The Skeptic Digest
Subject: Skeptical Digest 19.4 (Winter 2006)
Date: March 4th 2007
>>>Skeptical Digest 19.4 (Winter 2006)
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>>>Skeptical Stats>>>Dubious News>>>In this issue>>>Administrivia>>>Skeptics in the Pub>>>
1. Amount Professor Bruce Hood, professor of psychology at Bristol
University, offers people to wear a used cardigan that has been
thoroughly cleaned: £10
2. Number who agree to wear it when they find out it belonged to serial killer Fred West: "few"
3. Percentage of Americans who are obese: $10,000 4. Percentage of the American Baptists who are: 27
5. Number of practicing Scientologists according to the Scientology Web
6. Number of practicing Scientologists estimated by critics, based on surveys: 100,000 to 200,000
7. Amount raised by a sponsored firewalk for St Vincent's Primary School, Hull: £9,000
8. Number of spiritual healers working in Britain: 15,000
9. Amount paid in fees per week from publishers to booksellers to get new books promoted by retailers into the top ten: £40,000
10. Cost of getting your aura "imaged" by an aura reader at Liverpool
Street Station, London: £45
11. Cost of the computer system she uses to read auras: £5,000
12. Proportion of patients surveyed at large London HIV clinics who are using complementary or alternative therapies: almost two-thirds 13. Percentage of those patients who were advised to stop because the remedies were compromising their HIV management: 11
14. Cost on US Airways of checking as baggage a set of antlers: $80
15. Proportion of the audience at James Randi's fourth Amazing Weekend who were women: over a third
16. Number of Americans injured annually by drug errors in hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors' offices: over 1.5 million
17. Amount New Jersey resident Jackie Haughn paid "psychic" con artist "Anne Marie" (Tammy Mitchell) over a period of months to remove a curse: $220,000
18. Date on which it became legal in the UK for homoeopathic remedies to make medical claims with no supporting evidence: September 1, 2006
19. Number of people who drank from a heavily polluted Arabian Sea creek after claims that its water had miraculously turned sweet and could cure illness until police stopped the rush on the grounds that the water was too dangerously polluted to drink: 5,000
20. Average number of minutes British men spend on foreplay: 17.44 21. Average number of minutes British men last from foreplay to climax: 18.64
22. Multiple by which the death rate among South African women aged 30 to 34 rose between 1997 and 2004, largely due to AIDS: 4.6 23. Multiple by which the death rate among South African men aged 40 to 44 rose in those same years, ditto: 2
24. Amount offered by filmmaker Adam Muskiewicz for proof that Elvis is alive: $3 million
25. Percentage of UK population that does not want public money spent
on building laboratories to carry out tests on animals for medical
26. Number of animal experiments conducted in the UK in 2005: 2,896,000
>>>A study of Carmelite nuns conducted by Dr Mario Beauregard at the department of psychology at the Université de Montréal suggests that whatever causes belief in God it's not a specific physical structure in the brain. Fifteen nuns aged between 23 and 64 were asked to relive a mystical experience while undergoing a functional magnetic resistance imaging scan, a technique that images brain activity by mapping changes in blood flow. Previous tests with actors had established that brain activity in a particular emotional state is the same whether the subject is actually living the emotions or entering the same emotional state voluntarily. The upshot: Beauregard and his team found that a dozen different brain regions were activated during the mystical experience, but that there was no one "God spot" in which spirituality takes place. Writing angrily in the Telegraph the day after the news broke, Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, demanded to know why anyone thought there should be and accused "the brain-scanning business" of losing its scientific basis. There's more to spirituality and consciousness, he argued, than simple biology. We had expected a different sort of angry argument. Surely someone out there will postulate that the sort of person who becomes a cloistered nun has the sort of brain that responds differently and more powerfully to mystical experiences. You know, like the difference between a social drinker and an alcoholic.
