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

ęcopyright 2006








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November 8, 2002. The headline in the Davis Enterprise reads: Free scientific lectures offered. The subhead reads: Darwinism and cell complexity will be topics. It sounds scientific, even though "Darwinism" isn't a term used by scientists. Does the writer mean natural selection? The lecturer has a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley "for his studies in molecular machines in the flu virus and HIV." But his lectures promise to be anything but scientific. The lecturer is Jed C. Macosko, a warrior for the Discovery Institute (DI), an organization that believes all science must conform to their interpretation of the Bible. These warriors for Jesus think there is direct connection between real science (the kind that doesn't assume it already knows the truth before it begins its investigations) and immorality. They even have a center, misleadingly called The Center for Science and Culture, where this unscientific notion is promoted. Their belief is that real science has led to an onslaught of atheistic materialism, which in turn has led to massive immorality and a world of sinners and criminals that can be purified only by a return to some imagined prior state when people used the Bible as their guide to morality and to science. Not only has there never been such a prior state, the evidence indicates that the vast majority of sinners and criminals are not atheistic materialists. Most people in prison are theists, as a matter of fact. The rise of modern science, which began in the 17th century, has not been accompanied by a similar rise in atheistic materialism. The vast majority of people 400 years ago believed in God and the vast majority of people today believe in God. It is true that about 100 years ago there was great optimism among some intellectual atheists that religion would be replaced by science, but it never happened. Religion is as strong as it's ever been. Yet, sins and crimes have not diminished significantly. Rather than admit that religion does not make people significantly better than non-religious people, these deluded warriors for Jesus blame atheists for all the world's problems. And they blame science for creating atheists. But atheists are a small minority of the population, even though the majority of scientists do not believe in a personal deity.* The only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn is that either our scientists or our  theists are committing most of the world's sins and crimes.

But I can guarantee you that Dr. Macosko will not address these issues in his "scientific" lectures, one of which will be given at UC Davis in the Chemistry Building. The other "scientific" lecture will be given at the Grace Valley Christian Center. The topic for the latter is rather snazzy: "If Darwinism Is Unfounded, Why Do So Many Smart People Believe It?" (They don't, actually. Smart people don't "believe Darwinism." They accept evolution as a fact and natural selection as a good explanation for it.)The title of the lecture at UC Davis is "Life's Molecular Machines: By Chance or by Design?" Yes, Macosko plans to use the familiar Intelligent Design (ID) ruse. To ask of anything in nature, "by chance or by design?" is to ask a loaded question. Nothing in Nature happens by chance alone. Whatever randomness occurs must occur within the bounds of whatever laws of nature are applicable. Furthermore, the design question is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. This is easily seen and understood by most freshmen in my introductory philosophy course. A designer could be the source of the laws of nature and everything they apply to. It is a false dilemma to think that one must choose chance or design. A designer cannot be arbitrarily limited only to designing a system where chance can have no role. On the other hand, even if we cannot explain how something (whether it be a molecular machine, a cell, or a flagellum) actually occurred by random variation, natural selection, or some other naturalistic theory, we cannot legitimately claim a priori that such an explanation is impossible. Furthermore, even if it is impossible for us to ever explain a system naturalistically, that would not logically imply that the system was designed. It would only mean that we can't explain its origin.

Natural selection does not imply atheism, nor does it imply there is no designer of parts of the universe or of the whole shebang. Natural selection is not a competitor with Intelligent Design because they are not incompatible. Many people who accept the Bible as the infallible word of God, as Galileo did for example, accept the notion that fallible men reading the Bible can misinterpret it. Many who accept the Bible also accept evolution. There is no conflict between science and the Bible; there is a conflict between those who think the Bible teaches them about physics and biology and what real science has discovered.

The Discovery Institute folks make God look like a fool, just as the Catholic Church did when it declared that Galileo must be wrong about the earth moving because their interpretation of the Bible implied the earth doesn't move. What kind of all-wise being would instruct people with notions that they would one day discover are false? It does God no honor to insist on the truth of notions that have been shown to be false. It is downright blasphemous to claim that God requires you not only to believe those falsehoods but to do everything in your power to prove that any claims that are contrary to those falsehoods are themselves false.

