Mass Media Bunk is a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.

Robert Todd Carroll

©copyright 2006





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December 16, 2000. According to writer Jennifer Viegas, dogs "may be able to read our minds, knowing what we're thinking even before we move or say a word." She bases this claim on an experiment some German researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig did with some dogs. Claire Ainsworth of New Scientist, the source for Viegas' article, put it a bit differently: "Although dogs can't quite read our minds, they seem to know what we can see." According to Ainsworth, the researchers

placed treats on the floor in front of a number of dogs in turn, and forbade each animal to eat the food. As long as the person remained in the room, the dog rarely went for the food. But if the person left the room, the dog scoffed the treat within five seconds.

They tested the dogs' behaviour in greater detail: once with someone looking directly at the dog, once with a person playing a computer game, once with a person with their eyes shut, and once with someone sitting with their back to the dog. In tests on six dogs, they found that the dogs stole twice as much food when the person was not looking directly at them.

The scientists did not conclude that the dogs might be psychic, but rather that dogs don't simply respond to a stimulus. "This may mean that dogs are able to figure out what humans can see," said one of the researchers.

On the other hand, Viegas spiced up her article by quoting Jean Donaldson, director of behavior and training at the San Francisco SPCA. "This might explain dog telepathy and why dogs can predict things like cancer occurrences and epileptic seizures," she said. Indeed, that's what my friend's Doberman, KC, said it was in his latest e-mail.
[thanks to Laddie Chapman]

reader comments

17 Dec 2000
I read with interest Laddie Chapman's item on Jennifer Viegas's article at However, when I went to the site and read the actual article I was dismayed to find that Chapman had selectively edited the material in order to present a particular point of view. To wit: 'According to writer Jennifer Viegas, dogs "may be able to read our minds, knowing what we're thinking even before we move or say a word." ' The next sentence is omitted in Chapman's item. The full quote should read : "Man's best friend may be able to read our minds, knowing what we're thinking even before we move or say a word. By closely watching the direction of our gazes dogs appear to be able to tell what we're looking at or more importantly, whether we're looking at them, according to a team of German researchers. " This changes the tone of Viegas's statement from ridiculous to sensible.

reply: First, Laddie Chapman referred me to the article in question. I do all the writing for the Skeptic's Dictionary. So, if you have a quarrel, it is with me, not Mr. Chapman.

Secondly, it is a judgment call as to whether Viegas' second sentence changes the tone from ridiculous to sensible. I don't think it does, especially in light of the title of her article--"Can Dogs Read Our Minds?"--and her concluding quotation. Viegas has clearly distorted the work of the scientists, which had absolutely nothing to do with testing psychic abilities in dogs.

In addition, Chapman says: 'On the other hand, Viegas spiced up her article by quoting Jean Donaldson, director of behavior and training at the San Francisco SPCA. "This might explain dog telepathy and why dogs can predict things like cancer occurrences and epileptic seizures," ' Again, this is a very selective quote. In reality the quote from the Viegas article reads: "Jean Donaldson, director of behavior and training at the San Francisco SPCA, said dogs could also be sensing small changes in our body chemistry.

"This might explain dog telepathy and why dogs can predict things like cancer occurrences and epileptic seizures," she said. " Again this is a far more reasonable argument and grounded in science.

reply: Again, this is a judgment call. I fail to see how Donaldson's reference to "sensing small changes in our body chemistry" makes her more reasonable. In my view, it makes her less reasonable. Where did she come up with such a notion? And what possible connection could it have to claiming that dogs can predict cancer by telepathic means?

In fact, I read the Viegas article and found nothing in it that suggests that she was doing anything more than reporting the facts of the study. I realize that you cannot personally check every submission, but in this case I would ask that you modify or remove this incorrect item. And no, I am not a lawyer.
Glen Hutton

reply: I suggest you read it again and compare it to the article in New Scientist, where there is absolutely no hint of anything paranormal. I cannot see how you can think that this article is  just "reporting the facts" when it is entitled "Can Dogs Read Our Minds?", states in its opening line that "man's best friend may be able to read our minds" and concludes with a quote from someone who thinks dogs can predict cancer by telepathy.

