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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July 26, 1999. Newsweek was just one of many publications to resurrect the myth of the so-called Kennedy Curse in AN AMERICAN DYNASTY Charmed Yet Cursed by Kenneth Auchincloss. If one considers the size of the Fitzgerald/Kennedy clan, their wealth, their extraordinary achievements and their propensity for taking risks, then their misfortunes do not seem disproportionate. The media would have us believe, however, that if a member of this clan dies in war, gets cancer, has a mental disorder or causes harm to self or others because of poor judgment, it's because they're cursed. If they are cursed, then so are the millions of others who suffer the same fate.

The FK clan is no more cursed than any African family destroyed by slavery or any Jewish family destroyed by Nazism was cursed. The media would have us believe that the FK clan have suffered a disproportionate amount of harm. Their harm is certainly disproportionately public, but that is because the clan is rich and famous, not because they are cursed. Their harm has been disproportionately influential because some members of the clan have been extremely influential.

If anyone in the family was cursed, it was Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy who lived to be 104.

(more on the curse at US News & World Report)

June 1, 1999. Last night, ABC's "20/20" did a follow-up program on Audrey Santo, a Worcester, Massachusetts, teen who has been in a coma-like state known as akinetic mutism since a swimming accident when she was three years old. Audrey receives around the clock care from a staff of nurses and family. "The Miracle of Audrey" first aired on October 4, 1998, with host Lynn Sherr. In that program, Sherr asked: "Is this 14-year-old child a miracle worker, a messenger of God? Or is this all a cruel hoax, exploiting a sick and innocent girl?" Sherr still doesn't have an answer, but part 3 of the story will be presented after the Catholic Church finishes the next stage of its investigations into alleged miracles being worked through Audrey.

On August 9, 1987, Audrey fell into a backyard swimming pool. She suffered massive hypoxia: the oxygen supply to her brain was cut off for several minutes, killing numerous brain cells. Her mother Linda blamed the hospital staff at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center for Audrey's condition, claiming that they gave her a drug overdose and broke both her legs in physical therapy. Linda says that Audrey is in a "non-moving, non-speaking state," but she is not in a coma.

A year after the accident, Linda took Audrey to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina (formerly part of Yugoslavia), a pilgrimage destination since 1981 after some local children claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared and conversed with them (Ó la Fatima, where the Virgin allegedly appeared to some children named Santos). (The local bishop has denounced the Medjugorje apparition as a fraud, to no avail. The pilgrims keep coming.) Linda claims that at Medjugorje the Virgin Mary asked Audrey if she would agree to become a "victim soul," someone who takes on the sufferings and ailments of other people. According to her mother, Audrey agreed. How even a healthy child at age four would be expected to understand the concept of a "victim soul" is a mystery. What is not a mystery is that while on this pilgrimage Audrey suffered cardiac arrest and had to be evacuated to the U.S. so she could receive proper medical care. The evacuation is said to have cost $25,000. Her mother, however, did not see the cardiac arrest as Audrey's first experience as a "victim soul." Instead, she blamed it on being near an abortion clinic.

According to The Boston Phoenix

The miracles started soon after her return to Worcester [from Medjugorje]. Since 1989, when nurses first spoke of an overpowering scent of roses, the reports have proliferated to include virtually every supernatural phenomenon in the Catholic repertoire: icons weeping blood; statues moving of their own accord; miraculous healing; bleeding communion wafers; the face of Jesus appearing in that blood; blood appearing spontaneously inside a tabernacle; the Virgin Mary appearing in cloud formations overhead; and, dripping down the walls of the garage, copious amounts of spontaneously appearing oil, which is collected on cotton balls and distributed in tiny Ziploc bags to the faithful, who have used it to treat things like tumors.

Eventually, the Catholic Church began an investigation of the alleged paranormal and miraculous events. In January of 1999, the Bishop of Worcester issued a preliminary report. Some highlights from that report follow:

When one applies fundamental rules of logic to the situation, even if the presence of the oil cannot be explained, one cannot presume that the inability to explain something automatically makes it miraculous.

Many of the cases cited publicly concerning Audrey’s intercession have had medical opinions, which did not rule out the potential for normal recovery (in whole or in part.)

