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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Winking Alien promotional graphic for program on pseudoscience

November 19, 1997. Scientific American Frontiers took on pseudoscience in "Beyond Science?," one of a series of science specials currently being shown on public television stations. The host, Alan Alda, the mischievous Hawkeye of M*A*S*H fame, joined in a fake alien autopsy, a dowsing experiment, a fake palm reading, a graphology test, a simple test of a claim made by those who practice therapeutic touch, and a visit to Hal Puthoff's latest project on "zero-point energy." Several skeptics, including Ray Hyman, Barry Beyerstein, Stephen Weinberg and Philip Klass, offered their views, but the main focus was not on debunking specific pseudosciences. The purpose of the program was to explore the differences between scientific and pseudoscientific methods, between "rational" and "irrational" thinking.

The main lesson, it seems to me, was that the scientific method is characterized by skepticism and mistrust of human nature. Of course there is no such thing as A Scientific Method of Discovery, but there is a method to scientific thinking and it includes being constantly vigilant against self-deception and being careful not to rely upon insight or intuition in place of rigorous and precise empirical testing of theoretical and causal claims.

While each of the examples of pseudoscience treated in this program was aptly chosen, I think the segment on dowsing exemplifies one of the more significant characteristics of the difference between science and pseudoscience. Three dowsers were featured and each was extremely confident of his ability to find water with a dowsing rod. Each claimed to have had many successful dowsing experiences over the years, which was proof to them that dowsing "works."

Alda tried the dowsing rods and sure enough they crossed over where it had been suggested to him that there would be water. It is thought that the authentic dowser is unaware of subtle movements in his hands which cause the rod to bend. The movements occur when the dowser thinks he is near his target. There may be a variety of sensual clues which suggest the target. The dowser, however, does not reflect on those clues and is essentially unaware of their influence. In any case, none of the dowsers considered it important to doubt their dowsing powers or to wonder if they were self-deceived. They had never considered a scientific test of their powers; for, each of them thought that the fact that they had been successful over the years at dowsing was proof enough. Furthermore, when each dowser failed--the one in a controlled experiment and the others on the job of a well site that went over 600 feet for naught--they did not consider for a moment that the failure could be indicative that their beliefs in dowsing were in error. One of the dowsers who had led a drilling company to a dry site blamed the failure to find water on himself, not dowsing. He didn't do it right, didn't follow the right method or correctly interpret the signs. Or, they had drilled just a little off, barely missing the fracture he knew had to be there at 161 feet. The man doing the drilling commented that he didn't think there was anything to dowsing and dowsers. He'd seen dowsers proved wrong too many times to believe in dowsing. The driller also claimed, however, that 99% of the time you'll get water no matter where you drill. The driller was skeptical because the evidence seemed to falsify the dowsers' claims. That skeptical attitude, plus the fact that perhaps the odds are very great of hitting water in most places one might consider drilling, plus the concern over self-deception, would have led a scientist to devise a test of dowsing's claims, a test which would not rely on subjective impressions or selective memory and which would eliminate as far as possible the likelihood of chance being a factor in the outcome.

One of the dowsers claimed he could find metal objects, as well as water. He agreed to a test which involved randomly selecting numbers which corresponded to buckets which had been placed upside down in a field. The numbers determined which buckets a metal object would be placed under. The one doing the placing of the objects was not the same person who went around with the dowser as he tried to find the objects. This double-blind method is typical of science, to avoid the possibility that the investigator's knowledge might influence the outcome of the test. The exact odds of finding a metal object by chance could be calculated. (For example, if there are 100 buckets and 10 of them have a metal object, then getting 10% correct would be predicted by chance. That is, over a large number of attempts, getting about 10% correct would be expected of anyone, with or without a dowsing rod. On the other hand, if someone consistently got 80% or 90% correct, and we were sure he or she was not cheating, that would confirm the dowser's powers. After confirming such powers, scientists would proceed to try to come up with a theoretical explanation. Pseudoscientists are wont to offer explanations for phenomena which have not even been established to exist.) The dowser walked up and down the lines of buckets with his rod but said he couldn't get any strong readings. When he selected a bucket he qualified his selection with something to the effect that he didn't think he'd be right. He was right: he was never right! He didn't find a single metal object despite several attempts. As Alda pointed out, this didn't disprove dowsing. What it did prove, though, was that nothing could shake the faith of the dowser. He couldn't explain why he couldn't perform, but that fact didn't dampen his belief in dowsing or in his ability to dowse. The impression was that no amount of empirical evidence would ever convince him that he was wrong. Such an attitude is typical of pseudoscience.

