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.
March 7, 2005. There seems to be an endless supply of bunk on psychics and television mediums. Australia's Sunday Telegraph made its contribution this week. The article begins "More people than you might think are psychic. Some experts put it as high as one in 12." Of course, these experts aren't named. Boohoo! I really wanted to read more. One of the dumber claims in the article is this one about how humans used to be telepathic until we started speaking:
What evidence there is for this claim remains hidden in the mists of time, I guess. Since many of our ancestors did not develop language, you'd think some of them would have been telepathic in the past and would still be telepathic. What evidence is there that chimps, bonobos, orangutans, or gorillas use ESP to communicate? I must have missed that lesson in my biology class.
The best advice given in the unsigned article is that to develop your psychic powers you should lie down with a coin on the center of your forehead. Concentrate on the coin and this will help you tap into the subconscious mind. Why would you want to do this? Because the subconscious mind is a goldmine of wisdom and power just waiting to be discovered. Where do you think the wisdom for the Sunday Telegraph article came from?
February 11, 2005. RedNova.com has a nauseatingly fulsome article today about the Global Consciousness Project (also called the EGG project). The article falsely claims great success for the forerunner of this project, the work of Robert Jahn, Roger Nelson, and Brenda Dunne at Princeton. For an accurate account of their work, see my entry on the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Project.
Dean Radin, in his book The Conscious Universe (1997) gives a detailed account of his take on the work of Roger Nelson in "field consciousness." This work demonstrates what kind of contribution to consciousness studies we can expect from parapsychology. According to Radin, when groups of people focus their minds on the same thing, they may influence "the world at large." There may be something like a "global mind" that is spawned by the interconnections of many individual minds. What evidence is there for such a claim? The evidence is statistical and involves alleged anomalies.
According to Radin, "In the basic field-consciousness experiment, we measure fluctuations in a group's attention while simultaneously measuring fluctuations in the behavior of one or more physical systems" (1997: 161). For example, data from random event generators (REGs) is collected for the time just before, during, and after a "global event" like watching the funeral of Princess Diana or Mother Teresa. The researchers then look for fluctuations of order in the REG outputs from various sources around the world. Chance fluctuations of order are then measured against any fluctuations of order during these and other events where large numbers of people might be focusing on the same thing. Then, cumulative odds against chance for the random data collected before, during, and right after the global events are calculated.
According to Nelson, for Diana's funeral results compounded across twelve independent recordings at various locations in Europe and the United States showed an anomalous effect that would occur by chance only about once in 100 repetitions of this experiment (p = 0.013), as displayed in a graph of the deviation accumulated across all the datasets. On the other hand, eleven datasets for Mother Teresa's funeral show little indication of an anomalous effect, with a composite outcome indistinguishable from chance .. We speculate that the difference derives from the nature of the global attention, which was very different in the two cases. (The graphs below are from Radin 1997.)
The shock and dismay over Diana's death galvanized an overwhelming reaction that was the preeminent media topic for several days. The funeral ceremonies occupied virtually all the major television channels and hence the attentions of an unprecedented number of people. This focus, and the entrainment of ideas and emotions it entailed, might be expected to produce a widespread resonance of affect. In contrast, Mother Teresa's death was expected, and she had lived a full and exemplary life, allowing her memory to be honored without the profound grief and dismay that was engendered by Princess Diana's death. These important differences in the two situations may explain the significantly different experimental results, and also link them with findings in psychological and sociological studies of personal loss.
Several other experiments have been done that have resulted in similar data, interpreted to imply some sort of group consciousness being able to have some sort of physical effect (See Radin 1997: 161-162). My favorite is Roger Nelson's study on "Wishing for Good Weather." Here is an excerpt from the abstract of his article that appeared in The Journal for Scientific Exploration Vol. 11, No. 1:
Radin claims that finding such interesting anomalies provides support for "ideas about deep interconnectedness espoused by physicists, theologians, and mystics" (1997: 172). Does it? I have no idea. These researchers have found statistical anomalies, or at least they've found statistics that are "interesting" by some standard. But do these anomalies support a belief in psi or global consciousness? To assume they do is to assume that information is being transferred from minds to machines. But that is the very issue that is being investigated. It is true that they predicted certain outcomes would occur if their hypothesis were true. And it is true that the outcomes they predicted did occur. However, it is not clear that these successful experiments support their hypothesis because we have no way of knowing that their prediction must follow from their hypothesis. How can we be sure that if there is a field consciousness, the thoughts of many people will affect random event generators? And if the thoughts of many people could have some sort of unified effect that did affect REGs, how can we know a priori that the effect would be to cause more order (as is assumed)? For all we know, if there is a causal relationship between thoughts and REGs, it could be to produce more disorder.