Glen Hutton replies:

First, my apologies to Mr. Chapman. Second, as the item was yours, and the website is yours, you are of course entitled to your interpretation of the Viegas article. I apologize for being pedantic but I wish to clarify two points with regard to my interpretation. 1) I took the reference to the psychic abilities of dogs, as referring to the seeming ability dogs have to read our minds. I did not assume the writer meant you to believe that dogs actually can read minds. What she was saying was "You know when your dog seems to be reading your mind? Well here is what may actually be happening. Your dog may be focusing on real and measurable motions and smells that you are not aware you are producing". Therefore the second sentence is vital. She is saying that the dog may be guessing at your intentions long before you are even aware that you are signaling them. This is clearly an example of dog "telepathy" being a version of the "Clever Hans" phenomenon of the last century.

reply: You are a very generous soul, Glen. I have re-read Viegas' first paragraph again, trying to see it your way, but I can't. I don't think she was using the headline and her opening sentence as teasers or hooks. If she wanted us to read her as you do,  she should have opened with a different sentence (like the one you suggest), making it clear that dogs seem to be able to read our minds. As it is, she seems to me to identify reading our minds with knowing when they are being watched.

2) As to the ASPCA director's comment. I give it the same interpretation. Dogs reacting to small changes in body chemistry may explain why they seem to be able to anticipate our actions ("telepathy"), and why they seem able to "predict" seizures. Of course they are doing nothing of the sort. They are merely reacting to scents that we are unable to perceive. These small changes in body chemistry MAY precede a seizure. The dog's nose MAY also be sensitive enough to detect changes associated with cancer (particularly skin cancer), before the cancer is noticed by it's owner. This does not seem to me to be an unreasonable theory.

reply: I might agree with you if the article didn't end with the Donaldson quote and if that quote did not explicitly say "this might explain dog telepathy." The body of the article does not stray from what the scientists actually did, but it was sandwiched by irrelevant and misleading references to paranormal canines.

Finally, I agree that both the title and the first paragraph of Viegas's article were at best an unfortunate choice and at worst confusing. However, even after reading the New Scientist item, I do not find the Discovery. com article as egregious as you do.

Anyway we are both entitled to our opinions. Thank you for listening to mine.

reply: I may be more sensitive than most readers of since a) that site seems to have more than its share of paranormal and pseudoscientific "sightings"; and b) there is already enough non-sense about psychic pets being spread by Rupert Sheldrake and others.

Then again, you just may be a very charitable chap.

19 Dec 2000 
The article about "can dogs read out minds?" in is completely ridiculous, but not for the obvious reason of interjecting telepathy into the equation. The fact that a study was done on if dogs know what humans are looking at, and that discovery commented on it are silly beyond words. Anyone who has ever had a dog knows 2 things: 1. dogs make eye contact with people. 2. maintaining eye contact with a strange or agitated dog can make it more hostile.

If a dog is happy to see you, it makes and maintains eye contact. When they want something from you, they make eye contact. In fact, just about the only thing that can make a happy dog break eye contact from someone it likes, is if that someone waves a treat or toy off to the side. So in that light, it comes as no surprise that dogs know when people aren't looking.

The real question is if the concept of eyes as "seeing devices" is instinctual, or learned. Given that dogs make eye contact with other dogs, and knowing if a rival dog is looking at you is conducive to canine survival, it doesn't seem like that much of a stretch for dogs to extrapolate that the shiny round things above the human noise flap serves the same purpose as the shiny round things above the doggie noise flap.

December 14, 2000. Sheila King, an exercise physiologist at UCLA, sees herself in the tradition of Aristotle and Plato because she, like them, "combined science, philosophy and metaphysics in a unified approach to life." In an article for, she claims just about any exercise activity can be a spiritual experience. I suppose for spiritual people just about anything can be a spiritual experience, but they don't usually claim that they are doing anything scientific when they are being spiritual. King does:

The integration of action, thought and emotion creates a vital life force that enhances our workouts along with our quality of life. The new age of science and medicine is beginning to draw on spirituality to help people cope with illness and enhance health, with good reason: This inner source is a cost-effective therapy with virtually no negative side effects!

She doesn't clarify the scientific notions of a "vital life force" or "inner force", but I'm sure her readers know what she means.

Exercise such as running or cycling produces a natural tendency to focus inward, and requires you to draw on your vital inner force to transcend perceived barriers of intensity, distance or duration.

She doesn't say if this is true for people with gout or tendonitis. But she does claim that 

Only a handful of controlled research studies in the United States have explored the mind-body connection, but already these practices have proved helpful in the treatment of conditions such as cardiovascular disease and asthma.

She doesn't mention any specific studies, however, nor does she specify what mind-body practices were "helpful" nor exactly how they were "helpful" in treating cardiovascular disease and asthma.

