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eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society

eSkeptic Archives for 2011

December 28th: Shroud of Turin Redux
Recently, global headlines have resurrected the decades-old case of the Shroud of Turin in response to a group of Italian researchers who have studied its authenticity and claim that the image it bears (ostensibly of Jesus) was not faked. Though the case for fraud has indeed been strong since the 14th century, skeptics know all too well that some topics just never seem to get laid to rest. In this week’s eSkeptic, Daniel Loxton responds to the media hype.
December 21st: Skeptics Society Fundraiser Drive
It is Time Again to Support Your Skeptics Society! The Skeptics Society is a non-profit, member-supported 501(c)(3) organization whose goal is to promote skeptical thinking (i.e. thinking like a scientist). Your donations will help put skepticism into schools and teach students how to think, not just what to think. Make a tax-deductible donation online.
December 14th: On the Margins of Science
Michael Shermer reviews Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything. This book review first appeared in the Wall Street Journal on December 10, 2011.
December 7th: Healing and Harming Sounds
Karen Stollznow looks at some of the pseudoscientific claims about the healing powers of sounds. Though most sound healing claims are just a lot of hot air, could there be some legitimate applications of sound technology being used to heal? (This is Stollznow’s “Bad Language” column from Skeptic magazine volume 16, number 4, 2011)
November 30th: As Far As Her Eyes Can See
Michael Shermer reviews Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (Ecco, 2011), a book in which Randall attempts “the herculean task of explaining to us uninitiated the daunting science of theoretical particle physics.” This review was originally published in the November 2011 issue of Science magazine.
November 23rd: Skeptic Five-Day Sale
We announce our best sale of the year: 25% off everything in our store including subscriptions, from November 23–27, 2011. Sale ends at midnight November 27, 2011 (Pacific Time).
November 16th: Making Room for Religion
Paul J. Cech reviews Michael Ruse’s Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science (2010, Cambridge University Press).
November 9th: Happy Birthday Carl Sagan!
Few celebrities in science have done more for the promotion of science, reason, rationality, and critical thinking than Carl Sagan, whom we remember today upon the occasion of his birthday: November 9, 1934. Carl would have been 77 years old today. Happy Birthday Carl!
November 2nd: Where the Substance Really Isn’t
Tim Callahan reviews Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011, Oxford University Press).
October 26th: Antioxidants? It’s a Bit More Complicated
Harriet Hall, M.D. (a.k.a. the SkepDoc) takes a look at antioxidants. What are they? How do they work? How much is enough? What happens when we ingest more antioxidants than we need? Is the excess excreted? Does it just sit there doing nothing? Does it do something we didn’t intend? And, if they’re so good for us, wouldn’t more of them necessarily be better? Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Find out why. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine volume 16, number 4 (2011).
October 19th: Science by Think Tank: The Rise of Think Tanks and the Decline of Public Intellectuals
We present an excerpt from Massimo Pigliucci’s book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk in which he discusses the alleged decline of the public intellectual, especially in the United States, as well as at the parallel ascent and evolution (some would say devolution) of so-called think tanks. He treats both as rather disconcerting indicators of the level of public discourse in general, and of the conflict between science and pseudoscience in particular. It is an area that is both usually neglected within the context of discussing science in the public arena and yet crucial to our understanding of how science is perceived or misperceived by the public. This excerpt appeared in Skeptic magazine volume 16, number 1 (2010).
October 12th: Bob White’s UFO Artifact Mystery—Solved!
Pat Linse (Skeptic magazine’s Art Director, and co-author of The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience) solves the mystery of Bob White’s UFO artifact—supposedly hard evidence for the existence of UFOs—by consulting a retired steel foundry expert. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine volume 16, number 3 (2011).
October 5th: A Skeptic Meets C.S.I.
Sociologist Eric Goode presents a light-hearted skeptical analysis of the C.S.I. (Crime Scene Investigation) television series in which extraordinary claims are made for the power of science to solve crimes.
September 28th: Denialist Demagogues and the Threat to Science
Donald R. Prothero reviews James L. Powell’s book, The Inquisition of Climate Science, a masterful compilation of nearly all the evidence for the reality of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The book skillfully articulates the consensus of climate scientists around the world and answers, point-by-point, the ridiculous attempts by AGW deniers to cloud and distort the evidence.
September 21st: The End is Not Nigh Enough
In this week’s eSkeptic, comedian Mike Moran reviews Richard Horne’s tongue-in-cheek book, A is for Armageddon: A catalogue of disasters that may culminate in the end of the world as we know it (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Mike Moran is a Baltimore, Maryland based comedian, writer, and musician. He performs standup comedy, improvisational acting (with the Baltimore Improv Group), writes a humor column for AOL’s Patch North Baltimore, and plays bass guitar in several bands.
September 14th: Extraterrestrial Aliens: Friends, Foes, or Just Curious?
For nearly 50 years, the SETI (Search for Alien Intelligence) project has searched for evidence of alien civilizations and has occasionally sent messages into space with the intention of communicating with intelligent sentient extraterrestrial beings. How likely are we to come into contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? If they do exist, their aspirations could differ markedly from our own. Could visitors from extraterrestrial civilizations pose a threat to Earth? What would motivate aliens to visit the Earth? In this week’s eSkeptic, George Michael discusses these fascinating questions.