Are these so-called statistical anomalies even anomalies? These scientists are assuming that their machines should work in accordance with formal rules of randomness and probability. Is this assumption justified? RedNova claims that one of Nelson's machines in Edinburgh "apparently sensed the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre four hours before they happened." And, "last December, it also appeared to forewarn of the Asian tsunami just before the deep sea earthquake that precipitated the epic tragedy." What does this mean? It means that a graph that represents the output of the random numbers put out by the machine showed some sort of deviation from the norm. "The laws of chance dictate that the generators should churn out equal numbers of ones and zeros - which would be represented by a nearly flat line on the graph. Any deviation from this equal number shows up as a gently rising curve."
So, how do these machines "predict" anything? The don't. After 9/11 and after the December 26th quake and tsunami, these scientists review their data and find some "gently rising curve" and convince themselves that it represents global consciousness predicting a big event.
How any sane reviewer can examine these claims and not wonder what asylum these characters have escaped from is beyond my understanding. Why am I so insulting? Here is what the RedNova author writes:
Cynics? It's cynical to point out that these folks might be shoehorning the data? What is cynical about it?
It used to be said by philosophers such as Descartes and Hobbes (quoting Cicero) that can be nothing so absurd but it may be found in the books of philosophers. Today, we can safely say that there is no idea so absurd but that some scientist isn't currently writing books about it and getting good reviews to boot.
13 Feb 2005
Also: "To make matters even more intriguing, Prof Bierman says that other mainstream labs have now produced similar results but are yet to go public." This is a classic claim: that mainstream labs have reproduced some kind of effect but are either afraid or unwilling to come forward with the results.
13 Feb 2005
No-one seems to know what MT and her order did with the vast sums of money given to them over the next thirty years, but very little of it was spent on the people she claimed to be helping. Patients lived and died in filthy conditions whilst MT received state-of-the-art medical treatment, toys donated to children were sold in local shops and MT made a host of outrageous claims about the extent of her charitable operations (all of which were swallowed whole by dewy-eyed Western journalists).
reply: Not all journalists were dewy-eyed. See The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens.
Similarly, I would suggest that much of the public hysteria over Di's death was whipped up by the media. She had long since worn out her welcome with many ordinary Brits, who regarded her as a neurotic attention seeker with a Lady Bountiful complex. I went for a walk in a crowded city centre a few hours after her death was announced and didn't see any signs of public mourning - she wasn't even the sole topic of conversation (the same applied to the day of her funeral, which I didn't watch). Many people at the factory where I worked found the orgy of grief utterly ridiculous - "You'd think she'd cured cancer" was one response. And for all her media-friendly "work" with landmine victims and AIDS patients, not a penny of her £21,000,000 estate went to charity.
Julia D Atkinson
reply: The scientists with their 60 or so REGs placed around the planet are probably not interested in whether Mother Teresa's reputation was deserved or whether the frenzy over Princess Dianna's death or any other event on the planet is due to media hype. They work backwards from the data these machines spit out and look for one or more that is statistically odd according to some arbitrary formula--no matter how many people accept it and use it, the statistical formulae used are always arbitrary--and then correlated it to whatever. For all they know--to borrow from Jim Alcock--Zeus could be producing their "anomalies" just to torment them. If they don't work backwards to shoehorn the data to whatever, they pick some event beforehand and then monitor all their machines and try to find some data from one or more of those machines that looks statistically odd and that they can correlate with whatever event they've designated.
Furthermore, since these scientists have no theory as to how this so-called global consciousness might work, they have no guidance as to what they ought to control for. Should they be concerned with the temperature or moisture of the rooms that their machines are in, if they're in rooms? Should they be concerned about waves from cell phones, radios, televisions, the sun, and so on? They have no idea what else, besides their beloved global consciousness, might affect their REGs. In fact, they have no reason, as far as I can tell, for thinking something like global consciousness is involved at all.
Randi was given 19 seconds to comment on John of God's trickery. (Randi spent more than an hour in New York being interviewed and taped for his 19 seconds on screen. Check out his detailed account of the interview and his commentary on the ABC program.) Another 30 seconds was spent noting that John of God has been accused of molesting one of his young patients and has been arrested several times for practicing medicine without a license. John is a farmer by training and has a large ranch outside of the town where he has his clinic. But most of the program focused on the people flocking to this clinic in the middle of nowhere (Abadiania) seeking a miracle. I guess "fair and balanced" journalism for topics like faith healing means following a few people around to see if the healing really works on them. Contrast that with a few skeptical comments and some accusations. And bring in an open-minded physician to say that John is either a healer or he's deluded.
