Mass Media Funk is a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.

Robert Todd Carroll

©copyright 2007







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December 29, 2000. For those interested in an article critical of Wiccan revisionism see "The Scholars and the Goddess" by Charlotte Allen, Atlantic Monthly (Jan 2001). Allen does not beat around the golden bough:

In all probability, not a single element of the Wiccan story is true. The evidence is overwhelming that Wicca is a distinctly new religion, a 1950s concoction influenced by such things as Masonic ritual and a late-nineteenth-century fascination with the esoteric and the occult, and that various assumptions informing the Wiccan view of history are deeply flawed.

[thanks to Mary Fairchild]

December 22, 2000. Surgeons at Hasbro Children's Hospital  in Providence, Rhode Island, mistakenly removed a 7-year-old girl's tonsils and adenoids. She had been scheduled for eye surgery. There is no word on what happened to another little girl who had a similar name and was scheduled to have her tonsils and adenoids removed, according to the NandoTimes.

December 22, 2000. The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) think they have found Bigfoot impressions in the mud at Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southern Washington state. A team of researchers "set out food, spread pheromones and played recordings thought to be the calls of other Bigfoots," according to When they came back in the morning they found imprints of "the left forearm, hip, thigh and heel of a large primate. They believe the impression was made as the creature sat down and reached over to pick up the bait."

They even found "markings that look like human fingerprints on the heel print." This did not arouse their suspicion that they might be hoaxed. Rather, anthropologist Jeff Meldrum of Idaho State University thinks that the imprint seems to have been made by a large, hair-covered hominid more than 2.5 metres tall."

New Scientist took the issue so seriously, they entitled it "Bigfoot's Buttocks."
[thanks to Florin Clapa and J. Gravelle]

December 21, 2000. Two recent studies produced conflicting results on whether animals bite more people during a full moon, according to EurekAlert.  A study published in the British Medical Journal found that "the full moon is associated with a significant increase in animal bites to humans." (For some reason, EurekAlert has the sub-head "Another lunatic hypothesis bites the dust".) Animals may be roused up more at the full moon, or they may just be able to see their targets better.

In Australia, however:

Researchers at the University of Sydney compared dates of admission for dog bites to public hospitals in Australia with dates of the full moon, over a 12-month period. Overall, full moon days were associated with slightly lower admissions (4.6 compared with 4.8 per day). Of 18 peak days (more than 10 admissions per day) the maximum peak centred on the New Year break. Full moons coincided with none of these peaks.

One hypothesis might be that increases in dog bites are associated with increases in people around dogs, something which happens during the holidays.

December 19, 2000. According to, JAMA has published the results of a study on cell phones and brain tumors. The study "suggests there's no link between cell phone use and brain cancer."
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

further reading

December 15, 2000. Show me the money! As more money becomes available from both the federal government and from private donors for the study of "alternative" medical treatments, especially ones that try to show some sort of health benefit to being religious, we can expect more institutions like Harvard Medical School to be sponsoring events like this weekend's sixth annual Spirituality and Healing in Medicine conference. The event is expected to attract some 700 health professionals, clergy members, social workers and insurance providers "to discuss the integration of mind/body medicine into mainstream health care."

Dr. Harold Koenig, founder of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., claims that there have been about 1,200 studies on the healing power of faith and the health effects of spirituality. Koenig thinks these studies have proved such things as that people who frequently attend religious services have lower death rates, are more likely to stop smoking, exercise more, have more social contacts and stayed married longer than those who do not. Koenig, however, seems to be uninterested in the fact that these studies don't take into account that people who attend religious services are necessarily more healthy than those who don't, since those who can't because they are too ill to attend, don't attend. Only those are healthy enough can attend. There may well be a causal connection between being healthy and attending religious services but the evidence doesn't demonstrate that spirituality causes good health.

Dr. Herbert Benson, conference founder and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, claims that "60 percent of physician visits are due to stress-related illnesses that can be remedied or improved with the physiologically soothing effects of chanting and meditation, or 'the relaxation response'." One can see why insurance companies would be drooling over such claims. If they are true, less money will have to be shelled out for medical services. Most sick people can just stay home and chant or meditate  instead of making an office visit or using prescription drugs. Benson claims that prayer

...even works for agnostics. The body possesses a physiological response to the repetition of a phrase or action. You can leave belief up to the patient. They can say 'Hail Mary, full of grace,' 'Shema Yisroel,' or 'Om,' but when they evoke this response they feel more spiritual.

When they feel more spiritual they get sick less, he says. Not everyone agrees, however. Richard Sloan of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York et al. say that they are "troubled by the uncritical embrace of this trend by the general public, individual physicians, and American medical schools" to link prayer with health. They criticize the studies cited by Koenig and Benson, saying that the studies "have not been well designed, produce vague conclusions, and generate sometimes conflicting results."

