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Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge


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October 29, 2002. Miss Cleo was right. According to the Baltimore Sun, there really was a white van in the picture of the recent shooting spree around Washington, D.C. But only the clairvoyant could see it. (By the way, the headline in the Baltimore Sun story is wrong. This is not irony, unless you use words the way Alanis Morrisette does. You can look it up.)

October 17, 2002. Whoever said crime doesn't pay didn't know Miss Cleo or her employers. Read all about it.

p.s. Did you notice any weird disasters on October 6th? Surely, you can look back and find something bad that happened then! At 4:18 a.m. PDT on the 6th, the moon, sun and Earth were positioned in a straight line (syzygy).  This happens twice a month, but this time the syzygy coincided with the moon's perigee (when it is closest to Earth's center). Surely, this should have been the end of civilization as we know it.

October 15, 2002. What could possibly be wrong with a school board recommending a policy change because the change is a "necessary element of providing a balanced education" since its purpose is "to foster critical thinking among students, to allow academic freedom consistent with legal requirements, to promote tolerance and acceptance of diversity of opinion, and to ensure a posture of neutrality toward religion"? Plenty, according to critics of the Cobb County Board of Education's new policy, which states that "discussion of disputed views of academic subjects is a necessary element of providing a balanced education, including the study of the origin of the species." Could the old policy have been worse? Well, yes, in fact it was. Formerly, its policy barred the teaching of views contrary to "family values," whatever that means. (Is opposing the President's plan to make war on Iraq contrary to family values? Is teaching physics or biology contrary to family values? Apparently, many people consider ignorance a family value that should be honored. Thus, to oppose ignorance would not be allowed under the old policy. Evidence? "2,000 of the county's residents signed a petition last spring to have the board put stickers on biology textbooks telling students that evolution is a theory, not a fact."* Scientific theories and facts aren't opposed to one another. The point of a scientific theory is to explain facts and facts are used to test scientific theories. What would these 2,000 people of faith say if 2,000 scientists showed up at their church and demanded that they put stickers on their Bibles telling readers that creation is just a religious theory and not a fact?)

The impetus behind the policy change appears to be a group of vocal parents who believe the universe was created a few thousand years ago and that all species were created by God one at a time. Their evidence? The Bible, a set of documents they hold sacred and believe in because they have faith. Darwin's Origin of Species and other scientific works, based on argument and empirical evidence, not faith, are considered false by these parents. Why? Because the science books contradict what they believe by faith. Rather than tell these parents that scientific theories aren't decided by popular vote, and that they can't have their beliefs discussed as alternatives to the scientific ones because their beliefs are not based on scientific reasoning and methods, but on faith, this Board of Education pretends it is encouraging academic freedom and critical thinking by allowing a particular religious group to interject its faith into the science classroom. The local Scientologists and others with "alternative" theories about the origin of species and human life must be licking their chops. They don't have to have any scientific basis for their beliefs to get them into the science classroom. All that is required is that they offer a "disputed view." Their views apparently can be based on faith, tea leaves, scat, astrology, tarot cards, palm reading, or the rants of John Edward claiming to channel messages from brain dead school board members.

Yesterday, it was reported in The New York Times that the Ohio Board of Education is following Cobb County's lead. The board recommended that science classes in the state emphasize both evolution and the debate over its validity. They have left it up to individual school districts to decide whether to include in the debate the concept of "intelligent design," a religious theory that has been masquerading as science for quite some time.
[thanks to David Martin, Jon Henrik Gilhuus, Barry Karr, Joe Littrell, and Dario Ventra]

update: October 17, 2002. Michael Shermer, of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, would agree to equal time for non-scientific theories (intelligent design, creationism)  in the science classroom as long as churches, mosques, and synagogues will allow him to deliver the following sermon in their places of business:


By Minister Michael Shermer of the Universal Life Church (it only takes 3 minutes to get ordained!)

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.

This morning we are going to talk about the creation of the universe and the origins of life on Earth. According to the Bible, Genesis 1:1-3: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Now, it is important for us to understand that no one was actually present at the creation so we don't really know what happened. Genesis 1:1-3 is only a theory, and as such cannot be treated as fact and is really nothing more than an educated guess. It is only fair that we remember that there are other theories of the creation that deserve equal time. For example:

  • Some Sumerians and Babylonians, Gilbert Islanders, Koreans, and Greeks believed that the world was created from the parts of a slain monster.

  • Some Zuni Indians, Cook Islanders, and Tahitians have a theory that the world was created by the interaction (read "sex") of primordial parents.

  • Some Japanese, Samoan, Persian, Chinese, and Hindu cultures have a theory that the world was generated from an egg.

  • Some Mayan and Egyptian cultures have a theory that the world was created by the spoken edict (command) of a god. Oh, come to think of it, the Hebrews have this same theory.

  • Some Burmese and Icelandic cultures have a theory that the world was created out of the sea.

  • And, of course, there is that dogma being foisted upon us by the liberal media and left leaning academics, the theory of evolution. But remember, it is only a theory.

As for the origins of human life, that is spelled out in Genesis 1:27: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."

Of course, not only was no one present to witness this act (except for Adam and Eve after they were created), it should be pointed out that this theory has a counter theory in Genesis 2:7, where "the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." In this theory Adam is all alone without a mate, so in Genesis 2:21-22 "the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man."

Since everyone here was blessed by the almighty with a brain that thinks, I will allow you to decide which theory is the correct theory of the creation of humans: Genesis 1 or Genesis 2. Weigh the evidence and decide for yourselves. You be the judge.

