Circular Reasoning

An archive site for the Skeptics' Circle. It includes a list of past Skeptics' Circles, future hosts, and announcements.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Eighth Skeptics' Circle: Must be Malebolge!

Note: This Meeting of the Skeptics' circle was originally posted on Pharyngula and is archived here.

This is the Skeptics' Circle, the place where we praise science and reason, and smirk and mock the gullible and credulous. This is also the eighth edition, and for something that is so new, we sure are getting a lot of submissions: the rational side must be strong in the blogosphere. Just for your reference, the Eighth Circle of Hell is also the place to find Panderers, Seducers, Flatterers, Simoniacs, Astrologers, Barrators, Hypocrites, Thieves, Sowers of Scandal and Schism, and Falsifiers. Here among the skeptics you'll find the demons who torment them.

If you find skepticism to be of interest, there are several other collections of related weblog entries that you should look for soon, or even better, to which you should submit links.

Coming up in the next week are:
In addition, the next edition of the Skeptics' Circle will return to the founder's page, St. Nate's, on 26 May. You can start sending links to saint_nate at


Skeptics have an undeserved reputation as sour, cynical people who are just out to spoil everyone's fun and have no sense of greater purpose in life. Nothing could be further from the truth, though, so before we plunge into the pleasant business of disemboweling nonsense, take a look at our aspirations and ideals. No better example can be found then the Bad Astronomy Blog's inspiring speech to a Science Fare on the virtues and pleasures of science. Similarly, Mile Zero tells us in Why People Believe Weird Things that our goal is teach people how to think, not what to think, while Shades of Grey explains that we shouldn't put boundaries on critical thinking in On Skepticism.

Skeptics are also much concerned with logic and evidence. Cliopatria gives us a taxonomy of weblog arguments in Worthwhile Discussions, and Thread the Needle gives pointers on recognizing a common flaw, confirmation bias, in Battling Confirmation.

Most of the other submissions this week target specific issues that are ripe for critical inquiry. The hottest topics this time around are quackery, creationism, religion, and pseudoscience, with a few others to round out the list.


Our natural desire to maintain better health, preferably by taking shortcuts and using cheap methods, is fertile ground for the con man. People are always offering snake oil and miracle cures, and this is definitely the place where the skeptical mindset is most needed. The problem has been around for a long time, as St. Nate discovers when he visits a quack art exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Don't Say "No" to the Incredible Medicine Show.

The scary thing about quackery is that it can infiltrate even the highest levels of government. The Heathen Hold discovers that South Africa's health minister thinks garlic, lemon, olive oil and beetroot are superior treatments for AIDS over those tested drugs the World Health Organization wants to provide in Garlic and AIDS. Meanwhile, Agylen learns that the New Italian Health Minister endorses quackery—he wants to divert state money to fake cancer cures!

As Anne's Anti-quackery & Science Blog could explain to them, though, Natural is not necessarily safe. It's peculiar how people have come to think of the word "natural" as reassuring and unthreatening: they need to learn that the world is really out to kill them. Oasis of Sanity has a perfect example in ambushed, where people with no knowledge of chemistry or biology are horrified to discover that there are food additives that consist of chemicals.

Skeptico submitted a whole series of articles documenting bizarre beliefs in the power of crystals, acupuncture (despite the lack of evidence), and most amusingly, oxygen as a drink.

Quackery can kill, as Orac knows. He points out that Polio returns, thanks to anti-vaccination zealots. Blendor is even more blunt, and tells us that Rich Tucker is a giant idiot—Tucker confounds causation and correlation to argue against basic vaccinations.

Lastly, a cautionary tale from alphabitch: Losing my religion. Or not. It's an anecdote about homeopathy, with the point that there are unexplained phenomena out there, but that close-minded zealotry on one side or the other is not the answer.


This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and it's good to see a solid showing against the forces of scientific ignorance here. Much of the recent concentration on this topic is clearly motivated by the silliness going on in Kansas. Thoughts from Kansas reviews The Story thus far, summarizing the attempts by the Kansas State Department of Education to introduce Intelligent Design creationism into the science classroom. Lloydletta's Nooz and Comments has started a Letter writing campaign to Kansas Board of Education members, and in the Dump Michele Bachmann blog, we learn that there are a Bunch of Michele Bachmann Wannabees in Kansas. Bachmann is a Minnesota legislator who has supported similar efforts to incorporate creationism into our curricula, and I have to disagree a bit with the title; I think Bachmann would like to turn Minnesota into Kansas.

Dirty Greek is also incensed at Kansas, and gives us a brief summary of creationist red herrings in Evolution vs. Creationism II - Pseudoscience. Stepping on poop explains that Reality Bites and provides an illustrated tour of creationist absurdities.

While saying some of the silliest things imaginable, though, creationists lack a sense of humor. Respectful Insolence has an example, and says, 'I guess this is what passes for creationist "humor"'. Of course, the strongest piece of evidence for the deadly dull, unfunny nature of creationism is B.C. and its cartoonist, Johnny Hart, as Cogito, Ergo Sum...Atheos shows.