We are not yet able to confirm claims of miraculous events occurring at Audrey’s home or as a result of a visit to Audrey, or from the oils associated with her.

The most striking evidence of the presence of God in the Santo home is seen in the dedication of the family to Audrey.

Anyone who has seen the 20/20 piece on Audrey can attest to the mother's devotion to her daughter. She has turned a tragedy and bitter event into a celebration. She has taken a life that would generally be regarded as over and useless, and turned it into something purposeful. Is Linda Santo using her daughter, consciously or unconsciously, to assuage the guilt and pain associated with the backyard accident over a decade ago? In any case, she has turned the family house into a shrine. The garage is a chapel, a glass window has been placed in the bedroom wall so viewers can see Audrey in her bed, and the house is a veritable warehouse of statues, icons, chalices, rosaries, etc. Every Wednesday there is a constant stream of visitors to the house, which has become a place of pilgrimage. And there is an annual Mass on August 9th at the local high school football field where Audrey is displayed in a glass walled house on the fifty-yard line.

If the case is a hoax and there is fraud going on, who is the one pouring the oil over the walls, statues, etc.? Who is putting a substance that appears to be blood on the eyes of paintings and on eucharistic bread wafers? The blood has been analyzed and found to be human, but not that of anyone in the immediate family. It could be the mother, but it is just as likely that it is one or more of the child's pious caretakers. Several nurses and therapists are needed to provide Audrey with 24-hour-a-day care.

The oil was analyzed for 20/20 and found to be 75% olive oil and 25% unknown. According to The Washington Post (July 19, 1998) who also commissioned a test of the oil, their sample was found to be "80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent chicken fat." The concoction could be prepared in any kitchen, according to the chemist who did the test.

Many people seem to believe the paranormal and miraculous claims must be true since the Santo family is not getting rich from the constant stream of visitors and mail they receive from people around the world hoping for a miraculous cure. But, as Joe Nickell notes, "Money is rarely the primary motive, the usual impetus being to renew the faith of believers and confound the doubters." The former goal has certainly been achieved, but the latter leaves much to be desired. Pious frauds are common and a proper investigation by skeptics looking for deception and trickery would probably uncover the source of the hoax, but it would probably not end the belief in a four-year-old making a compact with the Mother of God who could come up with no better way to work miracles than through an innocent "victim soul" who must lay mute for the rest of her life.

May 25, 1999. After Kosovo and school shootings, soft news goes down easier. Today, The Sacramento Bee ran a story from Booth Moore of the Los Angeles Times on the life and times of Naomi Tickle, a "practicing personologist." Tickle is the founder of the International Centre for Personology, which, despite the spelling of 'centre' is centered in San Francisco. Also, despite the new name, personology is little more than a rehash of physiognomy, the 16th century pseudoscience that has been resurrected several times over the ages.

Personology reveals such wondrous truths as that "People with big irises really feel emotions" and women with their eyelids exposed (like Hillary Clinton) are women who "like to get to the bottom line." According to Ms. Tickle, "Hillary has an oval forehead, so she's a maintainer....Her eyes are wide-set, which says she is also a very tolerant person.

Personology also reveals that people with large lips love to talk. Whereas, "people with thin lips have a hard time expressing what they feel." Best of all, personology can help you pick the right mate. Just make sure that you have similar hair texture and that your faces have a similar width. Make sure your eyes are about the same distance apart as your prospective mate's eyes. And don't forget the most important bit of wisdom that personology has to offer: "Short-legged people like to run around, but long-legged people are content to be couch potatoes." I've noticed that myself while watching the NBA.

April 17, 1999. "Star child - A local freethinker believes he holds the skull of a young alien who was raised by an Earth mother," by Lynne Jensen in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. This article features alien abduction and Zecharia Sitchin devotee, Lloyd Pye, and a pair of skulls he is putting on display as those of an alien and its human mother's. The skulls were allegedly found near Chihuahua, Mexico, about 70 years ago. According to Pye, the alien "star child" was fathered by one of Sitchin's Annunaki, alien beings who used to propogate here until they had to go home for a nuclear war. According to Jensen, Pye was an Army intelligence specialist who has written a couple of futuristic novels and a book on human origins titled Everything You Know Is Wrong.

