The Skeptic Digest
Subject: Skeptical Digest 18.3 (Autumn 2005)
Date: December 19th 2005
>>>Skeptical Digest 18.3 (Autumn 2005)
--Please forward as widely as possible without spamming anyone--
>>>CONTENTS>>> >>>Skeptical Stats>>>Dubious News>>>In this issue>>>Administrivia>>>Skeptics in the Pub>>>
>>>SKEPTICAL STATS>>> 1. Percentage of drugs approved for use in the US by the FDA that have not been comprehensively tested on children: 75
2. Cost of 1Gb Ghost Radar USB memory stick: £149.99
3. Percentage of people in a study by Richard Wiseman reporting unusual phenomena in "haunted" locations in Mary King's Close in Edinburgh: 78 4. Percentage of people in the same study reporting unusual phenomena in other locations in Mary King's Close: 48
5. Number of US states that between 2001 and 2003 challenged the teaching of evolution at either the state or local level: 40
6. Ratio of the population density of Manhattan to the US as a whole: more than 800:1
7. Number of people in Britain phoning psychic lines every month:
8. Number per month seeing psychics at fairs and in the psychics' homes: 2,000 to 3,000
9. Number of new species of rodent found on a market stall in Laos: 1
10. Number of black rhinos in Africa a century ago: 1 million 11. Number now, due to the demand for rhino horn in Chinese medicine: 2,500
12. Percentage of mercury (by weight) found by the MHRA in the Chinese remedy Fufang luhui jiaonang: 11.7
13. Age at which, in 2002, a Hackney girl was nearly drowned in a bag when family members accused her of being a witch: 8
14. Cost of an on-demand mobile phone Tarot reading by Russell Grant: £1.50
15. Date on which the new Broadcasting Code, which restricts programmes from presenting paranormal phenomena as real before 9pm, comes into force: July 25, 2005
16. Number of confirmed cases of mumps in the UK in 2004: 8,104 17. Number of confirmed cases of mumps in the UK between 1998 and 2003: 3,907
18. Date by which BT futurologist Ian Pearson believes that death will be "not a major career problem": 2050
19. Date by which a "Top TV psychic" working for TV Commerce Group says that Blair will quit and be replaced by someone other than Gordon Brown: before mid-November
20. Number of glaciers botanist David Bellamy claimed in an April 16
letter to New Scientist were growing instead of shrinking: 555 out of
21. Number Bellamy told Guardian "Junk Science" writer George Monbiot he actually meant to type: 55%
22. Percentage that the World Glacier Monitoring Service says is actually retreating: most
23. Number of British homes psychic television channel operator TV Commerce has access to via Sky Digital: 7.5 million
24. Number of years German scientist Michael Werner claims to have lived off nothing but sunlight and a little fruit juice mixed with water: 4
25. Amount for which a Russian astrologer is suing NASA over its Deep Impact project, claiming its plans to bombard a comet will "disrupt the natural balance of the universe": 8.7 billion roubles
>>>It seems to be a rule in skepticism that nothing ever stays proven or undisputed. Somebody always has to find a loophole. In this case, it's the evergreen Turin Shroud. When last heard from, the Shroud had been carbon-dated by a team of scientists in 1988, who studied the fabric and concluded: it's a medieval fake from somewhere between 1260 and 1390 A.D. That, you might have thought, should have been that, especially after 1998, when Walter McCrone analyzed the shroud and found traces of chemicals used in common artist's pigments in the 14th century. In the immediate shock, some Shroud supporters came up with an explanation for that. The Shroud, they patiently explained, had been artificially youthened by radiation Jesus emitted at the moment of death. Other complicated attempts to prove that the Shroud was not a fake revolve around pollen grains. Teddy Hall, however, the late scientist who led the Oxford carbon-dating team, never had any doubts about the results of the 1988 test. We suppose some Shroud believers must have found that too difficult to believe, because in November 2004 Raymond N. Rogers, a retired chemist from the Los Alamos National Laboratory published a new study in the journal Thermochimica Acta that claims that the sample used for the carbon-dating research was taken from an "expertly rewoven patch". The Scotsman, which covered the study in January, simply called the journal "peer-reviewed". The journal's pages on the Elsevier Web site describe it as "An International Journal Concerned with All Aspects of Thermoanalytical and Calorimetric Methods and their Application to Experimental Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Engineering". CSICOP's Joe Nickell, however, has pointed out that there's no way for Raymond to be sure, since the small sample used in the carbon-dating tests was destroyed in the process.
