The Skeptic Digest
Subject: Skeptical Digest 18.2 (Summer 2005)
Date: September 16th 2005
>>>Skeptical Digest 18.2 (Summer 2005)
--Please forward as widely as possible without spamming anyone--
>>>CONTENTS>>> >>>Skeptical Stats>>>Dubious News>>>In this issue>>>Administrivia>>>Skeptics in the Pub>>>
>>>Skeptical quotes for 2005: "No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God." -- George W. Bush.
>>>SKEPTICAL STATS>>> 1. Number of changes in the National Geographic Atlas between 2000 and 2005: 17,000
2. Number of mobile phones left in London cabs in the last six months
of 2004: 63,135
3. Percentage of those mobile phones later returned to their owners: 80
4. Amount the BBC spends per month on taxis: £1 million
5. Number of American households bankrupted by medical problems in
6. Fraction that had health insurance when the illness began: About three-quarters
7. Percentage of US police car chases that end in a crash: 40 8. Percentage of those car chases that relate to misdemeanours: 90
9. Date on which Pope John Paul II beatified Anne Catherine Emmerich:
October 3, 2004
10. Date of release of The Passion of the Christ, the Mel Gibson movie based on Emmerich's "visions": February 24, 2004
11. Percentage of the world's food crops that are irrigated with sewage: about 10
12. Cost of attending a seminar on the risks of MMR vaccine run by the company What Doctors Don't Tell You: £40
13. Number of adults in Britain who are overweight or obese: 24 million 14. Number of adults in Britain who were obese in 1980: 2.5 million
15. Number of "alternative" practitioners thought to be practicing in
the UK: 40,000
16. Percentage of the British population thought to use "alternative" therapies in any given year: 25
17. Number of small metal egg-shaped objects Uri Geller claims was given to him by John Lennon, who was given it by aliens: 1
18. Number of houses in the Adalusian village Belmez de la Moraleda in which faces appear in concrete floors: 2
19. Number of ghosts reported as regularly seen at Burton Constable
Hall: at least half a dozen
20. Number of those ghosts that is said to be that of a dog: 1
21. Percentage of American voters on Election Day 2004 who believed that the US was safer now than before September 11, 2001: 54
22. Cost of a one-hour astrology and Tarot reading in London's Cecil Court: £45
23. Number of pulses to be found in each wrist according to Chinese
24. Number of different types of acupuncture needles: 9
25. Number of supplements inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil takes every day in his quest for immortality: 250
>>>As if he weren't busy enough trying to get his wedding off the
castle floor in early 2005, Prince Charles was involved in publishing
an alternative health guide. Well, he probably didn't do it personally.
The Prince of Wales' Foundation for Integrated Health has put out a
50-page booklet (downloadable from
http://www.fihealth.org.uk/fs_publications.html) intended to help people find their way through the maze of treatments available, whether those come through the NHS, private practitioners, or charities. The government, which helped fund the booklet, has also given the foundation £900,000 to help improve regulating standards. The Foundation's six key principles sound unobjectionable if only because they're somewhat vague: for example that healthcare should have an evidence base, that individuals should take more responsibility for their own health care, and to promote "an holistic and integrated approach to health care which engages with all aspects of a patient's being". Most of the guide is pretty sound advice. It includes some general information, such as a list of questions to ask a practitioner - any practitioner - before embarking on a course of treatment. There are loads of resources, both print and Web, for getting more information; this seems reasonably well-balanced, and includes orthodox medical journals and indexes as well as associations of alternative practitioners and the like. And the guide includes a section on each of the most common therapies people seek out - acupuncture, Reiki, homeopathy, herbalism (both Western and Oriental), reflexology, aromatherapy, shiatsu, massage, spiritual healing, yoga. Each of these sections includes a brief explanation of what the therapy is, how much it usually costs, what happens in a consultation, and the names and contact information of any regulatory body. It also talks about the dangers of drug interactions between substances like St. John's Wort and antidepressants. It's respectable consumer advice, and tells you to disclose to all practitioners the full list of everything you're taking, whether or not it was prescribed. What the guide doesn't do is pass judgement on the efficacy of any of these therapies. It warns you not to mix aromatherapy and homeopathy (though how an interaction between these two could be dangerous it doesn't specify), and also advises that if you are seeking reflexology and have cancer you should look for a reflexologist who is specially trained in cancer treatment. Other than these two 'what-the-huh?' moments, the guide is sound and unobjectionable enough. Still, we're helping to pay for it, folks, so if you have objections, you have the right to voice them.