Each of the dowsers claimed that the mind plays a role in influencing the dowsing rods. But rather than accept Ray Hyman's explanation that the rods move to fit the dowser's expectations, one of the dowsers proffered that ESP is what influences the mind to influence the hands which move the rods. Alda commented that that claim is truly beyond science, for there is no way to test the claim that it is ESP which is influencing the dowser. Still, one could do a double-blind test to discover whether the dowser using dowsing rods could find water or metal at a greater than chance rate, but none of the dowsers felt such a test was necessary.

The attitude of the pseudoscientist was also demonstrated in the segment on therapeutic touch (TT). Those who practice TT believe they are able to move "energy," some sort of psychic force field or chi which they believe permeates the body and surrounding aura. They move their hands a few inches above the body, appearing to be pushing or moving some invisible body surrounding the physical body. TTers claim they can feel the energy flowing in their patients. They claim we all have this energy and that they can feel it. Like the dowsers, they know TT works from experience. They've seen it work again and again. And it never occurs to them that they could be self-deceived or that they should devise a scientific test to rule out self-deception as being the main force at work here.

A young girl devised a simple test for the TTers. Our young scientist had a randomly generated list of trials to perform which consisted of the words 'right' or 'left.' These referred to the right hand or the left hand of the TTer who was on the other side of a thin wall with holes near the bottom for her hands to go through. The young scientist would tell her subject when she (the scientist) had placed one of her hands under the TTer's right or left hand. The scientist would record what hand she had placed her hand under and what hand the subject had claimed she felt "energy" coming from. This is a very simple test to determine whether the feeling of energy the TTer has is objective or subjective, based on really feeling energy or on thinking she was feeling energy. Of course, this test does not test the main claims of therapeutic touch. Those claims are untestable; for, the energy allegedly measured is not physical energy and can only be felt by people, not measured by any machine. Still one could devise a controlled study where patients being treated in the same way for the same illness are divided into two groups, one which gets TT and one which doesn't. Several physicians could evaluate the patients before and after their treatments. These physicians would not be the ones providing the treatment, to avoid their knowledge of who was getting TT from influencing their patient evaluations. A third group might also be studied, one which was given "fake" TT, i.e., TT by a skeptic who thinks this stuff is metaphysical non-sense. The point of the Scientific American program was not to do such a test, but to demonstrate what methods scientists would use to investigate and inquire, as opposed to the lack of interest in such methods by pseudoscientists, who think they already know the truth from personal experience and insight. Double-blind tests are part of the scientific method of inquiry. Such tests are considered unnecessary by pseudoscientists and thus they risk being self-deceived and in error in a profound and fundamental way.

The palm reading segment was interesting because it involved getting a subject who did not believe in palm reading to have readings done by skeptic Ray Hyman. Dr Hyman used to do this stuff for a living when he was a young college student. He got so good at cold reading that he came to believe that he was psychic. The skeptical subject was so impressed by Hyman's abilities that she started talking like a true believer before the interview was over. She obviously tuned in to certain claims Hyman made about her. She focused on what she liked hearing. She didn't even seem to notice when Hyman was fishing (using general knowledge about people of her gender, age, etc. and specific knowledge based on what she was wearing, how she presented herself and how she responded to his questions, etc.). Nor did she notice that most of the claims he made about her were based on information she had provided herself by her words and gestures in response to his questions. Like the dowser, she used selective perception and focused on the "hits" and ignored or downplayed the "misses." A scientific method of inquiry requires that the "misses" not be dismissed, but recorded and evaluated. This segment of the program seems to have been designed to remind us of the danger of letting down our guard against self-deception and wishful thinking. It is a danger which scientists must constantly battle. Even the wisest amongst us must be careful not to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are too clever to be tricked or too smart to be led by suggestion to believe things which are questionable. That is one reason why scientists devise rigorous tests of claims: to prevent personal desire or beliefs from affecting outcomes.