Dr. Oz made one comment, however, that should have received more attention. Even if John of God is a charlatan or deluded, some of his patients think they've been healed, cured, or helped by him, and it would be worthwhile to study those people to see if their faith, their drive to be healed, and the like are of any scientific importance. Other than that, the show was not only without merit, it was meretricious. ABC did nothing to discredit the notion that John is invaded by spirit doctors or can cure diseases like breast cancer by sticking a forceps up a person's nose (a carnival trick) or allergies by making a slight incision about the breast or numerous other ailments by scraping the eyeball (another trick).
The final tally for the show was 1. a man's brain tumor was smaller after he visited John of God (natural but unexplained regression and an amazing coincidence? treatment before he came to John finally showed some results? one of John's channeled spirits did invisible surgery? the patient's will to live and be healed affected the tumor's growth? or ?); 2. a lady complaining of chronic fatigue says she feels a lot better after John slit her above one of her breasts (psychosomatic? John's spirits cut just the right place to relieve her symptoms? placebo effect?); 3. a man with ALS shows no effect (didn't have enough faith? just what you'd expect?); 4. a young actress from South Africa with breast cancer shows no effect (same as 3); 5. a woman paralyzed from the waist down is able to walk using rails to hold on to, but she clearly has no use of her legs; she says she feels something is improving, though (placebo effect? delusion? didn't have enough faith? in any case, we don't know if she tried to walk with rails before seeing John and, if so, what the results were), and 6. the journalist's shoulder didn't heal in 40 days as John promised but Quinones admits he didn't follow John's advice not to have sex or eat pepper.
Number 6 may be the most telling of all as to ABC's seriousness in doing this program. If Quinones wasn't going to follow John's instructions, why was this material included in the program? Did he think it was a joke?
So, what was learned? Not much, except that millions of desperate people will try anything and believe anything to preserve or restore their lives to a healthy state. I think we already knew that, though. Oz speculated that when John sticks a metal object deep up a patient's nostril and twists it around several times, he may be contacting the pineal gland, which may trigger some sort of response in the brain that aids healing. I seriously doubt anyone is going to do a study on this speculation, but I also would have doubted any physician would ever stick an ice pick through a human being's eye socket to destroy part of the frontal lobe. What do I know?
I know that Randi says that he told the ABC producer
I know that nobody is likely to do any follow-ups on the desperate patients who seek a miracle from John. I know that there will be plenty of people willing to provide testimonials to their own and other miraculous cures. I know John doesn't keep records, but even if he did, he and his staff are not interested in scientific documentation. I know John doesn't charge a fee for his "services," but he prescribes herbs to everybody he sees (about 1,500-2,000 people a week) and his clinic sells the herbs. According to Quinones, "the clinic does pull in something like $400,000 a year from the sale of herbs." I know from watching the video of John at work that he places his hands on the breasts of his female patients regardless of what ails them.
I know the lab that did the tests on the young man with the brain tumor is not going to suggest that maybe they made an error in doing or reading their MRI and the doctors are not likely to suggest that they may have made the wrong diagnosis. I predicted while watching the show that the lady with chronic fatigue and "allergies" was going to testify she improved. She did. How long will her elevated feeling last? Who knows. I wonder if ABC will do a follow-up on her. It wouldn't surprise me if the good feeling decreased over time and rather than admit that John has no healing powers, she'll go back for another dose.
Trailing the man with ALS and the woman whose spinal cord was crushed was unnecessarily cruel. There is no way that the placebo effect is going to cure ALS or allow a woman to walk after 17 years in a wheelchair. I don't care how much faith they have, no cheery thoughts or deep hope can change these kinds of conditions. To follow them with cameras was to imply that maybe there's a chance this will work. Right. And pigs might fly if you pray over them long enough.
The actress/dancer from South Africa reminded me of Pat Davis, a local TV newswoman who chose Gerson therapy over chemotherapy for breast cancer. Both women's mothers also had breast cancer. Davis's mother survived and outlived her daughter. The dancer's mother died even with chemotherapy. Even after her doctor in South Africa gave her the news that her cancer was still active, she again refused conventional treatment and is opting for some unspecified "alternative"...and another trip to John of God's clinic in Brazil.
Why didn't ABC ask What are the odds that a farmer in a remote area of Brazil who has no medical training and who sticks metal deep into people's nostrils, causing them to bleed even if relatively painlessly, who slits with a knife areas on the body that have no known physiological relationship to what ails the patient and then sticks his finger in the open wound, who claims that God does the work even though he has about 35 dead doctors and healers to assist him by doing invisible surgery from the spirit world, and so on....what are the odds that this guy is performing miracles? The real story is how is it possible for millions of intelligent people to believe in such nonsense? However, had ABC told that story, who would have watched?