>>>Findhorn has been in the news again, this time as a destination for large companies searching for new ways to motivate their staff. According to the Sunday Times, outfits like Shell, BP, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers have sent staff there to commune and pick lettuce. All part of the vogue for "emotional intelligence", which is becoming the buzzphrase du jour. Still, the shift to consulting for large companies has to be a help in dealing with the Findhorn Foundation's debt, which was as high as £850,000 in 2001. Not that we should be snide about this. There's nothing wrong with spirituality in a gardening community; doubtless the skeptics would sell consultancy if we could think of a way to convince people they should pay consultancy fees to listen to us whine about pseudoscience and the need for solid evidence before accepting a claim as proven. Such as, for example, the claim that the Findhorn founders grew fantastically huge plants, herbs, and flowers by intuitively contacting the spirits of the plants. We don't wonder about the results, just the method.
>>>Interesting to discover that there's yet another ghostbusting outfit operating in the UK: the Paranormal Research Organisation (www.paranormalresearch.org.uk). "The Paranormal Research Organisation is dedicated to professional and authoritative research into ghosts and other strange and supernatural phenomena," the group's mission statement reads. It sounds serious. Both the press coverage we've seen and a portion of the group's Web site talk about the group's interest in "orbs" – little blobs of light that appear on high-resolution photographs taken by digital cameras in the process of investigating phenomena. Strange. We thought those were UFOs.
>>>As Halloween grows in popularity every year, we suppose it's inevitable that more protests about the nature of the occasion will surface. Last year, the Yorkshire Post reported that the minister of a Leeds church wrote to Asda to complain about the supermarket's selling plastic crosses at its Pudsey store as part of its range of Halloween goods. The offence: that a symbol of faith should be turned into a toy. The store told the paper that it included the crosses in its range in the context of the many fables linking crosses with warding off vampires. But with cheap plastic? Maybe it's the vampires who should be offended.
>>>The tabloid newspapers got very excited in mid-February when single mother Sharon Creighton told them that her £8.8 million Lottery win had been predicted by a psychic. The story is less impressive than it sounds at first: Creighton noted that the psychic had given her this happy prediction in a letter that was probably a circular. In other words: a bulk mailing that might have included millions of folks predicted a big win for all of them, and was successful in one case. What were the odds on that?
>>>You can see why people get frustrated with science: progress is so slow and contradictory. Like many complementary therapies, acupuncture has been criticized for a lack of supporting evidence. In 1989, when the British Medical Association released a survey of the many therapies, it concluded that in a small percentage of cases acupuncture seemed to be effective for managing pain. A couple of recent studies confirmed and maybe disputed this. The first was one of the bigger scientific trials of acupuncture, conducted by a research team from the US National Institutes of Health. It concluded that acupuncture might be effective in helping provide pain relief and improving function for people with osteoarthritis of the knee. The study had 570 participants aged 50 or older who had significant knee pain but had not used steroids or other injections and had not had surgery within the previous six months. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: acupuncture, sham acupuncture, and control. Overall, the study concluded, those who received acupuncture had a 40 percent decrease in pain and a nearly 40 percent improvement in function. The second, a smaller British trial of 124 patients between 18 and 80 published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that both sham and real acupuncture appeared to reduce neck pain. These trials won't, of course, settle the matter. For one thing, in the second trial the same practitioner inserted the needles for both the sham and real groups. Is it the practitioner or the needle locations? Only your acupuncturist knows for sure. Personally, we like aspirin, which seems to work no matter what.
>>>India Daily reported in mid-February that the Indian Defence Research and Development Organization has come up with a novel theory as to why we don't see thousands of UFOs around us all the time: they create an intense electromagnetic flux around them and we can't see through it. The flux, the article states, can be created either by "very advanced applications of super conductors" or "through spiritual concentration by any human being." So the DRDO guys are experimenting with a device they hope can see through this obfuscation. According to India Daily, dogs and cats can see energy levels beyond this flux, and are probably seeing UFOs all the time; they just can't tell us about them. Perhaps this explains that invisible mouse you thought your cat was chasing.
