Circular Reasoning

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

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Ninth Skeptics' Circle

[NOTE: The Ninth Skeptics' Circle is being republished here because St. Nate retired from blogging, and I would like to save it for posterity in case Nate ever decides to delete his blog.]


Hello and welcome to the Ninth Skeptics' Circle. We've got some great posts here on how to apply critical thinking to a wide range of endeavors from familiar experts and several new names.

Before we get started, I'd like to note the rules have tightened somewhat since previous editions. While I stand by the work of the past hosts, I decided it was time to take this carnival back to its roots, to the good ol' fashioned skepticism and critical thinking instead of critiques of mass media or social issues. When considering posts for submission, I asked myself "What would people who read The Amazing Randi every week want to read?" and worked from that.

With that paradigm in mind, let's start reading:

Ghosts, Aliens, Psychics and Stars
There is a logical explanation to everything, but there is also a illogical one. We can apply science to uncover the truth, or we can believe what we want to or is fashionable or easier to accept and start a profitable cottage industry by peddling books about superstitions. The former may be more honest, but the latter is often much more profitable.

Trish Wilson is the kind of person who takes the logical route. In Ghost Sightings, Alien Abductions, And Sleep Disorders, she notes a situation with a perfectly feasible medical explanation is often barely acknowledged by those who perpetuate stories about aliens or ghosts. To be fair, she acknowledges she only has two answers of many possibilities, but that's still two more than the ghost hunters have.

One of the newest skeptical bloggers, Rockstar of Rockstar's Ramblings, pulls no punches with Sylvia Browne is a Big Fat Idiot. Instead of looking at Sylvia's current predictions, he uses the Wayback Machine to look at what she said would happen versus what actually happened in 1998. The great thing about this experiment is that he can repeat it in 2012 with Sylvia's predictions for this year and will probably have the same results.

While Sylvia's vision may be cloudy, the stars are shining brightly. Skeptico looks to the night sky in Astrology as Psycho-Analysis and realizes how gazing at gaseous bodies light-years away does nothing to help us understand our true nature. (Hey, he's a Libra too. Could that be why we have so much in common?)

Bad Medicine
There's been a lot of buzz about The Huffington Post since it started a couple of weeks ago, but when scientist and cancer surgeon Orac checked it out he found Antivaccination rhetoric was running rampant throughout the blog. He takes a good, hard look at the data trying to link vaccinations to autism and shows why it never really adds up.

I don't know about you, but the whole spine-cracking subluxation thing kind of worried me long before I watched the Three Films You Must See about the dangers of chiropractic neck manipulation at Confessions of a Quackbuster. It's too bad Anne of Anne's Anti-Quackery & Science Blog didn't see them sooner; she could have spared herself the experience described in Is chiropractic really complete garbage? I was under the impression it was a legit medical thing.

After sharing this tale, Anne took a look at The 20 Most Popular Herbal Medicines. Strangely, her two favorite substances weren't included in the list, even though they have to be better sellers than most supplements or even most foods.

And if you would like to do more medical reading, check out Grand Rounds XXXV.

Actually, I may have to change the name of this section. The Bad Astronomer makes a strong case in Pseu-pseu-pseudio (geez, now I have that old song stuck in my head) makes a good case for the word "antiscience" as a way to describe this section. After all, it's often not so much fake as it is an attack on the established and proven ideas. I wonder if this means we can call quackery "antimedicine" too.

Well, BS by any other name would smell just as foul, and the mark of a good skeptic is the ability to recognize it in any form. Thursday of Polite Company runs down a list of red flags that indicate you're not dealing with an empirically proven useful technique/device/book in Pseudoscinece Detection Part 3. I actually saw all of these words at a psychic fair I recently attended, so I can verify this list is spot-on.

Of course, the hottest issue in pseudo- or antiscience right now is the intelligent design debate underway in Kansas. Both The Two Percent Company and Brent Rasmussen of Unscrewing the Inscrutable have been tearing the IDers' arguments apart straw by straw, showing that the science usurpers really don't have a clue what they're bickering against. Skeptico puts the ID ideology through a simplified scientific process in Let the Kids Decide and shows it doesn't touch any of the bases.

