Skeptic » eSkeptic » May 23, 2012

The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

The Unknown Unknowns

In this week’s Skepticblog, Michael Shermer reviews Stuart Firestein’s book Ignorance: How it Drives Science (Oxford University Press, 2012, ISBN 13: 97801-998-28074). This review was originally published in Nature, 484, 446–447 (26 April 2012) as “Philosophy: What we don’t know.”



Our Next Lecture at Caltech:
Dr. Art Benjamin

Art Benjamin
The Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagician’s Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Math Tricks

SUNDAY, JUNE 10, 2012 AT 2 PM
Baxter Lecture Hall

Teachers and parents, bring your students and kids to see the famous lightning calculator and mathemagician Art Benjamin demonstrate simple math secrets and tricks that will forever change how you look at the world of numbers. Get ready to amaze your friends—and yourself—with incredible calculations you never thought you could master, and learn how to do math in your head faster than you ever thought possible, dramatically improve your memory for numbers, and—maybe for the first time—make mathematics fun. Dr. Benjamin will teach you how to quickly multiply and divide triple digits, compute with fractions, and determine squares, cubes, and roots without blinking an eye. No matter what your age or current math ability, Dr. Benjamin will teach you how to perform fantastic feats of the mind effortlessly. This is the math they never taught you in school.

Admission policy for Baxter Lecture Hall

Due to security concerns, Baxter Hall will be locked and the audience will be admitted only through the doors on the South side of the building by the lily ponds. If, for medical reasons, you cannot climb the stairs to the hall on the 2nd floor, someone at the main entrance (located in the middle of the West side of the building) will escort you to the elevator.


First come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $8 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $10 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.


Closing The Gate

Deborah Simpson, author of Closing The Gate

Deborah Simpson, author of
Closing The Gate

About fifteen years ago, the largest mass suicide on American soil was conducted by the Heaven’s Gate cult in California. While most of the media attention focussed on the events in Rancho Santa Fe, there were other connected suicides which happened in cities around the United States.

In this episode of Skepticality, Derek speaks with Deborah Simpson, the sister of one of the Heaven’s Gate group, Jimmy, who was living in Atlanta, GA at the time. In his farewell letter Jimmy wrote, “It’s past time for me to go”, and soon after, took his own life to join his Heaven’s Gate brother in the ‘next level’.

In her new book Closing The Gate, Simpson shares the deeply personal story of how her brother got involved with the destructive and manipulative group. It is a rare look into some of the inner workings and effects that such groups can have on the families of those involved.

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Dr. Harriet Hall, M.D., the SkepDoc, critiques an article from Skeptic magazine (17.2) entitled, “Depression Treatment: What Works and How We Know” (pp. 23–27) by Bruce Levine.

Harriet Hall, M.D. is a retired family physician and former Air Force flight surgeon. She writes about medicine, so-called complementary and alternative medicine, science, quackery, and critical thinking. She is an editor and one of the five founders of the Science-Based Medicine blog, a regular columnist for Skeptic magazine, a contributing editor to Skeptical Inquirer, and a medical advisor and author of articles on Her most recent book is Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon.

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Illustration by Nancy Norcross-White

Don’t Be Depressed
About Depression Treatment

by Dr. Harriet Hall, M.D., the SkepDoc

Bruce Levine’s article in the latest issue of Skeptic Vol. 17, No. 2: “Depression Treatment: What Works and How We Know” (pp. 23–27) paints a bleak view of depression treatment. He destroys all options except for the patient to congratulate himself on his critical thinking skills and to find something he can believe in. I think the reality is more encouraging: treatment can help.

I think Levine goes too far when he says antidepressants don’t outperform placebos. He cites Erick Turner’s study of FDA data showing that negative studies are less likely to be published, thereby skewing the published data; but he leaves out an important part of the story. After incorporating the data from the unpublished studies on 12 different antidepressants, Turner found that every one of the 12 still clearly beat the placebo.

Irving Kirsch looked at a subset of the 12 drugs in Turner’s analysis and came to a different conclusion: that antidepressants were no more effective than placebo. The difference in their conclusions hinges on the interpretation of “effect size.” It’s a bit complicated. I explained it in more detail in an article on but basically, Kirsch used an arbitrary cutoff of 0.5, and when the studies failed to meet that mark he interpreted that as “antidepressants don’t work.” Turner looked at the actual effect sizes and found a positive effect for every antidepressant drug, with an overall effect size of 0.31. In an elegant metaphor, he explains that the published studies had sold us a glass of juice advertised to contain 0.41 liters, and the actual glass of efficacy (that included the unpublished data) contained only 0.31 liters. Kirsch considers the glass to be empty; Turner correctly concludes that the glass is far from full, but it’s also far from empty. He further points out that patients’ responses are not all-or-none and that partial responses can be meaningful.