The most amusing sequence of the program was the fake alien autopsy. There was a little evaluation of the Alien Autopsy film promoted on the Fox Alien Network last summer, demonstrating the poor quality of the fraud, especially the poor quality of the dummy alien itself. The fake alien used by Scientific American was designed in Hollywood and was very realistic. It seemed to have a skeletal structure and be a real body, while the Fox Fake was more like a rag doll stuffed with sausages. This segment of the program discussed the Roswell phenomenon: that thousands of people reject the simple story of a weather balloon used in an Air Force experiment which crashed in the desert. The Roswell crowd are convinced that there is a government conspiracy to hide the truth that aliens crash landed on earth in 1947. It is encouraging to see so many skeptical people, but the skepticism of the Roswell crowd is skepticism gone awry. Testimony from reliable sources is rejected in favor of testimony from unreliable sources. Facts are ignored if they support the simple explanation. General distrust in the government is taken as sufficient reason to believe in the alien story and reject any explanation, however plausible, which supports the weather balloon story. The mass media, especially the Fox Alien Network, has done its share of encouraging and promoting the Roswell phenomenon. Roswell is an example of what happens if the imagination is allowed to run wild without a check in reality. (As one young boy on a holiday with his parents in Roswell put it: "if nothing happened, then they probably wouldn't have all this stuff.") Scientific skepticism is not the blank check to doubt everything which does not fit with one's beliefs, as the Roswell skeptics seem to think. Scientific skepticism requires that the physical evidence be taken for what it is, not rejected on general grounds of distrust of the government. Scientific skepticism requires that one not speculate about evidence which is not available on the general suspicion that such evidence is being concealed. Scientific skepticism requires that one consider all the testimony from everyone who was present or involved in the original project, and that that testimony be evaluated against the actual evidence which exists, not against speculative evidence which some claim existed.

Praising Occam's razor, Alda presented the explanation which Phillip Klass and others have made regarding project Mogul. He interviewed Charlie Moore who was part of the original Air Force project and laid out the non-alien explanation. For the Roswell crowd, however, this issue of aliens crash landing on earth is truly beyond science. No amount of scientific evidence or reasoning is likely to convince the true believer that what happened at Roswell was nothing extraterrestrial. Belief in such matters is akin to religious faith in God. I am struck by the similarity in pose between William F. Buckley's response in a recent interview promoting his new book on God and that of the Roswell crowd. "What's the evidence for the resurrection of Christ?" asked the interviewer. Buckley gave two pieces of evidence. One, there were eyewitnesses who testified to it. Two, the Jews and Romans did not deny it. The latter is the argumentum ad ignorantiam: it is so because you don't prove or argue that it isn't so. To the former, the skeptic responds with a question: why trust such testimony? With David Hume, we ask "what is more likely? that these witnesses got it right or that they are deluded, mistaken or lying?" And we wonder why some people use the methods of science when it suits their purposes but reject those methods in favor of faith, also when it suits their purposes. We ascribe such a pose to the will to believe, but we are nevertheless left nonplused at such loyalty.

Barry Beyerstein, who has written extensively on the pseudoscience known as graphology, joined Alda for a graphological personality evaluation by Datagraph, a major player in this business. [Datagraph seems to be a former major player; they seem to be defunct as of Oct. 2000.] Their spokesman claimed that their analysis of 420 handwriting features is accurate to 90% and is used to create a unique "mindprint" of each individual evaluated. (Alda noted that psychologists consider psychological personality profile tests to be "moderately reliable.") They submitted eight handwriting samples for analysis and then reviewed the profiles, trying to figure out which one was their own. They couldn't. Alda did an assessment and of the 14 personality traits Datagraph uses, he thought they were right on 4 of his, wrong on 8, and 2 were maybes. He noted to Beyerstein that it would be easy to be influenced by what you would want to be true of you, even if it weren't, and how you could be influenced by the printed judgment to engage in a bit of selective memory to validate the claim. Furthermore, the content of the writing could influence the evaluator's judgment. A scientific analysis would not rely on such sloppy techniques and subjective measures to do the evaluation. When an evaluator, John Nezlek, was asked to comment on the reliability of Datagraph by comparing its profiles of some subjects who also took a standard psychological personality profile test, he refused to commit, saying that there were not a significant number of cases studied to warrant drawing any conclusions. Such tentativeness is typical of good science, and generally lacking in pseudoscience. Nezleck is currently doing further study on the subject.

The oddest segment on the program was a visit to a place in Texas called the Institute for Advanced Studies, run by Scott Little and Hal Puthoff (of remote viewing fame). Their main interest seems to be "zero-point energy" in particular, and finding a source of unlimited energy in general. Puthoff claimed that there is enough zero-point energy in a coffee cup to evaporate the oceans. Physicist Stephen Weinberg claimed that there might be the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline in the entire earth. Since this debate seems to be a scientific one, rather than beyond science, one might wonder why it was featured in the program. I'm not sure myself except that Little offered some comments on the importance of scientists to be wary of fooling themselves, especially when they are looking for the "most fabulous object in the universe" or some such thing. People can easily fool one another, as well as themselves, intentionally and unintentionally, and significant steps must be taken to prevent self-deception. In one experiment which hadn't even gotten off the ground yet, the instruments started to give readings that energy was being produced from some mysterious source. Little commented that you have to assume it's an error and "tear it down" before breaking out the champagne.

