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.
October 13, 1998. Art Bell quits broadcasting. In his farewell address, Bell said: "You may recall about a year ago... I told you that there was an event, a threatening terrible event occurred to my family, which I could not tell you about. Because of that event, and a succession of other events, what you're listening to right now, is my final broadcast on the air. This is it folks,I'm going off the air and will not return." Promises, promises.
Art Bell was a very popular overnight radio show host (locally, his show is on from 1 to 4 a.m.). His specialty was the guest who had been abducted by aliens or claimed to be the victim of some government. conspiracy. Those who claim that they can't get a fair hearing for their grand ideas about reverse speech or how the CIA has planted microphones in our cereal, could count on Bell giving them a soapbox. If you claimed there was a conspiracy to silence you by the FBI, the CIA or the local girl scouts, you were assured a spot on Bell's show.
Bell is the one who, more than anyone else in the mass media, promoted a variety of rumors culminating in the idea that comet Hale-Bopp was being trailed by a spaceship. During Easter Week 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed suicide in the belief that the spaceship was coming to pick them up and take them "to a higher level."
By the way, Bell is not the only broadcaster who quit on October 13. The Virgin Mary has announced to Her chosen channeler Nancy Fowler that She has sent her last message to the homemaker from Conyers, Georgia. According to the Associated Press, more than 100,000 faithful devotees gasped and fell to their knees upon hearing "The future holds no concern to those who truly seek God and truly love and remain in His favor." Nothing could be more true.
This is not the first time the BVM has quit broadcasting to Earth on October 13. In 1917, she made her last appearance at Fatima on this day. The BVM apparently likes the number 13, for that was the favored date for each of her announcements to Ms. Fowler. Coincidence?
(July 8, 2002. Update. Nancy Fowler sues former associates for millions.)
(October 23, 1998. Update: Art Bell announced he will be back to work beginning Wednesday night, October 28th. He says the crisis still remains but it is a private, family matter.
Note: According to NYPost.com, Bell quit the show to care for his suicidal son who had been sexually molested when he was 16 by a male teacher. The teacher is now serving a life sentence for sex and drug offenses.)
October 6, 1998. The Power of Belief, an ABC news special with John Stossel. This was a very good survey of popular culture's fascination with many of the topics taken up in the Skeptic's Dictionary, such as "alternative" medicine, firewalking, psychic detectives, astrology, levitation, channeling, psychics, therapeutic touch, OBEs and NDEs, voodoo, and more. Stossel took a skeptical approach and gave ample time to James Randi and Michael Shermer to argue that true believers are fideists, i.e, they don't care what the evidence is, they believe because they want to believe.
To illustrate this point, Stossel gave ample coverage to Randi's "Carlos" hoax. In 1988, Randi trained 19-year-old José Alvarez, a young artist, to impersonate a mystical channeler for "Carlos," a 2000-year-old spirit from Venezuala. With the assistance of an Australian television station, Alvarez toured Australia and developed a large following. The hoax was done by Randi to demonstrate how easy it is to deceive people and how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when confronted with extraordinary claims.
Unfortunately, nobody on Stossel's show asked why these gullible believers do not believe in each other's delusions or why they limit themselves to just these, rather than other equally pleasant, delusions? Wishful thinking, cold reading, communal reinforcement, confirmation bias, subjective validation and the placebo effect go a long way towards explaining these cases of self-deception. But more emphasis might have been placed on why we use methods like little Emily Rosa's (who was also featured) to test claims. We use double-blind, controlled, randomized studies because we know it is easy to deceive ourselves and we must force ourselves to test our claims. Otherwise, we run the risk of deceiving ourselves into believing things that seem true but are just not so.
In short, the program was atypical in that it presented the skeptics in a strong light
and the true believers in the dark, but the show would have been perfect simply by having
a scientist like Ray Hyman explain not why people believe weird things but why we devise
controlled tests for our beliefs and why having satisfied customers is not sufficient to
justify a belief. A
Nevertheless, the show was very good and if you want to encourage ABC to do more such shows contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
August 27, 1998. BBC News reports a story released earlier this month about researchers who think they have the answer to spontaneous human combustion: the "wick-effect." Some bodies are devoured by flames fueled by their own body fat. The researchers tested their theory on an animal closely resembling a human's fat content, the pig. "Using a dead pig wrapped in cloth, they simulated a human body being burned over a long period and the charred effect was the same as in so-called spontaneous human combustion." The researchers were even able to incinerate the bones of the pig by letting the fire smolder for several hours.