We're in the 21st century but many of our people are possessed by superstitions that are thousands of years old. Resistance to rationality seems to be getting stronger rather than weaker even as our knowledge of the universe keeps expanding.
One would think that a 21st century news organization like ABC would not want to promote and encourage superstition, especially when the results could be lethal. Are the producers at ABC news just naive? Don't they realize the harm they can do by encouraging people to believe in faith healing? Did they really believe that such an unbalanced program could be in the interest of anything except catering to the desperate, the faith-based, and the increasingly superstitious beliefs about health care that the Dr. Ozs of the world promote?
The scientists are researchers from the University of Wales, who, according to ABC, have published an account of the man (patient-X) with a "sixth sense" in the journal Nature Neuroscience. Patient X has suffered two strokes that damaged the brain areas that process visual signals, "leaving him completely blind," according to ABC. His "eyes and optic nerves are intact and brain scans show that he appears to somehow use a part of the brain not usually used for sight to process visual signals linked to some emotions." The evidence? When presented with angry or happy human faces, his accuracy was 59 per cent, significantly better than what would be expected by random chance, according to the researchers. He achieved similar results for distinguishing between sad and happy or fearful and happy faces.
Furthermore, brain scans showed that when the man looked at faces expressing emotion, it activated the right amygdala.
My guess is, however, that if the scientists who did this research used the expression "sixth sense" in their report, they did not use it the way the headline writer used it but the way the copy writer used it. The headline says the blind man used his sixth sense to detect emotion; the copy says he has been shown to possess an apparent sixth sense.
One of the researchers is Dr. Alan Pegna. He not only works at the University of Wales but in the Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Geneva. From what I was able to gather on the Internet, Dr. Pegna publishes in the area of neuroscience that is concerned with vision research. So, he undoubtedly knows that there has been other research on vision--also with brain damaged patients--that might appear paranormal to some people, e.g., blindsight.
When I read this article about the blind man seeing emotional expressions on faces, I thought of V. S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain. In chapter 4, "The Zombie in the Brain," he gives an account of several cases that might seem paranormal but which can be explained without the need to invoke the magical to explain the miraculous thing that is human vision. When he was a student, he says, he was "taught that messages from my eyeballs go through the optic nerve to the visual cortex at the back of my brain (to an area called the primary visual cortex) and that this is where seeing takes place" (Ramachandran 70). Now, he says there "are an estimated thirty distinct visual areas in the human brain" (72).
In addition to blindsight--showing by behavior that some sort of accurate information about the external world has been "seen" even in the absence of visual images--Ramachandran mentions "motion blindness," a disorder caused by "bilateral damage to ... the middle temporal (MT) area" of the brain. Ingrid
Patient X, on the other hand, seems to be able to see the changing facial expression without seeing the face, which might seem paranormal to some people. But vision is much more complex than most people imagine. (Oliver Sacks tells the story of an artist who had a stroke, damaging an area of the brain known as V4, and suddenly his whole world, including all his colorful paintings, appeared to him in shades of gray. See his Anthropologist on Mars.) Scientists have no clear ideas about how most of the thirty visual areas function (Ramachandran 73). We know that the eye is doing more than just letting in light and inverted images.
What we generally call blindness involves damage to this second pathway. Identifying the expression of emotion on faces in some primitive way may involve the "older" pathway. However, since Patient X has no damage to his optic nerves, his case may indicate that a particular part of the brain (not damaged in this patient and not directly connected to imaging) is responsible for detection of emotion. As blindsight shows, being able to detect something using the eyes doesn't necessarily mean one is conscious of what is detected. It is also possible that an area of the brain near the damaged area has taken over a function that used to belong to the damaged area. The ABC article doesn't really give us enough information to guess at what might be going on. And I was unable to find any reference to this case in the online search program for Nature Neuroscience.
There's more to
blindness than meets the eye. (Did I really write that?)
December 12, 2004. A puff piece by Olivia Lichtenstein in the Times Online Health Alternatives section promotes Russian-born energy healer Alla Svirinskaya. After reporting several anecdotes that show bioenergy therapy "works", the author does manage to bring in the obligatory skeptical comment near the end of the article--for balance, I suppose.
