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What is Seen and What is Unseen

The Hidden Price of Immoral Acts

I’ve been reading Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored by Daniel Coyle, a journalist and author with considerable literary talent. It’s a gripping story about how Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, and all the other top cyclists have been doping for decades, using such advanced scientific programs of performance enhancement that estimates show the benefit could be as much as 10%, in races won by fractions of 1%. After nearly two decades of racing with both dope and no dope, Hamilton concludes that although a clean rider might be able to win a one-day race, it is not possible to compete in, much less win, a 3-week event like the Tour de France.

The lengths these guys go to win are almost beyond comprehension. All you do is train, eat, and sleep. And dope. The drug of choice is (or was—now that the drug testers have caught up riders use other drugs that have similar effects) EPO, or erythropoietin, a genetically modified hormone invented by Amgen that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells, a life-saver for anemic patients undergoing chemo or suffering from other long-term ailments. Also on the menu is testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids (for injuries, not bulk, since cyclists get as skinny as they can), and others. Tyler nicknamed his EPO Edgar, as in Allen Poe. The drugs worked, he says, but only if you do everything else necessary, including logging in 5–6 hour daily training rides, reduce your body fat down to 5% or less, and program your entire life to doing nothing but racing bikes. If you are not riding, rest. Don’t walk when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lie down. And don’t ever climb stairs. You are either a bike rider or a couch potato. If you are genetically gifted, train your ass off, starve yourself down to a skeletal frame with bird-like arms and Schwarzenegger-size legs, can ride as fast as the wind, and get on a professional team invited to the Tour de France, then and only then will the drugs give you the edge to boost yourself from barely finishing stages to contending for a top finishing spot. From what Hamilton (and others) write on this topic, I estimate that doping is worth somewhere between 50 and 100 places in the Tour de France. Yes, you might survive the race on “pan y agua” (bred and water—the riders’ euphemism for non-doping diets), but if you want to feel better than death you have to take the drugs. (continue reading…)

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Is America a Christian Nation? Readers Respond to Chuck Colson

On November 4, the Los Angeles Times published my Opinion Editorial entitled “What’s God Got to do With it?” (which I also posted on Skepticblog) about Congress reaffirming our national motto “In God We Trust.” I argued that trust does not come from God but from very specific social, political, and economic institutions.

Chuck Colson, the one-time special counsel for President Richard Nixon, one of the Watergate Seven who also pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in his attempt to defame the Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg, and the man who found God and Jesus just in time for his jail sentence in federal prison, now blogs on political and social issues from a Christian perspective and has attempted a smack-down of my Op-Ed by arguing that “God Has a Lot to Do With It.”

His argument is summarized in his own words thusly:

It was Christianity, you see, that taught the West that all human beings are created in the image of God. Without that understanding, the very words of the Declaration of Independence, “that all Men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” could never have been written.

Most of all, our ideas about what constitutes a free and secure society are derived from Christianity. Political scientist Glenn Tinder has written about how much of what we celebrate in our society, like the “respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings,” has “strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity.”

(continue reading…)

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Touching History


Skeptical Luminaries right to left: paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, the Amazing One himself, and psychologist and magician Ray Hyman

On Sunday, October 3, a group of skeptics gathered in Falls Church, Virginia to celebrate James Randi’s 82nd birthday. What an amazing meeting it was … er, an astonishing evening I mean, as Randi prefers to retain the “amazing” adjective for his moniker, James “The Amazing” Randi. Take a look at just a few of the giants present in the above photo — the legends of skepticism (from right to left: paranormal investigator Joe Nickell, Center for Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz, the Amazing One himself, and psychologist and magician Ray Hyman).


click any of the following thumbnail images to enlarge

Also in attendance were Richard Dawkins, the magician Jamy Ian Swiss, the President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) D. J. Grothe, and many other skeptical luminaries from around the world, many of whom sang Randi’s praises in the tribute portion of the evening. Randi was presented with a beautiful birthday cake with his inimitable likeness on the icing, and something well short of 82 candles on top to blow out, which he managed successfully.