We are told in the article that Macosko will use computer animation to present "a guided tour of the complexities of the life inside a cell and discuss whether these subcellular processes arose by chance or by design." That's the "science" lecture in the chemistry building at the secular university. The lecture at the church will "discuss how intellectuals cling to Darwinism as the only explanation of the origin of life, despite the complexities seen in nature, including recent scientific discoveries that defy the central tenets of Darwinism." (The ID folks use "Darwinism" as red flag, sort of like "Maoism.") This image of intellectuals clinging to natural selection (like drowning men clinging to flotsam?) is compelling to young minds who are easily sucked into the fracas, not realizing that these saintly looking warriors will do anything to rid the world of the science that breeds atheists who commit sins and crimes. They will lie and deceive in ways that would put the Antichrist to shame. Evolution is not a disputed view within the scientific community. Scientists, intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike, are not "clinging" to a doctrine. If anybody is clinging to a doctrine it is those who believe that Genesis is a historical account of the origin of the universe and the origin of species, dictated by the author of the universe Himself. If anybody is clinging to an untenable doctrine it is those who claim that anything which contradicts their interpretation of Genesis is false, regardless of the scientific evidence to the contrary.

Not everybody will be fooled by this ID ruse. Two days after the Enterprise article appeared, Saul Schaefer's letter to the editor was published. In it, he notes that it was an error to refer to the lectures as "scientific," since they are really about theology. Yes, and bad theology at that. Any theology that makes an all-wise, all-knowing being look like an idiot is bad theology. To claim that such a being would create a species with the intelligence to figure out a good part of the truth about the nature of the universe it lives in, yet would reveal to some men a number of things that contradict those truths, is insulting to the concept of such a being.

further reading

Frankly, I don't know if the AAAS strategy of urging people to oppose the teaching of ID in the science classroom is a good one. Of course I oppose teaching ID in the science classroom, but I wonder if this approach might not backfire like CSICOP's attempt to debunk astrology by issuing a manifesto against astrology signed by 186 scientists and advising newspapers to stop carrying astrological columns. The DI people are at war with science. They have already succeeded in getting millions of people on their side, not because they are right, but because they have convinced them that it is a matter of fairness. They have convinced many people that science is dogmatic (but they aren't!) and oppressive, that their people are being persecuted by closed-minded dogmatists,* that those who support ID are supporting critical thinking in the science classroom. I don't think this war against those who are bent on destroying science as we know it can be won by urging leaders to ban ID from the science classroom. To do so makes it look like this is a turf war. To defeat this enemy of science, we must expose their hypocrisy and, like it or not, their theology. To succeed in this war, we need allies from religion itself, from those whose theology is not demeaning to the concept of an all-wise, all-knowing being. Those in the forefront of this battle should be theologians, not scientists or philosophical atheists. Otherwise, I don't see how we can succeed in defeating this enemy of science. The enemy knows the rhetoric of disruption. It knows how to confuse issues and raise doubts about science. It knows how to make itself appear to be good, decent, and honest, when it is evil, indecent, and deceptive. It knows how to arouse sympathy for its cause. According to William Dembski, one of the DI warriors, more than half the people of Ohio think Intelligent Design should be taught in the science classrooms of public schools. He is very optimistic about winning the war. As I have said elsewhere, I think it is a tactical mistake to debate him on the issue. I don't advise debating the DI or ID people on the proper interpretation of specific passages in the Bible. I don't advise debating them on specific claims they make regarding anything in nature they think must be explained by appeal to an extra-natural designing force or power. We should not oppose ID, but expose it as a viable metaphysical theory in contrast to mechanistic materialism, which is also a viable metaphysical theory. ID should not be banned, but taught in the philosophy or theology classroom along with contrary positions that have some plausibility. We must also expose the fact that the DI and ID people think of "science" as something that existed before real science (the kind that has evolved since the 17th century). Their conception of science is what fits with revelation as understood by them. That's where I think the counterattack must begin. But, without the help of theologians willing to take a public stand against this notion of exclusivity and infallibility, not to mention the demeaning consequences of such a view for the concept of an all-wise, all-knowing deity, I think Dembski and his fellow warriors have good reason to be optimistic.

