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

ęcopyright 2007





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August 3, 2002. Here's another one for the "God can't lose" file. After being kidnapped, raped, and within minutes of being murdered, a young woman thanked everyone "for all your prayers. They helped us. God was listening." She apparently made no mention of the courageous Kern County sheriff's deputies who rescued her and another victim. The deputies shot and killed the kidnapper in a remote desert area 100 miles from Los Angeles where the young women were abducted. She certainly didn't blame God for creating Roy Dean Ratliff, who stole a Ford Bronco, then abducted and terrorized his victims for 12 hours. Nor did she mention California's abduction alert system, which had highway signs flashing a description and license number of the kidnapper's vehicle. The same information was broadcast over radio and television stations. The California Child Safety Amber Network was recently enacted by Gov. Gray Davis and this was the first time the system was used. Many tips were called in and one of the tips helped a sheriff's helicopter crew spot the vehicle.

I wonder, if the young woman took time to reflect on it, would she conclude that prayer had anything to do with her rescue? Of course, it is easy enough to come up with a rationalization that exculpates God from all blame for the ordeal, while still granting that God causes everything for a reason. Maybe He wanted to teach them a lesson out of the scared straight book. Maybe He wanted to generate some prayer action. Maybe he wanted some headlines. The ways of the Lord's faithful are mysterious indeed. What about the thousands of praying parents whose children have been raped and murdered by their abductors? Was God teaching them a lesson, too? Or does God sometimes not listen to prayers?

July 29, 2002. Just when you thought you've heard it all, the Lord sends you another gift. Sometimes good things come in twos. Today's news presents (1) a new twist for feng shui and (2) a familiar example of the mysterious ways of religious faith.

According to Jennifer Harper of the Washington Times, "phone shui" is the marketing gimmick of Paul Darby and Phones 4 U, which has 270 stores and 84 million customers in Britain and elsewhere. "Everything, especially your phone, connects us to our surroundings and each other," says Darby. "Your phone is a reflection of your mind." (Were these conclusions based on many years of scientific investigation or on a few hours of marketing brainstorming?) Darby claims that one's choice in cellular phones should hinge upon emotions and personal outlook and that he is just the person to help you find the phone that fits your emotional needs. "Phone shui has three jewels: vitality, energy, spirit. The right phones will capture these," says Darby. "Integrate the inner and the outer, choose a phone that reflects the image and reality." Will do.

According to Harper, true believers think Darby makes sense because the telephone is a significant point in "lines of energy" that cross the home, not to mention all those energy lines outside the home. They advise putting the phone in the southeast corner of a room (the "wealth area"). Lest you think Darby and Phones 4 U are alone in this business, think again. Nokia has a "Feng Shui" decorative phone-cover collection that features Chinese symbols for health, wealth, love, happiness, and a long life. And Siemens has a cell phone called the C2118. According to Harper, the number is based on feng shui principles. They're hoping to attract Chinese customers.

On the brighter side, the nine miners trapped for 77 hours in a mine pit 240 feet below terra firma in Pennsylvania were rescued. All nine are alive and kicking. As they were being rescued, I was at a house concert listening to Welsh singer Martyn Joseph. He dedicated one of his songs to their safe recovery and sang loudly the anthem of every Welsh miner: NEVER GIVE UP. (As an aside, I'd never heard of Martyn Joseph until a few days before the concert. For those who know anything about contemporary folk music, he's right up there with Brian MacNeil, Jez Lowe, Eric Bogle, and Dick Gaughan. He's extraordinarily gifted: the real thing.)

This morning's paper had a photo of a handmade sign in a restaurant window that said "Thank You God - 9 for 9." No thank you to the rescue workers who worked frantically for three days to save the miners. But a big thank you to God. Why? Why is it that nobody is blaming God for the cave-in?* This response reminds me of a story John Renish sent me by Kimberly Winston, a religious reporter who had become somewhat jaded by the crassness that often passes for religion these days. She was sent out to do a story on Fr. Richard Bain, a priest who allegedly has the "healing touch." She didn't believe he did, but she went to his church and, well, let her tell the story:

I took a seat in the back pew, from where I could watch as hundreds of people filed one by one to the altar to await Bain's approach. Then I got up and joined the line of faithful, deciding if I was going to write about Father Bain's healing touch, I would have to feel it myself. We knelt at the rail, awaiting Father Bain, who moved down the line of supplicants two at a time, laying one of his hands on every bowed head.

I bent my head, too, not so much out of reverence as out of a desire not to anticipate Bain's touch by seeing his approach. If he was supposed to have some kind of supernatural power in his hands, I wanted to experience it without warning.

I had recently found out I was pregnant. It was my first pregnancy and I was excited. I decided to ask for a healthy baby. That would be the "healing'' I wished for.

Head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped, I waited for Father Bain. And then he placed his right hand briefly on the crown of my head. And there it was -- a shock of energy that ran from the top of my head to the tips of my toes and back up again. A warmth, a slight buzzing, ran across my frame. It was as if a slight electric charge had surged through me, leaving me feeling energized -- and more than a little astonished.

