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The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Review of skeptic Robert Todd Carroll’s book The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions, John Wiley and Sons, 2003

Robert Todd Carroll is one of a growing band of non-scientists – he teaches philosophy – who believe they are qualified to tell us what we should and shouldn’t believe scientifically. That Robert Todd Carroll has no scientific qualifications, or training, or professional experience does not deter him from his conviction that he is an authority on science.

In The Skeptic’s Dictionary he sets out to tell us ordinary people what we may and may not legitimately think.

This bogus-guru stance should be warning enough of what is to follow, but once he warms to his subject Carroll’s inhibitions disappear completely and he veers from the dogmatic to the preposterous in a hilarious display of scientific ignorance and prejudice.

From a mountain of mistakes and misunderstandings, here are a few of his more entertaining errors.

Acupuncture

Carroll says; “Scientific research . . . has failed to demonstrate that acupuncture is effective against any disease.”

Except for the scientific research that has demonstrated acupuncture is effective against some diseases and was published in peer-reviewed scientific journals more than a decade ago, such as Dundee, J.W., 1988, in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dundee, J.W., 1987, in British Journal of Anaesthesia, 59, p 1322. And Fry, E.N.S., 1986, in Anaesthesia, 41: 661-2.

Had Carroll made even the slightest attempt to search the scientific literature he would have found these and many other references to well-conducted double-blind trials in which patients experienced measurable benefits in comparison with the placebo group.

Cryptozoology

‘The Skeptic’s Dictionary’ tells us that; “Since cryptozoologists spend most of their energy trying to establish the existence of creatures, rather than examining actual animals, they are more akin to PSI researchers than to zoologists. Expertise in zoology, however, is asserted to be a necessity for work in cryptozoology, according to Dr. Bernard Heuvelmans, who coined the term . . .”

Had he read Dr Heuvelmans’ book, Carroll would have learned that the discovery of new species is normal science and many are discovered each year. New species number hundreds amongst insects, and dozens among small mammals and reptiles. Discovery of large unknown mammals and reptiles is unusual but certainly not unknown or even rare.

In 2002, for example, respected primatologist Dr Shelly Williams of the prestigious Jane Goodall Institute in Maryland, tracked and came face to face with a previously unknown species of great ape at Bili in the Congo, deep in the African jungle. The creatures stand some 6 feet tall and weigh up to 225 pounds. Dr Williams reported in New Scientist, “Four suddenly came rushing out of the bush towards me. These guys were huge and they were coming in for the kill. As soon as they saw my face, they stopped and disappeared.”

Dermo-Optical Perception

Carroll says; “Dermo-optical perception (DOP) is the alleged ability to ‘see’ without using the eyes. DOP is a conjurer’s trick, often involving elaborate blindfolding rituals, but always leaving a pathway (usually down the side of the nose), which allows for unobstructed vision.”

The scientific view; Dr Yvonne Duplessis was appointed director of a committee to investigate Dermo-optical sensitivity. Her conclusion is, ‘Controlled studies indicate support for the theory of dermo-optical sensitivity and perception.’

Dr Duplessis’s experiments have even led to a possible perfectly natural explanation. In her conclusions, she says, ‘Thus these different methods show that the thermal feelings induced by visible colors are not subjective, as it is generally admitted, and that the infrared radiations, situated in a far infrared range. are acting on every part of the body. This gives us possible grounds for concluding that also during ordinary visual perception of colored surfaces a human eye reacts not only to rays of the visible spectrum but also to infrared radiation emitted by these surfaces.’

More simply, Dr Duplessis’s experiments appear to show that coloured surfaces reflect energy as heat as well as light and that the eye (like other parts of the human body) is to some extent sensitive to heat as well as to light — a very much simpler explanation than Carroll’s baseless inventions.

Extraterrestrials (UFOs, Flying Saucers)

Carroll says “Edward U. Condon was the head of a scientific research team which was contracted to the University of Colorado to examine the UFO issue. His report concluded that ‘nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge … further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby’.”

Carroll adds, “So far . . . nothing has been positively identified as an alien spacecraft in a way required by common sense and science. That is, there has been no recurring identical UFO experience and there is no physical evidence in support of either a UFO flyby or landing.”

Had Carroll troubled to actually read Condon’s report he would have found this conclusion regarding photographs identified by the report as ‘Case 46’:

‘This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses.’

