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Skeptical Inquirer Newsletter: May 2013

May 23, 2013

In this edition of SIN:

You Will (Probably) Love the Next Skeptic’s Toolbox

skeptic diceHuman brains are amazing at many things, but understanding probabilities is not one of them. Particularly when it comes to things like medicine and finances, we can have real difficulty parsing out what we can know with certainty, and what is open to chance. That’s why this year’s Skeptic’s Toolbox will focus on this very subject: probability.

The Skeptic’s Toolbox is, unlike some other conferences, a hands-on, informal series of workshops and other activities in which participants put the tools of science and skepticism directly to work on many paranormal or pseudoscientific claims and ideas. Along with fascinating case studies and experiences presented by a wonderfully engaging faculty, attendees break up into small groups and tackle a case of their own under the guidance of a faculty member.

This year’s Toolbox on probability will look at medical decisions, the cognitive limitations in dealing with chance, the use and misuse of significance tests in deciding which treatments, methods and actions work and do not work, and the role of the media in disseminating false information about nutrition. There’s a more-than-excellent chance you’ll be glad you joined us. 

The Skeptic’s Toolbox takes place August 8–11, 2013 in Eugene, Oregon. Visit for more information.

In addition: For folks in California, SkeptiCal-13 is a one-day regional skeptics meeting that will take place in Berkeley on June 15, 2013 (not affiliated with CSI). It’s an opportunity for California skeptics to meet and hear some interesting talks by CSI fellows such as Jill Tartar, Eugenie Scott, and Anthony Pratkanis, and CSI board member Leonard Tramiel.

If interested, head to for more information. 

Oliver Sacks on Near-Death Experiences in Skeptical Inquirer

sacks siBooks such as Proof of Heaven and Heaven is For Real have been flying off the shelves lately, tantalizing readers with what purport to be genuine glimpses into the great beyond. But in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer, famed neuroscientist Oliver Sacks (Musicophelia, The Mind’s Eye, Awakenings) explains to Point of Inquiry’s Indre Viskontas that while these kinds of experiences seem real, in the confines of a brain experiencing a hallucination, “a few seconds of altered consciousness as one emerges from coma would be enough” to give someone what felt like a lifetime of meaningful experiences. 

Also in this issue: Benjamin Radford carefully works to explain what looks like a “false flag” conspiracy regarding the death of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza; Air Force Academy professor and civil libertarian Barry Fagin challenges what he sees as the skeptic movement’s bias toward liberal politics and policy at the expense of critical evaluation; and George Mason University’s Eugenie V. Mielczarek and Brian D. Engler look at the fallout from the government’s incentivizing the insertion of alternative medicine into medical school curricula, calling it a “two-decade fiscal morass of mythological non-evidence based delivery of medical care.”

he May-June edition of Skeptical Inquirer is available on newsstands now. For more information, visit

Ben Radford and Joe Nickell in the Media:
Taking Down Sylvia Browne and Joe’s New Book on Miracles

Though the world celebrated to see the rescue and recovery of three kidnapped women in Cleveland, Ohio after a decade of captivity, surrounding events cast a newly-skeptical eye on the practice of so-called psychics. 

In 2004, celebrity psychic Sylvia Browne told the mother of kidnap victim Amanda Berry, that Amanda was dead—and did so on national television. Huffington Post turned to CSI’s investigators Joe Nickell and Ben Radford for a deeper understanding of how psychics play upon the worries and fears of victims’’ families and on law enforcement, desperate for clues. 

Ben expanded upon his analysis of the psychic-detective phenomenon for Yahoo News, looking at why families turn to psychics, and for Discovery News, examining the tools and tricks employed by these charlatans. Ben also appeared the radio programs The Simi Sara Show on CKNW, and KIRO’s Seattle’s Morning News to discuss the topic. In fact, in 2007, Ben sadly predicted (not psychically) that just such an event would occur: victims of abuse and captivity supposedly sought by psychics, and never to receive one whit of help from their supposed powers.

Meanwhile, Joe Nickell has a brand new book, just released last week, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible. He recently took to Huffington Post to round up ten so-called miracles from history, and describes a bit of his approach:

Now in my fifth decade of investigating and explaining miracle claims, I attempt to avoid the approach of either “believers” or “debunkers” who typically start with the desired or expected answer and work backward to the evidence. Instead, I employ my skills as a former stage magician, private detective, and science writer as well as a scholar with doctoral studies in literary investigation and folklore.

