Mass Media Funk is a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.


Robert Todd Carroll

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May 13, 1997. Roger Katz, 50 years old, was caught with a naked 14-year old girl and charged with being a bad boy in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He used to be her social studies teacher, so he was especially naughty, abusing not only the girl but his profession. He told judge Steve Herrera that his relationship with the girl dated back to 640 A.D. Katz claims that in their previous lives the girl took an arrow to the chest on his behalf and saved his life. His current love was just an expression of his thousand-year-old gratitude. As he was being led out of the courtroom to begin serving his 1 1/2 year sentence, Katz told a deputy "This is the price you pay for love." He should have quoted Frank Zappa: "the only thing universal is stupidity." 

February 26, 1997. Today Katherine Quartz spoke at Sacramento City College and I was able to attend and get some more information on the case. She was part of a panel which included her lawyer, a Native American who is also a psychologist and a woman who heads an Indian Services Agency. Her son, Thomas, was also in attendance.

Apparently, an Indian who lives on a reservation is not a citizen of the United States and is under the jurisdiction of Indian tribal laws and courts. Had Ms. Quartz never left her reservation, she would have been free to seek any kind of treatment she wished for her son. But she had gone to Portland, Oregon, to go to college. This fact was used by authorities in Oregon and California to impose their laws on her. She did seek out a pediatrician for her son when he first got ill. She did not seek out an Indian healer at that time, she said, because the only healer in her area was gravely ill himself. The diagnosis of Hodgkins was not immediate, but was not made until four months after the first visit with a physician. When chemotherapy was offered as the only reasonable therapy for her son, she says she told the doctors she wanted to do some research first. She did and concluded that chemotherapy was not a reasonable modality of treatment. She then took her son to a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, who treated her son with acupuncture and herbs. (She asserted a belief that "herbs can go in and break up tumors," though she gave no source for this notion.) She then took her son to a naturopath who treated him with herbs.

She says that her troubles began when she tried to get a CAT scan of her son, which she says she wanted in case any questions came up later about the efficacy of the treatments she'd chosen for her son. X-rays had shown significant reduction in tumor size and growth, she says.But a CAT scan would provide better evidence, she believed. Her treatment by the medical doctors in Oregon she went to for the CAT scan was less than respectful of Indian ways. She was told that chemotherapy was the only correct medical treatment for her son and that she was endangering his life by seeking alternative treatments. One pediatrician even wrote to authorities investigating the case that Ms. Quartz's thought processes were impaired. His evidence seemed to be limited to the fact that she disagreed with him on the proper medical treatment for her son.

Given the unique status of Indians--they are basically members of a foreign nation, but have unique status granted in the U.S. Constitution--the Tribal appellate court's ruling is binding and California cannot order the boy back into chemotherapy. According to Ms. Quartz, her son received five chemotherapy treatments against her will. He looked fine today, but she said that after the treatments he look awful. His hair fell out and he developed mouth sores and other signs of physical debilitation (which are common side effects of chemotherapy). She says that her research discovered that her son might be made sterile by chemo and that the statistics were not exactly as promising as they might seem. According to her lawyer, the survival rate was 90% if the patients were followed for ten years. But if they were followed for fifteen years, the survival rate was less that 10%. Both claim that there is evidence that while chemo might stop a cancer, it so debilitates the immune system that the effects after ten years are devastating.

In her quest to seek the best course of treatment for her son, Ms. Quartz was charged with child endangerment and had her son taken away from her. She was charged with kidnapping for taking him from a hospital. She claims a police officer held a gun to her head and told her she was killing her son by not getting him into chemotherapy. A medical doctor abused his authority to try to get her declared mentally incompetent because she dared to favor alternative medicine to traditional medical treatment. Her behavior as a mother was exemplary and her seeking out an Indian healer is consistent with her life on a reservation for the past sixteen years. I don't know if I would have made the same decision as she did about the chemotherapy, but I know that I would have done research, too. And if I came to the conclusion that the therapy recommended by my physician was not the best for my child, I would not put my child into the therapy. Furthermore, I would not expect to be labeled mentally incompetent or a child abuser simply because I came to a different conclusion than my physician.

