The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Reviews, commentaries, and letters are starting to come in about my book, The Science of Good and Evil. This one in particular I found to be almost unbelievable, but only almost. Since it is believable, then, as they say “be afraid, be very afraid…” —Michael Shermer

Letter on “The Science of Good and Evil”

author’s name withheld

I have just finished reading your book —bought and paid for, I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear—and wish to thank you for freeing me from archaic thought patterns which have held me back from greater success all these years. Now that I know that there is almost certainly no God, in any meaningful sense of the word, and that guilt, shame, and remorse are merely consequences of pre-Neolithic wiring of the brain, I am now completely free to lie, cheat, steal, and even kill, with only one imperative remaining—don’t get caught.

If I do commit these dastardly deeds, will I feel guilt, shame, and remorse? Absolutely. According to your book, my head is wired that way. But will those feelings bother me any more? Not one little bit, now that I know that conduct I heretofore regarded as moral is simply evolutionary circuitry. From now on, let the schmucks lead moral lives—thanks to your book, I know better. Of course, if everyone begins catching on, the whole fabric of society will unalterably change, but by that time, I’ll be dead, so why should I care, I’ll have gotten mine.

Review of Robert Zubrin’s Holy Land

The following is Wayne Lutz’s review of The Holy Land, by Robert Zubrin (Polaris Books).

May Minerva Awake You:
Science Satire Post 9/11

a book review by Wayne Lutz

Sir Arthur C. Clarke. Dr. Werner Von Braun. Gene Roddenberry. Doctors Carl Sagan and Robert Goddard. Dr. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill. And, one Dr. Robert Zubrin, renowned visionary and space engineer, who with these great men shares the honor of having won the prestigious Robert A. Heinlein award for “lifetime achievement in promoting the goal of a free, spacefaring civilization.”

Zubrin, the 9th person to have won the award, is the author of multiple books and hundreds of papers through which he promotes his visions of the exploration and eventual colonization of space, with a special focus on Mars. Now, Zubrin has turned his ability to envision the possible beyond Earth, and focused it sharply on the impossibly absurd right at home.

The Holy Land is built on a unique concept that is both brilliantly conceived and wonderfully implemented; science fiction as a vehicle for satire. With penetrating insight, Zubrin lines up the crosshairs and lets fly a volley of satirical missiles at his target—the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the larger war on terrorism. The resulting direct hits expose the absurdity…and the truth … of it all to the reader with the force of a physical blow.

Given the recent pain of September 11 and the ongoing, daily struggles in the Middle East, it takes chutzpah write a book lampooning those events; but Zubrin pulls it off masterfully. Sometimes the only way to come to grips with a situation so out of control that it makes you want to sit down and cry is to do just the opposite.

Zubrin begins The Holy Land by establishing his premise, which quickly becomes apparent to anyone who’s read a newspaper in the past two years. The Minervans are an alien race of human-like beings who have suffered terrible persecution from the Central Galactic Empire. They were nearly wiped out, in fact, until the Western Galactic Empire intervened. The WGE (Weegees) help the dispersed Minervans to establish their own homeland, in the city of Kennewick, Washington, U.S.A., … Earth, which they claim is their ancient homeland.

The Weegees barely tolerate the Minervans themselves because of minor differences in an otherwise common religion: The Weegees worship a triune goddess, while the Minervans accept the divinity of one, but not the other two, of those goddesses … the goddess Minerva.

The Americans are another story, however. The United States is a fanatical, fundamentalist theocracy. The presence of the Mivervan “pagans” is intolerable to them, and the U.S. government sets out to exterminate them all.

With their superior technology, the Minervans make quick work of U.S. forces in a disastrously one-sided battle, and the ensuing dialog between the President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense gives us an early insight into the workings of the mind of an opportunistic despot in an exchange that is at once hilariously absurd and chillingly recognizable:

We’ve lost 40,000, but they’ve lost 400. That’s one of theirs for every 100 of ours. We can afford that easily. There are 300 million Americans and only 1 million Minervans. At this rate, we will defeat them by simple attrition. No wonder they are begging for a cease-fire.” The President bowed his head in prayer. “Let us all give thanks to God for this glorious victory.

The exchange is familiar, but only if we imagine it coming from, oh, Iraq’s minister of information, “Baghdad Bob,” for example, and therein lies the genius of Zubrin’s satire. The transposition of the cultures involved awakens the reader like a slap in the face to the insanity of situations to which we’ve become inured.