The root of the problem is a lack of education, unfortunately. I'll explain it when you are older expresses his disappointment at some psychology majors' understanding of evolution in Curriculum, Stigma, and Amazement—I'm also disappointed that students can attend a liberal arts university and fail to get a basic understanding of an important science.


The most prevalent kind of irrational nonsense widespread in our culture is, of course, religion…and it is also a form of unreason that is actively endorsed by government and social leaders. It can be lethal, as Be Lambic or Green explains in Take the Blood, when bizarrely literal interpretations lead Jehovah's Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions. And it's not just accepting old books as dogma that is the problem; believing that the revealed authority of old men in funny hats isWisdom leads to silly ideas, criticized at Butterflies and Wheels.

archy asks, "Do they even know what they believe?" Dispensationalism and dominionism are some of the theocratic notions that have taken root in the Religious Right.

On a personal note, Socratic Gadfly faces death in the recent loss of his father, and identifies one of the guilty parties: Philip Morris killed my dad. Lutheranism also seems to have aided and abetted the process.


I was a bit disappointed in the turnout for this category; I expected something on zero-point energy, perpetual motion machines, or magic electro-dip for better sounding stereo cables. Instead, the kooks seem to be turning to grander subjects. One of my favorite physicists at Preposterous Universe tears into Alternative cosmologies—it seems there are people who are irritated by the idea of the big bang, and have their own vague cosmological theories. Dean's World also criticizes the fuzzy physics theories of one Mark McCutcheon, in What Skepticism Looks Like.

Expert Opinion submitted an article on Home Science Tools: Not! that would actually fit into about half the categories here. It's about the strange things being peddled to home-schoolers in a "science" education catalog from religious crazies.


I think there must have been some exhaustion of outrage, because this is another category I would have expected to be rich with complaints. Instead, we got some thoughtful comments on topics I hadn't considered. Mile Zero is concerned about an anti-communist faction in China in Axel Rose was right, and suggests that we should be wary of revolutionaries who play fast and loose with the truth.B and B is also wary of statistical games, juggling presidential popularity by the Politicization of terror alerts. And although we're all pleased about the rediscovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the US, bootstrap analysis explains that there may be Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Cuba, and explains that anti-Castro politics may be interfering with more productive ways to help this species recover.


What about astrology? I like acw's answer: My sign is "Stop". It's a dismissive put-down of the triviality of banter about astrology. It may be more than just banter, though: Rajesh.V.Vaidya didn't give a weblog link, but did point me to an official webpage for the government of India: Guidelines for Setting up Departments of Vedic Astrology in Universities Under the Purview of University Grants Commission. Read it and weep.


Only one post about UFOs, and nothing about Bigfoot? Once upon a time, those seemed to be major staples of skeptical discussion. Uncertain Principles harks back to the glory days of UFOlogy with a Press Release about UFO nuts.

No! Wait! Hold the presses! Somehow, whilst winnowing the zillions of submissions, I failed to include St. Nate's post debunking Alien Abductions and Easy Answers! I'd even commented on it in e-mail to him, since it turns out we were both at Temple University at the same time. Now I'm all worried…I thought I'd finished this thing, but maybe a dozen people are going to send me e-mail telling me I forgot something.

Urban Legends

Urban legends were also the focus of many a skeptical dissection, and Hypercubed takes on the old Glass—solid or liquid? debate. And at Mike Snider's Formal Blog and Sonnetarium, we even get a poem about urban legends, Legends of the Net.


Ah, if only the media were more on our side in the battle between reason and superstition…but as Buridan's Ass explains, journalists seem to have confused objectivity with credulity in
The False Dichotomy of Fact vs. Opinion.


Where are all the environmentalists this time around? We got one solid post from Bonehead Compendium on Arctic Drilling: The Pros, which isn't pro-drilling, as the title suggests; it's skeptical of the benefits of ANWR drilling.

Calamus brings up a provocative subject, in What's the deal with sex anyway? Comments in reply to Halperin. Skeptics aren't skeptical about sex, of course, but instead the idea that "sexuality as whole is nothing more than an invention of modern society"


We at the Skeptics' Circle do have some standards, and we don't blindly accept any old piece of nonsense anyone submits to us. I had to think hard about this post from Short Ton Unit, about Othello, spite, and the end of the world. It's well-written, interesting, and a different perspective on the complex issue of humankind's place in ecology, but…it cites B. Lomborg approvingly! I'll include it on its merits, but evaluate it critically, as you would all of the articles linked above.

However, this article from Dean's World on Men's Issues and Stats has but one virtue: irony. Look at these opening lines in disbelief.
It seems the ignorance of feminists is not only alive and well, but growing at an astonishing rate. Or maybe it’s deliberate, this dissemination of obvious untruth. I vote for the deliberate, as I’ve never met a feminist or women’s shelter advocate yet who could hold an entire conversation without resorting to at least one fabrication.

If you must read further, watch the phony strawman go up in the second paragraph, too. Ouch.

Parting shot

Let's lighten the mood a bit. Go read about how ancient Coturnix is. He's almost as old as I feel right now, after having to pull together all those links.