As readers of my pages know, I hold no sympathy for alternative medical treatments. But I have even less stomach for authoritarian bullies whether they carry guns or a stethoscope.

January 15, 1997. Charges against the mother have been dropped. She apparently put the boy back in chemotherapy. The boy's oncologist, Dr. Arun Ragasawami, reports that Molina is responding well to chemotherapy and that "tumors are getting smaller." However, an American Indian appellate court, the Inter-Tribal Court of Appeals for Nevada, has ordered the UC Davis Medical Center to stop the chemotherapy while Molina undergoes a 120-day "holistic Indian cure" for cancer. The article by Stephen Magagnini in the Sacramento Bee, which gives an account of the Indian court's decision, does not mention what authority the Indian court has or whether the Sacramento District Attorney is likely to file charges against the mother again should you abide by the Indian court's ruling.

January 12, 1997. An article in today's newspaper reports that the state of Washington has announced that as of January 1, 1997, it will no longer pay for repressed memory therapy out of a state fund for victims of violent crimes. Over $2.5 million has been on 325 patients over the past five years to help (mostly) women recover memories of childhood sexual abuse. The decision to halt the funding of repressed memory therapy was based on a critique of the program which studied 30 cases, presumably selected at random, from the 325. Of the 30, 25 were employed at the beginning of treatment; only 5 were employed three years later. Twenty-eight were married when treatment began; 10 were still married after three years of treatment. All 30 were still in therapy three years after treatment began. The report stated that "it appears that the longer the patient is [in] treatment, the more disabled s(he) becomes."

The critique of the Washington program noted that there was no effort made by therapists to verify the accuracy of the repressed memories, some of which were monstrously bizarre, such as eating penises and infants in satanic rituals. The program was defended by Laura Brown, a Seattle psychologist in the forefront of Recovered Memory Therapy. Fantastic memories, she says, are "perhaps coded or symbolic versions of what really happened." What really happened, she's sure, was sexual abuse in childhood. "Who knows what pedophiles have done that gets reported out later as satanic rituals and cannibalistic orgies?" asks Dr. Brown.

On the other hand, who knows what therapists have done that gets reported out later as recovery of memories of horrors suffered at the hands of loving parents?

January 9, 1997. "Junk Science", an ABC special hosted by John Stossel of the news magazine 20/20 was exceptional television journalism. Not only were skeptical viewpoints allowed; they were featured. There was no catering to paranormal prurience. There wasn't much distinction made between pseudoscience and inept, faulty, incompetent or fraudulent science, but on the whole the program was a refreshing alternative to the junk journalism we usually get with features on Virgin Mary apparitions, UFO sightings, and tearful testimonies taken as proof of causal connections.

The show began with a listen-in on various cosmetologists (i.e., "beauticians" or "esthetic technicians") babbling on as if they were nuclear physicists, while extolling the wondrous virtues of their products to prospective or actual clients. But the cosmetic industry was not analyzed or evaluated. A cynic might think that to do so would risk losing advertising dollars. Better to go after those who don't advertise, like the government. The government took two big hits from Stossel: for its program on salt and for the EPA's destruction of an entire community because of dioxin contamination.

I did not know before watching "Junk Science" that my government has a bureaucracy devoted to informing the public of the dangers of salt. Dr. Jeffrey Cutler heads the government's salt propaganda campaign. The idea is to persuade us that we should not take in more than 2,400 milligrams of salt a day. Stossel lined up about a dozen experts from places like Harvard and Stanford, including Dr. Michael Alderman of the American Society of Hypertension, to argue that there is no evidence that reducing salt intake is good advice for the general public. There are some individuals who should limit their salt intake, but the evidence is lacking which would suggest that all of us should do so. In fact, one study of heart attack victims found that those with the lowest salt intake suffered a significantly greater number of attacks (about 4 times as many) than the rest of the group.

