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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May 23, 2002. One of these days, someone is going to ask: what the hell is going on at Harvard? Andrew Weil, John Mack, Gary Schwartz, and now John Hagelin, winner of the 1994 Ig Nobel Peace Prize. The latter is a Harvard-trained physicist turned Transcendental Meditation proponent. Even after more than eight years of riding the same pony in place, Hagelin claims he is getting a great reception on Capitol Hill for a proposal to spend $60 million a year and establish a $1 billion dollar endowment to promote TM as a means to end terrorism and establish world peace.

The proposal calls for the establishment of a permanent group of 40,000 experts practicing specific “technologies of consciousness,” including Transcendental Meditation and other advanced meditation techniques, that have been scientifically shown to neutralize acute ethnic, political, and religious tensions that fuel violence, terrorism, and social conflict.

Real scientists might challenge the "scientifically shown" clause in the above statement. Hagelin is the same fellow who did similar promotions for TM under Clinton. In 1993, Bob Park posted the following at the American Physical Society page:

The [Maharishi University of Management's] Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy revealed on Tuesday that a 2-month, $4M program to reduce crime has been underway in Washington since 5 June. The Institute's director, John Hagelin, a Harvard-trained field theorist, explained that a coherent field generated by 1,000 trained experts meditating in unison has been cutting crime and enhancing the effectiveness of President Clinton by spreading tranquility throughout the city. This "scientific demonstration" will provide proof of a "unified superstring field," Hagelin said, but he acknowledged that the Supercollider will be needed to provide independent confirmation.

Hagelin claims that in recent months he has had "meeting after meeting with the top levels of government - the White House, the National Security Council, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Army, the House, the Senate" and he claims to have found an unprecedented positive response to his proposal to end terrorism with thousands of people meditating in unison, er, sorry, "experts employing technologies of consciousness, for $60 million a year." You can contribute online to this madness at These clowns made a similar claim years ago about how they had eliminated crime in Fairfield, Iowa. I quote from my entry on TM

One TM® study by a MUM physics professor, Dr. Robert Rabinoff, claimed that the Maharishi effect was responsible for reducing crime and accidents while simultaneously increasing crop production in the vicinity of Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa. James Randi checked with the Fairfield Police Dept, the Iowa Dept of Agriculture, and the Dept of Motor Vehicles and found that the Rabinoff’s data was invented (Randi 1982, 99-108).

If you are interested in what science Hagelin is talking about, it may be based on the following (taken from an earlier MMF page)

On another equally loony front, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was back in the news with a plea for wealthy Americans to send him one billion dollars so he can build facilities for a gathering of 40,000 yogic flyers who will bring world peace by bouncing around together in his compound in India. He believes that if enough people hop while seated in the lotus position, they will create a force field that can repel hatred and spread happiness in the world's collective consciousness. His belief is based upon many years of sitting on his butt and thinking about this in his hut.

If you want a close look at this man's view of "science" read the transcript of his interview with Larry King on May 12, 2002. The fact that the Maharishi is considered one of the great religious leaders of our time says volumes more than any rant I could work up about TM. If only he had a billion dollars, he could save the world. God bless his holy crassness. It is a sad commentary on our world when adulation is heaped upon someone who can giggle and say "love and peace" at the same time. Call me cynical, but I was taught a hero should have a little more substance than that. Maybe it is all relative: the Maharishi looks good when you stand him next to the political leaders of our time. In logic, we call this a false dilemma.

[thanks to J. Smith Jr. and SkepticWeb]

May 23, 2002. Here are some links to obituaries for Stephen Jay Gould, who died May 20, 2002, of cancer at the age of 60.

May 16, 2002. Ever hear of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors? It is unlikely you have, unless you are black and  poor. It's a religious group, led by Dwight York, "the group's savior or god and described as an extraterrestrial from the planet 'Rizq'."* York and his partner Kathy Johnson have apparently been running a child abuse scam under the guise of leading their people from Ignorance to Knowledge. They seem to have used the Afro-centrist card to lure young blacks to their compound in Georgia where they forced children to perform sex acts while they photographed and videotaped them. More than 100 people live on the 476-acre compound, which has six-story pyramids and a large gate with Egyptian-style hieroglyphics. Apparently, the abuse of children has been going on since 1993. The FBI now has enough evidence to warrant arresting the couple.