After dinner we all adjourned to the private library of a good friend of Randi and benefactor of JREF, who kindly allowed us to peruse his collection of some of the rarest books in the history of science, along with other spectacular items of considerable interest. It is, in short, the finest collection I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Any single volume on any of the shelves would be an item worthy of possession as one’s most cherished belonging, and here there were hundreds of such treasures.


How’s this for starters?: The Archimedes Palimpsest, purchased at auction for $2.2 million. Check out the two sets of lines on this page: one set of bold lines in Latin that was a medieval prayer book, and the other lighter lines in Greek that was nothing less than one of the most important treatises ever published by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. I highly recommend the book, The Archimedes Codex, by Reviel Netz and William Noel, that uncovers the mystery story of how this book came to auction, and the scientific detective story of how Archimedes ancient words were coaxed back to life. (Quality paper for publishing was so rare in the Middle Ages that older books were reused by scraping off the text and reprinting over it.)


If that isn’t awe inspiring enough, check out the photo of a page from an ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead that Joe Nickell and I are examining. Because papyrus paper is so delicate this one is under glass (so we couldn’t “touch history” directly in this case), but Joe and I were trying to find Randi’s name in there somewhere…


Talk about touching some old stuff, look at this many millennia-old Babylonian cylinder with cuneiform writing on it, apparently an ancient calculator of sorts (if memory serves … it was a heady evening trying to take in all these treasures).

Going back tens of thousands of years, look at the magnificent Wholly Mammoth tusk, and guess what that is in my hand: yes, that’s Wholly Mammoth hair. Is there a lab somewhere in the world who could take the DNA from that hair and clone a mammoth back to life? Forget Jurassic Park; I’d settle for Paleolithic Land.


Given my interest in World War II and all things Nazi, which I had to learn in researching my book Denying History (about the Holocaust deniers), this item made the hair on the back of my neck stand up: it’s a first edition of Mein Kampf. This one in particular was signed by Adolf Hitler to “Dr. Goebbels”, 1925. Next to it is another first edition addressed in Hitler’s hand to Hermann Goering.

As well, the library contains two Nazi enigma code machines, designed and built for encryption and decryption of messages and was used during the Second World War. The cracking of the enigma code encryption algorithms by the British led project ULTRA is said to have shortened the war by at least two years, if not being the single most important step toward victory.


There is something about touching history in this way that almost beggars description. It’s visceral. Running my fingers over the cuneiform clay cuts in the cylinder while imagining some ancient Babylonian accountant or scribe holding it in one hand while pressing into the wet clay with a small writing stick in the other draws one back in time. Rubbing the tips of my fingers over the parchment paper of medieval manuscripts brings to my inner ear a Gregorian chant wafting through the cold, dank halls of a European monastery with monks keeping alive ancient wisdom through their endless hours of copying the masters.


Visiting this library, in fact, is like a time machine, transporting you back anywhere into the past you like just by touching the spine of a book and pulling it off the shelf. I know, this all sounds so … well … New Ageish. I am a materialist, a monist — someone who does not believe that there is something immaterial like a soul or spirit or essence of a thing that carries on beyond the physical material of its original pattern. But to hold an item of such antiquity and such rarity and originality overwhelms the senses and enthuses the emotions beyond what meager words such as these can convey.

I touched the past and it lived again.

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Doing Science in the Past

The comparative method of historical science helps to explain Haiti’s poverty
magazine cover

HISTORY IS NOT OFTEN THOUGHT OF AS A SCIENCE, but it can be if it uses the “comparative method.” Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and James A. Robinson, professor of government at Harvard University, employ the method effectively in the new book they have co-edited, Natural Experiments of History. (Order the lecture on DVD. Jared Diamond lectured, based on this book, as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech.) In a timely study comparing Haiti with the Dominican Republic, for example, Diamond demonstrates that although both countries inhabit the same island, Hispaniola, because of geopolitical differences one ended up dirt poor while the other flourished. (continue reading…)

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Science & the Decline of Magic

I am optimistic that science is winning out over magic and superstition. That may seem irrational, given the data from pollsters on what people believe. For example, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” The situation is even worse when we examine other superstitions, such as these percentages of belief published in a 2002 National Science Foundation study: (continue reading…)

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