Our government came in for another attack when Stossel took us to a town in Italy that had had a major dioxin catastrophe twenty years ago: a plant blew up or something like that and there was major contamination of the town and the people. There is evidence that dioxin does all kinds of bad things to rats and mice and other animals. There is not much evidence that it does the same kinds of things to humans. For example, no studies have shown that workers who were in contact with dioxin for years run any greater risks for disease or death than comparable groups not working with dioxin. The Italians buried the debris, including the remains of the plant, and built a park over the buried contaminated debris. They don't seem to be any the worse for their action. On the contrary, when dioxin contamination entered the town of Times Beach, Missouri, the EPA destroyed and buried the whole town and displaced the 2,000 residents, forbidding them to re-enter their homes. The cost has run to over $100 million for the exercise in environmental destruction by the EPA. The Italian contamination was 10,000 times greater than the one in Missouri, yet William Farland, Ph.D., of the EPA defends the operation and appeals to scientific studies which indicate the dangers of dioxin to humans. There is no doubt he could line up "experts" to back up his claim. [update: May 23, 2000. Dioxin danger may be greater than originally thought.]

Stossel spent a good part of "Junk Science" dealing with "scientific experts" who testify before the government and in court. Some of these experts and the lawyers who hire them are of dubious integrity. Some of them seem to be on a crusade. All of them are making money. The most egregious case Stossel uncovered was that of Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who claims to be an expert in "bite marks." His testimony has sent a dozen people to jail, two of whom are on death row. Because of his incompetence and fraudulent practice, Dr. West has been kicked out of and condemned by the professional organizations he had belonged to. One of his convictions involved exhuming a murder victim's body which had been in the ground for over a year, using some sort of special light as he examined the remains, and claiming to identify bite marks on her shoulder which were "invisible to the naked eye." He also claimed that the bite marks were put there by her husband, who was arrested, convicted and spent two years in jail before being freed after Dr. West's dubious credentials were uncovered. (Tony Kekko, the accused, may be completely innocent, or he may well have killed his wife or hired someone to do it. The point is that the only evidence used to arrest and convict him was the junk science testimony of a quack. I wonder how jurors would respond to such testimony if they realized that the same thing could happen to them!)

The problem of junk science in the courtroom is a significant social problem and needs to be addressed. Stossel has made a major contribution to making the public aware of the problem. One aspect of the problem involves people like Dr. West who claim to be experts in something for which there are no established social criteria. That is, some so-called experts are not really experts because what they claim to be experts in is controversial or dubious. Stossel showed the hire-an-expert advertisements which appeared in a magazine which caters to lawyers. Very few, if any of them, could honestly claim to be scientists. On the other hand, many of the experts called to testify in court have very good scientific credentials. The two experts who testified for the lawyers who sued Dow Corning over breast implants were seemingly reputable scientists. They testified to the causal connection between breast implants and such things as connective tissue disease, Dow paid off millions and filed for bankruptcy. Jenny Jones and Oprah had programs featuring women who'd had breast implants and were suffering from painful disorders. The general public would reasonably conclude from such behavior that there must be strong evidence that breast implants caused these disorders. Yet, the rest of the medical scientific community maintains that given the more than one million women who have had breast implants, it would be expected by chance, if there were no causal connection between the implants and disease, that about 1% or 10,000 women would be ill, because that is the percent of women in the general population who suffer from these problems. That is what the studies have found. If there were a causal connection, the percentage of women who'd had breast implants suffering from diseases such as connective tissue disease should be significantly higher than that for women who do not have breast implants. It isn't. [update: Nov. 17, 2006. The ban on silicone implants has been lifted by the FDA.]