September 7th: 9/11 and the Science of Controlled Demolitions
Is there any scientific validity to the claims of 9/11 controlled demolition conspiracists about the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings? This Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center Buildings. 9/11 conspiracists such as Richard Gage (a member of the American Institute of Architects and founder of Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth) continue to assert that WTC7 was brought down by controlled demolition. In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Chris Mohr’s thorough analysis of the controlled demolition theory, based on his debate with Richard Gage earlier this year.
August 31st: James Randi Reports from the Paranormal Trenches
We present a transcript of a classic lecture on skepticism delivered by James Randi at the inaugural session of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech on April 12, 1992. With wit and wonderfully illustrative examples, Randi teaches us several lessons on the scientific investigation of unusual claims. (This transcript appeared in Skeptic magazine volume 1, number 1, Spring 1992.)
Order this lecture on DVD.
August 24th: By Any Other Name: Canonical Forgeries in the Bible
Tim Callahan reviews Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Bart D. Ehrman.
August 17th: What’s So Great About Kant? A Critique of Dinesh D’Souza’s Attack on Reason
Michael Dahlen examines Dinesh D’Souza’s Immanuel Kant-inspired philosophy that “reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings” and that “it is in no way unreasonable to believe things on faith that simply cannot be adjudicated by reason.”
August 10th: Anecdotes Do Not Make a Science
We present an article from Skeptic magazine’ (volume 1, number 4) in which Kevin Todeschi, the Director of Public Information at the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment, responds to Michael Shermer’s investigation of the A.R.E.’s extraordinary claim regarding proof of ESP (which we published last week in part one of this two-part series). Following Kevin Todeschi’s response, we present a reply from Michael Shermer, Arthur Benjamin and James Randi.
August 3rd: Deviations: A Skeptical Investigation of Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment
In this first part of a two-part series, we present an article from Skeptic magazine’ (volume 1, number 3) in which Michael Shermer investigates an extraordinary claim regarding proof of ESP made by the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.). In their study, two classic (but extremely common) blunders were committed: (1) misinterpreting statistical results, and (2) ignoring a basic tenet of scientific testing—repeatability.
July 27th: What’s in the Number 19?
On June 28, Michael Shermer published a post on Skepticblog.org on the number 19 and the attempted ambush interview that he turned into a lesson in patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise) and numerology, calling for our readers to chime in with their own examples of such patternicity. In this week’s eSkeptic, we present 19 of the more intriguing, delightful, instructive, and funny responses from that blog.
July 20th: Jesus Potter Harry Christ
In this week’s eSkeptic, Tim Callahan reviews Derek Murphy’s book Jesus Potter Harry Christ (Portland, OR: Holy Blasphemy Press).
July 13th: Religion in Harry Potter
In light of the final installment of the übersuccessful Harry Potter series having hit theaters, we present Ari Armstrong‘s examination of religion in J. K. Rowling’s novels.
July 6th: To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
We present an excerpt from Richard Wiseman’s just released book, Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There (reprinted by permission of the author and publisher). Richard Wiseman is the Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.
June 29th: The Number 19: An Ambush Interview
Michael Shermer recounts his experience of a recent interview-turned-ambush by a film crew who claimed to be making a documentary about the arguments for and against the existence of God. The interview provides an excellent background for a lesson in what Shermer calls patternicity: our tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.
June 22nd: Skepticism’s Oldest Debate—A Prehistory of “DBAD”
What is the right approach to dealing with people who believe in the paranormal or some particular idea we could call pseudoscience? Naturally no one considers their beliefs to be pseudoscience or faith-based nonsense, so saying something along those lines to a believer’s face is likely to close off conversation. In this remarkable article, our own Daniel Loxton tackles the matter head on. Daniel shows that a controversy that erupted at last year’s The Amazing Meeting conference was just the latest in a very long history of skeptical debates about the “tone” of our criticism and educational outreach. (Please note: this is a long article, running over 4500 words.)
June 15th: The Physics of Atheism
Andrew Zak Williams reviews Victor Stenger’s new book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us.
June 8th: A Skeptic Among the Cadavers
Into the trenches of a rousing, blood-flecked battle in the ongoing war between good science and bad science, a new book reminds us that the stakes of the game have always been nothing less than life and death. In this week’s eSkeptic, Stephen Beckner reviews Douglas Starr’s new book, The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science.
June 1st: The Record Tornado Season of 2011
The tornado season of 2011 is already a record breaker. Is it due to global warming? In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald Prothero takes a look at this phenomenon.
May 25th: Announcing Michael Shermer’s new book: The Believing Brain
Announcing the release of Michael Shermer’s latest book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. Synthesizing 30 years of research, Shermer presents his comprehensive theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished.
May 18th: Paranormal America
Anondah Saide reviews the book Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture by Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph O. Baker.
May 11th: Layers of Confusion: Alleged Fraud on Obama’s Long Form Birth Certificate
Pat Linse’s debunks the alleged fraud on Obama’s long form birth certificate.
May 5th: Myths About Fat and What to Do About It

