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.
August 18, 1999. Dr. Bob Arnot of NBC reports on MSNBC.com that Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University did a study of 4,000 elderly people [a week ago it was 2,000 people; see entry for Aug. 10) and found that those who went to church at least once a week were 28 percent less likely to die over a six-year period than those who did not. It apparently did not occur to either Dr. Koenig or to Dr. Arnot that people who go to church may be healthier than those who do not. Many who do not attend church do not attend because they are not well enough to attend. Thus, Drs. Koenig and Arnot are not justified in attributing all the differences in health between churchgoers and non-churchgoers to going to church and the healthy choices that churchgoers will make because of their religious beliefs.
August 10, 1999. MSNBC.com reports that "New research offers more evidence that religion is good for the body as well as the soul. The study found that churchgoers have lower blood pressure than those who don’t attend services."
The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine published the work of Dr. Harold G. Koenig of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Koenig based his conclusions on a randomly selected survey of more than 2,000 people ages 65 and older in a primarily Protestant area of North Carolina. Even though Koenig himself notes that those who watched religious television or listened to religious radio actually had higher blood pressure than those who did not, it apparently did not occur to him or the editors of the Journal, or the writers at MSNBC, that being healthy might be the important factor here, not going to church. Those who are over 65 and go to church are much more likely to be in better health than those who are over 65 and get their religion from the television or the radio.
Giselle Fernandez and Michael Willesee took viewers on an uncritical tour through exotic places like Cochabamba, Bolivia, and Monterrey, Mexico, to "scientifically" examine an uneducated woman who writes books in Greek and Latin, dictated to her by Jesus, and who is filmed while apparently undergoing a stigmata; weeping and bleeding statues; and rose petals with "miraculous" images of Jesus and Mary. The show was truly a worthy follow-up to Fox's presentation of the Alien Autopsy and Miracles and Visions films of a few years ago. (I especially liked the authentic touch of having a commercial for a film called "Stigmata.")
The program was mostly a rehash of "For All Humanity," a film produced several years ago by Ron Tesoriero, an Australian lawyer, about Catalina "Catia" Rivas, the bleeding statue of Cochambamba, and Nancy Fowler, a nurse who started having visions in 1985 and began causing traffic jams near Conyers Hill in Georgia when word got out that the the Virgin Mary was appearing there on the 13th of the month. (The 13th is special for Maryvisions since she allegedly appeared to three children in Fatima, Portugal, on the 13th of May, 1917.) One hoped that some mention would be made of Our Lady of Watsonville or of the "victim soul" of Audrey Santo, but Willesee dumped the Tesoriero segment on Fowler and only added one on Mexican rose petals impressed with medals.
The program's credibility depends heavily upon the reputations of Fox and Willesee. Fernandez does not pretend to be anything more than the host, even if a gushing and fulsome one. Fox has shown repeatedly that it cannot be trusted. Thus, the credibility of the program rests with Willesee. Who is he?
Willesee is introduced by Fernandez as an "internationally respected journalist" and declares that it is "an honor to work alongside" him. She proclaims that he is renowned for his "skepticism and investigative abilities." That should soon change. He is not much of a skeptic, even though his reporting on such topics as psychic ability, dowsing, and acupuncture earned him the 1987 Responsibility in Journalism Award from CSICOP. (He is a respected broadcaster in Australia.) The program demonstrates that he is not much of an investigator. His honesty might be questioned as well, based on the fact that he does not mention Tesoriero or his work by name, though Willesee's program is largely a rip-off of the lawyer's documentary on "scientifically inexplicable happenings." Willesee only says that "a lawyer" got him interested in the subject and states that his own film was "seven years in the making." The bulk of "Signs from God," however, revisits Tesoriero's work on Catia (identified as "Katya" by Fox), including interviews with the same "experts", such as Dr. Ricardo Castoñan, a Bolivian psychologist who claims he's investigated many miraculous claims and found that most of them were authentic. The credits for the program state that Michael Willesee Sr. is the executive producer and that he wrote the program with Brian Brown. Mike Jr. is listed as a supervising producer and Jo Willasee is listed as doing research. Tesoriero is listed as one of the "segment producers." That is the only recognition he is given.
Willesee was an Australian television broadcaster who did a Current Affairs program for some thirty years before quitting. He found God and returned to the Catholicism of his youth (though he's been divorced twice) due to his belief that God intervened and saved him from dying in a plane crash in 1998. In 1997, he was listed as one of the top 200 richest men in Australia by Business Review Weekly. Things got even better in 1998. After making a few dollars in radio and real estate investments, he turned to film making. His first film was on "primitive tribes."