It is hard not to be moved by anyone's suffering, but lawyers, scientists and jurors have a responsibility to get at the truth. Unfortunately, all too often interest in the whole truth, necessary to achieve justice, is suppressed in favor of finding a perpetrator, guilty or not, who can be blamed for causing such pain and suffering. The only suggestion Stoffel had to remedy the situation is that scientific consensus should carry more weight than the opinion of a few experts, no matter what their credentials. He also clearly implied that some judicial criteria are needed to prevent quack disciplines from being able to provide "scientific experts" in the courtroom.

Journalists and the mass media were criticized for their role in promoting junk science, but not nearly as severely as they should have been. About 15 or 20 years ago there was a major media flurry on "crack babies". Cocaine was said to doom a baby to a lifetime of moronic existence. Experts made strong claims about the inability of crack babies to ever lead normal lives. Such babies can't respond to a human voice, one expert claimed. The media jumped on the bandwagon and so did the government (it fit the government's war on drugs scorched earth policy). Rolling Stone magazine came in for special criticism. The studies on crack babies, it turns out, were done on samples as few as 23, and no controls were made for the effects of alcohol or other potential causal factors. In short, crack babies are not necessarily doomed. Cocaine in a baby's body at birth has not been established as causing brain damage. Where were the media and the government when better studies undermined the claims of the doomsayers? As usual, they were nowhere to be found.

Stossel also reported on Pons and Fleishman whose fame was as ephemeral as the cold fusion they claimed to have harnessed. The lesson here may be that this is what happens when scientists skip peer review and go right to the media and the court of public opinion before begging for dollars before Congress. By the way, it was reported that Toyota has built these guys a research plant in the south of France. Not bad for a couple of bumblers whose best data was most likely due to either fraud or faulty equipment.

Other scientists were called to task by Stossel, including Linus Pauling and his campaign on behalf of vitamin C. At least a dozen studies have shown that there is no demonstrable cold-preventative effect in vitamin C. Stossel had nothing to say about the fad to take zinc supplements to prevent colds. But he did bring up the fact that spinach is overrated as a source of iron because of a decimal placement error by a scientist years ago.

"Junk Science" was a rare program and I would like to see much more similar programming. ABC is to be commended for the program and for 20/20.

reader comments

20 Dec 1999 
I've learned to take Stossel's claims with a huge grain of salt, especially when he's attacking government programs, and this was certainly no exception. I presume that he's talking about the Seveso accident of 1976-- it's the one item that kept turning up when I did a MEDLINE search on "dioxin" and "Italy." If Stossel claimed that the Seveso-area residents are doing just fine, he didn't do his research: I found several papers which noted higher rates of cardiovascular disease and CVD-related deaths (Pesatori 1998), higher rates of mortality for several kinds of digestive canal cancers (Bertazzi 1997), and increases in Hodgkin's lymphoma and thyroid cancer (Pesatori 1993). A 1989 review noted that "An increased mortality, from chronic ischemic heart disease (males) and hypertensive disease (females), which could not be explained in terms of chance, confounding, or bias, was noted in the exposed population. The stressful experience of the population in the aftermath of the disaster was deemed relevant to the interpretation of these findings. Overall, cancer mortality was not increased. Suggestive increases, however, were seen for melanoma, brain cancer, soft tissue sarcomas and certain hematologic neoplasms, whereas mortality from breast cancer and cancer of the liver was noticeably decreased." (Bertazzi 1989)

No, no one study can really be the final word on a medical controversy, and no paper is immune to criticism. But it sounds as though Stossel's dismissal of the Seveso incident was far from accurate.

references

Pesatori AC. Zocchetti C. Guercilena S. Consonni D. Turrini D. Bertazzi PA. Dioxin exposure and non-malignant health effects: a mortality study. Occupational & Environmental Medicine. 55(2):126-31, 1998 Feb.