update - November 15, 2002. I attended Jed Macosko's lecture at UC Davis. There were a couple of surprises. The talk was held in the chemistry lecture hall and was sponsored by an on-campus Christian Bible-study group called Grace Alive. The student president of the group explained that the group wants to let everyone know that the Christian worldview is a rational worldview and towards that end they are sponsoring a "Faith and Reason" series of talks. He then led us all in a brief prayer before the lecture, a prayer that reminded us of the signs all around us of our Heavenly Father's design. There were about 200 people at the talk, in my estimate, and it sounded like most of them said "Amen" at the end of the prayer. This put me in a good mood. I thought to myself: these people believe in a Perfect Being, yet they pray. Perfection lack nothing, needs nothing, wants nothing. Prayer to Perfection can only serve to make the one praying feel better. But I digress.

Contrary to my expectation, Dr. Macosko was upfront about not meaning by the word 'science' what 99.99% of the rest of the world means by that word. He defined science as "looking for evidence" and following that evidence wherever it leads, including into non-naturalistic explanations. Thus, he admitted that for him there is no demarcation between science and philosophy, theology, mythology, or any other discipline. This seems to have been the view of people like Velikovsky, Sitchin, L. Ron Hubbard, and a host of others who have called their work "science" even though their views have never been accepted by mainstream science.

Macosko spent most of his time narrating slides and a film on two favorite topics of the ID folks: the flagellum of bacteria and the complexity of cells. The colors were great and the animation was awesome. These demos were very complicated and very scientific.

The conclusion of the talk was a rehash of Dembski's argument regarding probability and specificity, in which he claims that only intelligent design can explain the improbable but very specific functionality of something as complex as cell functioning and reproduction. Laws explain things with high probability, he says, but chance explains things with low specificity. And when you get low probability but high specificity, he says, you need design. The main problem with his argument that ID best explains cell functioning is that it begs the question because it assumes that the probability of the cell evolving by chance is of extremely low probability. This point is never proven. It can't be proven. What is known is that we don't know exactly how the cell evolved, how the many different machines in the cell came together. We also can't know a priori whether we will someday be able to explain how they came together. But if we do, I guarantee you that the ID people will just find something else that hasn't been explained by natural selection or some other naturalistic mechanism, and they will then pursue the same entangled argument with their new red herring.

Macosko had some very nice metaphors about potato chips rearranging themselves into messages. Was it by chance or by design? By design, of course. Well, there you go. The same thing applies to cells. The chances of these molecular machines coming together by chance is equivalent to hitting a particle in the galaxy with a bullet smaller than the smallest known particle. According to Macosko, somebody actually claims to have done such a calculation. This was in response to my question about one of his conclusions, namely, that functional molecular machines are improbable. I said we had to agree with his conclusions that these machines are complex and that they perform very specific functions, but that his claim that they are improbable begs the question. Isn't that the issue here, I asked? How do you determine they are improbable? Aren't you assuming they are improbable? Well, we couldn't resolve this tonight, he said,  but he assured the audience that the calculations had been done by somebody somewhere else and if we'd only think about the potato chips on the couch that spell out messages and of the probability of hitting a particle in the galaxy with a bullet smaller than the smallest particle, we'd see what he meant. But I knew what he meant. I just wanted to know why this obvious assumption wasn't being recognized as an assumption. Maybe he doesn't understand the fallacy of begging the question.