Near the end of the article, Jensen quotes Tulane University physical anthropologist John Verano as saying that the skull appears to be that of a child whose head was “cradle boarded.” Some Indian cultures artificially reshaped the heads of their children by strapping the head to a board.

For some reason, throughout the article, Jensen refers to Pye as a "freethinker." She even touts his WWW page where you can read all about his star child.
[submitted by Gerard E. Trigo]

update: Pye is dead.

February 10, 1999. "To handwriting expert, life slows to a scrawl," by Nadia Lerner (Stamford Advocate), in the Sacramento Bee, p. F4. Apparently the Bee was desperate for copy today. This article is little more than a promotional piece for graphologist Peggy Kahn, who charges $200-$400 to tell employers who to hire based on an analysis of the applicant's handwriting. Kahn claims she learned how to do this by studying graphology "for four and a half years at The New School for Social Research in New York." I wonder if she studied in the philosophy department with Hannah Arendt, Aron Gurwitsch, or Hans Jonas. She also claims she is a former psychologist. I suggest someone do a handwriting analysis of Kahn to determine her credibility.

Kahn claims that she has a long list of clients that includes not only businesses but people trying to decide if they are in the right job or have found the right mate. Kahn claims that your handwriting is a window to your identity and can reliably be used to screen out potential crooks and incompetents. Of course, she has no proof of these claims. She cites the 1986 book called Scientific Aspects of Graphology: A Handbook as claiming that some 3,000 American companies are using some form of handwriting analysis in their hiring process. She does not mention that the book is edited by Baruch Nevo of the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation in Jerusalem, Israel. Graphology is rampant in Israel. According to Kahn, "90 to 95 percent of all jobs in Israel require handwriting analysis for job candidates."

Also cited in the article is Janice Klein, widow of Felix Klein, founder of the National Society for Graphology (1972). She claims that in a study by her husband published by the Hunter College Psychology Department in 1973, "graphology is shown to have about a 95% success rate in recognizing depression and schizophrenia." I suppose one is to believe that the graphologists ignored the content of the writing in making their diagnoses.

The only balance in the article is a short digression on a very important issue: is graphology an infringement of a person's rights against invidious discrimination? Why wouldn't it be? If you cannot deny me a job or entrance into a school because of my race or religion, how can you be justified in discriminating against me on the basis of my handwriting? Nevertheless, Lerner claims that Lewis Malthby, director of the National Employment Rights Office at the American Civil Liberties Union in Princeton, N.J., claims it is legal to discriminate on the basis of handwriting. If this is true, why isn't the ACLU fighting it in our courts? Malthby agrees that graphology is "arbitrary, unfair and irrational" and shouldn't be used as a hiring tool, but apparently does not see discrimination on the basis of handwriting as unconstitutional. He claims that, in any case, it is not a big problem. He believes that "most employers are too sensible to use it." Another civil liberties leader--Joe Grabarz, executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union--is cited as noting that graphology is unreliable.

Whether it is a big problem or not, it seem apparent that the use of graphology by employers is a violation of our civil rights. If it isn't, it should be.

further reading

January 24, 1999. "Dangerous Doctors," by Michael L. Millenson, in the Forum section of The Sacramento Bee (taken from Washington Monthly). Millenson is the author of Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age (1997). He is a respected writer on medical practices and care. Not everything he writes is bunk, but one statistic he frequently uses is troublesome. He claims: "Most patients would be very surprised to learn that more than half of all medical treatments, and perhaps as many as 85 percent, have never been validated by clinical trials." At the very least, this is a misleading claim. Millenson has had several chances to clear it up, but he just keeps repeating it for its polemical value.