Willasee's critical skills were revealed early with his comment on the main proof that Jesus dictates books on theology in Greek to "Katya" Rivas: she has the "imprimatur" of the local bishop. Maybe he doesn't know what an imprimatur is. It is not a seal of approval that a miraculous claim has been authenticated. The imprimatur indicates only that the material is doctrinally sound, not heresy, according to an official censor. Later, he asserts that he believes that blood from a "bleeding" statue of Jesus, which was determined by a scientific lab test to be the blood of a human female, was that of the Virgin Mary! Even Fernandez balked at that speculation. (He also had a CAT scan done of the "bleeding weeping" statue, but for what reason one can only guess.) When two scientists reproduced holy images on rose petals by pressing holy medals into the petals, Willasee commented that they didn't "completely answer" the question of whether the Monterrey, Mexico, petals were authentic. He also claims that since the Mexican rose petals were not for sale, there was no possible motive for deceit. Hence, he believes God is involved in their production. This naive notion that if money is not a motive, the probability that the "miracle" is authentic increases, was stated at the top of the program by Willasee. (He also is impressed if the claimant does not have a "cult" following and is humble.) He seem completely oblivious to the possibility of pious fraud or mental disorders that might motivate a person to deceive for Jesus.)
Finally, Willasee's objectivity, skepticism, and critical skills should be questioned if only because the film is so one-sidedly Catholic. Not only do his alleged miracles that science can't explain only involve Catholics, his experts are Catholics, including the one expert he brings in as a skeptic, Fr. Peter Stravinskas, editor of "The Catholic Answer."
Nevertheless, even a pious though uncritical investigator who thinks he is doing God's work might stumble upon a true miracle. Does Willasee's film demonstrate anything of interest to those looking for a miracle? To me, the only miracle is that anyone takes his work seriously.
The program made it clear at both the beginning and the end that there is some connection between natural disasters and claims of apparitions of Jesus and Mary. I can understand the dramatic effect of trying to connect apparent apparitions with doomsday prophecies and the spate of bad weather we've had on this planet during the last decade. It is easy to get people to think of weather and natural disasters in terms of human time, rather than geologic time. Comparisons of one decade with another or even one century with another are, however, misleading. Which assumption do you prefer: an All-Good God created the world in such a way that floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, etc., would be a regular feature of life on earth; or, an All-Good God created the world as a benign place but intentionally destroys us on a regular basis to remind us to stop sinning? I think both views are absurd. Even more absurd, however, is the belief that God picks obscure people to reveal special messages to us, such as "repent" and "Remember: I came to save you."
The film itself does not provide anything of interest except as a lesson in how not to do a scientific investigation of such matters. For example, the main proof that the voices Katya hears (giving her theology lessons in Spanish, Greek and Latin) and the images she sees are not delusions or hallucinations or lies is that when she was given an EEG she produced measurable delta waves while awake. (Delta waves usually occur only during sleep.) If this segment was authentic, all it proves is that Katya has an abnormal brain. Where is the Rosetta stone that declares that God speaks in delta waves? (Note: the film was edited to make it appear that Katya and the doctor performing the EEG [who, for some reason, was in another room behind a soundproof glassed enclosure] were communicating telepathically. We have Mr. Willesee's word that there was telepathic communication regarding whether Katya has epilepsy.*)
The segment of the film likely to persuade uncritical viewers that they have witnessed a miracle is the stigmata segment. Some effort went into priming the viewer by stating that the Catholic Church had authenticated some twelve cases of stigmata, including St. Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio. Without belaboring the point, Katya dictated the conditions for the event (telling everyone that Jesus was dictating when and where it would happen). The film showed her before, during and after the event. At the start, she has scars, but no bleeding wounds on her hands and feet. During the film she starts to show scratches on her face and hands, then bleeding from slashes, not punctures, from her hands and feet. A blood sample is taken and proves to be almost certainly her own blood. Willesee indicates that he expected the blood to be Jesus's! He asserts "there's no way" [the wounds] were self-inflicted."
How thorough was this investigation? First, the film clearly shows that Katya has a rosary with a holy medal wrapped around her left hand and a white cloth clutched in her right hand. On each hand, she is wearing a ring with a protruding setting. Her first wounds are some scratches on her right temple. These are declared by an observer priest to be "consistent" with the crown of thorns wounds of Jesus. Her largest facial wound, however, was on her left cheek. Is this a new wound that Jesus had, that no one knew about until now? Could she have cut herself with her rings, fingernails, toenails, rosary, something concealed in the white cloth? Of course. Did the investigator make sure she had no sharp objects available to her? No. Did they use several cameras, focusing on her hands and feet at all times, to detect any self-mutilation? No. The cameras focused almost exclusively on her agonizing face and the agonized faces of those watching her suffer. Did they try to duplicate her wounds by using only rings, finger and toe nails, and a rosary? No. Did they even try to duplicate a single scratch using such primitive implements? No. Did they identify any medications Rivas takes and whether she took her meds that day? (Does she take blood thinners, diuretics, etc.?) What kind of investigation was this? If this was the "thorough expert analysis" promised us by Fernandez at the top of the show, then new meaning has been given to that expression. The only thing Willasee did that was remotely scientific was to have the blood tested. The results of that test? Well, they are consistent with self-mutilation. Where I come from self-mutilation is a symptom of a mental disorder. That does not mean that Rivas does not suffer real agony. Her suffering is most likely authentic, unlike the investigation of Michael Willasee.