Was I "healed?'' Did I get my healthy baby? The answer, sadly, is no. About three weeks later I miscarried.

But did she lose faith. Quite the contrary. She told a friend about her experience with the healing-touch priest and the friend suggested that she had actually received what she'd prayed for. She had asked for a healthy baby and miscarriages are common when the fetus isn't healthy! Winston's response:

Immediately, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders....The miscarriage was not my fault, not a punishment, but, I now believe, the merciful act of a loving God. And in that moment, I felt "healed'' -- not of a physical ailment, but of a negative way of thinking about myself and about the way God works. I no longer thought of myself as worthy of God's punishment, but as deserving of his care. And I no longer thought of God as a vending machine -- you put in your prayers and He puts out what you want.

This happened a year ago and even though she has had three more miscarriages, she is happy at the "birth" of her newfound faith.

John's comment was: I wish I were God. He can't lose no matter what happens.

Another woman of faith, Elisabeth Targ, never gave up, either. However, she lost her battle with brain cancer and died last Thursday of glioblastoma multiforme, a rare brain tumor. Dr. Targ had been given a government grant to study healing at a distance, and one of the claims she made was that she had evidence that a group of patient's with glioblastoma multiforme who were prayed for were doing considerably better than a control group. (She also claimed that she had evidence of prayer-healing for AIDS patients.)* Before her death, a web site was set up by her friends, who asked readers to send in prayers to aid in Targ's healing. Also, as part of her rehabilitation, she had been meeting with spiritual healers and alternative medicine specialists. I will leave it to others to rationalize these events and prove she was truly "healed." Somebody will do it, and prove, once again, that God can't lose no matter what happens.

Targ was 41 years old.

July 26, 2002. Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster expressed dismay over U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Porteous Jr.'s ruling that his Program on Abstinence was being abused by religious groups in an illegal way. Porteous sided with the American Civil Liberties Union and ruled that "using government money to distribute Bibles, stage prayer rallies outside clinics that provide abortions, and perform skits with characters that preach Christianity violate the Constitution's separation of church and state." The judge ordered the state to stop giving money to individuals or organizations that "convey religious messages or otherwise advance religion" with tax dollars. The money is supposed to be used to promote abstinence-only sex education programs.

The governor said, "It's a sad day when such a worthwhile program is attacked by the very people who are supposed to protect the interests of the citizens of Louisiana." He must have been referring to the group that promoted abstinence by pointing out how wonderful the practice had turned out for the Virgin Mary.

The fuss seems so unnecessary in light of  the common knowledge that abstinence is good preparation for marriage.

July 24, 2002. The New Reality of Evolution reads the cover of this week's U.S. News & World Report. The lead article, "A theory evolves: How evolution really works, and why it matters more than ever," by Thomas Hayden does not mince words. "Scientists have confirmed virtually all of Darwin's postulates," says Hayden. "Although proponents of intelligent design hold that organisms are too 'perfect' to have arisen by chance, science shows that organisms don't work perfectly at all; they just work." He strongly suggests that the odds are slim that a high school student, immersed in intelligent design (ID) rather than the science of evolution, is likely to contribute much to the discovery of  things like a cure for AIDS.

It is encouraging to see a mainstream news magazine talking about the importance of understanding evolution, instead of whether we should teach evolution at all.

The issue also features an article by Holly J. Morris on the anti-evolutionist movement known as ID.

July 23, 2002. According to Gallup's annual "Confidence in Institutions" poll, conducted June 21-23, 2002, only forty-five percent of Americans have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in organized religion, a 15-percentage-point drop over the past year.

July 21, 2002. Michael J. Berens of the Chicago Tribune reports that preventable hospital infections are responsible for the deaths of about 75,000 Americans annually. Unsanitary facilities, unwashed hands, and unclean instruments have made death by hospital infection the number four cause of death, behind only heart disease, cancer, and strokes. In a bit of doublespeak, the health-care industry refers to these deaths as being due to "nosocomial infection." Nosocomial is Latin for hospital.

July 20, 2002. How many times have you heard or read that 95% of those who lose weight gain it back? Is it true? Well, it was true for 100 patients who passed through Dr. Albert Stunkard's obesity clinic during the 1950s. According to Gary Taubes, there aren't any other studies that support this almost universally cited and accepted statistic ("What if It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?", New York Times Magazine, July 7, 2002). Taubes brings this up in a long essay on myths, facts, statistics, and intuitions regarding diets. It looks like the Atkin's low carbohydrate, no sugar diet will finally be put to a proper clinical test. Why has it taken twenty years to get around to testing it? Atkins has scientific studies supporting why the diet should work, but his direct evidence consists of some 25,000 anecdotes. Others have stayed away from testing the diet probably because they didn't want to become associated with someone whom the medical establishment had labeled a quack. Besides, the diet is counterintuitive. Of course, so is the idea that it is the earth, not the sun, that is moving.





ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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