The 40th Skeptics' Circle

The 40th Skeptics' Circle August 3, 2006

The doors of the Observatory are closed, and an eager crowd has gathered before them, milling about anxiously to await the unveiling of the newest Skeptics’ Circle. Your host, Ebonmuse, steps up to a podium beside the doors and addresses the crowd thusly:

“Step right up, folks, to the Daylight Atheism Museum of Superstition and Pseudoscience! Dare to plumb the most bizarre depths of the human imagination! Marvel at the fascinating beliefs cultures throughout history have dreamed up to explain the world around them! We have a stupendous and spine-tingling assortment of strange and wild ideas for your edification and amusement. You’ll laugh at their gullibility, you’ll learn from their mistakes, and just maybe, you’ll learn something about how your own brain works. Admission two for a penny – who’ll be first to dare the weirdness within?”

He sweeps a hand dramatically toward the doors, which open onto a wild scene. The great telescope has been stowed away, and the vast domed room instead contains a madcap menagerie of trophies and exhibits that showcase the follies of humanity throughout history. Beneath the high ceiling, an elaborate orrery contains detailed models of the planets of the solar system encased in a set of interlocking crystalline Platonic solids. Animals crowd the decks of a scale model of Noah’s Ark at the far end of the room, and putative Philosophers’ Stones are scattered on pedestals, misshapen lumps some of which glow with their own inner light. Ancient statues of minotaurs, centaurs, mermaids and other fantastic beasts glare down on the exhibits in frozen stone.

Your host leads the tour group into the museum. “First, we have the Alternative Medicine wing – a durable field that’s spawned all sorts of strange ideas. Just look at this authentic ancient Chinese acupuncture needle. Taking a cue from a classic pseudoscience, modern practitioners believe that sticking needles into people, and even into animals, can cure diseases by diverting the flow of an imaginary energy called qi! Skeptico sets them straight, in an essay titled No point to acupuncture on animals.”

The next exhibit is a collection of hypodermic needles. “So like the acupuncture needle and yet so dissimilar, this one differs from the last exhibit in that it has actually cured people of suffering and disease. Sadly, some people reject the benefits of modern medicine in favor of ineffective quackery. Autism Street, in An Old New Twist on Undead Bad Science?, debunks a study claiming to detect correlation between autism and heavy metal levels in children’s hair.”

The tour’s next stop is before an apparently empty glass case. “This case may seem empty, folks, but in fact, it contains the scientific integrity of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. They weren’t using it, you see, so they’ve generously agreed to donate it as a permanent bequest to our museum. P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula gives us the full story in Damn the NCCAM.”

Before a flourishing tray of deadly nightshade, poison ivy and hemlock, Ebonmuse continues, “And let’s not forget, folks, that ‘natural’ medicine has been held out for ages as the cure to all ailments, as if the products of nature were somehow intrinsically better for you than the products of science. The Saga of Runolfr casts a critical eye on claims that consuming raw honey will cure pollen allergies, in The Cure for Allergies? And for a classic example of how ‘natural’ products can still be harmful, what could be more natural than HIV? A Moment of Science, in Skepticism Run Amok, an Appropriate Level of Skepticism in Evaluating HIV/AIDS Causation, asks why, if HIV does not cause AIDS, anti-retroviral drugs developed specifically to combat HIV are effective in extending AIDS patients’ lifespans.

Our next exhibit, as you can see, is a single glass of ultra-pure distilled water. If the claims of homeopaths were correct, this would be the most powerful medicine known to man! The Two Percent Company informs us of the remarkable range of ailments that homeopaths claim to be able to treat with a single herb, in You Might Need Arnica Montana.

And finally, we have this table of assorted old-fashioned medical instruments – best not to ask what most of them do. The skeptical grandmaster Orac of Respectful Insolence is never one to shrink from the details, however, and gives us not one but two Friday Doses of Woo: Mere regularity is not enough and the appetizingly titled Would you like a liver flush with that colon cleanse?

Our next stop is the Psychics and ESP wing, another reliable source of uncritical thinking. The Island of Doubt, in The sense of being stared at …not, registers disappointment that his alma mater, the University of British Columbia, is giving a platform to the notorious credulophile Rupert Sheldrake and his claims that people can psychically detect when they’re being stared at.

Next, Skeptico again favors us in Medium guesses about serial killer, pouring rightful scorn on the vagueness and after-the-fact rationalizations of Allison Dubois.