The parallels between Zubrin’s alternate world and real-life conflicts intensify when the United States, realizing that direct assault won’t work, sets out to turn Galactic opinion against the Minervans. Some of the original inhabitants of Kennewick remained when the Minervans settled, living side-by-side with and enjoying the fruits of an advanced civilization. But others chose to move away, and those are rounded up by the government and forced into refugee camps in Kennewick. They live in squalor, under the constant eye of the Galactic News, which willingly reports on the oppression of the Kennewickians, by the Minervans.

But if conditions are so bad for the Kennewickians in the camps, why won’t the government send food and medical supplies? Better yet, why don’t they help them to relocate?

Why, because they’re Kennewickians, of course, and Kennewickians can only live in Kennewick. Substitute “Palestinian” for “Kennewickian” and suddenly a political dynamic that seemed impossibly complex is shown for what it is—more propaganda than plight.

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, wrote, “The Holy Land ingeniously highlights the absurdity of the Palestinian position.” The book certainly does that, but the Israelis don’t escape Zubrin’s barbs so easily.

The Minervans, while they would be willing to coexist with and even help the Earthlings, look down on them as inferior. Zubrin explores that relationship through the interaction between the two main characters—Hamilton, a POW Army Sergeant, and his captor, Aurora, a Minervan priestess (3rd class). As those characters are developed throughout the story, Aurora at one point concedes that some Earthlings might possess just enough rudimentary intelligence to maybe, just maybe, be “potentially” human.

But the distance between the two characters in terms of experience, civilization, knowledge, and religious and social training is so vast that it is impossible for one to even comprehend, much less agree with, the beliefs and perceptions of the other. Those unbridgeable differences make conflict between the two cultures a foregone conclusion—compromise is impossible where no common ground exists.

The American efforts to gain sympathy from the Western Galactic Empire fail. Even indoctrinating the Kennewickian children into Minervan hatred, and sending them on suicide missions to “martyr” themselves (while staying “in frame” for the duplicitous galactic press), brings no sympathy, and the Americans realize that more drastic measures will be required.

The tension between the Weegees and Americans is complicated by the fact that Earth, and particularly the North American continent, contain huge reserves of “helicity,” a substance that fuels the galaxy. Weegee “bluebacks,” paid in exchange for the helicity, enrich the corrupt American government officials and fund their plans for holy war.

To declare all out war against the Weegees would be suicide, of course, so the Americans plan a series of stealth strikes against them. Training camps are established by the American government in Peru, and recruits are sent there to learn how to strike. Weegee bluebacks are used to purchase advanced technology to aid the terrorists.

The worst attack on the Western Galactic Empire comes when American terrorists hijack four Weegee spaceships with the intention of using them as weapons on a suicide mission designed to cause massive casualties.

Three of the hijacked vessels succeed. The date of the attack is August 11.

When the Weegees come to Earth to exact retribution, the Americans divert them to Peru, where the terrorists were trained. Never mind that the hijackers were Americans, trained and funded by Americans. The helicity must flow.

As you can see, Zubrin doesn’t let the real-life Americans off the hook either. His cutting wit slashes and hacks at every aspect of the Middle East conflict, exposing the raw innards for the inspection of anyone with the eyes, and the intellectual honesty, to see.

Nor does Zubrin stop at purely political nonsense. Rather, his humor illuminates the silliness of virtually every aspect of our present-day lives. No one and nothing is safe from Zubrin’s satirical volleys. Not our male-dominated cultures:

“Some of them, for example Earth, really do have governments largely led by men…” The princess looked astonished. “But that’s absurd! How could they possibly survive?” Pallacina shrugged. “Apparently, not very well.”

Not Feminism:

“…The men own all the factories and fish farms and have all the jobs in them…Of course, since we control the government we can balance the scales a little by taxing their excess income.”

“How much of it do you tax?”

“Only 90 percent. However, when a Minervan woman chooses a man for a husband, she assumes ownership of 90 percent of his income. Thus together, these two measures set the male share of national income at 1 percent, which is bearable, although we hope to trim it considerably and obtain a more reasonable split in the future.”

“Ninety-nine to one isn’t reasonable enough for you?”

“Of course not…It’s pretty much the same way all over the galaxy…But the cause of women’s rights is advancing, and I think that some day we will obtain equality.”

And certainly not political correctness:

“…We’re being placed under guard, while those assassins are being given the free run of the ship.” She shook her head.

