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eSkeptic: the email newsletter of the Skeptics Society

eSkeptic Archives for 2013

December 25th: Area 51, Zombies, Cults, and Demons
In this week’s eSkeptic, Swoopy’s back for a special episode of Skepticality and Karen Stollznow’s back for a special episode of MonsterTalk.
December 18th: Debunking Plantinga
William S. Moore reviews Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.
December 11th: Conversion Confusion
Patrick Arnold reviews The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith by Rosaria Butterfield.
December 4th: 50 Years of JFK Conspiracy Theories
We present a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times from a reader in response to this op-ed written by Michael Shermer, followed by Shermer’s reply.
November 27th: Skeptic Five-Day Sale
It’s our best sale of the year, on now through Sunday, December 1. Save 25% off everything at Shop Skeptic, including: books, DVDs, print subscriptions, hoodies, t-shirts (and other cool swag), as well as printed back issues of Skeptic magazine. SHOP NOW, SAVE 25%
November 20th: Join us to promote rationality and science
Do you know someone who has had a mind altering experience like the examples that we list in this FREE PDF booklet? These phenomena are powerful and are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. As skeptics are well aware that accepting these beliefs can be dangerous. The Skeptics Society the much-needed scientific explanation for these and other phenomena. Join us in our many efforts to do that and make a tax-deductible donation online today.
November 13th: The Stuff of Nightmares: James Van Praagh and the Afterlife
Ingrid Hansen Smythe wittily dissects the farcical visions of the afterlife presented by James Van Praagh in his book Growing up in Heaven.
November 6th: The Psychic Industry
Ryan L.A. Shaffer reviews How to Get Rich in Your Own Psychic Business, by Herb Dewey and Marc Sky. Dewy and Sky. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 15.3 (2010), which is available digitally with the Skeptic Magazine App.
October 30th: The End is Nigh…Or Not
How many people can our planet hold? Can we expect calamities to result from overpopulation and resource depletion when our planet reaches ten billion people? In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer reviews two books: Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott (Vintage Books, 2013), and Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by Alan Weisman (Little Brown, 2013). This review appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 4, 2013.
October 23rd: Neuroscience and its Discontents
Neuroscience—one of the great intellectual achievements of modern science—often suffers from spasms of “premature extrapolation” due to oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application in the legal, commercial, clinical, and philosophical domains. In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall, M.D. (a.k.a. The SkepDoc), takes a look at the science of neuroscience in light of Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld’s book Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience.
October 16th: In the Belly of the Beast
Donald R. Prothero reviews Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Lines, by Jason Rosenhouse (Oxford University Press, 2012, 256 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0199744633). This post also appeared on
October 9th: Ayurvedic Medicine: Does it Work?
Practitioners of an ancient Indian health care system claim be able to treat cancer, epilepsy, schizophrenia, psoriasis, ulcers, asthma, malaria and many other diseases. They do this by balancing invisible vital forces that cannot be seen, touched, measured, or quantified in any way. In this week’s eSkeptic, Marc Carrier discusses some of the scientific literature on Ayurveda as well as the harm that can come from the use of alternative medicine therapies. (This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 16.2 in 2011.)
October 2nd: What’s it Like? The Science of Scientific Analogies
Dr. Chris Edwards reviews Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander.
September 25th: The Spark and the Hype
Dr. Chris Edwards examines some of the claims made by Kristine Barnett about her autistic savant son, James, in her book entitled The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius.
September 18th: A Skeptic in Court, Part II
We present James Randi’s ’Twas Brillig… column from Skeptic magazine 18.2 (2013) in which he discusses the detection of deception using the infamous polygraph “lie detector.”
September 11th: Free Tilly!
Donald R. Prothero reviews Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film Blackfish (Magnolia Pictures, 2013), about Tilikum — a killer whale in captivity at SeaWorld responsible for the deaths of several people.
September 4th: Martian Chronicles
George Michael reviews Mary Roach’s book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, ISBN: 0393068471).
August 28th: Multiple Answers to Why the Universe Exists
Lump together literally everything contained in ultimate reality. Now call it all by the simple name “Something.” Why is there “Something” rather than “Nothing”? Is not Nothing, no world, simpler and easier than any world; is it not so that Nothing would have been the least arbitrary and “most natural” state of affairs? In this week’s eSkeptic, Robert Lawrence Kuhn explores the essence of Nothing, or what he calls “Levels of Nothing.” This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 18.2 (2013).
August 21st: Inside the Psychic Mind
John Rael reviews Mark Edward’s book Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium—a book “written by a long-time and current practicing psychic who freely admits to the reader that there is no such thing.”
August 14th: Born in First Place
Michael Shermer reviews David Epstein Current’s book The Sports Gene on the relative roles of genes and environment—nature and nurture—in the building of a professional athlete. A version of this article appeared July 26, 2013 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal.
