The Skeptic Digest
Subject: Skeptical Digest 19.3 (Autumn 2006)
Date: December 6th 2006
>>>Skeptical Digest 19.3 (Autumn 2006)
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>>>Skeptical Stats>>>Dubious News>>>In this issue>>>Administrivia>>>Skeptics in the Pub>>>
>>>SKEPTICAL STATS>>> 1. Number of random drug tests carried out on pupils aged 11 to 18 at a school in Faversham, Kent, as a trial: 600 2. Percentage of parents who agreed to their children being tested: 86 3. Number of positive tests: 1
4. Proportion of British men aged 25 to 49 who visited a porn Internet
site in April 2006: one in four
5. Percentage of British couples consulting Relate who cite Internet pornography as a factor in their troubles: 40
6. Number of people the World Health Organisation estimates die annually worldwide from tobacco-related illnesses: 5 million
7. Percentage of apples on sale in British shops that are home-grown: 40
8. Anniversary celebrated in May 2006 by Britain's longest-married living couple: 78
9. Average sentence length in novels appearing on the New York Times
bestseller list in 1936: 22.8 words
10. Average sentence length in novels appearing on the New York Times bestseller list in 1996: 16.55 words
11. Percentage of the novels appearing on the New York Times bestseller list in 1936 that was dialogue: 2512. Percentage of the novels appearing on the New York Times bestseller list in 1996 that was dialogue: 35
13. Number of recognised miraculous healings at Lourdes since 1858: 6714. Number since 1978: 4
15. Estimated amount Britons spent on herbal, homeopathic, and aromatherapy products in 2005: £210 million 16. Percent by which sales of those products have risen since 2000: 27
17. Amount by which German doctors found that traditionally placed
acupuncture needles reduced migraines in a study of 270 patients: about
18. Amount by which German doctors found that randomly placed acupuncture needles reduced migraines in that same study: about half
19. Cost of an "original Cameron Aurameter" from the British Dowsers Society: £90
20. Amount paid at auction in Qatar for the mobile phone number 666 6666: £1.5 million
21. Number of pianos found inside a stone cairn at the top of Ben
22. Number of pounds TV evangelist Pat Robertson, 76, claims his doctor can leg-press: 2,700
23. Amount of funding construction magnate Maurice Laing gave Exeter University to set up Britain's first chair in complementary medicine in 1993: £1.5 million
24. Amount of the population TMers (Transcendental Meditation) say is
needed to reduce the social stress of the population as a whole: the
square root of 1 percent
25. Fee for TMer's four-day course teaching how to meditate: $2,500
>>>In response to Prince Charles' campaign for increased access to alternative medicine via the NHS, 13 leading doctors have written to every NHS trust asking them to review their practices and cease promoting "unproven or disproved" treatments such as homeopathy and reflexology. The Prince, meanwhile, was busy making a speech to the World Health Organisation in which he lamented the loss of "valuable traditional knowledge and wisdom" and advocated a more integrated and "holistic" approach to illness. To be fair to the Prince, his speech wasn't that unreasonable. He did pay tribute to the successes of orthodox medicine in, for example, ending smallpox, and much of what he said was uncontroversial: obesity is on the rise, chronic illnesses due to unhealthy diets are increasing, and poverty, pollution and intensive farming contribute further to human ill-health. He never mentions homeopathy, staying with acupuncture and herbalism. It seems to be the Prince's view that using alternative therapies can save money. But this is the point that offends the objecting doctors most: "At a time when we are struggling to gain access for our patients to Herceptive, which is absolutely proven to extend survival in breast cancer, I find it appalling that the NHS should be funding a therapy like homeopathy that is utterly bogus," cancer specialist Michael Baum, emeritus professor of surgery at University College London, told The Times. Others of the group of protesting doctors are Edzard Ernst, Britain's only chaired professor of complementary medicine, Nobel Prizewinner Sir James Black, and six Fellows of the Royal Society. We certainly agree that if the NHS is having to lay off nurses and restrict access to drugs that are known to save lives it shouldn't be spending money - especially our money - on treatments that don't work even if they are emotionally comforting. On the other hand, it's hard to argue with the Prince's contention that people would be healthier if they weren't poor, ate better food, and lived in a less polluted world. Our brains might be just holistic enough to integrate both those views.
>>>Edinburgh has so many festivals: arts, film, books. Why not ghosts? In mid-May Scottish Paranormal organised what sounds like a pretty intriguing event at Mary King's Close, supposedly one of the most haunted locations in Edinburgh. Excursions (costing £8 to £37) included storytelling and a tour of the Blair Street Vaults, ghost hunting with "our guest psychic", various other psychic investigations, and, finally, a tasting of single-malt whiskies from a selection of haunted distilleries. We can't help feeling that the `on-topicness' of that last foray might be a little thin, though we'd love to know how well ghosts hold their liquor. Do the cleaning staff have to disinfect little piles of ectoplasm in the morning?