Bertazzi PA. Zocchetti C. Guercilena S. Consonni D. Tironi A. Landi MT. Pesatori AC. Dioxin exposure and cancer risk: a 15-year mortality study after the "Seveso accident". Epidemiology. 8(6):646-52, 1997 Nov.

Pesatori AC. Consonni D. Tironi A. Zocchetti C. Fini A. Bertazzi PA. Cancer in a young population in a dioxin-contaminated area. International Journal of Epidemiology. 22(6):1010-3, 1993 Dec.

Bertazzi PA. Zocchetti C. Pesatori AC. Guercilena S. Sanarico M. Radice L. Mortality in an area contaminated by TCDD following an industrial incident. Medicina del Lavoro. 80(4):316-29, 1989 Jul-Aug.

--Brian Siano

comment from Donald Schopflocher: The only thing suggestive about the apparent 'ups and downs' of various cancer rates in the presence of no difference in overall cancer mortality is that the scientist responsible for the quote is very poorly trained in procedures of scientific inference. Once he has been unable to demonstrate a statistical difference according to an overall hypothesis that cancer rates differ, this chap has no business at all 'messing around' in the data looking for differences: Its violates the principles that students of first year statistics are taught.

December 26, 1996. An editorial in today's Sacramento Bee praised the recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Jones which barred scientifically unsubstantiated testimony that silicone breast implants cause disease. Despite the fact that scientists have been unable to find reliable evidence that silicone breast implants cause disease, manufacturers have paid out more than 4 billion dollars in lawsuits. Numerous epidemiological studies by reputable researchers have found that women with breast implants are no more likely than other women to come down with the disorders about which plaintiffs complain. Why, then have companies like Dow Corning paid up? According to the Bee

Many of the plaintiffs in breast implant cases are seriously ill, and sympathetic jurors are often reluctant to send them home empty-handed. Judges have allowed those emotions to have greater play by permitting plaintiffs to put on the stand a handful of paid experts and physicians who give their opinion that implants are responsible for causing disease. Although that testimony is scientifically ungrounded, it has given jurors license to follow their hearts.

The Bee goes on to say that

Jones' order, barring plaintiffs' junk science arguments in 70 Oregon implant cases, begins to change that. Following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1993 instruction that judges serve as gatekeepers to determine that scientific evidence introduced in trials be reliable and relevant, Jones hired four disinterested scientists to advise him, then conducted an intensive hearing on the merits of the evidence offered for trial. Drawing on the experts' advice and the results of the hearing, Jones decided that none of the plaintiffs' scientific claims met the federal standard for scientific evidence, dismissing some of it as "no more than educated guesses dressed up in evening clothes."

Junk science has been allowed in our courtrooms for too long. Jones' decision goes a long way toward eliminating some of the injustice which our courts and juries have allowed to flourish in the past, mainly out of ignorance, pity and a contemptible attitude toward reason and real science.

Nov 24-26, 1966. NOVA - Odyssey of Life  tells the story of evolution in the stunning color photography of Lennart Nilsson. Excellent.

November 22, 1996. The Sacramento Bee reports that  Thomas Molina, a 12-year old boy is diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. His mother, Katherine Quartz, a Paiute Indian, wants him to be treated by a holistic homeopath recommended by a tribal medicine man. The boy had started chemotherapy but a tribal judge, Ron Johnny, ordered the chemo stopped until a "traditional medicine man" examined the boy. A pediatric oncologist says that the chances of survival are 90 percent or higher with chemotherapy and radiation. The traditional tribal healers say that the chemotherapy will interfere with the homeopathic remedies. The mother is arrested on a felony warrant of child endangerment. The boy is being treated by a homeopathic doctor, somewhere unknown to the court which wants to force the boy to have chemotherapy. Who's right?

Stay tuned. We'll follow the progress of this case of parental vs. state rights and traditional medicine vs. alternative therapies.

 

 

 

 

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Robert Todd Carroll

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