>>>We were fascinated to learn – from a Times clipping sent by one of our contributors – that Christ is buried in Japan. His brother, Isukiri, is buried nearby. No, we didn't know there was a brother either. According to the farming village of Shingo, Jesus spent most of his life in Japan. According to local legend (as filtered through a Japan travel site), Jesus spent 11 years in Japan, starting when he was 21. He returned to Judea at 33, where his teachings about Japan were considered too radical. It was not Jesus but his brother Isukiri who was crucified. Christ himself escaped with his disciples (and some locks of the Virgin Mary's hair and his brother's ear, it says here) and travelled across Siberia back to Japan. There, he made his way to Shingo, where he took the name Taro Jurai, got married, fathered three daughters, and lived to the age of 106. Our travel site describes Shingo as ultra-remote and consisting of just a grocery store and a "sprinkling" of farmhouses. If you'd rather make the somewhat easier trip to Jerusalem, we can't blame you. But hey – more trouble for the Shroud of Turin, dontcha think?
>>>After years of debate it's finally happened: Pluto isn't a planet any more. The reason is not that Pluto has fallen down on the job but that astronomers have agreed on a changed set of planetary criteria that Pluto just doesn't quite meet. Pluto now classifies as a "dwarf planet" or "trans-Napetunian object" and, to add insult to other insult, its former planetary status is being defended by some astrologers (others are writing it off as not terribly important in the first place). Russell Grant is, apparently, one such, telling the press that he would "continue to use Pluto because he gives me the ability to look into people's charts and see where they're coming from psychologically." Scorpios in particular are in big trouble: their sign is (was?) ruled by Pluto. Who wants to be born under the sign of UB313?
>>>A certain notoriety was accorded this year's Britiah Association for the Advancement of Science festival when the BA chose to include in the programme a panel featuring Rupert Sheldrake (presenting his phone telepathy research), Peter Fenwick (presenting his studies of near-death experiences), and Deborah Delanoy (recounting a study in which volunteers were asked to try to arouse or calm down another person by thinking about them). The panel, which included Chris French for some kind of balance, was organised by the Scientific and Medical Network, an organisation founded in 1973 that describes itself as "a trans-disciplinary forum for people exploring the interface of science, medicine, and spirituality". The controversy was amusing for a few reasons. First of all, if you object to the inclusion of such a panel in your science programme there's a simple solution: don't go to it and persuade other people to skip it, too. Second of all, the newspapers reporting on the incident on the science pages are, on other pages, perfectly happy to run uncritical articles featuring this type of research. Third of all...everyone wrote up the controversy over the panel, but so far as we can tell no one bothered to write up the panel's actual content. What happened there, guys?
>>>Some time back, we noted the curious case of the multi-faceted Matthew Parris, who in addition to being a Times columnist and former MP likes to conduct scientific experiments on himself regarding the effect of cosmetics. At the time, Parris had conducted a controlled experiment in which he daubed the dry skin on one of his legs with, for a month each in succession, moisturiser, Vaseline, and engine oil. All had worked approximately the same. More recently, Parris was in the news for not washing his hair for ten years. At least, that's the way some of the disgusted commentators put it. In fact, what Parris does is rinse it daily in warm water while massaging his scalp, a very different kettle of leave-in conditioner. The story came out when he challenged Andrew Marr to do the same.The reaction to this revelation says a lot about the kind of paranoia hair care product vendors have managed to sell. One of the five women who accepted a Daily Mail challenge to use the Parris method for six weeks, for example, became utterly unhinged by her conviction that her hair looked horrible (in the after photo, it looked absolutely fine). She gave up makeup and wearing nice clothes, and began going up to strangers on the street she thought were staring at her hair and telling them her hair didn't really look like that normally. The really startling bit was that these women averaged £40 a month on hair care products. They might do well to look at the Beauty Brains (thebeautybrains.blogspot.com), where two industry scientists combine inside knowledge and skepticism to explain how products work and why the same ingredients mean the £40 bottle of conditioner is the same as the £2.50 bottle. Since the hair fuss, Parris was in the news again for dismissing terrorism as nothing more than "a big, bloody nuisance". Not such a nuisance for him: other people may have to toss their shampoo at the security gate. Parris can find his anywhere he goes.