>>>At the end of March, the American Heart journal released the results of a decade-long $2.4 million study of intercessionary prayer funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Many media sources reported the story. Researchers divided 1,802 coronary bypass patients at six hospitals into three groups. One was prayed for and told they were; one was prayed for and not told whether they were or not; the third were not prayed for. The prayers themselves were delivered by three expert congregations (in St. Paul, Minnesota, Worcester, Massachusetts, and Kansas City, Missouri) who used the patients' first names and initials of their last names and were instructed to include the phrase, "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications". There was no difference in complications or recovery rates between those who were prayed for and those who were not. However, there was a slight difference in outcome according to whether patients knew they were being prayed for or not - and knowing they were being prayed for didn't help. In fact, 59 percent of those who knew they were being prayed for suffered complications compared with 51 percent of the group who didn't know. On the other hand, 18 percent of the group who didn't know had major complications (heart attack, stroke) compared to 13 percent in the unprayed-for group. The researchers said both these results could be due to chance. So the conclusions are still shaky, especially since, as the New York Times reported, no one has yet come up with a way to control the biggest problem in such research: knowing how much extraneous prayer is being given to patients by friends, families, and prayers groups around the world. One thing we do know: most people want to do something to help sick people if they can. Good thoughts - wishes, "beams" (as they're called in some online areas), prayers - are harmless, cheap, and easy and quick to deliver, and they make givers feel like they're good people. Hard to stop.
>>>We complain about dumbing-down in the schools and in popular culture; but how about making miracles less miraculous? Monsignor Jacques Perrier, Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, has decided to recognise three new categories of healings at Lourdes: unexpected, confirmed, and exceptional. Until the changes, the rules in force were those laid down by the Vatican 300 years ago, which required that the illness be incurable, that there be no medical intervention, that the healing be instantaneous and complete, and that no later relapse take place. A tall order. Under these rules, Perrier complained, no cancer cures could ever take place at Lourdes. Plus, there have been a couple of healings in the last couple of years these rules excluded that he felt were miraculous. Whenever the subject of miracles comes up, we always think of Basava Premanand, convenor of the Indian sceptics, who told us in an interview in the early 1990s that he debunks miracles because miracles are how religions sell themselves. Making Lourdes more competitive with evangelical congregations and all those showy faith healers on TV may not be uppermost in Perrier's mind (as he says it's not). But it might help keep those millions of pilgrims coming. Our prediction: 15 years from now there still won't be any wooden legs or toupees on the walls of the Lourdes grotto, just like Shaw noted.
>>>The Sun reports that Jim Dale, senior meteorologist with British Weather Services, is warning that this year's changeable weather could provide the right conditions for a hail of Bizarre Falling Objects - frogs, fish, hail of toads, perhaps. Good observation areas - should you wish to be splattered - include Great Yarmouh in Norfolk, east Manchester, and Ipswich. We note, however, that this story's only source seems to be The Sun, and also that BWS is a commercial enterprise selling consultations, weather risk management, insurance, and so on. They can't - surely - have just been looking for a spot of free publicity?
>>>Those with Web connections, MP3 players, and a liking for niche radio might like to check out the interviews our buddies at ASKE (www.aske-skeptics.org.uk) have been putting up on the Web. At the end of May, for example, Rick Wood interviewed Dr. Ron Milioni, the mind behind the specter detector gadgets on the Sci-Fi channel's Ghost Hunters series, about his efforts to recreate the Ark of the Covenant. Worth a listen.
>>>IN THIS ISSUE OF THE SKEPTIC (19.3, Autumn 2006)
- 'God's Truth', Others' Confusion? (L. J. Hurst) Is a Grey Heavier Than a Green? (Stephen Moston) Thomas Hobbes, Angels, Ghosts and Miracles (Adam Buick)
- Editorial (Victoria Hamilton and Chris French) Hilary Evans's Paranormal Picture Gallery Hits and Misses (Wendy M. Grossman) Rhyme and Reason (Steve Donnelly) Philosopher's Corner (Julian Baggini) Sprite (Donald Rooum) ASKE News Letters
- The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages by Robert Bartlett The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity by Robert K Merton and Elinor Barber Parallel Worlds: The Science of Alternative Universes and Our Future in the Cosmos by Michio Kaku Jesus Never Existed by Keneth Humphreys
>>>SOURCES FOR SKEPTICAL STATS>>> 1-3 The Times; 4,5 The Register; 6 Reuters; 7 Friends of the Earth; 8 The Independent; 9-12 The Nation; 13,14 The Observer, 15,16 The Independent; 17,18 BMJ via New Scientist; 19 www.britishdowsers.org 20 The Register, 21 Daily Telegraph; 22 CBN; 23 The Observer, 24,25 www.tm.org
Thanks to this issue's clippings contributors: Rachel Carthy, Sid Rodrigues, Steuart Campbell, Tom Ruffles, Ernest Jackson, and the Wizard's Star List. 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 (usually) 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 www.skeptic.org.uk/pub.
Thursday 21st December 2006
Lord Dick Taverne "Sense about Science"
Thursday 18th January 2007
Krissy Wilson "Thanks for the Memories!"
Thursday 15th February 2007
Louis Constandinos "Clarion: A call to rational arms"
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 pub at skeptic.org.uk or Nick Pullar on 07793 158697. Suggestions for speakers or offers to speak are gladly welcomed.
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