August 21, 1998. A dog with a reputation for being psychic is tested under controlled conditions and is found not to be psychic, according to Glenda Cooper of the Independent (UK). The British Journal of Psychology published a report by Dr Richard Wiseman and Matthew Smith of the University of Hertfordshire who tested "Jaytee," known as a clairvoyant terrier. The dog had become somewhat of celebrity after appearing on several television programs going to a window at home at the precise moment her owner, Pam Smart, decided to return home from some miles away. Under controlled conditions, Jaytee did not perform as expected. In one experiment, the dog did go to the window about the time Ms. Smart was deciding to return home. However, the investigators believe that the dog's behavior was more likely to a car pulling up in front of the house than to clairvoyance. Other experiments found that the dog would often go to the window and stay put for minutes at a time, but not when Ms. Smart was deciding to come home. It even went outside to the garden one time at the precise moment her owner was deciding to return home; however, it was determined the dog went out to vomit, not to greet her mistress. Skeptics are not surprised that under controlled conditions the psychic explanation appears to have been driven by selective and wishful thinking. Parapsychologists are not surprised, either, because psychic powers always fail under controlled conditions. (See "The Telepathic Terrier" by D. Trull)
August 19, 1998. An Associated Press story out of Concord, New Hampshire, today reports that Bill Morse has sued teacher Lucille Corriveau on charges "she caused him and his wife great emotional distress and invaded their privacy when she handed them a letter purporting to contain a message from their dead son." The Morse's son Sam was 10-years old when he drowned two years ago. Mr. Morse has also sued the Dunbarton School District for failing to fire Corriveau. Corriveau has countersued. She says she was defamed by the Morses when they passed out a flier saying "This woman RAPED my son.'' The teacher apparently gave the Morses a letter purportedly containing a message dictated to her by Sam. The message said that Sam and two other children who had died wanted Corriveau to know that she was "their idol."
Charles Douglas, the Morses' lawyer, claims the school district knew that Corriveau engaged in channeling, séances, and other paranormal activities in attempts to communicate with dead students. He asked the school district for any psychological evaluations of Corriveau and wanted to know if she was being treated for mental problems.
The teacher's lawyer, Fred Desmarias, says that his client can't explain how she got the message, nor should her client's doctor-patient confidentiality be broached.
August 13, 1998. An Associated Press story today reports on the disciplining of a prominent psychiatrist by the State of Illinois. Dr. Bennett Braun is accused of convincing a patient that she had 300 personalities, among them a child molester, a high priestess of a satanic cult, and a cannibal. Braun is the founder of the International Society for the Study of Disassociation. The patient claims that she was incorrectly diagnosed with multiple personality disorder and spent more than two years in a psychiatric ward. She said her treatment included sedatives and other drugs, as well as hypnosis. She claims she was sometimes restrained with leather straps to stimulate abuse memories. Braun and another psychiatrist at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital, Elva Poznaski, also persuaded the patient to hospitalize her two healthy children, then ages 4 and 5, for almost three years. The patient told the Chicago Tribune: "I began to add a few things up and realized there was no way I could come from a little town in Iowa, be eating 2,000 people a year, and nobody said anything about it."
In November, the patient won $10.6 million in a lawsuit against Braun, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital, and Poznaski. The patient apparently was suffering from depression after the birth of her second child.
July 12, 1998. Good summer reading: Richard Ellis, Imagining Atlantis (New York: Knopf, 1998) and now in paperback, Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang : A State-Of-The-Universe's Report (Touchstone, 1998).
June 30, 1998. Science wrecks a good ghost story By ROBERT MATTHEWS.