Lichtenstein then quotes an M.D. who is not so skeptical of alternative therapies. I guess if you find two experts who disagree, that means the experts are split...at least in the world of alternative journalism. But, lest the reader get the wrong impression from finding out about this split in opinion among experts, Lichtenstein ends her article by claiming that her swollen ankle went down after treatment by Dr. Svirinskaya. (Lichtenstein had recently had surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon.) What more proof of efficacy is needed? Someone might point out to Lichtenstein that the natural course for an ankle swollen after surgery is for the swelling to go down. The bioenergy session may have had nothing to do with her recovery.
I wanted to send Ms. Lichtenstein a link to my article on energy healing but the only e-mail address listed on her page is one for Dr. Svirinskaya, whom the reader is advised to contact for more information about this wonderful therapy.
As an antidote to Lichtenstein's article, one might read "Confessions of a Former Alternative Health Journalist" by Clare Bowerman in the latest issue (Vol. 11, No. 2, 20004) of Skeptic magazine.
December 3, 2004. Pet psychics (PPs) are popular as subjects for human interest stories. Today's Kalamazoo Gazette features a story about PP Karen Kittredge. It's nice to have a job that pleases the client (the pet owner) and for which there is absolutely no way to verify anything the PP says.
Kittredge travels throughout Southwest Michigan making appearances at different Pet Supplies Plus stores where she does about thirty 20-minute readings at $35 a pop. So, don't call her stupid. In fact, she's well educated. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's degree in social work, a doctorate in divinity, and has completed most of her studies for a doctorate in theology. So, why the PP gig?
She says being a PP allows her to combine her love of animals with her desire to help people. She got interested in the job after reading a book on the subject and having a dragonfly land on her nose, who told her to "follow the animals, they will lead you" [to the bank?].
A search of Google News today identified six other recent news stories about pet psychics, none of them skeptical and one of them adding a bonus story about a pet psychic who is also a psychic detective.
update: December 14: more pet garbage from the Village Voice.
November 23, 2004. For those of you who thought Celestine Prophecy- the book was bad, cheer up. There will soon be a movie version that will be a "rollicking adventure story" (according to author Redfield) and "a demonstration of evolutionarily advanced ability and the transformational insights." Ooooh.
Sounds impressive. I watched the first 57 minutes of the first program last night before I returned the television to its dormant state. The Question of God was about as interesting as listening to people talk about their personal relationship with their dental hygienist. I guess I was hoping for something of the caliber of Steve Allen's Meeting of Minds. Actors would play the roles of C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Freud (1856-1939). In a fair and balanced account, Lewis would be shown to be an imbecile as Freud explained to him that his religious feelings were a neurotic expression of his desire to have the perfect family in this vale of tears. Father Protector and Mother Comforter come from heaven and announce that they are here to help, Freud tells Lewis, and you invite them in because you are a narcissistic whiner incapable of accepting the fact that ultimately your life means nothing. What you want is someone to stick a pacifier in your mind and suckle your anxieties away while Daddy destroys the barbarians at the gate.
But it wasn't to be. Instead, we were treated to bits of biography spliced between round table discussions featuring Nicholi the psychiatrist, a Jungian analyst, a filmmaker/journalist, an attorney, a physician, an author on spirituality, Michael Shermer, and a couple of other folks interested in telling us their thoughts on gods and spirits. After enduring mostly inane or harmless and uninteresting remarks for about an hour, I can understand the attraction of a Jerry Springer show where a guest throws a chair at another guest. It is very difficult to behave when educated, intelligent people are dribbling all over themselves about their feelings of oneness with the universe while brushing their teeth. I kept hoping Bill O'Reilly would show up in the guise of Richard Dawkins and tell them all to shut up before launching into a diatribe on what these god and goddess concepts have cost our species.
If you want to listen to adults ask the Great Rhetorical Questions--What is True? What is Real?--while other adults politely listen to them and awkwardly try to put in a good word for science, objectivity, and living in the real world--then tune in for the rest of the programs. Of course, this is just my experience and it may be true and real for me but not for you.
On the other hand, I may be biased because I recently finished discussing with my introduction to philosophy class an article by Lewis on what he called the "humanitarian" theory of punishment. In his essay, Lewis raises the scary possibility that the Freudians will take over society and declare religion a disease and make it a crime. This follows logically, he argues, from the fact that Freudians consider religion a neurosis and some people think that criminals are really sick and in need of treatment not punishment. What? You don't see the logical equivalence of "all crimes are diseases" and "all diseases are crimes"? Shame on you. Surely you see how one belief inevitably leads to the other. Lewis did. Of course, there's more than one kind of truth and what is reality anyway?
If you want to listen to some interesting discussions about social and philosophical issues involving the mind, may I suggest The Infinite Mind.