There is certainly no shortage of diet fads and weight loss myths. The plethora of contradictory information can make it difficult for us to distinguish between sound nutrition science and plain old nonsense. In our second review of the year of Gary Taubes’ latest book Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It (read the first review here), Harriet Hall, M.D. (the Skepdoc) advises against jumping on any bandwagons.

April 27th: Zeno’s Paradox and the Problem of Free Will

In this rich article on an ancient problem, Skeptic contributor Phil Mole discusses the problem of free will. The problem is this: how can we hold people accountable for their actions if we live in a determined universe? A variety of solutions to the problems are reviewed from the ancient Greeks to modern scientists, philosophers, and even science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick in his classic novel Minority Report. Mole finds compelling new arguments from complexity theory and cognitive neuroscience that reveal the intricate network of causes and effects at work in our conscious minds. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine volume 10 number 4 (2004).

April 20th: Stranger Than We Can Imagine

In this week’s eSkeptic, Justin Trottier reviews Ray Jayawardhana’s new book Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System.

April 13th: Precognition or Pathological Science? An Analysis of Daryl Bem’s Controversial “Feeling the Future” Paper

In a soon-to-be-published controversial paper entitled “Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect,” Daryl Bem claims to have found significant statistical data in support of precognition in various situations through a series of nine experiments. Nicolas Gauvrit presents several analyses critiquing the methodology and statistical data presented in Bem’s study.

April 6th: The Mars Effect & True Disbelievers

For decades, controversy has surrounded the so-called “Mars Effect.” On one side, believers claim proof that astrological signs predict specific human outcomes (e.g. the success of sports stars). On the other side, skeptics claim that no such evidence has been demonstrated in controlled experiments and data analysis.