Others in the audience asked questions that indicated that they saw no problem with believing in both natural selection and design by God. Macosko stated that he did not agree, but he did not explain why ID should be thought of as an alternative to natural selection. Nor did he explain what advantage to science, even using his broadened conception of the enterprise, would result from adopting the design hypothesis. I suggest there is none. The benefit is like that from prayer. The benefit is in the subjective feeling that results from seeing everything in relation to a Providential Being. It makes those who see things this way feel better.

further reading

August 31, 2002. A computer analysis of over 122,000 police reports over a three-year period in Toledo, Ohio, has found that on the 38 nights there was a full moon violent crimes were 5.5% higher and property crimes 4.6% higher. There was a slight decrease in burglaries of occupied homes, shoplifting, and minor assaults on full moon nights, however. Also, armed robberies dropped 11 percent during full-moon nights, but robberies without weapons increased 14 percent. (Apparently, "night of a full moon" was defined as the period between 6 pm and 6 am.) What does it all mean? I don't know, but most other studies of crime and the moon have found no scientific evidence that the full moon is a significant causal factor of crime. For all we know, criminals have picked up on the folklore beliefs about the full moon and behave as they think they're supposed to behave when the moon is full. Or, maybe not. In any case, there are other factors to consider.

The study, done by The Toledo Blade, found that most murders occur on Fridays. (Friday was defined as "from midnight Thursday to midnight Friday.") The newspaper didn't say whether any of the full moons fell on a Friday and, if so, whether the murder rate went even higher on those double-trouble nights. The fewest killings, but the greatest number of cases of arson, occur on Sundays, according to the Blade, which apparently did not analyze their data to see on what days of the week the full moons occurred. They did find that day of the week matters. Thursdays, for example, were the days with the lowest crime rates. We are not told how many full moons fell on Thursdays during the study period. The Blade did note that the weather plays an important role in crime. There are many more crimes in summer than in winter (at least in places like Ohio where even the criminals don't like to go out in blizzards). No effort seems to have been made, however, to evaluate the weather on full moon nights. Controls for days of the week and for weather would have been done by any reputable statistician, I would think. One should also control for holidays. New Year's Eve, for example, as the Blade notes, is notorious for being a high crimes night. It is almost universally agreed that the main reason for this is the heavy drinking that goes on that night. Other holidays, like Christmas, are known for being low-crime days. It seems that even criminals take Christmas off.

The oddest statistic found by the Blade was that the crime rate increased an average of 18% on the fourth Sunday in October. Apparently, this had nothing to do with the full moon, but there were an average of 131 crimes on those days. (Another thing a reputable statistician would do is give us some sense of the significance of these statistics, given the size of the samples. 122,000 crimes seems like a large sample, but when you divide it up into days, it averages about 111 crimes a day. This means that on full moon days there was an average of six more violent crimes and five more property crimes. A good statistician would tell us what the odds are of this being due to chance.) The only thing the Blade has to say about the high crime rate on the fourth Sunday in October is that that is "Mother-in-Law's [sic] day." I didn't know that. I do know that Halloween is celebrated on the last day of October and that it is socially acceptable to appear in public wearing a mask around that time of year. Even a dull blade might suspect that the twenty more crimes (on average) on Mothers-in-Law day might have something to do with all those masked men and women out and about.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

August 30, 2002. Fox Network's "Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction" began its fourth season last night with an array of unbelievable tales involving such things as ghosts who look like nurses and dead people who retrieve purple hearts from boxes. The show, hosted by Jonathan Frakes, features several stories and the challenge to the viewer to figure out which stories are fact and which are fiction. The problem is that Fox defines "fact" as a story that somebody else made up, and "fiction" is a story that they made up themselves. If somebody else told the story, Frakes declares that it actually happened. Strange but true.

July 8, 2002. David Icke, who has turned lunacy into currency, has found that if you wait long enough the world of television entertainment will catch up to you no matter how mad you are. Case in point, he has just been hired by the SciFi channel to be a presenter on a show to be called Headf**k. I wish I were making this up.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

June 26, 2002. The July 1, 2002, issue of Time Magazine has been on-line since June 23rd. The lead story is about the Biblical prophecy of the End of the World in the Book of Revelation, so maybe they wanted to make sure they got their issue out before Armageddon. The headline reads: The Bible and the Apocalypse - Why more Americans are reading and talking about the End of the World. Time doesn't seem too concerned about the end being near, however. They seem to have been archiving stories on the End Times so they can sell them to people in the future. My guess is that the authors of the hottest book of the summer--about the End of the World--are working on another book or two. (Hell, they've already written many very successful novels on the subject. Why stop now, just because the End is near?)