King does seem to have some useful common-sense and non-controversial advice for relaxing after exercise, however, such as listening to relaxing music and doing some controlled breathing. Her advice to examine our goals and do some thinking while exercising would no doubt meet with Aristotle's approval.
[thanks to Devon]

December 7, 2000. Sometimes stories about alternative "medicine" make me sick, like this one about a traditionally trained immuno-geneticist who dresses up in a bear suit and treats his patients with feathers and totems. According to Dr. Michael Samuels: 

What you know is a good doctor has moments where they look into your eyes, where you can feel the interconnection with you — a merger — their heart opening. When that’s missing there’s a coldness that the patient feels and the healing is incomplete.

I've never had such a moment and, if I prayed, I'd pray that I never do. I don't want a soul mate when I go to a physician, but I am getting the feeling that I'm unusual in this respect.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

reader comments

08 Dec 2000 
In regards to your comment "I don't want a soul mate when I go to a physician, but I am getting the feeling that I'm unusual in this respect."

Well, think about the role Doctors play. They save lives. They provide salvation from suffering and death. They provide what many religions promise. We demand perfection from doctors. We have essentially elevated them to demi-god status. It should come as no surprise that in a species that seems bent on seeking and creating gods and divinity, that when presented with a physical, tangible facsimile of that which is sought, we would project our expectations of the divine onto it. In the western, Christian areas, we've been taught that the furious angry god of the old testament is now a loving, tender, caring father who will provide our every need. It should therefore come as no surprise that such expectations are projected onto doctors too.

This begs the question as to why this is a recent phenomenon? Considering that up until recently, "healers" have not been terribly successful, and the image of god as a cuddly loving father is a relatively recent phenomenon due to increased literacy in the past 300-500 years, thus revoking the ability of the literate priests from emphasizing the blind obedience to a mighty, jealous deity. So both living gods, and the expectation of nurturing and caring from a god have overlapped. When our living gods fail, or aren't able to make us feel loved and special while performing their miracles on us, we feel cheated, and turn to traditions that make us feel good about ourselves. Traditions that come from cultures that were blessed with vastly shorter lifespans.

reply: You might want to invest a few $ in a book on world religions.

October 31, 2000. Perhaps it is the obligatory stupid haunting story for Halloween, but Jaymi Freiden of the  Savannah Morning News has a feature article about ghosts haunting the local Harley-Davidson Motorcycle shop. The story focuses on the work of Al Cobb and his little band of amateur paranormal investigators who call themselves the Searchers. They use scientific equipment because "People believe you more when you have scientific data."

They have an infrared thermal scanner that sends out a beam of red light that picks up on temperature changes. A change in temperature can mean a ghost is using the energy in that area, either increasing or decreasing the temperature, Thomas said. It can also affect magnetic fields, which is why some members carry a compass. Then there are the cameras - both still and video - used to record anything unusual that might be lurking.

How they know that ghosts use energy and change the air's temperature is not mentioned. Nor are we told what evidence there is that ghosts affect magnetic fields. But at least the equipment is scientific, even if the people using it are not.

Freiden reports that "it's been said that Savannah is the second most haunted city in America, behind Charleston and ahead of New Orleans." I'm sure it has, but how would one go about testing this claim with all that scientific equipment?


August 21, 2000. "The icecap at the North Pole has melted for the first time in 50 million years, reinforcing fears about global warming," writes Severin Carrell of the Independent News (UK). No doubt Mr. Carrell did an investigation after reading The New York Times (see next entry).

August 19, 2000. The New York Times reported today that "An ice-free patch of ocean about a mile wide has opened at the very top of the world, something that has presumably never before been seen by humans and is more evidence that global warming may be real and already affecting climate." The front page story had the headline: North Pole is Melting. Actually, about 10 percent of the Arctic Ocean is ice-free in any given summer, many people have seen an ice-free pole, and this is not necessarily related to global warming. This doesn't mean that Arctic ice is not declining, however.

August 14, 2000. and the NandoTimes published an Associated Press report which glowingly and uncritically says that some researchers have established that acupuncture is "an effective treatment for cocaine addiction." The study by some Yale scientists was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The actual study only claims that "acupuncture shows promise for the treatment of cocaine dependence" and that further research "appears to be warranted." This was based upon the following results:

Examination of urine data for patients who completed the 8-week trial showed that acupuncture completers provided significantly more consecutive cocaine-negative urine samples than did either the relaxation control group (P = .002) or the needle-insertion control group (P = .02) (acupuncture, 7.23 6.77; needle-insertion control, 3.35 3.55; relaxation control, 2.14 3.37; F2,49 = 5.37; P = .008). Acupuncture completers were also significantly more likely to provide 3 consecutive cocaine-free urine samples in the final week of the study (acupuncture, 54% [7/13]; needle-insertion control, 24% [4/17]; relaxation control, 9% [2/22]; 22 = 8.76; P = .01).