One such study was led by Dr. Amparo Castillo-Richmond, assistant professor of Medicine at Maharishi University of Medicine College of Vedic Medicine, home of Transcendental Meditation (or is it Transcendental Medication?). The study found that of 60 African-Americans who stayed in a program for from 6-9 months, those who meditated (using TM) "showed a significant decrease of -0.098 mm (95% CI -0.198 to 0.003 mm) [of carotid intimamedia thickness (IMT)] compared with an increase of 0.054 mm (95% CI -0.05 to 0.158 mm) in the control group (P=0.038, 2-tailed)." The study used TM. Advocates of TM claim that TM can only be learned by studying with TM masters. Thus, there is an economic interest in arriving at these results. That in itself does not invalidate the study, but it should make one cautious of accepting on faith that proper protocols and controls were used throughout the study. In any case,  Castillo-Richmond  says that "We expect to use this treatment as an adjunct to current pharmacological therapies. We don't want the patient to think they can replace current medical therapies with this type of meditation."*

The TM study may be statistically significant but how that translates into a significant change in health is not clear. Do people who meditate for 40 minutes a day live an extra minute for every minute spent meditating? If so, then what's the advantage of meditating? Do people with a coronary IMT that is 0.15 mm larger than others suffer a significantly greater number of heart attacks?
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

further reading

December 14, 2000. According to Reuters, a phone is now available which can detect lies. A red light comes on if the person on the other end is lying. Allegedly, the phone picks up changes in frequency that the ear cannot discern. That may be true, but how the inventor knows which changes indicate lies is left to the imagination of the buyer.

The devices are only now going on sale in Turkey. I believe I read somewhere else that such a device is already available in Japan. I wonder if this device was created by the people who made the Truster?

Rumor has it that when the inventor was called and asked if it really worked, he said "yes" and red lights went on all over town.

reader comments

18 Dec 2000 
This is fascinating. I'd really like to see more about the phone.

It must be psychic with respect to sensing the frequencies that people can't hear. Why? Because the telephone companies, to save band width on their lines, cut off low and high frequencies in the conversations.

Check with a telephone engineer. I believe he / she will confirm my thoughts.
Andy Kapust

reply: I don't know any telephone engineers, unfortunately.

December 14, 2000. The December issue of Odyssey magazine, an adventures in science magazine for young people, features an article by yours truly on "Urban Legends and Suburban Myths." The issue also features articles by Joe Nickell on paranormal hoaxes and one by James Randi on scientific testing of paranormal claims. The entire issue is devoted to issues concerning how to distinguish science from hoaxes. Other topics include ESP, dowsing, the Shroud of Turin and Internet hoaxes. Readers with children in the 8-14 year range might consider subscribing to Odyssey. It sure beats the Learning Channel or the Discovery Channel, which seem to have a penchant for the paranormal and hoaxes.

December 14, 2000. A new survey by AARP has found that seniors are more likely to use cell phones than young people and that the thing seniors need to fear is not being brain damaged by radiation but being ripped off by unscrupulous phone service providers. (Actually, there is no mention of fear of getting brain tumors from cell phone use, but AARP did conclude that seniors may be confused by all the pricing options. Who isn't? And not just about wireless phone service, but any phone service? One thing deregulation seems to have encouraged is competition to provide the consumer with the most confusing marketing claims.)

Market Facts Inc. interviewed 3,085 respondents age 18 and older and found 46% of those in the age 18-49 group and 51%  age 50 and older say they personally subscribe to and use wireless telephone service. The survey had a sampling error of  +1.8% at the 95% confidence interval. Not surprisingly, the seniors are nearly twice as likely as those in the 18-49 group to say that security in case of an emergency is the reason they subscribe to a wireless service. Twice as many in the over-50 group also knew the difference between analog and digital technology.

more on cell phones

December 12, 2000. The four-year experiment with school vouchers in Cleveland was put to a halt Monday by a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal appeals court voted 2-1 to uphold a lower court's decision that the voucher program violates the Constitution's separation of church and state because most of the 56 schools that received voucher money had a religious affiliation.

Most proposed voucher programs are supported because they give a choice to parents to send their children to schools that do not have to fulfill numerous state requirements such as providing equal access to all students regardless of physical, mental, economic or social handicaps. Voucher schools can select their students and exclude troubled children or anyone who might drain resources because of a need for special attention. Little mention is made of the fact that voucher schools can allow a parent to have the state pay for a child's religious education.

Vouchers would be great for the creation scientists, Hare Krishnas, Sitchinites, and all those who reject traditional science and evolution in favor of some alternative religious mythology. They would also be great for astrologers, Luddites, psychics, etc. James Van Praagh and John Edward could start their own franchise: schools that focus on teaching people to listen to the dead. That's what most education is about anyway, right?

It is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately decide this voucher issue, as the Cleveland case is sure to be appealed.

December 9, 2000. The November/December issue of Technology Review has a very interesting article on cell phones, science and the mass media by Gary Taubes. The article begins by reminding us that the cell phone scare didn't start with a scientific study but with a talk show.

"David Reynard, bereaved husband, appeared on "Larry King Live" with the remarkable accusation that cell-phone use had caused the brain tumor that killed his wife." Something similar happened years ago on the Phil Donahue show which began the Prozac scare. Joseph Wesbecker killed eight people and wounded 12 before shooting himself. His relatives went on the Donahue show (and the Larry King show and Geraldo) claiming that Prozac made him do it.