Oh, there is one other minor wrinkle in the story. Adam and Eve begat Cain and Abel. Now, Cain--as firstborns are wont to do to their laterborn siblings who might cut into their limited parental resources--slew him. That left Adam, Eve, and Cain as the only humans on the entire Earth. But in Genesis 4:17 we read that "Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch."

Now, I don't mean to burden you with more of the liberal media's fascination with smut and porn, but I think as created beings endowed with intelligence and critical thinking skills blessed to us by the good Lord, it might be reasonable to ask just who it was that Cain "knew." Unless Adam was blessed with both types of reproductive organs, or Cain was capable of parthenogenesis, then we are left with the theory that Cain "knew" his mother.

But that's just a theory, and as we all know, theories are just wild guesses and should not be taken seriously. Let us pray instead . . . . amen.
[reprinted with permission from Michael Shermer]

October 14, 2002. The Rev. Jerry Falwell is a "mercenary and must be killed," according to Iranian cleric Mohsen Mojtahed Shabestari. Falwell's crime? He called Mohammed a terrorist and a man of war. Falwell's remarks sparked rioting in which at least five people were killed and nearly 50 people injured at a protest in Sholapur, 225 miles south of Bombay. The Rev. says he is sorry: "I sincerely apologize that certain statements of mine made during an interview for CBS's 60 Minutes were hurtful to the feelings of many Muslims. I intended no disrespect to any sincere, law-abiding Muslim."

CBS, on the other hand, makes no apology for it program. Hundreds of protestors marched outside CBS offices in New York and shouted "Shame, Shame, CBS!" Accroding to Naeem Baig, director of the Islamic Circle Of North America, CBS is a purveyor of hate. Others in the crowd had placards saying the “Media Must Stop Spreading Hate Towards Muslims.” According Naeem, “Mohammed was a prophet. He was a man of peace. There is no incident in history where he acted like a terrorist.”

“The report on Sunday was fair and accurate and we stand by the story,” said CBS News spokesperson Sandy Genelius. I think Sandy's missing the point. Sure Falwell said what he said. I'm sure Bob Simon was tickled pink that he had it on tape. But given the current moment in history was CBS acting responsibly in running the tape? I don't think so. There's already enough hate in the world without providing a bully pulpit to one of the great hate-mongers of our time.

October 14, 2002. A physics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, received the following e-mail and forwarded it to me. He knows that many of my non-spiritual readers are interested in eternal life, but are looking for an alternative to cryonics.

Dear Sir/Madam, The Las Vegas Raelian Movement invites you and your students to an unprecedented lecture/debate untitled [sic] HUMAN CLONING, ETERNAL LIFE SCIENTIFICALLY WITHIN REACH? Wed Oct 17th 7-9PM Clark County library 1401 East Flamingo Rd on the subject of eternal life and its philosophical, sociological, political, and religious impact on society. Thanks to human cloning, this technology which will be available very soon, will make it possible for those who are infertile to have a child but also to conquer death for those who desire to become immortal i.e. live eternally.

So far, we are merely attempting to create a physical copy of an individual. The second step will require [sic] to develop a technology called: "Accelerated Growth Process" which will allow [sic] to create an adult directly without having to go through the various developmental growth stages. The third and last step, essential to reach eternal life, will be to upload the memory of the individual who wants to be cloned into a computer and then download the data into the brain of the adult clone.

Please join us for a presentation bound to stretch the boundaries of our minds and prepare our humanity to [sic] the wondrous technological revolution of the centuries to come.

"Science cannot be stopped, but consciousness can be raised to make sure it is used for the best." --Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, Ph.D.

Warm regards,
Nadine Gary, PR

I wonder if PR stands for Perfect Raelian. In any case, the scientist who alerted me to this fine-sounding talk did not give me the impression by his comments (which I won't repeat here except to say that it had something to do with loose loons) that he thinks this lecture will be consciousness-raising at its best. English teachers might enjoy it, though, and perhaps they can figure out what it means to be "cloned into a computer."

October 11, 2002. Today's Wall Street Journal featured a selection from The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Forces (ReganBooks, 2002) by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D., and Sharon Begley. The article, "Survival of the Busiest," focuses on how the parts of the brain that get used the most literally expand and are rewired on demand. Schwartz is a psychiatrist and Begley is the science writer for The Wall Street Journal. She was a senior editor and science writer at Newsweek for many years and is well-known for her ability to communicate complex scientific ideas in clear prose. The book's focus is neuroplasticity, the ability of parts of the brain to rewire themselves. One of the more interesting experiments they discuss is the work of Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard. His work indicates that the mind can cause the brain to change, something epiphenomalists have long denied.

He had one group of volunteers practice a five-finger piano exercise, and a comparable group merely think about practicing it. The second group focused on each finger movement in turn, essentially playing the simple piece in their heads, one note at a time.

Actual physical practice produced changes in each volunteer's motor cortex, as expected. But so did mere mental rehearsal. In fact, as big a change as the actual practice. Like actual movement, imagined movements change the cortex. Merely thinking about moving produces brain changes comparable to those triggered by actually moving (page B4).

The implications of this research, if it turns out to be correct, seem enormous, both for theory and practice. An adequate theory of consciousness would have to account for the mind's power to cause physical changes in the brain and the value of such things as visualizing certain actions would become apparent. Yet, I could find no mention of this research on Harvard's Research Matters Web page devoted to Pascual-Leone's work. There, one finds links to his work on using electromagnets for treating depression and to his work on Braille that shows using the finger to learn Braille causes the somatosensory cortex devoted to the reading finger to grow. But I could find nothing on his work that shows the mind can cause the brain to change.





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Robert Todd Carroll

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