The Associated Press article fails to note that of the 82 participants in the study, 30 dropped out before the study was completed. The AP  also failed to note that the study only followed the addicts for eight weeks and that the greatest dropout rate was in the group getting acupuncture (64%). Those getting fake acupuncture had a dropout rate of 37% and those in the relaxation group had a dropout rate of only 19%.

Based on these results, if I had a vote on funding further research, I'd vote no. The Associated Press  article quotes Arthur Margolin, Ph.D., one of the Yale researchers, as saying "the results suggest the need for increased study of acupuncture and other forms of alternative medicine [emphasis added]." If he said this, he was hyping the study beyond tolerable puffery. Neither science nor journalism, much less the public, is served well by exaggerating the significance of research results.

Arthur Margolin responds:

16 Aug 2000 

The "quote" of mine you cite from CNN (which, incidentally, I have been unable to find on their web-site -- your direction to it would be appreciated) is in fact a misquote. 

reply: That doesn't surprise me. Actually, the quote is from an Associated Press story which is posted by CNN and by Nando Times.

What I have said is that our study suggests that complementary and alternative (CAM) therapies can be fairly investigated in rigorously controlled randomized clinical trials.

reply: Unfortunately, this point is not made either in the Associated Press story or in your article in the Journal of Internal Medicine.

I understand that the degree to which our study satisfies that description is open to interpretation; however, my statement was directed to individuals, particularly advocates of CAM, who may feel that the investigation of CAM therapies within a biomedical framework, without extreme prejudice to those therapies, is simply not possible. Whether or not CAM therapies should be further studied is another matter. The findings of our study could not of course supply the foundations for inferring that proposition; I think many have run afoul of the logical incoherence of attempting to derive "an ought from an is". It is interesting to me that you may have fallen into this trap by seeming to suggest that CAM therapies should not be further investigated, and furthermore, the tone, and curtness, of your message seems to be such as could only emerge from one who holds what seems to be the result of an unstated, and I fear unstateable, set of "inferences" leading to the belief in question with all of the certainty of a logically demonstrable truth!

Is this a new form of skeptical logic?

reply: Many, indeed, have run afoul trying to derive an ought from an is, but I fail to see the relevance of that point here. A logical point that does seem pertinent here, though, is the non sequitur. I don't see how it follows that I seem "to suggest that CAM therapies should not be further investigated" from my statement: "Based on these results, if I had a vote on funding further research, I'd vote no." I don't think your results were significant enough to warrant spending my money on further investigation. I have no problem with you finding some private party who is willing to fund further research of auricular acupuncture to treat cocaine addiction. And I certainly do not have a general objection to scientifically investigating CAM therapies. Even if I did, such is certainly not implied by my statement.

If you read our paper in the Archives of Internal Medicine, you will find that in the Discussion section we point out a number of limitations of our study which decrease the generalizability of our findings.
Art Margolin

reply: I did read your paper and I did note that the Associated Press article makes a stronger claim than you do for acupuncture as an effective therapy for cocaine addicts. I wrote to you to find out if you were quoted accurately (actually, you were paraphrased) because I know that the media often hypes up scientific stories and exaggerates their significance. Scientists do this also and I checked with you to find out if the AP had got it right. Apparently, they didn't. The AP story gives no hint that you think your study is a model for other CAM studies and shows that rigorous science can be done in that area.

August 4, 2000. Shirley MacLaine has her own website where she promises to spiritualize the Web. In case you don't know who she is, she is the author of Out on a Limb, a book serialized for television by ABC, in which she describes, among other things, her channeling guru. Her credentials? She once was a Moor who had an affair with Charlemagne and bore him three children, but that was long ago.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

July 10, 2000. The Sci Fi Channel has begun a nightly show called "Crossing Over With John Edward." Edward will do a James Van Praagh routine, claiming to speak to dead people of interest to those in the audience. says the show starts at 8 pm; the SciFi program guide says it starts at 11 p.m. and that the first episode was July 9th. Check your local television guide for this exciting new program. By being on the Sci Fi channel, is Edward admitting that this stuff is fiction?
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

July 7, 2000. The Washington Times, owned by the Rev. Sun Myong Moon's Unification Church, features an article by Valerie Richardson on a vote taken by the Colorado Board of Education to urge schools to display the motto "In God We Trust." In a deliberate example of the religionization of journalism, Richardson writes that the vote was "a deliberate challenge to the growing secularization of public education." Isn't public education secular by nature in this country?






copyright 2000
Robert Todd Carroll

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