[thanks to Joe Littrell]

May 14, 2002. Several holistic and health-conscious U.S. Senators announced today that they are supporting legislation that would ban table salt since "it consists of 50% chlorine, a poisonous gas." Water will also be banned because it is two-thirds hydrogen, a highly flammable gas, and one-third oxygen, known to be essential to combustion.

Just kidding, of course. Even our most scientifically illiterate legislator wouldn't be so foolish as to ban salt and water, yet Congresswoman Diane Watson is sponsoring H. R. 4163, the Mercury in Dental Filling Disclosure and Prohibition Act. Watson wants to ban the amalgam used in many dental fillings because mercury, a known poison, is one of its components. (Amalgam is an alloy of silver, copper, tin, molybdenum, mercury, and perhaps a little zinc. Small traces of these elements may be floating freely in amalgam, but not enough to worry about.) The total ban would take place in 2006. By this July she wants all amalgam to come with this warning label: "Dental amalgam contains approximately 50 percent mercury, a highly toxic element. Such product should not be administered to children less than 18 years of age, pregnant women or lactating women. Such product should not be administered to any consumer without a warning that the product contains mercury, which is a highly toxic element, and therefore poses health risks." Where is the science to back up Ms. Watson's concerns? Totally lacking, according to. Leon Jaroff  who takes her to task in Time magazine.

The mercury scare apparently began in 1985 with the publication of It's All in Your Head by Hal Huggins, a Colorado dentist who was convinced that just about everything that ails anybody is due to the mercury in amalgam fillings. "60 Minutes" gave the idea a big boost with a program segment in 1990 entitled "Poison in Your Mouth." The program was called Toxic Television by Dr. Stephen Barrett.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says "there is scant evidence that the health of a vast majority of people with amalgam is compromised." The American Dental Association  (ADA) claims that "there currently appears to be no justification for discontinuing the use of dental amalgam." Of course, the amalgam opponents think the ADA is part of a conspiracy to hide the real dangers of the alloy. The ADA position is not based on economics but on science. According to my dentist, dentists in California are advised not to comply with a patient's request to have all his or her "mercury" fillings removed. Removing "mercury" fillings and using plastics to refill them would be a good way to make money, since there are many people who are convinced, as Watson is, that their fillings are causing all their health problems. Dentists are advised not to do the work because there is not sufficient scientific evidence to back up the fear that fillings are poisoning people. The fear truly is all in the patient's, or the U.S. Representative's, head.

However, Watson does claim there is scientific support for her position. HR 4163 states that

(7) According to certain scientific studies, Health Canada, and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the Public Health Service of the Department of Health and Human Services, children and pregnant women are at particular risk for exposure to mercury contained in dental amalgam.

(8) According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the mercury from amalgam goes through the placenta of pregnant women and through the breast milk of lactating women, giving rise to health risks to an unborn child or a baby.

(9) The Environmental Protection Agency considers removed amalgam filling and extracted teeth containing amalgam material to be hazardous waste.

(10) The use of mercury in any product being put into the body is opposed by many health groups, such as the American Public Health Association, the California Medical Association, and Health Care Without Harm.

She does not specify the "certain studies" she refers to. (Maybe she is thinking of one of the studies mentioned at this site.) However, Health Canada specifically states "A total ban on amalgam is not considered justified," presumably because "current evidence does not indicate that dental amalgam is causing illness in the general population." Even so, this same group claims "there is a small percentage of the population which is hypersensitive to mercury and can suffer severe health effects from even a low exposure." It does not say where it got this information. And, it is true that Health Canada warns "Whenever possible, amalgam fillings should not be placed in or removed from the teeth of pregnant women." But it does not explain why it gives this warning while claiming that current evidence does not indicate that dental amalgam is causing illness in the general population.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the Public Health Service of the Department of Health and Human Services says that one may be exposed to mercury by the "Release of mercury from dental work and medical treatments." But it does not say how much mercury is likely to be released from dental work or why the amount released should be considered dangerous.