We ran an article by Alexander Panchin (The Saturn-Mars Effect) in volume 16, number 1 of Skeptic magazine offering an explanation for the effect as a statistical artifact. In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Australian skeptic Geoffrey Dean’s critical analysis of Panchin’s article followed by Panchin’s response.

March 30th: Quacks & Quakes

Since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan on March 11, 2011, a storm of misinformation about earthquakes and natural disasters has followed. In this eSkeptic, professor of geology and author of the new book Catastrophes: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and other Earth-Shattering Disasters, Dr. Donald R. Prothero shines a scientific light on some of this misinformation and discusses the difficult nature of earthquake prediction.

March 23rd: The Chronology Projector Conjecture

Michael Shermer conjectures about the many paradoxes that arise from theories of time travel. Shermer reviews some of the problems which scientists have determined will relegate time travel to the realm of science fiction.

March 16th: Stupid Pet Psychic Tricks

In a spin on David Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks,” psychologist Bryan Farha examines the very real world of stupid pet psychic tricks—people who think their pets have psychic power. Farha not only debunks the claims of psychic pet owners but reveals how the tricks are done through a series of techniques based on natural (not supernatural) powers.

March 9th: The Ultimate Multiverse

James N. Gardner reviews Brian Greenes’s book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

March 2nd: Interview with Scott Sigler

Jason Colavito reviews Scott Sigler’s book Ancestor and follows up by interviewing the author.

February 23rd: Science, Nihilism & Punk Rock

Bob Conrad reviews Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God by Greg Graffin and Steve Olsen.

February 16th: Announcing Science Symposium

The Skeptics Society announces Science Symposium: 100 years of adventures in science and pseudoscience. Skepticism’s leading luminaries offer their expertise in a series of lectures and workshops designed to sharpen your skepticism and fine tune your critical thinking skills. Friday–Sunday, June 24–26, 2011.

February 9th: The Measure of a Woman: An interview with Carol Tavris

In this (1999) interview with one of the pioneering women in the skeptical movement, Carol Tavris picks up where Stephen Jay Gould left off on his book The Mismeasure of Man with her mythbusting book The Mismeasure of Woman. Tavris uncovers a host of myths about women and shows what science actually tells us about gender difference with respect to cognition. This piece was published in Skeptic magazine vol. 7, no.1.

February 2nd: Science and the Is/Ought Problem

In this week’s eSkeptic Massimo Pigliucci reviews Sam Harris’ latest book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Because it is somewhat critical of Harris’s thesis that science can determine human values, you may wish to also read Michael Shermer’s more positive column in Scientific American on the subject (which he too has written extensively about in his own book, The Science of Good and Evil). Finally, read Harris’ extended response to critics in the Huffington Post.

January 26th: The Ideological Immune System: Resistance to New Ideas in Science

J. S. Snelson discusses how our biological immune system protects our bodies from an invasion of foreign agents and pathogens, and, in the context of the historical discovery and treatment of malaria, how our ideological immune system protects our minds from an invasion of foreign ideas and doctrines. This article is copyright © 1992 by J. S. Snelson and was first published in Skeptic magazine volume 1, number 4 in 1992.

January 19th: Announcing the New Season of Lectures at Caltech and the New Skepticality App for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Android mobile devices

MARK YOUR CALENDAR! The Skeptics Society is pleased to announce its new season of the Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech. This continues the seventeen-year-long series, presenting nearly 300 lectures by some of the most distinguished experts in the world. Unless otherwise stated, all lectures take place in Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech, Pasadena, CA. Book signings will follow all lectures. Also in this week’s eSkeptic, we announce the Skepticality Podcast App for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Android mobile devices!

January 12th: Scientific Evaluation of Charles Dickens

We present Mikhail Simkin’s findings from a study wherein he applied a scientific approach to literature in evaluating its quality and worth. participants were asked to blindly distinguish between passages written by Charles Dickens and passages written Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the author who penned the infamous line ‘It was a dark and stormy night. ’ Is Mikhail Simkin’s scientific approach to assessing the quality of literature valid? Take our poll at the end of the article.

January 5th: Good Calories, Good Science or Bad Calories, Bad Science?

Barry Rein reviews Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It by Gary Taubes.

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