May 3, 1998. Sandia Labs published the results of a double-blind test done on the DKL LifeGuard, an item featured in Too Good To Be True a few months ago. The results confirmed our suspicions of the uselessness of this device which its manufacturers claim can detect a human heartbeat through concrete walls, steel bulkheads, heavy foliage, earthworks, or up to 10 feet of water. Test results demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that the device only "works" if the operator has prior knowledge of where his target is. Without prior knowledge, the operator could do no better than expected by chance. There is hope, however, for the manufacturers. Scientists believe that such a device would work if only DKL would change the direction of its antenna and lengthen it to three times the diameter of the earth. I wonder if the Washington Post will consider doing a follow-up story to the promotional piece written by Beth Berselli last January.
April 30, 1998. Praying over a child, rather than seeking medical care,
can be lethal. A study published in Pediatrics (April 6, 1998), the journal of the
American Academy of Pediatrics, found that 140 of 172 child deaths were due to conditions
which have a treatment survival rate of greater than 90 percent. In other words, more than
80 percent of the deaths probably could have been avoided had the parents of the dead
children sought traditional medical care. The study examined 172 child deaths in faith
healing families from 1975 to 1995. It was done jointly by the University of California at
San Diego and Children's Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, a group out of Sioux City, Iowa.
April 3, 1998. 20/20 on ABC. Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things and founder of Skeptic magazine, got another chance to debunk author/mentalist James Van Praagh. The latter specializes in talking to the dead and claims he is a contact for just about anyone's dead relative. On 20/20 Van Praagh extended his service to all dead pets. Shermer did as good a job as anyone could do in pointing out the tricks Van Praagh uses. (1) He fishes for information by asking question after question until he eventually gets a response he can pursue further. The audience quickly forgets or ignores all the questions that went nowhere and easily remember the "hits". (2) Many of his questions are very general and relate to obvious things like heirlooms. [See Mass Media Bunk] (3) Many of the "hits" aren't really hits at all. For example, when he was fishing with the name "Charlie" he began the questioning with a man in the front row of a very small group of people assembled by 20/20. The man was blank on the word "Charlie" so he extended the name to the group at large. Finally, a woman in the second row said she had once had a dog named Charlie. The dog was dead, so the interviewer considered it a "hit" until Shermer had him show the tape again and pointed out that the question had been aimed at a man but a woman in the group finally bit that piece of bait. Wasn't it odd, noted Shermer, that this great psychic couldn't tell the difference between a canine and a human spirit. When asked about this, Van Praagh announced that animals have souls, too, and they continue to exist after death. He explained that hearing the spirits is like having a conversation under water, which is a perfect segue to the third point. (4) Van Praagh has many more "misses" than he has "hits", but only a skeptic would notice. (5) Some of his "special hits", like telling Barbara Walters that her father had a glass eye--a fact which impressed Walters--are likely due to having done his homework. The reporter told Barbara that it had taken him only a few minutes to discover that information from sources available to anyone. Another "special hit"--seeing a young woman's dead grandmother behind her, was shown to have been information he got by asking questions during a break in the programming an hour earlier. (6) He plays on the emotions. Many of the people who appreciate van Praagh are very emotional and have a very strong desire to communicate with the dead. He seems to fulfill their wish and they are very grateful.
When asked what harm their could be in helping people work through the grieving process, Shermer noted that the people who are devoted to Van Praagh are not going through the normal grieving process. He isn't helping them with anything. He is defrauding them, lying to them. Van Praagh denies he is a fraud and claims that he is doing God's work. He says he is helping people, while his critics are "negative" and "not open to the spirit world." He even accused 20/20 of a set-up because he didn't have great success with the small audience they had assembled for him to work. Van Praagh was assured that those selected had a genuine desire to talk to the dead. He was asked, however, why it would matter whether the audience consisted of believers or skeptics. Van Praagh claimed that skeptics by their very skepticism block the spirits from communicating. This ad hoc hypothesis is one we've heard before from psychics and psychic researchers.
20/20 was fair and did an excellent job of letting Van Praagh perform to the best of his ability, letting a skilled skeptic criticize the performance, and allowing both to respond to the other's claims. When the segment was finished, Barbara Walters asked Hugh Downs what he thought about Van Praagh. Downs put it very succinctly: "I don't believe him."