Watson may be right about the groups she says oppose the use of mercury in products to be put in the body (such as thermometers), but I couldn't find direct evidence that any of these groups opposes dental amalgam.

further reading

[thanks to Joe Littrell]

May 10, 2002. According to the Washington Post, the Church of Scientology paid Lawrence Wollersheim $8,674,843 to settle a lawsuit filed more than 20 years ago. Wollersheim suffers from bipolar disorder and spent nearly $150,000 on Scientology's mental health programs before he was driven to the brink of suicide. In 1986, a jury awarded him $25 million in punitive damages for what jurors called the Church's intentional and negligent "infliction of emotional distress." In 1989, an appellate court rule that "The church's conduct was manifestly outrageous." Wollersheim runs the Web site
[thanks to Jon ]

May 6, 2002. A reader from Spain sent in this clip from “THE SUNDAY TIMES” (UK)


For half a century, UFO sightings inspired endless conspiracy theories as well as blockbuster films such as E.T. But close encounters of the flying saucer kind have become such a rare event that FORTEAN TIMES, the journal of the unexplained, has declared “ufology” dead. Editor Bob Rickard said camcorders were so widely available that convincing footage of spacecraft would have been obtained if Earth was being visited. “The space around us is dead,” he said. “We are not being visited”. The world’s oldest UFO society, the British Flying Saucer Bureau, has suspended its activities after half a century because of the decline in sightings.

[thanks to Ernesto Nomparte Forchetto]

p.s More death knells for UFOs from Sunday Nation (UK).

May 3, 2002. QuackWatch has issued its analysis of the Reports of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy (WHCCAMP). The commission was set up by Clinton and was loaded with quacks whose mission in life is to see unproven and unsafe health practices delivered to the public. The minority report from Tieraona Low Dog, M.D. and Joseph J. Fins, M.D. complains that the Commission's recommendations "do not appropriately acknowledge the limitations of unproven and unvalidated "CAM" interventions or adequately address the minimization of risk." That's putting it mildly. The Commission considers prayer, among other things, to be a kind of "alternative" medicine. The National Council Against Health Fraud cautions that "Widespread adoption of unproven, disproven, and irrational methods would cost the American public billions of dollars and thousands of human lives."

This commission may be the worst of Clinton's legacies. The Chairman of the commission is James S. Gordon, M.D., a former follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Gordon has even written a book about his former guru. We can only hope that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson will recognize the report for what it is and dump it in the trashcan of history along with the Ken Starr report.

April 19, 2002. An M.D. recently wrote and asked me to "Please define 'false hope' in your excellent source. Several have asked me what is "false hope" when sent home to die. I really couldn't comment, but I know you will. Thanks in advance."

I have a hard time imagining a patient who has been sent home to die asking his or her physician "Tell me doctor, what is false hope?" I suppose a doctor might have said to such a patient, "I don't want to give you any false hope. You're going to die of this disease." Or perhaps the patient has been told he or she has a fatal disease and there is nothing that can be done. The patient might plead: "Are you sure there is nothing that can be done. What about putting me in a clinical trial or what about going to one of the clinics in Tijuana where the FDA has no say but where there might be some hope of a cure?" And the doctor might reply: "I don't want to give you any false hope." Even then, I have a hard time imagining a patient asking what is false hope. They'd know what it means: it means I don't want to lie to you and recommend a useless treatment. The treatment will be very expensive and the only things such a treatment will change are your attitude and your bank account. Your mood might change because you will be deluded into thinking you are being cured. And you will certainly feel better thinking you may survive than thinking you may die at any minute.

Some of you may have seen the recent "60 Minutes" program that featured Dr. Henry Friedman who treats "hopeless" cases, people with brain cancer who have been sent home to die by their doctors. He treats his patients with experimental drugs, which means that he experiments on his patients. This seems morally ok because they have been told they are going to die anyway. Dr. Friedman has some "successes," i.e., some patients who have survived for several years after being told to go home and die. The program featured three of his patients who seem to be cancer-free after several years of being treated at the Duke University Medical Center by Dr. Friedman and his staff. The program also featured one beautiful young woman who died of her brain cancer despite Dr. Friedman's efforts. Another young man died before his treatment could begin, but not before Dr. Friedman bullied an insurance company into agreeing to pay for the experimental procedures.