August 7th: Stephen Meyer’s Fumbling Bumbling Amateur Cambrian Follies
Donald R. Prothero reviews Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen Meyer (HarperCollins, 2013).
July 31st: Evolution v. God: Shaking the Foundations of Faith. Guess Who Wins?
Could it be that geneticists, biochemists, zoologists, biologists, geologists, paleontologists, ecologists, comparative anatomists, physiologists, and cosmologists are all wrong about evolution? In this week’s eSkeptic, Ingrid Hansen Smythe reviews documentary film by Ray Comfort called Evolution vs. God: Shaking the Foundations of Faith. The film makes the audacious claim that “there is no evidence for Darwinian evolution; that it’s not scientific.”Watch the trailer and then read the review.
July 24th: Bigfoot DNA? It’s Playing Possum!
When the story came out that Bigfoot DNA had been found, everyone was talking about it—and some of us were skeptical. In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald R. Prothero reports on what happened when an independent lab checked the samples. This post first appeared on
July 17th: How to Think Like a Skeptic
In this week’s eSkeptic, Harriet Hall, M.D reviews Richard Burton’s book A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves (St. Martin’s Press, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1250001856. Available on Kindle).
July 10th: Steve Jobs’s Reality Distortion Field
Apple Founder, Steve Jobs, had more than a knack for convincing anyone that seemingly unrealistic things were possible. In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer discusses how self-deception and a pervasive optimistic bias—Jobs’s “reality distortion field”—contributed both to his success and his demise. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 17.4 (2012).
July 3rd: Alien Invaders!
Where did we get our ideas about being attacked from “outside”—from other lands, or from outer space? How has this idea been expressed in stories? How do exotic species here on Earth “invade” new regions? Can life forms from one planet really invade another? In this week’s eSkeptic, we present a bit of fun from the current issue of Junior Skeptic entitled Alien Invaders! Junior Skeptic comes physically bound within every issue of Skeptic magazine. You’ll find this issue of Junior Skeptic in our current issue of Skeptic magazine (18.2), available in print and digital versions now.
June 26th: Body Language: (Don’t) Read My Lips
Body language “experts” claim they can “read” posture, facial expressions, and other body movements. In this week’s eSkeptic, Karen Stollznow discusses some of the ideas promoted by body language gurus and cautions that “reading” body language may be a superficial and unreliable practice. Skeptic magazine volume 17, number 1 (2011).
June 19th: A Room with a Conspiratorial View
Will Dowd conspiracy thinking in this review of Room 237, a documentary directed by Rodney Ascher, produced by Tim Kirk, and distributed by IFC Films (released January, 2012, 102 minutes).
June 12th: How To Be a Skeptical News Consumer
We are surrounded by information: on TV, the Internet, in magazines, books, and emails from friends, family, commercial advertisers, politicians and other advocates making extraordinary claims. In this week’s eSkeptic, Donna L. Halper discusses some examples of how society has been duped, and shares some media literacy rules (skepticism and critical thinking) that will help you evaluate and assess claims for accuracy. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 17.4 (2012).
June 5th: Food For Thought
Kenneth W. Krause reviews Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal by Melanie Warner (Scribner, 2013).
May 29th: Written in Our Genes…and Our Atoms
Donald R. Prothero reviews The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People, by Neil Shubin (Pantheon, New York, 2013).
May 22nd: Sylvia Browne Takes The Case!
On April 21, 2003, the day before her 17th birthday, Amanda Berry was kidnapped in Cleveland, Ohio. In 2004, on an episode of the Montel Williams show, “psychic” Sylvia Browne told Amanda’s mother that Amanda was dead. Sylvia Browne’s “psychic powers” failed miserably that day. Amanda Berry is alive today, having escaped from the house where she had been held for 10 years. In this week’s eSkeptic, in light of these recent events, Ingrid Hansen Smythe reviews Sylvia Browne’s latest book Past Lives of the Rich and Famous in order to glean some insight into the mind of the “great psychic.”
May 15th: Growing Up in the Amityville Horror
Trevor Fehrman reviews Eric Walter’s documentary film My Amityville Horror (IFC Films 2012), in which, for the first time ever, Daniel Lutz delivers his perspective on perhaps the most famous ghost story in America: the 1975 Amityville haunting.
May 8th: The Struggle of Bangladeshi Bloggers
In a nation whose laws protect free speech we easily forget that many places in the world hold atheism and the expression of religious skepticism to be a crime—a thought crime—punishable by jail. The following article, by Dr. Avijit Roy, reminds us that we need to be vigilant in our quest for freedom of speech everywhere in the world.
May 1st: Of Martians and Media
Sharon Hill reviews The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-driven Panics and Hoaxes, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford (McFarland, 2012, ISBN: 978-0786464982).
April 24th: It’s Getting Better All the Time
Dr. Edward Hudgins reviews two books: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler and Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, by Robert Zubrin.