But then, some proponents of ID are calling for it to be taught as an alternative to biology, or at least another option to make them aware. The Politburo Diktat says if we Let the Students Decide on that matter, why not let them choose other pseudoscientific courses too? He already has the class schedule ready.

However, IDers may not have much of a sense of humor for this kind of thing. When Orac tries to answer criticism about how he deconstructed a satire about intelligent design in "Intelligent design" apologia: Pot. Kettle. Black., he sets off a debate that runs on for 44 comments as of this writing. It's like a little piece of Kansas in the blogosphere.

But as long as the anti-ID jokes are as funny as they are accurate, they'll keep coming. The Canadian Cynic weighs in with Evolution and "direct observation": Be careful what you wish for, where he makes the point through a hilarious analogy that there's more to evidence than what you see happening. Oh, that John Q. Creationist - caught up in his own logic. I hope CC knows a good artist because this would make a great comic tract series.

Finally, Dr. David L. Morgan weighs in with a historical perspective in On the Shoulders of Giant Mistakes... He shows how the very man who invented the laws of motion did not have the imagination to think beyond a designer himself and comes up with a very appropriate motto for the ID movement.

If we take the compromise out of intelligent design, though, we're left with nothing but the book of Genesis. Over in Kentucky, the young Earth creationists don't let a little problem like a lack of evidence stop them from building a museum dedicated to their point of view. Danny Boy of the Heathen Hold doesn't even need to visit The $25 Million Creationism Museum to point out some of its major flaws. Well, they may have their museum in a couple of years, but if OutEast at Ockham Mach3 gets a good response to his Modest Proposal, the skeptics could have the last laugh by setting up a pseudoscience sting.

I'm going to close out this section by saying that although we took some of shots at those who seek to put biblical doctrine over science, the religious aren't the only ones prone to pseudoscience. Indeed, as PZ Myers learned at a Minnesota Atheists meeting, the "people of reason" can be bamboozled by Omniscientific Cosmology, a theory that incorporates all scientific disciplines and arranges them on shifting charts to create a presentation painful to a biology professor.

Rethinking What Happened
What's done may be done, but those who try to reinterpret how the past is told may try to control the future. Retelling how history happened can have a dramatic effect not only on current perceptions, inconsistencies be damned. For example, in Star Wars: Does The Past Change The Past, Me shows how the tweaks of the prequels have changed our perceptions of what we now think about the trilogy my generation grew up with.

Charlie Kilian at Shades of Grey gives us another fictional example in his sort-of book review of the Da Vinci Code. He goes into how the fast-playing facts can appeal to someone who wants to criticize religion, their veracity be damned.

For more bad takes on the past, be sure to check out the next Carnival of Bad History at Science and Politics.

Proving What's Proven
The Mad House Madman takes a critical look at some issues that could lead to bias in a clinical trial in Prove it Prove it and I Still Don’t Believe it. A physician himself, he looks at most of the arguments about how the studies could be influenced, weighs in with his opinion, then tells us how the older doctors handle it.

Inbox Suckerpunch
Finally, let's wrap this up with a warning: There are more dangerous things that can appear in your e-mail account than frequently forwarded urban legends. Lord Runolfr in The Saga of Runolfr spotted the hook in a phishing scheme's bait and describes the experience in Beware of Your Email. Fortunately, the SCAdian was hip to these information superhighwaymen and did what he could to make them sorry for trying to steal his identity.

See You In a Fortnight
I'd like to give a big thank-you to all of this edition's contributors. The next Circle will be hosted on June 8 at Skeptico. Send your submissions to rrockley AT pacbell DOT net.

I'm also looking for more hosts from apolitical blogs with a skeptical interest. If you're interested in hosting an edition of the Skeptics' Circle, send me an e-mail at saint_nate AT hotmail DOT com.

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.