It is perfectly true that Edward Condon concluded that ‘further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified’ but the reason he gave is that it is not possible to study fruitfully a phenomenon that occurs at random. He and his team emphatically did NOT conclude that “there is no physical evidence in support of either a UFO flyby or landing” – that is the conclusion of Carroll alone, and it is based purely on ignorance of the real facts as stated in Dr Condon’s report.

Carl Jung

Carroll says; “[Jung’s] notion of synchronicity is that there is an acausal principle that links events having a similar meaning by their coincidence in time rather than sequentially. . . What evidence is there for synchronicity? None.”

Carroll carefully neglects to mention that the theory of synchronicity was proposed not by Jung alone but jointly with Wolfgang Pauli, who was Professor of Theoretical Physics at Princeton, a member of Niels Bohr’s team that laid the foundations of Quantum Theory and who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945. There thus exists a reasonable probability that the originator of synchronicity theory knew somewhat more about science than Carroll does. Asking ‘what evidence is there?’ for an explanatory theory that has been advanced specifically to account for previously unexplained evidence is a question even Homer Simpson would blush to ask.

Occult Statistics

Carroll says; “Legions of parapsychologists, led by such generals as Charles Tart and Dean Radin, have also appealed to statistical anomalies as proof of ESP.” But, “Skeptics are unimpressed with occult statistics that assert improbabilities for what has already happened.”

Carroll’s scientific illiteracy finally comes out into the open here. Even his fellow ‘skeptics’ in CSICOP would hesitate to assert that science may only cite statistics on probability in connection with events that have not yet happened!

Probability theory deals with the mathematical calculation of the chances of an event taking place — regardless of whether the event has taken place or not. The probability that a tossed coin will land heads is 50-50 or P=0.5. This is as true for a coin that has already been tossed as it is for one yet to be tossed. If someone were to toss 100 heads in a row having declared in advance their intention to make this happen, then the odds against such a series happening normally are so high as to merit scientific investigation to attempt to determine a cause other than chance.

In the case of the experiments reported by Dean Radin in the respected physics journal Foundations of Physics, the odds against the results obtained in the Princeton Engineering Laboratory coming about by chance alone are one in 10 to the power of 35 (1 in 1035). For Carroll to ignore improbabilities of this magnitude is not being “skeptical” — it is being in denial.

Remote Viewing

Carroll says; “The CIA and the U.S. Army thought enough of remote viewing to spend millions of taxpayers’ dollars on research in a program referred to as ‘Stargate’.”

Carroll scorns such trials because of the inaccuracy of some statements made by the subjects but, scientifically, the question is not how consistently accurate is remote viewing, but does it exist at all? There is unequivocal evidence that it does.

A recently declassified CIA document details a remarkably accurate example, under controlled conditions, of remote viewing of a top secret Russian base by Pat Price in 1974. Although Price made a lot of incorrect guesses about the target he was able to produce, with startling accuracy, engineering grade drawings of a unique 150-foot high gantry crane with six foot high wheels running into an underground entrance. The existence of this massive structure, exactly as described, was later confirmed through satellite photography.

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Carroll says; “While no one has ever witnessed SHC, several deaths involving fire have been attributed to SHC by investigators and storytellers.”

The slightest research would have revealed to Carroll that many cases of possible SHC were independently witnessed by reliable people. In some cases, the victims themselves survived to tell about their experiences.

Cases include London Fire Brigade Commander John Stacey and his fire crew who reached the scene of a burning man within 5 minutes of receiving a emergency call, and the case of Agnes Phillips who burst into flames in a parked car in a Sydney suburb in 1998 and was pulled out by a passer-by.

Many more similar examples of ignorance and prejudice could be quoted from ‘The Skeptic’s Dictionary’, but would serve little purpose. It is already abundantly clear that Carroll’s book is no dictionary but a private agenda, and that he himself is no skeptic but a knee-jerk reactionary to the new, the unexpected, the ambiguous and the anomalous.

Robert Todd Carroll is a perfect example of the reason for this site’s existence. Some academic professionals who are meticulously careful of fact in their normal professional life, suddenly throw off all reasoned restraint when it comes to so-called “debunking” of what they consider to be new age nonsense and feel justified in making as many careless and inaccurate statements as they please because they mistakenly imagine they are defending science against weirdos. The reality is that their irrational reaction arises from their own inability to deal scientifically with the new and ambivalent, even when (as in the case of dermo-optical perception) there is probably a simple natural explanation, or when (as in the case of the new Congo primate) it is simply unexpected and previously unknown to science.

This book is a stark warning to every student of science, logic and philosophy of what can happen when an otherwise rational person goes off on a personal crusade motivated by his own self-deluding prejudices.