Anecdotes are often more powerful and persuasive than scientific studies. Add fear and a more-than-willing swarm of journalists to act as your advocate and you have a never-ending saga in the making. Those who claim to be standing up for the little person against the big-bad-corporations can make themselves look like heroes in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that they are probably wrong. The problem is, as Taubes points out, science can't prove they are absolutely, positively, finally and infallibly wrong. No matter how much evidence scientists produce, they can't prove a negative (or a positive for that matter) with infallible certainty. Taubes writes:

"It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely," as Richard Feynman put it, "and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible." When it comes to what is more or less likely, however, everyone has a different opinion on how to weigh the odds. That the scientific community and the lay public do so by different standards of evidence is made obvious by the common belief in phenomena-from UFOs, ESP and ghosts to the continuing incarnation of Elvis-that are not considered likely by most working scientists.

Taubes quotes Francis Bacon who commented several centuries ago that the human mind naturally hones in on what confirms our beliefs and has a difficult time recognizing, much less seeking, negative data. The lay person not only does not do controlled experiments, he or she doesn't really see the need for them. Whereas the scientist knows how easy it is to deceive oneself and follows methods of investigation which minimize things like confirmation bias. Thus, an anecdote which is absolutely convincing to a lay person may have no weight to a scientist.

Furthermore, scientific studies, no matter how many or how rigorous, can never prove that cell phones are absolutely safe and could never cause a brain tumor. There will always be some uncertainty and, says Taubes, that "leftover uncertainty perpetuates itself indefinitely."

Thus, someone somewhere can always publish a study indicating that cell phones might be harmful. That one study will be played up by the media and soon the government will get involved (as it did recently in England), otherwise it will look like it doesn't care about the well-being of its people. We've seen the same thing happen in this country concerning medical mistakes and breast implants.
[thanks to Laddie Chapman]

December 6, 2000. Nature has published a study carried out by Swedish and German researchers who analyzed the genetic material inside mitochondria (about 16,500 chemical base pairs) within the cells of 53 people of various modern nationalities, ethnic groups and races. The results are being hailed as "the best evidence yet that modern man first evolved in Africa and scattered to populate the planet as recently as 50,000 years ago," according to the NandoTimes

So-called creation scientists realize, however, that God created these mitochondria about 6,000 years ago with built-in variation to throw off 20th century heathens in their quest for understanding human origins. Sitchinites also realize that the arrangement of genetic material is a trick of the Anunnaki. 

December 6, 2000. A study on using back belts to avoid back injury strongly indicates that the belts do no good, despite the faith in them by industry workers. The study was conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and was published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The subjects of the study were some 9,000 employees at Wal-Mart stores in 30 states. The results contradict those of a study done in 1996 on Home Depot employees. The Wal-Mart study found 195 workers' compensation claims filed for back injury and 1,088 reports of frequent back pain. "Employees who wore the belts regularly were just as likely to report back pain or file claims as those who didn't wear them."

December 3, 2000. Brill's Content writer Joseph Gomes rips into Larry King and Montel Williams for their completely uncritical treatment of so-called psychic Sylvia Browne, a frequent guest on their talk shows. Browne makes numerous outrageous and false claims about her abilities as a psychic detective.

Browne has been a guest on our "show" several times. See cellular memory, Mass Media Bunk and Mass Media Bunk 3.

November 30, 2000. According to the University of Massachusetts, scientific researchers are testing the hypothesis that the geoglyphs known as the Nazca lines were made to mark underground sources of water. The December issue of Discover magazine has the whole story. The most commonly accepted explanation for the geoglyphs is that they had ceremonial or religious purposes, or were some sort of astronomical calendar. Reckless speculators have claimed they were created for alien spaceships. Recent tests, however, have led some scientists to theorize that at least some of the geometric shapes were made to mark underground water sources. According to hydrogeologist Stephen B. Mabee

Ancient inhabitants may have marked the location of their groundwater supply distribution system with geoglyphs because the springs and seeps associated with the faults provided a more reliable and, in some instances, a better-quality water source than the rivers. We're testing this scientifically. The spatial coincidence between the geoglyphs and groundwater associated with underground faults in the bedrock offers an intriguing alternative to explain the function of some of the geoglyphs.

There is no word yet on Eric von Däniken's reaction to the news.
[thanks to Florin Clapa]

November 27, 2000. The British government announced that soon all mobile phones sold in Britain will come with health warnings, even though the government itself is not sure what those warnings should be. The Department of Health (DOH) is creating  a leaflet which will be distributed to shops selling mobile phones. Presumably, the shops will give the leaflet to whomever buys a mobile phone. The DOH has indicated that it will warn against extensive usage by children, though the scientific evidence regarding harmful effects of cell phones is hardly non-controversial. This month's Lancet has two opposing articles on the effects of cell phones. One claims that the greatest danger is from using them while driving ("Heavy mobile users were involved in twice as many fatal road accidents as light users"). The other claims that "mobile phone users under 18 were vulnerable to headaches, memory loss and sleeping disorders."






©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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