Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge


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November 18, 2004. Psychic (or is it psycho?) Sylvia Browne, appearing once again on the Montel Williams show, told a woman whose daughter has been missing for 19 months that "She's not alive, honey. Your daughter's not the kind who wouldn't call." Amanda Miller was 5-foot-4 and weighed 110-pounds when she went missing on April 21, 2003, a day before her 17th birthday. She left work at Burger King, about a 10-minute walk from her house, and phoned her sister en route to say she had a ride home.

Some might say that Sylvia's blunt claim shows that she doesn't just tell people what they want to hear. Or does it?

November 11, 2004. "An IBM-commissioned study has found that employees at the company's microprocessor manufacturing plants had a lower rate of cancer than would be expected, contradicting results of a yet-unpublished study that found higher rates of cancer among workers and is at the root of a controversy involving the journal that was to publish it." New Scientist.

November 9, 2004. Thanks to Google's news alert, I've been keeping up with the progress of the intelligent design (ID) movement, run by the folks at the Discovery Institute. It is becoming almost a daily occurrence to read in an online newspaper a story that refers to ID as an alternative scientific theory to natural selection. The stories rarely note that ID is not a serious contender for anything in biology, but no matter. The stories never mention that naturalistic theories are the norm in all the sciences these days and that many evolutionary biologists think the universe was created by some sort of powerful intelligence. They never mention that evolution is in no more turmoil than physics or chemistry. Nor does it occur to journalists to note that the only other organized opposition to science as it is generally understood and practiced by the majority of scientists on the planet comes from the parapsychologists.

One of the wedges the ID folks use to make progress--which for them is measured in terms of how many people they can get to agree that it's only a matter of fairness that ID be taught along with evolution--is to encourage people to think there is a controversy that needs to be taught. The controversy has been created ex nihilo by the ID folks themselves. Most biologists simply ignore their rants. The fact that so many journalists now report that ID is a competitive theory in biology is a sign of the success of the ID movement's strategy.

I'm not the only one who has noticed the elevated treatment ID gets from many journalists these days. Chris Mooney has noticed and sees the problem in light of a much larger issue: the striving of journalists to be fair has led them to give too much weight to fringe ideas. His case is argued in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review. The article is entitled "Blinded By Science: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality."
[thanks to Jim Mitchell]

November 7, 2004. The Grantsburg, Wisconsin, school board has revised its science curriculum to allow the teaching of creationism. The board wants "various models/theories" regarding origins to be taught. The board's decision has angered several hundred science and religious studies teachers, who are protesting the introduction of religion into the science classroom. Let's hope the Wisconsin educators do a bit better in writing a clear directive, unlike their counterparts in Pennsylvania who recently wrote:

“Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to, intelligent design.”

What does this say? Is it requiring students to be made aware of the gaps and problems in the theories of intelligent design, natural selection (Darwin's theories), and other theories of evolution (the Raelian theory? Sitchin's theory?)?

November 6, 2004. A little over two years ago, I produced one of my best rants: about the Cobb County, Georgia, school board giving in to a popular demand that stickers be put on the inside front cover of science books. The school board claimed they were just promoting critical thinking. A parent named Marjorie Rogers presented a petition with 2,300 signatures in support of the stickers, which were to read something to the effect that evolution is a theory not a fact. The sticker selected by the school board reads:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.

Apparently, the sticker wasn't enough for Rogers. She has since placed her children in private schools.*

Six parents filed a federal lawsuit in August 2002 against the Cobb school system over the disclaimers and this Monday a U.S. District Judge will begin hearing their arguments.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), the trial is expected to raise these questions:

• Is Intelligent Design a religious theory?

• And, if the theory is found to be religious, do Cobb's disclaimers, which don't mention religion or Intelligent Design by name, violate the separation between church and state?

The lawsuit is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and contends that the disclaimer not only restricts the teaching of evolution but also promotes the teaching of creationism and Intelligent Design and discriminates against particular religions. Judge Cooper, in rejecting the school board's move to dismiss the suit ruled against the board and said that "the practical effect of students being encouraged to consider and discuss alternatives to evolution" could create concerns about the entanglement of government with religion.

Rogers thinks that requiring discussions about alternatives to evolution is only fair. "The whole dispute is about fairness and equal treatment," she said. "Give kids the opportunity to make a decision themselves." I wonder how she feels about the Raelian proposal to have their views taught as well. (See their press release on this issue.) Does she or any other Christian parent want their kids to study an atheistic theory that claims humans were designed by space aliens? If so, shouldn't there be a new course added to the curriculum: Weird Beliefs 101? There, the students could not only learn about intelligent design and Raelianism, but Sitchinism and homeopathy or any other idea generally rejected by mainstream science.

I guess it depends on how fair you really want to be.

further reading

November 5, 2004. USA Today reports that the United States Air Force paid $25,000 for a report that calls for $7.5 million to be spent on psychic teleportation experiments. A copy of the report has been posted on the Internet by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). (The report is 88 pages long and the pdf file takes some time to be teleported to most computers.)