April 17th: Witch Doctors and Con Artists
In the small Ugandan village near the capital city of Kampala, a man named Ronald Kapungu had been accused of practicing witchcraft or hiring witch doctors to curse a nearby family. In this week’s eSkeptic, freelance reporter and travel writer, Justin Chapman, describes his experience at the witchcraft ceremony that he witnessed while covering the story with local journalist Luke Kagiri.
April 10th: Scientology Exposed
In this week’s eSkeptic, Jim Lippard reviews three books: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), The Church of Fear: Inside The Weird World of Scientology by John Sweeney (Silvertail Books, 2013), and Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill with Lisa Pulitzer (William Morrow, 2013).
April 3rd: Anthropology No More
L. Kirk Hagen reviews Human No More: Digital Subjectivities, Unhuman Subjects, and the End of Anthropology, edited by Neil Whitehead and Michael Wesch (University Press of Colorado, 2012, ISBN 978-1607321897).
March 27th: Non-Designer Design
Chad Jones reviews Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization, by Dr. Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane (Doubleday, 2012, ISBN 9780385534611). The reviewer questions whether the authors’ notion of “the contructal law” adds anything to Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection.
March 20th: What Science Really Says About the Soul
The majority of Americans believe that the soul lives on after the body dies. How can we know whether consciousness can survive bodily death? In this week’s eSkeptic, Stephen Cave takes a look at the belief that souls exist, and reminds us that modern brain imaging technology provides scientific evidence to strengthen the case against such fuzzy notions.
March 13th: The Progressive War on Science
Kenneth W. Krause reviews Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, by Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell (NY: Public Affairs, 2012 ISBN-13: 978-1-61039-164-1).
March 6th: Savage Science: Interview of Napoleon Chagnon (excerpt)
We present an excerpt from Frank Miele’s interview with Napoleon A. Chagnon, usually described as “the most controversial anthropologist,” hero to some, villain to others. His studies of the Yanomamö of the Amazon basin formed a cornerstone in the application of sociobiological theory to humankind. Chagnon himself helped found the discipline of evolutionary psychology and the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES). However, his findings were disputed by other anthropologists who argued for the primacy of culture over genes and evolution. An expanded version of this interview will appear in Skeptic magazine, volume 18, number 2 (later this summer).
February 27th: The Carl Sagan of Chemistry
Harriet Hall, MD, (aka “The SkepDoc”) reviews Joe Schwarcz book entitled, The Right Chemistry: 108 Enlightening, Nutritious, Health-Conscious and Occasionally Bizarre Inquiries into the Science of Everyday Life (Doubleday Canada, 2012, ISBN 9780385671590).
February 20th: Contemplating Extraterrestrial Civilizations
George Michael reviews the book Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society edited by Douglas A. Vakoch and Albert A. Harrison (Berghahn Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0857452115).
February 13th: Magnetic Myths
Should we worry about pole shifts and changes in the Earth’s magnetic field causing a global apocalypse? In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald R. Prothero discusses some of the common misconceptions about magnetism and Earth’s magnetic field.
February 6th: Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?
We’re pleased to present Daniel Loxton’s challenging and provocative new project, “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?”. Almost two years in the writing, these two meticulously-researched chapter-length explorations dig deeply into the roots, founding principles, and purpose of scientific skepticism. Arguing that it is essential for skeptics to “appreciate that we’re caretakers for the work of those who have come before,” Loxton carries forward the discussion about the scope and limits of scientific skepticism.
January 30th: The Remarkable Mr. Rinn
Daniel Loxton shares a story about Joseph F. Rinn—a leading media skeptic from the early 20th century— whose classic volume Sixty Years of Psychical Research, though rarely consulted today, remains the deepest and most important sources of skeptical literature on paranormal investigation from about 1890–1950.
January 23rd: More Physics of UFOs
In Skeptic magazine 17.3, Michael Gainer wrote “The Physics of UFOs” in which he sought to determine if it is possible to construct an interstellar spacecraft that fits the description of reported UFOs. In response to that long-time skeptic, Peter Huston penned a skeptical analysis entitled, “Another Physics of UFOs.” We published both articles in last week’s eSkeptic. In this eSkeptic, Gainer responds to Huston.
January 16th: The Physics of UFOs
We present an article by Michael K. Gainer (from Skeptic magazine 17.3) about the feasibility of interstellar travel, followed by a rebuttal from Peter Huston.
January 9th: Not Fooled by Randomness
Michael Shermer reviews Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012, U.S. edition published by Random House, subtitled “Things That Gain from Disorder”). Order the hardcover book or the Kindle Edition. This review was originally published in Nature, Nov. 21, 2012.
January 2nd: A Gentle Journey Through the Truth in Rocks
Donald Prothero reviews The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, by David R. Montgomery.
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