And lastly, See You at Enceladus spins a tale of The Beirut Syndrome or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Credulity, about psychics who claim to have predicted the current warfare in Lebanon.”

Beneath a gallery of faded and tattered documents, Ebonmuse continues, “History is the noble art of unearthing the past. Yet this genuine science, too, attracts the hoary speculations of the gullible. What we need is some skepticism to root them out, and thanks to several generous donations to this museum, we have it! The Second Sight, in Giant UFO Built Yowie Pyramids of Bullshit, offers sharp criticism of the true believers who are convinced of the existence of ancient contacts between pharaonic Egypt and aboriginal Australia; while Be Lambic or Green throws down the gauntlet against claims that Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci were the first Europeans to catch sight of the New World, in Rediscovering America.”

As the tour takes another turn, the parchments and scrolls on display grow more ancient and venerable, and the sound of distant chanting echoes in the air. “That’s right, ladies and gentlemen,” your host announces, “we’ve come to that most sacred of all cows: religion. In Render unto Caesar [nothing], Infophilia analyzes the meaning of the biblical verse ‘Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,’ concluding that it does not necessarily mean what it has always been construed to mean.

We also have an exhibit courtesy of Debunking Christianity that is titled Which Part Fits in Which Slot, Again?, remarking on the difference between natural events and miracles and the inconsistency with which Christian apologists invoke both categories. In a related vein, The Philosophy of the Socratic Gadfly asks whether ‘ineffable’ is a meaningful and useful term to use in arguments over the existence of God.

Atheist author Sam Harris has been making waves with his book The End of Faith, reviewed by Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds.”

The last stop in this section, incongruously, showcases a Bible next to a vacuum cleaner. “But the comparison is more apt than you might think, as Mike’s Weekly Skeptic Rant explains in Jesus’ Lubricant, which compares religious proselytizers to salesmen who steer every conversation into a pitch for their product.

After all this credulity, you must be hungry for some real science, my fellow skeptics. Luckily for you, we have exhibits on that too.” He points upward, to where several smaller, less regular bodies orbit among the planetary models hanging below the ceiling. “What constitutes a planet? Interesting Thing of the Day gives a skeptical viewpoint in Xena: Troublemaker on the edge of the solar system.

In that vein, Humbug Online reenacts the Moon landing in the conspiracy theorists’ preferred style, in Spooked911 Moon landing faked!

While we’re on the topic, I’m particularly honored by the presence of our next benefactor: the illustrious Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy Blog. In Bad TV on the Science Channel: The Apollo 11 “UFO”, the foe of bad astronomy everywhere mercilessly debunks a credulous and dishonest documentary which asserts that the Apollo 11 astronauts witnessed a UFO.

And isn’t our Earth one planet among many? Deltoid and Thoughts from Kansas keep us up-to-date with the goings-on of this blue and green orb – with a refutation of the myth that environmentalists caused needless deaths by unconditionally opposing the use of DDT, in Zombie DDT Myth Will Not Die, and some good news for science from a recent slate of elections, in Final tallies: Science wins in Kansas.

A major part of science is critical thinking. In Doggerel #30: “You Need to Think Outside the Box!”, Rockstar’s Ramblings rants about claims that skeptics don’t “think outside the box”, pointing out that true believers are actually the ones whose thoughts are limited by their jumping to magic as the first explanation for everything.

And when it comes to understanding science,” your host continues, “nothing is more important than educating the younger generation. Agnostic Mom has an account of one mother’s plan to do just that, in An Accurate Guess Is Still Just A Guess.”

As the tour nears its end, the tour group passes through a set of doors into a back room. “We have a special treat for you all today, one not open to ordinary visitors – a tour of our archived collections, the interesting material that just didn’t fit anywhere else. For example, Salto Sobrius has donated an exhibit on the skeptical leanings of a classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy author, in Fritz Leiber, Skeptic.

And then there’s Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, who debunks the religious mythology that has grown up around flag-folding ceremonies, in Flag ceremony update.

And last but not least, Unintelligent Design laments the credulous leanings of Alton Brown, host of the Food Network TV show “Good Eats”, in Alton Say It Ain’t So!

Following a sign reading “This Way to the Egress”, the tour lets out before the museum’s front doors. Ebonmuse addresses the group one final time. “Thank you for attending, fellow skeptics and critical thinkers! It’s been my honor to play host to you all, and I’d like to extend my special gratitude to the many excellent bloggers who generously contributed to this exhibit. Don’t forget, the next Skeptics’ Circle will appear at Interverbal in two weeks, so get those submissions in!”

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