In the meantime, I think we can break out the champagne and congratulate Scientific American for a program which represents one small step for public television, and one giant leap for rationality and scientific skepticism.

further reading

November 12, 1997. "Athletes swallow expensive doses of hope" was the title of an article by Chris Hays in the Sacramento Bee. The article did an excellent job of explaining why it is so difficult to get unbiased information about body building supplements: the main source of information comes from body building magazines which are all owned by the supplement manufacturers themselves. Even so, Hays claims that "everyone agrees" that creatine "works." A typical ad on the internet reads

Creatine monohydrate provides safe nutritional support for athletes seeking peak performence in short-duration, high intensity workouts. By supporting the body's natural ability to regenerate the primary energy immediately available to working muscle, creatine monohydrate has the potential to increase optimal work output in activities such as weight-lifting and sprinting.

Creatine is a nitrogenous organic acid, C4H9N3O2, found in the muscle tissue and which supplies energy for muscle contraction. Joseph Clark has written a scientific paper on the use of creatine in sports (J.F. Clark. "Creatine: A Review of its Nutritional Applications in Sport." Journal of Nutrition, 14; 322-324, 1998. ). It is very technical sounding but he notes that "30% of the population have a diet and metabolism such that they do not benefit from creatine supplementation." The only negative side effects mentioned were water retention and heat intolerance. The positive benefits include such things as an increase in muscle peak torque production while decreasing plasma ammonia accumulation. The author does note that a healthy body self-regulates the production of chemicals (creatine is synthesized in the liver and kidneys, using three amino acids derived from food intake) and will shut down production when more of the chemical would be redundant. Furthermore, beyond a certain amount of some chemicals the body simply will not use them; hence, futher supplementation is pointless or harmful (if the body can't eliminate the excess, for example). (This is why certain supplements are probably pointless, such as DHEA. Taking a supplement may shut down its natural production by the adrenal glands.) 

October 26, 1997. An article in the New York Times by Jane E. Brody reported the results of a 13-year study involving over 10,000 Americans which "found no evidence of increased longevity among vitamin and mineral supplement users in the United States." This is especially bad news, since most of the people who take vitamins are non-smokers who don't drink heavily and who eat more fruits and vegetable than the rest of us. (The study also found that supplements failed to help the longevity of smokers, heavy drinkers, and those with chronic diseases.) The results of the study have been out for four years. Nevertheless, it is estimated that some $6.5 billion a year is being spent by Americans on vitamin and mineral pills. Why? I suppose because there is a chance that the pills might help fight cancer, give one more energy, help one live longer, etc. It is true that the information regarding nutrition, vitamins and minerals is bewildering, confusing and contradictory; that uncertainty gives some wishful thinkers hope that the stuff will do them good. Maybe. And maybe that is why vitamins and minerals are so popular among MLM programs. But why ignore the possibility that these pills might be doing some harm? Vitamin E can interfere with the action of vitamin K (which promotes blood clotting). Too much calcium can limit the absorption of iron and too much zinc can reduce the level of copper in the body (decreasing "good" cholesterol). Folic acid can react adversely with anticonvulsants and each year the greatest number of poisoning deaths among children is from iron supplements meant for adults.

It might seem like $6.5 billion is a lot of money, but consider that Americans spend about $2.5 billion on Halloween candy and costumes. 

August 21, 1997. In a repressed-memory case, the 2nd District Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Wendell Mortimer, saying testimony is inadmissible if procured by administering the drug sodium amytal, a so-called "truth-serum." Holly Ramona was given the drug by Marche Isabella, who had assured Ms. Ramona that she was incapable of lying while under the influence of sodium amytal. Isabella also told Ramona, who sought treatment for bulimia and depression, that 80% of those with eating disorders had been sexually abused. The evidence for this claim was not presented. Soon after being given this dubious information and the drug, Ramona began having "flashbacks" of childhood abuse by her father. Assured by another therapist, Richard Rose, that she could not lie while under sodium amytal, Ramona became convinced the "flashbacks" were genuine memories. She accused her father of molesting her. He denied it and she sued him for damages. Her father, Gary Ramona, sued the therapists for planting false memories in his daughter. He was awarded $500,000 by a Napa County, California, jury. Even so, his wife divorced him and he was fired from his $400,000-a-year job as a wine marketing executive as a result of the charges made by his daughter.

The unreliability of testimony influenced by sodium amytal has long been recognized in the scientific community. Such testimony has been barred from use in California courts since 1959. According to scientific experts, the drug makes subjects suggestible and prone to talking, but is not a "truth-serum." Subjects can lie, confabulate, fantasize, etc., as well as tell the truth while under the influence of sodium amytal. 








ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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