Joe also recently appeared on MSNBC’s Caught on Camera for an episode on “Mysteries and Monsters,” and he recounts his experience at the CFI blog.

New CSI Column Asks: What if Paranormal Claims Were True?
Plus: More Highlights from

spoonsIt’s one thing to investigate and debunk people’s paranormal and supernatural claims. But it’s quite another to really imagine what life would be like if these claims were true! If people really can be psychic, if they actually can bend things with their minds, if they can talk to the dead, there are real-world implications that we’d all have to contend with! Enter Kyle Hill’s new column for, “Reductio ad Absurdum,” Exploring what happens when you take paranormal and supernatural claims into the real life.

In his first piece, Kyle imagines a world full of Magnetos. No, not Ian McKellans (though, that would be cool), but people who claim to have “magnetic” powers to attract metal. To start out, we see there are implications those who frequent strip clubs must consider: “A magnetic stripper,” writes Kyle, “if she spun fast enough around the poll, would melt it.”

Here are some other recent highlights from the CSI website:

Carry Poppy: Up Your Nose with a Rubber Hose: My 30 Minutes at an Oxygen Bar

Carry Poppy agrees to hook her nostrils up to a machine filled with color-tinted goo that promises to give energy, cure hangovers and headaches, and ease muscle pain. We’re talking about oxygen! This oxygen bar promises to deliver “double” the oxygen we normally get, and Carry discovers that no one is quite sure what that means.

Kitty Mervine: Bigfoot Club Skeptic

Skeptic children’s book author Kitty Mervine becomes the token skeptic for a Bigfoot-tracking group. “I demand a two way exchange of information,” she writes. “They try to convince me that every little thing is proof; I try to convince them that an oddly broken tree limb up high is most definitely not proof Bigfoot was scratching his back and accidentally broke it off.”

Jason Garcia: Skeptics Organize in Indonesia

 A fascinating look at the superstitions and pseudoscientific beliefs peculiar to Indonesia, and the author’s efforts to introduce a little skepticism. One highlight: “Some thieves believe that if they enter a house without wearing a single piece of clothing they will be invisible. That is one thing that I wish all thieves believed. And if you have never seen a naked thief before, feel free to visit Indonesia.”

Sharon Hill: “Phenomenology” Paranormal Conference Shows Shift from Sciencey to Spiritual

She of Doubtful News notoriety takes skeptics on a tour of a decidedly non-skeptical paranormal conference, and learns that emotion and feeling are intrinsic to the believers’ experiences, concluding, “We are the foolish ones who try to rationalize them out of a belief they did not rationalize themselves into.”

Kylie Sturgess: Getting Into Pterosaur Trouble – An Interview With Daniel Loxton

Kylie talks to Junior Skeptic editor Daniel Loxton about his new children’s book Pterosaur Trouble, and his goal of “persuasive photorealism” for each project. (My own son is a huge fan of his previous book, Ankylosaur Attack.) 

Skeptics and Humanists Meet in Tacoma as CSICon 3 Joins the CFI Summit

cfi summit 500 2013Get set for a grand event for the entire reality-based community, this October 24-27 in Tacoma, Washington: The CFI Summit, the joint conference of the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, incorporating CSICon 3!

We know that both skeptics and humanists support science and critical thinking—but what else unites them? How can we work through our areas of disagreement? The best way to find out is to bring skeptics and humanists together to talk about them—and that’s exactly what we’re doing with the CFI Summit. Speakers already scheduled to appear include Bill Nye, Leonard Mlodinow, Eugenie Scott, Cara Santa Maria, Richard Wiseman, and a whole host of luminaries from both the skeptic and secularist communities, plus a special live edition of the Point of Inquiry podcast with hosts Indre Viskontas and Chris Mooney.

So sign up now. Go to to learn more and get registered. October will be here before you know it.

Stalk Us on the Interwebs!

Skepticism is better when it’s shared. So make sure you’re keeping track of CSI and Skeptical Inquirer on the social networks: 

Skeptical Inquirer on Facebook and Twitter (@skeptinquiry).

Committee for Skeptical Inquiry on Facebook.

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