“They’re reporters,” Danatus said. “They need to be able to move freely to get their story.”

“Aren’t you at least going to search their boxes?”

“We can’t. We don’t search other reporters, and they are suspicious, so searching them would be suspicion profiling. That would be illegal.” Aurora shook her head again. May Minerva awake you.

The Holy Land is a literary caricature of a world gone mad, a warped mirror in the face of which the reflections, while often grossly exaggerated, are mostly instantly recognizable. (Sometimes subtly so—look up the location of Kennewick, Washington, on a map. Then look at the location of Israel, and compare the relative positions in relation to the surrounding enemy territories). Zubrin has produced a cutting, eye-opening, satirical tour de force. The Holy Land is a must-read for anyone with a social and political conscience. It’s also funny—fearlessly funny. If you’ve already staked out an immovable position on Israeli/Palestinian/War-on-terror issues, then you might just be in need of a wakeup call. Maybe you’re right, chances are you’re not … in which case, may Minerva awake you.

If She doesn’t, The Holy Land surely will.

The following article was originally posted at 12:24 PM EST (1724 GMT) on Saturday, March 27th, 2004 by the Florida Transportation Security Administration. Copyright © 2004 The Associated Press.

Psychics Silliness:
Psychic Tip Prompts Bomb Search on Plane

Fort Myers, Florida (AP) A self-described psychic’s tip that a bomb might be on a plane prompted a search with bomb-sniffing dogs that turned up nothing suspicious, but forced the cancelation of the flight.

American Airlines Flight 1304 at Southwest Florida International Airport was canceled Friday because some crew members had exceeded their work hours by the time the search was finished, officials said.

The purported psychic’s call was “unusual,” conceded Doug Perkins, local administrator for the federal Transportation Security Administration director.

“But in these times, we can’t ignore anything. We want to take the appropriate measures,” he said.

None of the 128 passengers had boarded yet for the flight to Dallas when the search was ordered, Perkins said.

TSA officials wouldn’t say who the call came from or who received it.

The passengers were placed on later flights, American Airlines officials said.

Feng Shui Nonsense Spreads

The following is a Los Angeles Times article by Sallie Hofmeister which appeared on March 21st, 2004. More big firms, among them News Corp., are quietly using feng shui in their work spaces to help ensure success.

Want a Corner Office?
First Check the Chi

by Sallie Hofmeister,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mitchell Stern had one of the best perches in town.

From his window on the 11th floor of DirecTV’s El Segundo headquarters, the new chief executive of the satellite-TV company could take in the mountains, downtown skyscrapers, LAX and ships out at sea.

Stern traded that panorama last week for a view of the Hyperion sewage treatment plant and the company parking garage. But the new office has something his old one lacked: It’s a lucky charm for someone born on May 25, 1954, Stern’s birth date.

At least that’s the assessment of the feng shui consultants hired by Stern’s boss, media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Along with a growing number of major corporations, Murdoch’s News Corp. empire is quietly employing the 4,000-year-old Eastern practice as a way to improve its business success.

Other corporate believers reportedly include Coca-Cola Co., which called on a feng shui expert at the suggestion of one of its Asian bottlers, as well as Procter & Gamble, Hewlett-Packard and Ford Motor Co.

At least one state lawmaker also is promoting the custom. In January, California Assemblyman Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, proposed a resolution that would require the state’s building standards to promote feng shui principles.

“Is it mainstream? No. But it’s used more than people acknowledge,” said Peter Reiss, a feng shui practitioner in Centerport, N.Y., who serves as a consultant to several corporate clients.

News Corp. declined to discuss its use of feng shui, as did Murdoch and Stern. But sources said that since Murdoch’s 1999 marriage to Wendy Deng, who is of Chinese descent, he has become a big believer in its powers.

Shortly after taking over DirecTV in December to fill a gaping hole in his global satellite TV operation, Murdoch turned to an elderly Chinese couple who are considered feng shui masters, according to several News Corp. executives.

The couple couldn’t be reached for comment. But DirecTV insiders said the couple was horrified by some of the things they found at the El Segundo headquarters.

One of their biggest concerns was the office occupied by the company’s chief financial officer, Michael Palkovic.

The problem? The adjoining bathroom.

The feng shui consultants said the company’s profits, which have been negligible since DirecTV launched in 1995, were being sucked down the toilet, according to people familiar with the findings. As a result, Palkovic is scheduled to move this week to a new office on the 11th floor, the only one without a bathroom.