(Note: Two Australian readers responded and both claim that Willesee left his current affairs program under less than honorable circumstances. They say he appeared on TV appearing to be drunk; Willesee claims he was on medication and was tired and emotional. Matt Crowe described the scene this way:
Andrew Dare put it this way:
Mr. Willesee is probably still giggling and falling off his chair at how gullible Americans are and at how ready the Fox Alien Network is to take advantage of that fact.
July 22, 1999. KOVR, a CBS affiliate in Sacramento, California, featured reporter Marcy Valuenzuela going gaga over Russell Targ (famed pseudoscientist whose specialty is remote viewing) and Marilyn Schlitz of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), a think tank devoted to rigorous scientific investigation of phenomena which fall outside of conventional scientific models. (That's what they say; you figure it out.) IONS considers traditional science "materialistic" and claims to have advanced beyond that to the level of the "subjective" and is indebted to "the perennial wisdom of the great religious traditions and gnostic groups."* IONS claims not to be a "spiritual sect" but its researchers base their "science" on a metaphysical belief in spiritual reality as the basis of subjective experience. IONS is fond of research into "psychic" phenomena, among other things.
In her report, Ms. Valuenzuela offered not one shred of skepticism to balance Targ's and Schlitz's claims that there is very strong scientific evidence for ESP, psychokinesis, remote viewing, etc. The lowlight of the show was when Targ invited her try remote viewing. She imaged and drew what looks like a hill with a line under it. Targ pulled out a little spoked wheel and she declared "That's amazing." Yes, it is amazing that she didn't see that her picture and Targ's object were not even remotely alike. Yet, she was able to fit the data into the hypothesis quite easily. How come? A good reporter might have launched into a discussion of confirmation bias or pareidolia.
Schlitz threw out some unchallenged statistics about how successful ganzfeld experiments have been. Valuenzuala conclued: "So
researchers today, like those twenty years ago, believe that our senses extend beyond the
five we know of into something we don't yet understand. No matter the form of ESP,
laboratory studies have shown it's not chance or coincidence, it's something else. The
challenge is to figure out what. On special assignment, Marcy Valenzuela, KOVR 13
May 10, 1999. The Register Guard, a daily newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, reprinted an article from the Los Angeles Times which claims that "more than 100,000 Americans are inadvertently killed every year by prescription drugs--one of the leading causes of death in the country." Gordon Kaswell, who alerted me to this article, claims to have found another reference to the research of J. Lyle Bootman and Jeffrey A. Johnson of the University of Arizona School of Pharmacy claiming that the number is 200,000.
The 100,000 figure originated in an article by Lazarou, Pomeranz, and Corey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association ("Incidence of adverse drug reactions [ADRs] in hospitalized patients: a meta-analysis of prospective studies," JAMA, 1998;279:1200-1205.) The authors claimed that "Fatal ADRs appear to be between the fourth and sixth leading cause of death. Their incidence has remained stable over the last 30 years."
As indicated in the title, the authors did not do original research, but studied the studies of others. Metastudies can be misleading, however, since the protocols used by the different researchers are often very different. You do not get one big study by adding the results of several smaller studies. In this case, the authors studied 18 studies, 14 of which were done between 1965 and 1981.
Gary R. Kravitz, MD, comments:
Kravitz believes that improvements in medical procedures have significantly reduced the problem of ADRs in recent years. Lazarou disagrees and claims that based on a study by Cullen et al. "a majority of ADRs were missed by most hospital monitoring systems, and therefore monitoring was not useful to improve quality of care." If so, then the only way to reduce ADRs is to stop giving prescription drugs altogether. This would not be very wise, especially since, as Tom Bush, MD, most deaths from ADRs are not preventable.
The authors responded to Bush by saying that
I would have thought that scientific researchers would have had a different goal: to find out what the dangers are of properly prescribed and administered drugs. These authors indicate that they were looking for data to support their belief in the extreme danger of prescription drug use.
Other critics claim the numbers are unjustified based on the data, and that the actual number of ADR deaths in the U.S. is somewhere between 13,000 and 25,000.
David W. Bates, MD, M.Sc., for example, writes
It is desirable to have knowledge about the risks of any medical protocol, but there is little benefit from exaggerating risks based on questionable inferences from data. It is also useful to put these numbers into perspective. Millions of Americans take billions of pills each year. Many who die due to adverse reaction to drug treatments are suffering from terminal cancer and other fatal disorders. There are some 30,000 fatalities a year that are firearm-related, more than half of which are suicides. Though it is difficult to know for sure what our risk of death is in taking prescription drugs, some might take a small measure of comfort in knowing that it seems likely that the risk is less than that of dying by a firearm.
Robert Todd Carroll