As the war in Iraq continued into April, the seriousness of this major current event overshadows all other news. Nevertheless, there always seems to be enough news about those topics that our readers are used to hearing about in this newsletter. This month is no exception.
An updated poll surveying American beliefs in the paranormal was cited by the Pure News USA newspaper in Springfield in its April issue. Although part of the Harris Poll of 2,201 adults between January 21 and 27 covered religious beliefs, it reiterated what most of our readers already know: most (84 percent) believe in miracles, half believe in ghosts, and a third believe in astrology.
Prometheus Books has just published a new quality paperback book, Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford. I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, but it looks like a book that will particularly interest skeptics. Among the interesting -- and sometimes amusing -- topics covered in the book are: mass delusions, such as "The Mad Gasser of Mattoon," co-written by Bartholomew and me; alien crashes; Martian panics; dance manias; flying saucers, and shrinking genitals.
As the press release accompanying the book points out, the authors "first lay out the principles of critical thinking and then invite readers to put these principles to the test by examining a series of unusual and challenging case studies."
Bartholomew of Whitehall, New York, holds a doctorate and is an independent scholar, freelance writer, and co-author of UFOs and Alien Contacts, as well as many other books and articles. Radford is the managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine and the author of numerous articles on critical thinking, hysterias, and urban legends.
Bartholomew has written articles for our newsletter about the UFO panic in the late 1800s in the U.S. and an article on the mad gasser of Mattoon published prior to the article we co-wrote following new research and conclusions, which was published in Skeptical Inquirer last year.
A review of the book by David Bloomberg will hopefully follow in a subsequent issue.
The book sells for $20. Prometheus Books' Web site is: www.prometheusbooks.com
At first, I thought it was April Fools' Day, or that I was reading The Onion newspaper, or the story was an urban legend, or Tony Soprano's dream became real, but there was the story in the London Observer. A talking fish. But no simple talking fish. It was God! Maybe it was the Devil!
And not just any simple Devil. This carp channeled a community elder! An obscure Jewish sect -- the Skver sect of Hasidim of New York -- is apparently excited about this 20-pound carp that two fish-cutters at a market said began shouting apocalyptic warnings in Hebrew.
Alas, the carp met his match when one of the fish-cutters butchered him. Dang, I wouldn't have done that. I would have taken the carp to bars, then maybe to a REALL meeting, then on a worldwide tour! But then I would have to learn to understand Hebrew.
A check of Snopes.com didn't show any references to this story as a hoax. Stay tuned. As Yogi said, "It ain't over until it's over."
New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, the home of the tourist Mecca and capital Santa Fe, and the place for the first atomic bomb test explosion, may hold a state-sanctioned Extraterrestrial Culture Day on the second Thursday of February if a Republican from Roswell succeeds in passing his legislation, according to Reuters as reported by CNN.
The special day, Rep. Dan Foley proposed, will "enhance relationships among all citizens of the cosmos, known and unknown."
Sure, that's fine trying to be friendly with those creatures, but I bet he hasn't seen the movies Mars Attacks! or Aliens!
If you are bored watching "20 Questions" with John Edward or James Van Pragh, then why not contact your dear, departed loved one directly with a telegram!
Yes, Paul Kinsella of New Athens, which is near Belleville, Illinois, has a new service called Afterlife Telegrams and a Web site (AfterLifeTelegrams.com) to promote contact with the dead, according to the Chicago Tribune. So far he's sold one -- to a family friend in Belleville.
Why so few customers? Kinsella, who's also a budding cartoonist, had to consult a psychic for that. "This one lady said from her experience," Kinsella said, "people are more interested in getting messages from the afterlife than to the afterlife."
Perhaps that's because the dead can't read without their glasses.
What's next? Afterlife Audiotapes! Vanishing-life Videos! DVDs for the Dead! CDs for the Deceased!
We can't wait.
Charles Darwin as comic-book hero? Yup. For those who haven't heard, a combined edition of a series of comic books drawn and produced by Jay Hosler was published in March. Called "The Sidewalk Adventures," the $20 special edition is available at <www.activesynapse.com>. Individual comic books in the series are available for $2.95.
Give 'em hell, Charles!
One of the hottest topics in the U.S. these days is whether prayers affect one's health. In a recent article in Parade magazine, Dianne Hales looks at studies either completed or being conducted at prestigious universities, such as Duke, Dartmouth and Miami.
Hales' article is positive towards the healing power of prayer, at least for those who pray for improvement in their own health. Known as petitionary prayer, there appears to be scientific evidence that this aspect is true. "Some scientists speculate that prayer may foster a state of peace and calm that could lead to beneficial changes in the cardiovascular and immune systems," Hales writes.
A well-known effect also may explain those health improvements. As David Bloomberg summarized in his article, "The Nocebo Effect & Healing Prayer," in the December 2000 issue of The REALL News, "Those who believe prayer will help them and know they are being prayed for may indeed get better, thanks to the placebo effect. The same could be said of giving pets to the elderly who like animals (which research has shown is related to both physical and psychological improvement)."
As for intercessory prayer -- in which prayers are said for others -- even Hales admits that the findings "have been mixed." She cites the Mayo Clinic study that found no significant effects on health. "Still," she says, "a review of 23 studies of intercessory prayer involving 2774 patients, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found a positive effect in 57% and concluded that 'the evidence thus far merits further study.' "
Hales does go on to cite doubt about those studies. "Skeptics remain dubious. 'The premise behind distant healing isn't scientific,' says John Chibnall, a psychologist at St. Louis University. 'Studies cannot be designed in a scientific way.'"
Other scientific reviews of such studies have criticized their design, as Bloomberg pointed out, citing Tessman and Tessman, as well as others. Some studies weren't double-blinded and conclusions were often faulty.
On a personal note, while I'll concede that prayer may help an individual cope with stresses and illnesses, that certainly could be explained by the placebo effect. Or self-deception.
As for intercessory prayer, there are a number of problems with proving that aspect. How do you control for that? What if many people not in a control group are praying for a person and that is unknown to the researchers? What about the natural healing powers of the body, and time?
At the risk of upsetting many people, religious and otherwise, I must point out the fact that "hits" are remembered, but not "misses." That is a well-known phenomenon discussed by skeptics. Take, for instance, the murder of nearly 3,000 innocent people in the World Trade Center tragedy of 9/11. For several days, there were expectations that people would be rescued alive from the rubble. As Parade pointed out, polls show that 90 percent pray and 80 percent believe prayers can heal. Assuming thus that 200 million Americans prayed for survivors and that another 800 million prayed worldwide, and assuming each person prayed for survivors five times a day for five days, then at least 25 billion prayers were said, hoping that survivors would be found. None were. Did we see one headline in a newspaper that said "25 Billion Prayers Unanswered"? I don't think so.
I am not mocking the dead or criticizing the living, including me, who honestly thought that there might be survivors, but I just want to show why scientists would be skeptical of selective intervention by a supernatural being.
Don't forget the misses.
Another Parade magazine article in March advised readers to be wary of alternative medicine but not to reject it. Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld gives some guidelines for using and understanding alternative medicine products and urges readers to be skeptical of the use of the word "natural" for products.
He also warns, "Don't abandon conventional medications in favor of any alternative approach. It's one thing to supplement standard therapy in the hope of improving its effectiveness. It's quite another matter to replace what your doctor has prescribed with a 'natural' product. Before you do that, ask your doctor for a second opinion or consultation to see if there is any other approved therapy for what ails you."
Sounds like sound advice.