I have no doubt that many viewers probably sympathize with Dr. Friedman and think the FDA is cruel for not allowing experimental treatments of deadly cancers, and that insurance companies are evil for not agreeing to pay for experimental procedures. After all, it looks like Dr. Friedman is saving lives while the FDA and insurance companies are fiddling while Rome burns. I don't agree. I don't believe Dr. Friedman has any way of knowing why some of his patients live and most die. All he knows is that some of his patients are still alive, but because he does no controlled studies--he could do them on mice, he doesn't have to risk human lives--he has no way of knowing what effect his treatments are having. For all he knows, the ones who die under his care might have lived longer had he not intervened.

Is he giving his patients and their families "false hope"? Yes, but his delusions are not in the same league as the evil deceptions of those who run clinics that charge thousands of dollars for treatments known to be ineffective and useless. Dr. Friedman's treatments have some scientific basis and some have been proved effective for fighting other kinds of cancers besides brain cancer. But he is deluded in thinking that dying patients can't wait for clinical studies to be done before doctors can use them on patients. He is doing a clinical study; he is experimenting on human beings; and his study design is fatally flawed because he has no controls.

Finally, if insurance companies had to pay for every quack experimental treatment that doctors can think up, they'd go broke paying for completely useless treatments whose main tangible effect would be a great increase in false hope.

March 15, 2002. Yesterday's story in the St. Petersburg Times apparently awakened somebody at the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles. ATHEIST rides again.

March 14, 2002. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has decided that the vanity license plate of Steven Miles, electrical engineer at the University of Florida,  is "obscene or objectionable." Never mind that he's been driving around with the plate for sixteen years. Ten people recently signed a complaint about the plate and State has notified Miles that his plate must be canceled. The offensive word? ATHEIST

Read all about it in the St. Petersburg Times.
[thanks to Chuck Kistler]

February 13, 2002. The Japanese translation of the Skeptic's Dictionary is no longer available. I am unable to get in touch with translator Masataka Okubo. I will leave the link up for the time being in the hope that this is a temporary interruption.

February 12, 2002. "The Secret Life of the Brain" series concludes tonight on PBS with an episode on the aging brain. A companion book is available, for those who missed the excellent series or who want to peruse the material at their leisure.

In a related matter, though not related to the PBS show, researchers at Vanderbilt University think they have identified a part of the brain that may be the key to crabby people, those with "negative affect." They think a region of the brain a few inches behind the nose may be the key to understanding people who are prone to "anxiety, irritability, anger and a range of other unpleasant moods." Like the scientists in the PBS series, the scientists at Vanderbilt have been using brain-imaging technology to study the moods of people.

In last week's episode on the PBS series, brain-imaging was used to show which parts of the brain are active during different emotional episodes such as  fear and laughter. We can only speculate what kinds of follow-up research will be done, but two avenues of investigation seem obvious. Some scientists will be looking to develop drugs to relieve fear, anxiety, irritability, anger, and other 'negative' emotions. They will aim to help people in distress. Others will be looking to develop drugs to relieve fear, anxiety, irritability, anger, and other 'negative' emotions. They will aim to make it possible for people they put in stressful situations to be more machinelike in their soldiering. There's a cloud in every silver lining.

February 3, 2002. If you are interested in the "mothman" non-sense check out CSICOP. Joe Nickell has it solved.

January 25, 2002. I hope everybody saw "ABC Primetime Thursday" last night. Half of the program focused on phony "alternative" cancer therapies. Those who think "alternative" healers are all caring and "holistic" while M.D.s who offer chemotherapy are uncaring slobs should at least look at the website for the expose. Steven Rosenberg and Stephen Barrett come off as the ones who care, while the quacks who sell nothing but false hope are exposed in their dens. Chris Wallace showed he is a chip off the block of his father, Mike, as he had metal doors slide down before him to bar him from interviewing the quacks and their quacklings. Dr. Rosenberg's assessment of those who prey on the dying was short and apt: they are evil.

further reading





©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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