>>>At this year's annual general meeting of the Association of British Science Writers, Imperial College scientist and journalist Sunny Bains raised a question: why were British scientific organisations allowing their research to be funded by money from the American religious right? She meant the Templeton Foundation, which sponsors fellowships for science journalists at Cambridge University's Department of Theology, a $100,000 essay competition, and a prize for "Progress Toward Research On Discoveries About Spiritual Realities", whose most recent winner spoke (expenses paid by the Templeton Foundation) at the Royal Society. It has also donated £1 million to the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind. The Templeton Foundation was created by Sir John Templeton, who made his money in the financial markets; the Foundation also funds three prizes for religious journalism and a number of purely religious activities. In one sense, it doesn't matter where the funding comes from if the science is sound. But Bains's point in part was that the Foundation's president, Templeton's son, is also the founder and chairman of a fundraising organisation for the Bush campaign, supporting an administration that is notoriously anti-science. The Foundation itself says it "seeks to focus the methods and resources of scientific inquiry on topical areas which have spiritual and theological significance" and "the Foundation seeks to unite credible and rigorous science with the exploration of humanity's basic spiritual and religious quests." It has several different grant-making programs. First is funding for advanced research in three areas including "religion, spirituality, healing, and health outcomes"; second is funding for research into the emergence of biological complexity, which includes "evolution directionality and convergence". Finally, there is a smaller program for local societies of "anyone actively engaged in the science and religion dialogue", intended "to promote a balanced and exploratory dialogue between the discoveries of the natural and social sciences and the wisdom of the world’s faith traditions." In general, skeptics have avoided criticising religion: there is no point in arguing matters of faith. We stick to things that can be tested and look at the evidence. But studies such as Cynthia Crossen's 1994 book Tainted Truth have shown that research generally returns the results its funders would like. Because of the uneasy recent history of religious involvement in scientific subjects such as evolution and medical issues such as abortion, stem cell research, and cloning, it's worth keeping an eye on the Templeton Foundation's research support.
>>>Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, published an essay in the May 2005 issue of PLoS Medicine (from the Public Library of Science) claiming that medical journals have become an extension of the marketing arm of pharmaceutical companies. The problem, he explained, is not the one everyone thinks of first, the pages of advertising that help fund the journal's existence. Instead, he argued, most clinical trials are funded by pharmaceutical companies, and favourable trials net them not only pages of apparently objective coverage in the journal itself through research papers but media coverage around the world. Unlike advertisements, which doctors and the public read critically, coverage of research trials is likely to be viewed as credible. The companies know this, and in some cases spend as much as a million dollars or more on reprints it can distribute globally. What makes this all even more sinister is that these trials rarely produce unfavourable results, according to a 1994 study by Paula Rochon and others. (We might mention Cynthia Crossen's Tainted Truth again here.) Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the trials published in the major medical journals are funded by the industry. Peer-reviewing doesn't solve the problem, because although editors ask authors to send them related studies, they don't know about related unpublished studies – the largest part of the background. In any case, there are other problems with peer review. Smith points to a study published in a medical journal to support this contention, but as long ago as 1992 Marcel C. LaFollette devoted an entire book, Stealing Into Print, to the problems with peer review. Smith's solution is that journals should critique trials, not publish them. More trials should be publicly, instead of privately, funded. Trials should be registered, and researchers, not funding companies, should control publication.
>>>We always have to admire chutzpah in marketing. It's been some years now that you could buy little memory sticks that can hang on a keyring and plug into a computer via the omnipresent USB port. These things can carry up to a gigabyte or two of data – say, three to six hours of illegally downloaded TV shows – and they've become standard giveaways at technical conferences. Part of the secret there is that a USB port can be used to power small devices, even, given the right cable, charge up a mobile phone. There are USB Christmas trees that light up, USB fans, even USB coffee warmers. Now, there is USB "Ghost Radar", which is essentially a memory stick that beeps and lights up in weird patterns. According to its Web page, "Its sensors detect and combine any significant related changes in electro-magnetic turbulence, heat, light, and biometrics which may accompany mysterious apparitions." It looks cute, geeky, a little like a game, and a little spooky (what with its ultraviolet LED). The belief that it might detect ghosts or look fashionable will cost you as much as £48 points (for the 128Mb version) over an ordinary memory stick that evokes no such beliefs. On the other hand skeptics may find Ghost Radar useful – for detecting the gullible.
>>>When most people think of creationism in the US they think of Kansas (these days; they used to think of Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial). But the school district in Dover, Pennsylvania, a town of 25,000 about 25 miles southwest of the state's Harrisburg capitol, is currently imploding over the teaching of evolution. The acute phase of the trouble started last October, when the local school board voted six to three to add the following statement to the biology curriculum: "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." A group of parents, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for the Separation of Church and State, are suing to block the teaching of Intelligent Design. Three school board members have resigned, and candidates to replace them are being evaluated according to where they stand on the controversy. Expect fireworks and international coverage of what would ordinarily be the smallest and sleepiest of local elections.