Eric Davis of Warp Drive Metrics authored the report. He defines psychic teleportation  (or p-Teleportation, as he calls it) as "the conveyance of persons or inanimate objects by psychic means."

Some physicists who are critics of wasteful military spending see the report as "crackpot physics." That's how Lawrence Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek, describes it. In his book, Krauss explains that there are some physical limits that prevent teleportation.

Some see psychic teleportation as being right up there with remote viewing, another psychic art that the Air Force once dabbled in.

FAS' s Steven Aftergood, in a bit of understatement, said that the teleportation report "raises questions of scientific quality control at the Air Force."

Bill Christensen of thinks the money may not be completely wasted. After all, he writes, "the distribution list thoughtfully included at the end of the report shows that a copy was sent to Gregory Benford, physicist and highly respected sf author. Maybe we'll get a good story out of it."

November 3, 2004. The Commission for Scientific Medicine and MentalNatasha Demkina Health has posted a report of its preliminary test of Natasha Demkina, the Russain teenager said to have X-ray diagnostic vision.

The simple test that CSMMH and CSICOP proposed required Demkina to examine seven volunteer subjects and to find which ones had six different previously confirmed medical conditions that are easily seen on an x-ray.

The six target conditions included a surgically removed appendix, a surgically removed lower section of the esophagus, metal staples left in the chest following surgery; an artificial hip joint; a surgically removed upper section of one lung; and a metal plate covering a removed section of the skull. A seventh subject had none of those conditions....

She only had to look for six abnormalities and we told her exactly where to look for each. She didn't have to scan their entire bodies. And we only required her to correctly match at least five of the seven conditions to have us conclude her abilities are worth examining with a more carefully controlled study. Despite the ease of this test, she matched only four correctly, which all parties had agreed prior to the test would be a failing score.,,,

Demkina's most dramatic failure in the test was her inability to see the metal plate and missing bone in the forehead of one of the subjects.*

She failed to meet the test conditions but I think many people are going to say that four out of six (67%) is worth another test, no matter what the rules were.

Victor Zammit, in his usual overkill style, has debunked the skeptics for their "most disturbing, despicable and professionally offensive psychic experiment." Victor is a swell fellow from Australia who never met a psychic he didn't like and seems to consider anyone skeptical of anything paranormal or supernatural to be the scum of the earth. He seems to have a particular bugaboo regarding life after death. Zammit's career is one long brief for magical thinking.

update: "Testing Natasha" by Ray Hyman from the June 2005 issue of Skeptical Inquirer is now available online.

October 24, 2004. The Oxford, Ohio, police have been unable to find a missing man with Alzheimer's disease. 81-year-old Charles E. Capel has been missing since May 21. Who do they call? Psychic detective Noreen Renier. The Oxford police hired Renier several weeks ago with permission from the Capel family, said Sgt. Jim Squance.

The police mailed Renier a map of Ohio, a pair of Capel's sneakers, and several toothbrushes to help her psychic endeavors. She has already been extremely helpful by informing the police that "she believes Charles E. Capel is within eight walking-minutes of his house." It's a shame the psychic forces can't be more specific, but when you're working with spirits or paranormal forces, beggars can't be choosers. Of course, it had probably already occurred to the police that an 81-year old on foot* probably didn't wander too far from home.

Let's hope the Oxford police are a little more clever than the Williston, Florida, police, who rationalized Renier's tips to fit with the psychic hypothesis and thereby justify their use of a psychic.

This is the same Noreen Renier who predicted that President Jimmy Carter would be reelected in 1980 and assassinated on the White House lawn. Vice President Mondale, she saw, would commit suicide. She also predicted Reagan would have a heart attack or be shot in the chest and live, but later machine-gunned to death. However, when Anwar Sadat was machine-gunned to death, she announced that she didn't mean Reagan but Sadat. She said she'd only predicted that the President would be machine-gunned to death; she hadn't specified Reagan.* The shotgun approach to predictions is a frequent ploy of psychics. If you predict enough disasters and terrible events, some are bound to happen and then you can take credit. Most people will forget your predictions that didn't come true.

further reading

October 21, 2004. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern BaptistR. Albert Mohler, Jr. Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I assume he is an educated man. He is certainly keeping up with the opposition. In a recent op-ed piece for The Christian Post, he reviews two recent anti-intelligent design articles, one by Chris Mooney ("Research and Destroy" or how the religious right promotes its own "experts" to combat mainstream science) in the October issue of Washington Monthly and the other by Evan Ratliff ("The Crusade Against Evolution" or how intelligent design is the new "creationism" and is invading America's classrooms) in the October issue of Wired. Mohler concludes his essay thusly:

The house of evolution is falling. Its various theorists are increasingly at war with each other over the basic question of how evolution is supposed to work, and its materialistic and naturalistic foundation is becoming increasingly clear. The evolutionists tenaciously hold to their theory on the basis of faith and as an axiom of their worldview. The publication of these two articles in influential magazines indicates that proponents of evolution see the Intelligent Design movement as a real threat. They are right.