Meanwhile, an even bigger relocation was averted. At one point, the consultants were said to have wanted a unit of the finance department moved from the fourth floor because they said four is considered an unlucky number when it is linked with money. They changed their minds when they discovered that the unit didn’t handle money, but rather tended to DirecTV’s relationships with its dealers.

Murdoch moved his own New York office about three years ago at the behest of a feng shui expert, company sources said. He and several other corporate officers relocated to the eighth floor, a number that is financially auspicious, according to feng shui tradition.

It’s not clear how Murdoch decides when and where to use feng shui.

News Corp. executives noted that he didn’t rely upon it two years ago after he wrested control of Gemstar-TV Guide International from its founder and moved the financially troubled company from Pasadena to Hollywood. “Maybe he wishes he had,” said one.

Once reserved for China’s emperors, feng shui is now widely used in Asian corporations. Most banks in Hong Kong, for example, practice feng shui by placing a pair of lion statues in front of the building to “guard” the wealth inside.

Although feng shui is becoming more common in U.S. homes and businesses, experts say companies typically try to keep its use a secret because some people consider it a flaky New Age fad.

Reiss, the feng shui consultant, won’t discuss his clients but concedes that few people in an organization know when he has been hired. “It’s the chairman, president and comptroller,” he said. “The board might not be OK spending money on a feng shui consultant.”

A source at DirecTV said only a handful of people knew about the feng shui masters who paid a visit in January.

According to its followers, feng shui is equal parts philosophy, science and art. Its basis is the belief that everything in the universe has a life force or energy, called chi, that can be manipulated for beneficial results.

Good chi can generate new business and rising profits, according to proponents. Bad chi conjures up mayhem and can cause business to go south.

Feng shui consultants, who can charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services, typically assign certain objects, such as crystals, plants and water fountains, to specific locations. Or they may change the color scheme within a work space. The aim: to reverse bad chi or to achieve good chi.

One Silicon Valley company, for instance, painted the walls green and purple—the colors of wealth—in the department that takes customers’ orders.

Regent Worldwide Sales Inc., a Los Angeles-based entertainment company that produced the movie “Gods and Monsters,” hired feng shui expert Angi Ma Wong to help it relocate to a penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood.

Wong used the birth dates of Regent’s 35 employees to position them in the new digs. A birth date can determine how a person’s energy will coincide with the Earth’s magnetic pull, as well as a building’s energy force.

“It’s very personalized,” Wong said. “I can tell someone whether they should be using a wooden or a marble-top desk” based on their birth date, she said.

There is no way to know for sure if the feng shui is working, said Paul Colichman, the chairman of Regent. But, he added, business is healthy and “I have a very happy staff.”

For his part, News Corp.’s Stern had largely overlooked the feng shui recommendations as he settled into his 11th-floor quarters with the great view and had four large-screen plasma TVs installed, those inside the company said.

Then came the foot-long ceramic horse in the mail. Before long, Murdoch followed up with a phone call to ask Stern whether the talisman was correctly positioned—with its head facing east—inside his new, chi-friendly office.

The one overlooking the sewage treatment plant.

Rethinking the Executive Washroom

Feng Shui Dos & Taboos for Financial Succe$$
Copyright © 2004 Los Angeles Times

Don’t occupy an office that faces a restroom, or else you’ll risk draining all the wealth from the room, say feng shui experts. A look at other key principles for harnessing environmental energy—also known as chi—to promote prosperity:

  • Want to be a leader? Place a dragon symbol on the right side of your desk so it faces a window or door.
  • Figure out the wealth and prosperity corner of your business by employing a bagua—the diagram used by feng shui experts to determine the best positioning for furniture and other objects. The wealth corner is the place for fax machines, telephones, computers, cash registers and bookkeeping files. Water elements, including an indoor fountain or fish tank, could also be helpful here.
  • Place a three-legged toad god, also known as a money frog, near the entrance to the front office, or facing into your office.
  • If your business deals with technology, decorate with pictures of nature.
  • Get a crystal ball to attract good luck, and symbolically gaze into a fruitful future.
  • Never sit with a window behind you. Instead, sit against a solid wall to ensure that you will always have support in your life.
  • A manager should not sit in a room with two doors, because energy could go in one door and out the other. Keep one door closed off.
  • Avoid clutter. Keep desks neat and tidy to promote energy flow.
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