The End Times prediction is, of course, unique. Unlike every other alleged prophecy, this one can't be retrodicted. Hence, there have been many erroneous predictions of the End Times. But there has rarely been such opportunity for profit from prophecy. Time claims that "36% of Americans believe that the Bible is the word of God and is to be taken literally." That would be a market of over 100,000,000 American fundamentalists. I wonder if any of the hundred million has read Scientific American's "15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense" by John Rennie. In all fairness, it should be required reading from every pulpit in America.

[thanks to Glen Green and Joe Littrell]

June 17, 2002.  Padre Pio (1887-1968) has been named a saint by the Pope and one of the biggest crowds in Vatican history was there to share in the announcement. Francesco Forgione (his real name) hailed from Pietrelcina, Italy, and overcame accusations of mental derangement (he liked to flagellate himself to mortify the flesh and show his devotion to God), of faking the stigmata, and of sexual dalliances with women to become known as a stigmatic Nostradamus and miracle worker. He was allegedly clairvoyant and known to answer the prayers of the sick and dying. Many believe he could be in two places at the same time.

In Scotland, Frank and Maureen O'Connor were in despair after being told their baby daughter Danielle had a fatal illness. A stranger told them to pray to Padre Pio, and her condition improved. That was in 1993; their daughter is now 11 and still very much alive. The Vatican asked for details of her case when it was looking for evidence of miracles, and deciding whether the monk should be made a saint.*

Don't think the Catholic Church would canonize anyone based on such flimsy evidence. They require two cases of post hoc reasoning for sainthood.

A little boy, the son of a doctor who works in a hospital Pio founded in San Giovanni Rotondo, awoke from a coma triggered by meningitis. Doctors consulted by the Vatican concluded that Matteo Pio Colella's recovery had no scientific explanation. "The doctors gave him up as a lost cause. I entrusted him to Pio," Matteo's mother, Maria Lucia Ippolito, told The Associated Press....*

Don't think that this reasoning is sloppy just because Pio was more popular than the Pope himself in Italy. Similar reasoning was used to beatify a man who may not have existed:

.....a young Mexican suffered massive head injuries after jumping out of a window in 1990. His rapid recovery, after his mother prayed to Juan Diego, stunned his doctor. In 1998 the Vatican accepted the cure as a miracle.*

The Pope has been a devotee of Padre Pio for many years. As a young priest in Poland, Karol Wojytla made a pilgrimage to Italy to confess his sins to the famous Capuchin. Later, a Polish friend of Pope John Paul's was diagnosed with cancer. The friend, at the Pope's behest, prayed to Padre Pio and did not die of cancer. In fact, the friend, Wanda Polawska, attended the canonization ceremony.

June 3, 2002. Tonight is the premier of the Pet Psychic on the Animal Planet Channel. Today's issue of USA Today has a glowing review of the show and its host by Dennis Moore. I am sure it will be entertaining. At least these creatures are alive. My question is, how will we resolve any disputes among pet psychics as to what the animals are saying? And what will we do with all the valuable information we gather from the animals via the psychics? I'm sure that fish and snails know the answers to all the important questions in life. It will be enlightening to finally learn all the great truths that have been hidden from us by university professors and scientists. I'll bet they've known how to communicate with snakes and sloths for centuries, but they've conspired to keep us ignorant because of their financial interests in our ignorance. What if they tell us that Intelligent Design is a pious fraud and that the humans who are perpetuating this fraud think it is OK to lie for Jesus? What if they tell us that pet psychics are frauds, as well?

Not everyone in the media is gaga over the pet psychic. Noel Holston of Newsday is very skeptical of a psychic who has to ask the owners what the pet's name and gender are.

[thanks to Glen Green and Joe Littrell]





ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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