schools is constitutional. This would have made my parents very happy fifty years ago. It was very difficult for them to pay the tuition for my three sisters and me to go to Catholic schools. The schools were excellent and I don't know what would have become of me had I gone to Ocean Beach Elementary and Point Loma High School. Maybe I'd have married Raquel Welch. I doubt it. But I don't regret the fine education provided by the Dominican nuns and diocesan priests. I guess I should also report that I was never abused by any of the hundreds of nuns and priests I came in contact with during my formative years. I was whacked a few times, with my parents' permission, and that, no doubt, is why I left the Church and became a skeptic. Then again, maybe not.

My guess is that along with parents who will use the vouchers to try to provide their children with the best education money can buy, there will be some who will create inferior schools whose main purpose is to foster some literalist Biblical fantasy. Of course, the ruling just means that States may use vouchers. They're not required to and there may even be a few who will realize that the cons outweigh the pros on this issue.

June 27, 2002. The headline in this morning's paper reads Court Rules Against Pledge of Allegiance. I don't think so. The court ruled that when we pledge allegiance to the flag, we do not have to pledge allegiance to God or any other beings. Even atheists, polytheists, and monotheists who don't think of God anthropomorphically can be patriotic. What a concept! The ruling is not against the pledge, nor does it state that the pledge is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that the Elk Grove School District's policy and practice of teacher-led recitation of the pledge with the "under God" phrase violates the Establishment clause of the First Amendment.

In the context of the Pledge, the statement that the United States is a nation "under God" is an endorsement of religion. It is a profession of a religious belief, namely, a belief in monotheism. The recitation that ours is a nation "under God" is not a mere acknowledgment that many Americans believe in a deity. Nor is it merely descriptive of the undeniable historical significance of religion in the founding of the Republic. Rather, the phrase "one nation under God" in the context of the Pledge is normative. To recite the Pledge is not to describe the United States; instead, it is to swear allegiance to the values for which the flag stands: unity, indivisibility, liberty, justice, and -- since 1954 -- monotheism.*

The plaintiff, Dr. Michael A. Newdow, a Sacramento atheist and emergency room physician with a law degree, acted as his own attorney. He lost in U.S. District Court in Sacramento but won in the 9th Circuit. You can contact him via his Web site at The original pledge was written by a socialist Baptist minister. Congress added "under God" in 1954 in its attempt to combat "godless communism" by incantation.

Obviously, most politicians and, I imagine, most Americans believe there will be an appeal and he will lose in the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, this diversion will take our minds off the important things, like conducting our own terrorist campaigns while publicly claiming to be the enemies of terrorism everywhere. There will be much political currency in waving and defending the flag this 4th of July. The 9th Circuit's 2-1 decision is a politician's dream. The politicians will make it an issue of patriotism, which it isn't. This is an issue of using a religious belief to con the nation into thinking that belief in the Christian God is not only reasonable but required of patriots. How any reasonable person can get past the first two books of Genesis or read any of the miraculous stories in the New Testament without shaking his or her head in disbelief is beyond me. But why we should agree to kowtow to the ravings of a corrupt and inept Congress and dare to claim that this is a nation any God could find favor with, is utter lunacy.

Our government, led by the CIA and several Presidents, has committed enough evil deeds to warrant the appellation "Devil's Associate." We've been terrorizing foreign nations for years. Does anyone really believe we've been doing this with some God's approval? What kind of God supports assassination?* torture? death squads? *  shooting airplanes out of the sky without knowing who is in them?  overthrowing of governments? supporting and training paramilitary terrorists in foreign countries? * blowing up buildings with people in them? and training people like Osama bin Laden? I know it's dirty world, but we shouldn't pretend to be squeaky clean and be "under God." Any god or gods worthy of the name would have abandoned all nations a long time ago. On the other hand, since every lunatic on the planet claims his or her murders and rampages are "under God," we might well agree with those who say the expression doesn't mean that much any more. The phrase is just another refuge for scoundrels.

The "under God" decision was written by Judge Alfred T. Goodwin, a Nixon appointee. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was reported as inviting atheists to leave the country, which is not surprising given what he's said in the past. Like other demagogues, Sen. Byrd purposely confuses criticism with treason while babbling on about freedom and democracy. Is he the one who said: "We will have freedom and democracy, and anyone who opposes this, I will crush, I will destroy"?

update: (July 12, 2002). Jennifer Garza of the Sacramento Bee reports that according to the mother of Newdow's daughter, the 8-year old is a Christian who never objected to the "under God" phrase in the pledge. Sandra Banning (the child's mother) said she plans to pursue "appropriate legal motions" and has retained Foley & Lardner to work towards getting the ruling reversed. She's set up a fund to cover her legal costs. Newdow's daughter lives with her mother, who has custody of her and is the parent primarily responsible for the child's religious training. This fact raises some serious questions about his integrity. Did he lie or intentionally mislead the court in order to get the case heard? What was the legal basis of his claim? The court decided that "The mere enactment of the 1954 Act in its particular context constitutes a religious recitation policy that interferes with Newdow's right to direct the religious education of his daughter." Did the court think the daughter was in his custody? The right of a parent to direct the religious education of one's child gets a bit muddied when the parent is a father who never married the child's mother, does not have custody of the child, and has very different views from the mother regarding proper religious education for the child. Did he use his daughter for his own ends? He has two other related legal complaints pending: One seeks to bar references to God at presidential inaugurations and the other one challenges Congress' practice of passing resolutions that endorse religion.

However, Newdow says that nothing matters to him as much as his daughter.

update: (July 16, 2002). Jennifer Garza of the Sacramento Bee reports that Dr. Newdow has been in a custody battle with his daughter's mother for the past three years. According to the federal court ruling in favor of Dr. Newdow's appeal that his daughter's school district policy violates the first amendment by requiring teachers to lead students daily in the pledge of allegiance because of the "under God" phrase,

Newdow does not allege that his daughter's teacher or school district requires his daughter to participate in reciting the Pledge. Rather, he claims that his daughter is injured when she is compelled to "watch and listen as her state-employed teacher in her state-run school leads her classmates in a ritual proclaiming that there is a God, and that our's [sic] is `one nation under God.' "

According to Garza, Newdow says he doesn't think he said in his legal brief that his daughter was injured. One reader thinks it doesn't matter. David Martin writes that

The "injury" is reflected in the fact that the government is promoting a religious test of patriotism. For this it does not matter what beliefs the daughter holds. In fact the "injury" can simply be that she is being taught by government employees that her father is not a True American (TM).

Martin also points out that the federal court did state "Newdow has standing as a parent to challenge a practice that interferes with his right to direct the religious education of his daughter." The court cites the principle "Parents have a right to direct the religious upbringing of their children and, on that basis, have standing to protect their right." And it gives a precedent where that principle was stated: Doe v. Madison Sch. Dist. No. 321, 177 F.3d 789, 795 (9th Cir. 1999).   However, principles don't apply in an all-or-nothing fashion, as Ronald Dworkin has noted, and this one is surely problematic when the parents are neither married nor living together and the child is in the custody of a religious parent while the plaintiff does not have custody and is an atheist.

Finally, some readers may be interested in knowing that "Newdow is also the founding minister of the First Amendment Church of True Science, or FACTS." If you can't beat them, join them.

 update: (September 28, 2002)

According to Claire Cooper of the Sacramento Bee, Newdow has filed court papers saying that "his daughter supports his position and was not -- as her mother claims -- offended by the ruling." He says his daughter has told him that she doesn't believe in God and he overheard her say that she hopes he wins his court case.

further reading
[thanks to David Martin]





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Robert Todd Carroll

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