>>>It is, of course, well known that Hollywood celebrities are experts on every subject, especially when they have a new film to promote. Tom Cruise, not satisfied with telling every media outlet that would listen about his new romance with the 26-year-old leading lady of another new release, has been displaying his Scientology beliefs in a new and aggressive fashion. He began by criticizing actress Brooke Shields, who recently went public with the emotional troubles she went through after giving birth, for taking prescription medication to alleviate her post-partum depression. He went on to rail against psychiatry – a favorite target of Scientology – calling it a fraud. This all goes some way to explaining why a spoof site ran a piece claiming that Cruise had told the TV program Access Hollywood that anesthesia was "dangerous pseudo-scientific drug abuse". That part wasn't true – but, sadly, the rest was.
>>>Those who follow The Skeptic's and ASKE's Web sites may have heard the story of how five skeptics were pulled into a laboratory on the premise of testing a psychic. The "psychic" was comedian Marc Wootton, and the programme was not, as we had been told, a "documentary exploring spirituality in Britain" but a light entertainment series in which Wootton played a rather hostile, extreme "psychic" to various types of audiences. The series aired on the digital channel in March/April on BBC Three, and is to be repeated on BBC2.
>>>Want more skeptical news? Take a look at The Skeptic's blog (www.livejournal.com/users/ukskeptic). You'll find links to stories as they appear online, most of them collected by the indefatigable Sid Rodriguez. If you're not familiar with blogs, they are a cross between a diary and a ship's log – the word "blog" is short for "Weblog". Special software makes it very easy to update them by adding the latest news to the top. Anyone can post comments to the entries that appear, but only authorized posters can post new stories. Let us know if you're interested in joining that group.
>>>IN THIS ISSUE OF THE SKEPTIC (18.3, Autumn 2005)
- How Do I Know What To Believe? (Martin Parkinson) The Mystery of Hellfire Pass: Part One (Paul Chambers and Robert Bartholomew) Who The Devil Are You? (Ben Fridja) Skrapbook (David Langford) 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
- The Sense of Being Stared At and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind by Rupert Sheldrake The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick by Peter Lamont Stripping the Gurus: Sex, Violence, Abuse and Enlightenment by Geoffrey D. Falk
>>>SOURCES FOR SKEPTICAL STATS>>> 1 The New Yorker; 2 http://www.ghostradar.co.uk; 3,4 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/4564383.stm; 5 The National Center for Science Education; 6 The New Yorker;7,8 British Psychic Registration Board; 9 The Times; 10,11 Tiger Bone and Rhino Horn: The Destruction of Wildlife for Chinese Medicine, by Richard Ellis; 12 Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency; 13 The Times; 14 http://sourcewire.com/releases/rel_display.php?relid=21663; 15 Ofcom; 16,17 Bad Science, The Guardian's Bad Science; 18 The Observer (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,1489635,00.html); 19 The Times; 20,21,22 Guardian, www.monbiot.com; 23 www.sharecast.com; 24 Ananova; 25 The Australian daily newspaper, The Herald Sun
Thanks to Rachel Carthy for administrative support and Phil McKerracher for managing the digest subscription list and the Skeptic's Web site.
Editorial and other email to The Skeptic should be addressed as
Subscription inquiries: ...@skeptic.org.uk">s...@skeptic.org.uk (please do not phone) Letters to the editor: ...@skeptic.org.uk">lett...@skeptic.org.uk Contributions for Skeptical Stats and Hits and Misses: ...@skeptic.org.uk">n...@skeptic.org.uk
Book review section: ...@skeptic.org.uk">revi...@skeptic.org.uk Article ideas and other editorial queries: ...@skeptic.org.uk">e...@skeptic.org.uk Unsolicited commercial email is NOT welcome at any of these addresses. Email one address ONLY. If you do not get a reply, it probably means that our reply email bounced.
The Skeptic (UK) Digest is written by Wendy M. Grossman (http://www.pelicancrossing.net) and e-mailed quarterly alongside published issues of The Skeptic; there may be occasional additional mailings. To sign up to receive the digest or to get off the list, visit http://www.skeptic.org.uk/digest (we do not sell, give away, or rent the e-mailing list).
The Skeptic is published quarterly. For details see http://www.skeptic.org.uk. A free sample issue is available in return for a self-addressed stamped A4 envelope. Subscriptions cost UKP15/year for UK residents. For pricing and availability of back issues and non-UK pricing, see our Web page or the back page of any printed issue. The Skeptic accepts payment by credit card or by cheques in pounds Sterling drawn on a British bank (sorry, but the banking charges for foreign cheques and postal orders are impossibly high). The Skeptic is no relation to the (more recent) American magazine or the (older) Australian magazine of the same name.
>>>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 22nd December 2005: Louis Constandinos "Misuses of Science"
Thursday 19th January 2006: David Allen Green "Incitement to Religious Hatred: should it be a crime?"
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.
<< Previous: Skeptical Digest 18.2 (Summer 2005)
| Archive Index |
Next: Skeptical Digest 18.4 (Winter 2005) >>