March 31, 1998. Associated Press article by Brenda Coleman. Emily Rosa, a nine-year old, has published an article in the The Journal of the American Medical Association which debunks one of the main claims of therapeutic touch. "Those who practice the technique say an energy field emanates from every person and is detectable above the skin. The healer moves his or her hands over the patient's body to modify the field. Touching the patient isn't necessary....Emily set up a cardboard screen through which practitioners put their hands. With their sight blocked, she asked them to identify which of their hands was near one of hers. " [Coleman] "The practitioners correctly located Emily's hand only 122 (44%) out of 280 trials, which is no better than would be expected by guessing. A score of 50% would be expected through chance alone." [Stephen Barrett]
March 31, 1998. Sacramento Bee. The United States Supreme Court upheld the ban on the use of polygraph results in military courts. Justice Thomas, speaking for the court said: "There is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable....the scientific community remains extremely polarized about the reliability of polygraph techniques....There is simply no way to know in a particular case whether a polygraph examiner's conclusion is accurate." The case involved an airman who wanted to introduce in his defense his so-called "lie detector" test results. He was charged with using drugs and writing bad checks. The Air Force, by the way, conducted over 35,000 polygraph tests in one year, according to the airman's attorney. He rightly asked, if the tests are so unreliable, why does the Air Force use them? Good question, but it should be directed at the Air Force, not the Supreme Court.
Jan. 7, 1998. Sacramento Bee, Hundreds of psychics were proved to be of no use in another crime investigation. In 1992 a 6-year old boy vanished from his home in rural Butte County, California. After an intensive search for the boy had turned up nothing, the family and sheriff's officials had examined the theories of more than 100 self-proclaimed psychics who had volunteered to assist in the case. The investigators should have spent the time combing the nearby hills instead of chasing after the "visions" of so-called "psychics". Three boys recently found a skull of a young boy while hiking on a trail within two miles of the missing boy's home. A search of the area led to the discovery of some more bones and some clothing. Nothing that was discovered gave any clues as to the cause of death. In fact, investigators have sent the skull to an FBI lab for a positive identification. Though the skull is consistent with it being that of the missing boy, it is possible it is not. Yet, the mother of the missing child declared: "It wasn't no mountain lion. The person who did this is going to pay for it." In fact, if the skull and other items turn out to be that of the missing boy, the evidence would be consistent with the child falling down a canyon and dying of natural causes, his body being dragged away and devoured by animals, including the mountain lion. There is no evidence that there was any foul play. How much influence did the psychics and mass media play in conjuring up the worst-case scenario of kidnapping, molestation, mutilation and murder which apparently still haunts the child's mother?
January 8, 1998. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that when calcium channel blockers (for high blood pressure) were linked to higher risk of heart attack, 96% of the doctors who authored defenses of the use of calcium channel blockers had financial interests in the medication. Of those doctors who wrote neutral pieces on the medication, only 60% had financial ties to manufacturers. Only 37% of those who wrote critical articles on the use of calcium channel blockers also had a financial interest in the product. Is this a coincidence that one's thinking correlates with one's financial interest?
December 31, 1997. The terms of the 1993 closure agreement between the IRS and Scientology were revealed by Mark Rathbun, director of Scientology's "Religious Technology Center". For over twenty years, the IRS had tried to deny Scientology tax-exempt status as a religion. Scientologists responded with over 2,000 lawsuits against the IRS before it caved in and granted Scientology the same status as granted the Catholic Church and other religious organizations. Rathbun revealed that Scientology paid the IRS $12.5 million for past taxes. In exchange, the IRS not only granted Scientology tax-exempt status, but also agreed to drop any and all audits it was doing on the Church of Scientology or its related organizations. In addition to the money, the IRS got a promise from Scientology to set up a tax-compliance committee to monitor its own adherence to the settlement and other tax laws! (At least that is the way the associated press article reads.) The IRS can levy as much as $50 million in fines if it finds that any Scientologists are enriching themselves on moneys that are supposed to be for nonprofit activities.
I don't know if there is a Papal Yacht or not but Scientology gets to keep a 440-foot cruise ship in its tax-exempt properties. But, best of all for the religious faithful, the IRS is allowing individual Scientologists a tax deduction for auditing fees. We're not talking about IRS audits here, but the practice Scientologists use whereby they claim they can purge negative thoughts from your reactive mind with a little magical box.
Can anyone now think of the IRS without laughing?
Robert Todd Carroll
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