>>>Security must be seen to be done. Not in order to protect us, necessarily, but in order to make us feel protected. As long ago as the 1970s the TV series "Yes, Minister" recognised this when Humphrey Appleby explained that the purpose of Britain's defence policy was "to make people believe Britain is defended." No, not the Russians – the British. The American security specialist Bruce Schneier calls it "security theatre". Matthew Parris was just one of many commentators weighing in on the sense – or lack thereof – of, as one CEO put it on CNBC "fighting terrorism by throwing out toothpaste in North Dakota". The most interesting analysis came from Daniel Finkelstein, the son and sibling of a clutch of mathematicians. Writing in The Times, Finkelstein took on the argument that the costs of terrorism itself are not particularly significant (he cited Professor John Mueller, in a paper published by the libertarian Cato Institute). Finkelstein cited the Wall Street trader and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his book Fooled by Randomness to explain that what matters is not the probability of an event but the extent of the damage should it occur. In addition, he said, it's wrong to judge the costs of terrorism as if anti-terrorist measures were not already in place acting as deterrents. So, he concluded, Parris was both right and wrong. Our view is somewhat different. We think that the fear of terrorism is being used to justify significant increases in surveillance and losses of freedom that the general public would never have accepted otherwise and that make no rational sense if the goal is to combat terrorism rather than increase the power of the state.
>>>While we were following links and finding stories for this issue, we discovered the existence of UK-Skeptics (www.skeptics.org.uk), administered by John Jackson and stating as one of its aims and objectives "To complement other skeptics' organisations and the work they do". We always like to be complemented. UK-Skeptics seem to be progressing nicely towards filling their Web site with the kinds of backgrounders we always thought we should do, and, since they are apparently more efficient than we are, they are already selling T-shirts (we like their legend "?keptic". So now the UK has three skeptical organisations. Anybody want to start a fourth so we can claim parity with the humanists? Or can we count Skeptics in the Pub?
>>>IN THIS ISSUE OF THE SKEPTIC (19.4, Winter 2006)
- Just Who Wrote the Passion of Christ by Emmerich? (Wolf Roder) What Colour is Four? The Perception of Synaesthesia in Art and Science (Stephen Moston) Alexander the Oracle-Monger (Adam Buick) A Physiological Reason why Superman Behaves like a Boy Scout (Robert Castro)
- 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
- A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives by Cordelia Fine The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland by Steve Roud Evil Incarnate: Rumors of Demonic Conspiracy & Satanic Abuse in History by David Frankfurter Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond
>>>SOURCES FOR SKEPTICAL STATS>>> 1,2 BBC News; 3,4 Independent on Sunday; 5 www.scientology.org/en_US/news-media/index.html; 6 The Observer; 7 Hull Daily Mail; 8 Edzard Ernst, in The Lady; 9 The Times; 10, 11 ThisislocalLondon.co.uk; 12,13 AidsMap.com; 14 US Airways Web site; 15 Skeptical Inquirer; 16 Institute of Medicine via Associated Press; 17 ABC News (via www.skepdic.com); 18 MHRA press release (via badscience.net); 19 The Observer; 20 21 Men's Health Magazine (via Manchester Evening News); 22,23 New York Times; 24 multiple sources; 25 Newsnight poll; 26 BBC
Thanks to this issue’s clippings contributors: Judith Wood, Steuart Campbell, Tom Ruffles, Ernest Jackson, the Wizard’s Star List, Skeptic News, Phil McKerracher. A special thank-you to Sid Rodrigues, who persistently and indefatigably keeps filling The Skeptic's blog (http://ukskeptic.livejournal.com) with news stories and pointers.
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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 15th March 2007
Jean La Fontaine "Hidden Enemies"
Thursday 19th April 2007
To be announced.
Thursday 17th May 2007
Mike Heap "Suggestion, the paranormal and unusual claims"
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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