What's his evidence that theorists are at war over how evolution works? Mooney says the supernatural hypothesis is outside the limits of science, while he also says that anti-ID evolutionist Ken Miller says ID is wrong. Of course,Ken Miller you can't say ID is wrong unless it falls within the limits of science.

However, this is not a disagreement about how evolution works. Rather, it is a disagreement about how to deal with ID. One approach is to ignore it or banish it from the science classroom on the grounds that it is not science but metaphysics. The other is to consider it and banish it from the science classroom on the grounds that it is useless, wrong, or grossly inferior to alternative explanations.

One other thing Mohler seems confused about is Miller's position on design. He writes: "Miller flatly dismisses the idea of design in the cosmos." Miller is a Catholic and, as such, must believe in a Creator of the cosmos. What Miller flatly denies is that intelligent design is good science, not that there is not design in creation. As Miller himself says,

In any discussion of the question of "intelligent design," it is absolutely essential to determine what is meant by the term itself. If, for example, the advocates of design wish to suggest that the intricacies of nature, life, and the universe reveal a world of meaning and purpose consistent with an overarching, possibly Divine intelligence, then their point is philosophical, not scientific. It is a philosophical point of view, incidentally, that I share, along with many scientists.

However, ID is bad science if by ID one means what Mohler says about it, namely,

Put simply, Intelligent Design is a scientific theory that affirms a level of specificity and complexity in the universe that cannot be explained by any blind natural process, but can be explained only by intelligence behind the design.

Regarding this notion, Miller has written:

...the notion at the heart of today's intelligent design movement is that the direct intervention of an outside designer can be demonstrated by the very existence of complex biochemical systems. What even they acknowledge is that their entire scientific position rests upon a single assertion – that the living cell contains biochemical machines that are irreducibly complex. And the bacterial flagellum is the prime example of such a machine.

Such an assertion, as we have seen, can be put to the test in a very direct way. If we are able to search and find an example of a machine with fewer protein parts, contained within the flagellum, that serves a purpose distinct from motility, the claim of irreducible complexity is refuted. As we have also seen, the flagellum does indeed contain such a machine, a protein-secreting apparatus that carries out an important function even in species that lack the flagellum altogether. A scientific idea rises or falls on the weight of the evidence, and the evidence in the case of the bacterial flagellum is abundantly clear.

As an icon of anti-evolution, the flagellum has fallen.

So, the debate, if there is a debate, between Mooney and Miller is not about evolution but about what to make of ID. It is only natural, however, to find two distinct responses regarding ID since its proponents use the term ambiguously, as Mohler does. In fact, Mohler seems to conflate the metaphysical and the empirical meanings of ID.

Mohler also claims that

For years, the evolutionists have been virtually alone in playing their own political game, intimidating school boards and political officials into giving them a virtual free rein over the academic process and hegemony in the teaching of subjects like biology.

I wonder if he has a similar view of mathematicians and chemists intimidating school boards with their "snarling logicality" or obstinate empiricism.

[Note: 'snarling logicality' is an expression William James used to describe those who demand empirical proof for just about everything. Mohler does not use the expression. The quotes are to indicate that the expression is not mine--though I wish it were!]

October 20, 2004. The Christians are not turning the other cheek in York, Pennsylvania, but are throwing the scientists to the pandas in a desperate move to bring religion into the biology classroom and kick evolution out. Last Monday, the Dover Area School Board voted 6-3 to add “Intelligent Design Theory” (ID) to the district’s biology curriculum, even though two weeks ago a compromise was reached that called for putting 50 copies of the book Of Pandas and People in science classrooms as reference books. At that time, Supt. Richard Nilsen said that ID would not be required. Now the curriculum reads: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught.”*

Taner Edis describes Of Pandas and People, 2nd ed. (1993) by Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon thusly:

A high-school level creationist textbook which concentrates strictly on biology. Reflecting Kenyon's expertise, it includes a good amount of material arguing the chemical origin of life is impossible. This is a well-written book which brings out the intuitive appeal of an "intelligent design" explanation, and presents it in an attractive, well-illustrated package. While its account of why "orthodox" biologists accept evolution is misleading at best, Pandas at least avoids the blatantly silly distortions creationists are infamous for. A good introduction to a more sophisticated biology based creationism.

Pandas was adopted as a text in Plano, Texas, a few years ago.

One Dover board member resigned in tears after Monday's vote, saying she was tired of being asked if she was "born again." Only one community member spoke in favor of the ID proposal and he home schools his kids. William Buckingham, one of the board members who led the fight for ID inclusion in the biology curriculum was reported as having "challenged people’s literacy, knowledge of American history and patriotism throughout the night."

Sounds like a swell school district. I hope the kids weren't watching.

update: November 19, 2004. The York school district chose four new board members (from 13 candidates) last night. They selected "a preacher, a home-schooler who doesn't send his kids to public school because of his religious beliefs and two others with barely any experience in government." No one who spoke out against intelligent design was selected.

further reading

©copyright 2004
Robert Todd Carroll

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