>>>One of the first sets of documents set free because of Britain's Freedom of Information Act, which came into effect on January 1, 2005, is a set of letters and documents relating to the famous 1983 Rendlesham UFO incident. Many skeptics have long been satisfied with the explanation promulgated by astronomy writer Ian Ridpath, who was able to match up the taped descriptions of the sighting with the pulses of light from the nearby lighthouse. These letters don't add any startling revelations, and they're unlikely to change anyone's mind about what happened, but it's always nice to see the original records.
>>>Anyone who has email is familiar with the junk messages that arrive almost daily offering "penis enlargement". No one we know has ever responded to one. But in fact, as the recent book Spam Kings documents, these ads are remarkably lucrative for the spammers. Someone must believe the claims, although presumably they are all too embarrassed to say so. In February, Reuters reported that a New Jersey man filed a suit when the 30-day supply of Alzare pills he paid approximately £32 for failed to perform as spammed. Mysteriously, the companies that sell these products tend to vanish – shrink? – after they've been sued, as if they had been dunked in an ice-cold lake. The US-based Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission over ads for such products, pointing out that there is no evidence that any of the common ingredients have any enlargement effect. It seems incredible that anyone would believe they do, but hope apparently, as they say, springs eternal.
>>>IN THIS ISSUE OF THE SKEPTIC (18.2, Summer 2005)
- Why Creation Science Must be Taught in Schools (Tom Stafford and Andrew Brown) An Anaesthesiologist Examines the Pam Reynolds Story; Part 2: The Experience (Gerry Woerlee) The Angels of Mons and Elsewhere; Part Two: Even More Tales of Supernatural Rescue (Scott Wood)
- Editorial (Victoria Hamilton and Chris French) Hilary Evans's Paranormal Picture Gallery Hits and Misses Skeptic at large... (Wendy M. Grossman) Rhyme and Reason (Steve Donnelly) Philosopher's Corner (Julian Baggini) Sprite (Donald Rooum) ASKE News Letters
- Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life by Alister McGrath; The Whole Story: How Science Could Bring Together Conventional and Alternative Medicine by Toby Murcott; Fabulous Science: Fact and Fiction in the History of Scientific Discovery by John Waller; The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life by Richard Dawkins
>>>SOURCES FOR SKEPTICAL STATS>>>
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/11/1119_041119_atlas.html; 2,3 Survey by Pointsec
(http://www.pointsec.com/news/news_pressrelease.asp?PressID=2005_January_24Nop); 4 Ariel (BBC in-house magazine); 5,6 Health Affairs Journal 10.1377/htlhaff.w5.63
(http://content.healthaffairs.org/cgi/content/abstract/hlthaff.w5.63v1); 7,8 ABC News; 9,10 various; 11 Harper's; 12 The Times; 13,14 "Choosing Health: making healthier choices easier," Department of Health white paper, November 16, 2004; 15,16 Guardian; 17 Uri Geller, writing in the Sunday Telegraph; 18 The Times; 19,20 Hull Daily Mail R&R; 21 The New Yorker; 22 sign in Watkins window; 23,24 The Times; 25 Associated Press
Thanks to Rachel Carthy for administrative support and Phil McKerracher for managing the digest subscription list and the Skeptic's Web site.
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>>>SKEPTICS IN THE PUB>>> Skeptics in the Pub meets on the third Thursday of every month at 7:30pm at the Old King's Head, 45 Borough High Street, London (nearest tube: London Bridge). The entry fee is £2 to cover the guest speaker's travelling expenses and sundries. Free sandwiches and chips are provided first-come, first-served, at 7.00pm. Non- skeptics welcome. Turn up at any time during the night. Detailed directions, a list of upcoming speakers and a map of how to get to the pub can be found at http://www.skeptic.org.uk/pub.
Thursday 20th October 2005: Wendy Grossman (Topic to be announced)
Thursday 17th Novenber 2005: Andrew Clifton "The scope of skepticism"
The talk will be followed by informal discussion in a relaxed and friendly pub atmosphere.
Skeptics in the Pub is a regular evening for all those interested in and/or skeptical of the paranormal, alternative medicine, psychic powers, pseudo-science, UFOs, alien abductions, creationism, Fortean phenomena, cult religions, water-divining, lost civilizations, etc.
Further information and mailing list announcements available from ...@skeptic.org.uk">p...@skeptic.org.uk or Nick Pullar on 07793 158697. Suggestions for speakers or offers to speak are gladly welcomed.
An online discussion forum for skeptical chat has been created at http://www.skeptic.org.uk/forum. If you have any questions or comments about this digest, that's the ideal place to discuss them.
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