Psychiatry bashing is a popular sport. There is much wrong with psychiatry, but it doesn’t deserve all the criticism directed at it. Marcia Angell was critical of psychiatry in her two-part article for The New York Review of Books where she reviewed Kirsch’s book and two others. I have critiqued her article on, where I go into much more detail than space permits here. I’ll just make a few points. Depression is a complicated subject. The chemical imbalance model of depression is too simplistic. Drugs have side effects. They are often prescribed inappropriately for minor depression and the problems of everyday life. But conversely, many depressed patients suffer unnecessarily because they are untreated or undertreated. Severe depression is a life-threatening illness, and treatment with antidepressant medication has been shown in several studies to significantly reduce the risk of suicide. While psychotherapy is an alternative to drugs, antidepressants may be needed at first to lift the depression enough that patients are able to participate in psychotherapy.

There’s a baby in that depression treatment bathwater; let’s not throw it out just yet!

Skeptical perspectives on pseudomedicine, alternative medicine, false memory syndrome, and a skeptical classic from Sagan…
cover Pseudomedicine
Skeptic magazine volume 3, number 1

Topics in this issue include: Update on False Memory Syndrome; Homeopathy; Alternative Healthcare; Therapeutic Touch; Leftist Science; Mattoon Mass Hysteria; Star Trek’s Meaning; Liquefying “Blood”… Order the back issue.

cover The Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine
by Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst

An excellent guide to the confusions and contradictions of alternative medicine written with clarity, integrity and authority. What works? Who can you trust? What alternative cures have positive results? What medical authorities are included in their “Top ten culprits in the promotion of unproven and disproven medicine?” Includes extensive information on the big four: acupuncture, homeopathy, herbs, and chiropractic, plus a “Rapid guide to Alternative Therapies.”… Order the book.

cover False Memory Syndrome and the Recovered Memory Movement
with Dr. John Hochman

Repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse are surfacing with increasing regularity in therapy situations. Are the growing stories of often violent and elaborate sexual abuse evidence of widespread crimes against humanity? Are this many children really abused? Can the mind really repress memories and then recall them in vivid and accurate details decades later? Or is this a social movement analogous to the witch trials of the Middle Ages, where memory is acquired and the accused are automatically considered guilty?… Order the lecture on DVD.

cover The Varieties of Scientific Experience
by Carl Sagan (edited by Ann Druyan)

This book presents Sagan’s prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology, in which he discusses his views on topics ranging from manic depression and the possibly chemical nature of transcendance to creationism and so-called intelligent design to the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets to the likelihood of nuclear annihilation of our own to a new concept of science as “informed worship.” Sagan’s humorous, wise, and at times stunningly prophetic observations on some of the greatest mysteries of the cosmos have the invigorating effect of stimulating the intellect, exciting the imagination, and reawakening us to the grandeur of life in the cosmos. Order the book.

Announcing The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012
Southpoint Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
July 12–15, 2012

The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012: July 14-17, Las Vegas, Southpoint Hotel and Casino

THE AMAZ!NG MEETING (TAM) is an annual celebration of science, skepticism and critical thinking. People from all over the world come to TAM each year to share learning, laughs and the skeptical perspective with their fellow skeptics and a host of distinguished guest speakers and panelists.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has hosted its annual Amaz!ng Meeting since 2003 as a way to promote science, skepticism and critical thinking about paranormal and supernatural claims to the broader public. TAM has been held in Las Vegas, NV since 2004 and has become the world’s largest gathering of like-minded science-advocates and skeptics.

With yet another incredible lineup of speakers, hands-on workshops, and entertainment, this is sure to be an Amaz!ng Meeting you won’t want to miss! Check out the entire program, and follow @jref on Twitter for the latest #TAM2012 news and announcements.




  1. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    Article is far too short, ending up being unconvincing.
    The full arguments are not deployed. Pity.

  2. bob tannenbaum says:

    I was clinically depressed for over forty years. I sort help in the form of many doctors and therapists to no avail. Finally, while taking therapy with a cognitive therapist, an M.S.W. down here in Miami I read a book that changed my life. The name of the book, written for the layman, is called Intimate Connections, by Dr. David Burns. Dr. Burns had already written a college level book called Feeling Good.
    He was, at the time, one of the world’s leading experts on the subject of depression. In the book he talks about the automatic neurotic thoughts that depressed people think when confronted with various situations in their life. He shows what the thoughts of centered and “normal” people would think in the same situations. He called them distortions of thinking. After reading just three chapters of the book I was cured of my lifelong mental problem. I realized I could change my thoughts myself, and that was all that I needed. Perhaps others would have a hard time doing that, but for me, that was the key to mental health. No more “stinkin thinkin” as I call it. Mike Wallace, of sixty minute fame, also suffered from clinical depression/suicidal depression. Wish I knew him so that I could tell him to just read the book, Mike! Love to you of you skeptics. This is my gift to you and yours. bob t.

  3. Jenny Haskins says:

    The trouble with “depression” is that it is merely a descriptive term for a grab-bag of symptoms.
    No ‘one treatment’ will work for all depression because there is such a plethora of conditions that cause depressive symptoms.

    For most of us “real” epressives, it is NOT the neurotic throughts that cause depression — it is the depression (brain chemical imbalance) that causes the neurotic thoughts. It is SO insulting to be told that I can change my thinking! (the old “Pull your Socks UP!” solution to depression which probably cuased more suicides than anything else!