Karen Burton, who hosts the Internet site Shucks! A Heretic in the Heartland and considers me to be a physician's advocate, has made me aware that Millenson's book (which I and, I assume, most readers of his newspaper and magazine articles have not read) cites as the source for this statistic page 5 of The Impact of Randomized Clinical Trials on Health Policy and Medical Practice from the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), available online. According to OTA, "It has been estimated that between ten and twenty percent of all current medical procedures have been shown efficacious in controlled trials." Who did the estimating? OTA cites itself in a 1978 study called Assessing the Efficacy and Safety of Medical Technologies. On page 60 of the 1978 report OTA writes: "White (426) estimated that 80 to 90 percent of all [medical] procedures have been evaluated by informal methods." The reference is to Dr. Kerr. L. White's 1968 article, "International Comparisons of Health Services Systems," Milbank Quarterly, 46:117. According to The National Council Against Health Fraud, Dr. White claims this was an "armchair estimate" aimed at stimulating research to get more accurate information and he is upset that the statistic has been used in propaganda by enemies of science-based medicine and friends of so-called "alternative" medicine.

It is important to note that OTA cites White not disparagingly, but to remind the reader that most medical technologies are tested by informal methods, most often by personal experience. On page 60, the report notes that "It is important to point out that many medical advancements have properly and successfully proceeded without rigorous statistical methodology of investigation." As examples the report notes the use of vitamin B12 to treat pernicious anemia and cast application for forearm fracture. OTA also notes that "In some cases clinical trials may be prohibitively expensive. In other cases trials may pose difficult moral and ethical considerations (p. 75)."

It is clear from OTA's reports that it sees controlled clinical trials as just one method among several for assessing the safety and efficacy of medical procedures. In the 1978 study they note that randomized controlled clinical trials have become prominent in the past twenty years. OTA wisely reminds us that "No technique is universally applicable (p. 4)."

Thus, while Millenson did not pull his statistic out of thin air, he does not put it in perspective and tries to scare the reader by implying that physicians do not use reliable methods for determining what procedures to use.

managed care

Millenson's latest article is a lengthy defense of managed care under the guise of an attack on incompetent and ignorant physicians. Early on he promotes and defends "evidence-based medicine". He tells us that our personal physician probably doesn't know what the latest evidence is and then he throws in the stat about most treatments never having been validated. He backs up his claims with many statistics whose sources he rarely mentions. One of his favorites is the stat about the 50,000 annual hospital deaths due to infections incurred while in the hospital. He never mentions how many hospital patients this stat is in relation to, nor does he note how many people die annually of infections incurred outside of the hospital. [In 1997, there were 33.6 million admissions to U.S. hospitals, which would make the death rate from hospital infection 0.001, or one tenth of one percent.] Nor does he hazard a guess at to what percentage of those people would have survived had they not gone to the hospital at all. [Nor is there any mention of the fact that overuse of antibiotics, combined with more and more invasive and daring procedures, are bound to lead to more infections over time.] Hospitals infection is a problem--it may even be much greater than Millenson suspects--and the number of infections should be less than they are, but the issue isn't a simple one of incompetent and ignorant physicians.

Omitting relevant data seems to characterize Millenson's style of writing. He claims that since the survival rate of elderly heart attack patients is the same for those who get and those who do not get heart bypasses, angioplasties and catheterizations, that it is a complete waste to give these treatments. Survival rate is one measure, but not the only measure of why a treatment ought to be given. Reduction of pain is another, and if a treatment reduces pain and enhances the quality of life without lengthening it, so what? Millenson mentions no other measure of the value of such treatments.

Another curious feature of Millenson's article is that he sees economic and political agendas everywhere except with managed care. I find that a glaring omission. I have no particular quarrel with managed care, but one would have to be one edge shy of a dull blade not to recognize that managed care is a mighty big economic matter and its advocates have their economic and political agendas just like everyone else in the medical care business.

Another interesting omission is any discussion of patient responsibility for asking questions and doing research. He seems satisfied with blaming physicians for not being omniscient, or characterizing them as incompetent if, for example, they do not routinely prescribe aspirin to all heart attack victims.

I don't know what value Millenson's polemics have, but I do know that you don't need a crystal ball to know that given the large number of physicians out there, there must be a significant number who are incompetent. Why he seems to think that most of the incompetent physicians are likely to end up outside managed care, while most of the competent ones end up inside, is something I wasn't able to figure out from his labyrinth of statistics.

further reading





ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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