    For myself, SSRIs have kept me sane for years. They helped me cope with really depressing situations, I could realise that it really WAS the situation and I was NOT mad after all.
    But what REALLY helped was finally being diagnosed with hypothroidism and thyroxin supplements.

    For others, going off gluten helps. Or other foods that the individual is sentsitive to.
    Mineral and vitamin supplemts can help if depression is caused by poor diet.
    Getting off the grog is a good start for most of us :-)
    Or getting treatment that works for chronic pain.

  4. Robert Stern says:

    Dr. Levine’s cited source on the effects of ECT is an article by C A Ross. This is Colin Ross, one of the founding fathers of the Satanic Ritual Abuse fiasco of the ’80’s and ’90’s. It was Dr. Ross who wrote “Satanic Ritual Abuse: Principles of Treatment”, as well as a few other books which claim that the CIA was producing Multiple Personality Disorders for nefarious purposes. It is also the same Colin Ross who claims that he can fire electronic beams out of his eyes in order to control computers, and who was the recipient of the James Randi Pigasus Award in 2010.

    This is not a source that I’d be comfortable citing, particularly in Skeptic Magazine.

  5. paul hill says:

    I intrigues me, all the talk about genes and drugs in the treatment of depression as if there just HAS to be some inheritance factor involved. There are no shortage of things to get depressed about in this world today without bringing belief systems into the equation. This a story about horrific depression from which very few escape. It involves both a shrink and a patient, in both cases me. It’s a story that has to be told to reach out and offer escape to anyone else caught in the same trap.

    I find the use of surgical intervention for something like depression as appalling. Up until 1972 I suffered the most dreadful depression from early childhood with alcoholism commencing at 14. I contracted meningitis at just 9 months old, then at 28 suffered very severe bends with cerebral complications (as indicated by tunnel vision) as an abalone diver.
    However, there were plenty of environmental factors to depress me. I was brutalised by my father who came back from WW2 deranged. As well as bashing me he ridiculed and criticised everything I did.

    At 19, filled with self loathing, I went forward at a Billy Graham meeting and then committed the worst sin possible for a Baptist, I backslid, finally believing that I had been cut off with no possible hope of redemption. I was going to burn in Hell forever and this tormented me day and night. The only way I could cope was to drink myself into oblivion. I couldn’t commit suicide and I couldn’t be awake and I couldn’t talk to ANYBODY about it. Being unconscious was the only way out.

    Then in 1970 I lost TWO abalone boats with the death of my deckhand on each occasion, punishment by God I believed for my backsliding, and punishment by man by enormous stigma. The local Baptist minister visited me in hospital after I lost the first boat and was being treated for suicidal ideation. He said with great compassion, “The reason you lost that boat and the young man died was because you turned your back on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus wept!!!

    What wonderful therapy. No good confiding in him, and this outburst only confirmed what I already believed. My drinking escalated accordingly. I was now COMPLETELY psychotic, with no help coming from ANYWHERE, just prejudice.
    Then in 1972 with the assistance of a lot of LSD I cured myself utterly and simultaneously stopped drinking. How? I STOPPED believing in God and sin and Hell as by now they all seemed so utterly absurd. The depression just vanished.

    I now believe that the above is a common syndrome in depression. However the individual cannot talk about it to ANYONE as he or she is desperately trying to drive it from their minds and with only venom coming from the clergy. He or she would probably accept implantation surgery as the only way of coping. I didn’t. I used an illegal substance that is supposed to drive one insane, no ECT, no lithium, no SRI’s, just a substance that strips away the illusions.

    I’d like to make the point that I DO NOT recommend the use of LSD for anyone in a clinical environment, i.e. labelled and drugged as this is a very paranoid environment already and could turn a lot more paranoid. I know of people who developed LSD induced schizophrenia. However, as RD Laing said they were pre-psychotic and all the drug did was accelerate the process. They are stuck half way. Once labelled and drugged they remain stuck, but can come out the other side as can anyone else as I’ve already hypothesised.

    As to anyone using LSD as a recreational drug, that’s their business. So it’s illegal, there are thousands of legal drugs which are deadly poisons. I don’t use any drugs now, legal or illegal, although I don’t hold that up as a badge of virtue as virtue is a word for the pious. Been there, done that.

    LSD is NOT a therapy. It is a TRUTH drug. It cuts through absurd contradictions like a God of limitless love would burn someone in HELL forever (even Adolph Hitler], or knowing the beginning to the end would create the Devil knowing that Nick would try to organise a coup d’etat against him, or burning the heathen in Hell simply because some slack arsed missionary didn’t go ram gobbledygook down their throats, or Paul saying one minute ‘If any man be in Christ he is a new creature, behold old things pass away, all things are become as new’ then next minute saying ‘Oh wretched man that I am, who can rescue me from this body of death. All my righteousness are but as filthy rags.’ The book of contradictions. Yet fundamentalist Christians say that there is NOT ONE SINGE CONTRADICTION in the Bible. Talk about double BLINDS.

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