A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Mass Media Funk

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

Note: Mass Media Funk is now Skeptimedia.


Over-the-counter placebos

January 10, 2006. Millions of people know they work because they've used them and given them to their children. They've seen their good effects with their own eyes. They must be effective if millions of people swear by them. Americans spend about $300 million annually on them and we're known for spending our money wisely. I've used them many times and I know they work. Yet, the American College of Chest Physicians claims that over-the-counter (OTC) cough syrups are ineffective. Who's right? The millions of us with common sense and experience or some group of pointy-headed medical doctors who want us to get pneumonia so we'll have to check into the hospital and pay large medical bills to help pay for their SUVs and vacation homes?

We all know that these syrups sometimes lessen our symptoms. They help us cough less or expectorate more. They must be effective since the FDA allows them to be sold, right? Not necessarily.* They may be another in a long line of placebos that millions of us know really work.

The Chest Physicians claim that the medicines don't make us any better because they are ineffective against infections. In other words, the experts are telling us that these syrups only deal with the symptoms of disease not with the underlying causes of disease. I think most of us already knew that. But that's not all they're saying.

Dr Richard Irwin of the University of Massachusetts Medical School says: "There is no clinical evidence that over-the-counter cough expectorants or suppressants actually relieve cough."* Worse, children might be harmed by over-sedation with cough medicine. In fact, a few years ago the American Academy of Pediatrics stopped endorsing over-the-counter cough medicines for the treatment of children's coughs.* A small study of 100 kids with upper-respiratory infections found that neither dextromethorphan nor diphenhydramine—common cough syrup ingredients—was more effective than a placebo in improving nighttime cough and sleep.*

According to the Chest Physicians, OTC cough medicines can help some people fall asleep, but that's about all the good they do. The same might be said of beer, however. On a positive note, the Chest Physicians recommend that we use older-generation, low-cost antihistamines for coughs because they "may attack the nasal drip and runny nose that cause many coughs."* The Chest Physicians advise against the newer, expensive antihistamines, however. Drugs such as Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec do not help a cough, they said.* I don't know how they expect to pay for all their expensive habits if they keep advising us to spend our money wisely on cheaper drugs!

In any case, I refuse to end this rant with a recommendation to drink some chicken soup if you have a cold. Especially with bird flu hysteria being so contagious. I might become a person of interest to warrantless wiretappers and my screen might suddenly go blank.

January 8, 2006. An editorial in the British Medical Journal (BMJ  7 January 2006) by Leonard Finegold, professor of physics at Drexel University and Bruce L. Flamm of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Riverside, California, claims that "patients should be advised that magnet therapy has no proved benefits." In their view, more than a billion dollars is wasted annually on such gadgets as magnetic bracelets, insoles, wrist and knee bands, back and neck braces, pillows, and mattresses. About 30% of that waste is spent in the United States. "Money spent on expensive and unproved magnet therapy might be better spent on evidence-based medicine," say Finegold and Flamm. "More importantly, self-treatment with magnets may result in an underlying medical condition being left untreated. Sadly, some advertisers even claim that magnets are effective for cancer treatment and for increasing longevity; not surprisingly, these claims are unsupported by data."

The authors write that "if there is any healing effect of magnets, it is apparently small since published research, both theoretical and experimental, is weighted heavily against any therapeutic benefit." They note that doing controlled experiments in this area is problematic since "it is difficult to blind subjects to the presence of a magnet."

An example is a randomised trial of powerful magnetic bracelets for the relief of hip and knee osteoarthritis, which reports a significant decrease in pain because of the bracelets. The patients given real magnets could detect them because the magnets often stuck to keys in pockets. Perhaps subjects with magnetic bracelets subconsciously detected a tiny drag when the bracelets were near ferromagnetic surfaces (which are ubiquitous in modern life), and this distracted or otherwise influenced the perceived pain. Patients with fibromyalgia detected which sleeping pads were magnetic by their mechanical properties, by "comfort with the firmness" and thus unblinded the study. In a sophisticated postural assay, where magnetic soles were found to decrease swaying, the authors admit that the magnetic soles could have differed in stiffness from the controls....In chronic pelvic pain a double blind study reported improvement owing to the continuous wearing of magnets, but admitted that blinding efficacy was compromised.

Magnetic therapeutic devices are virtually unregulated and touted by several well-known athletes who probably have no more understanding of the placebo effect or the regressive fallacy than do the people who are swayed by their advertisements.

The authors note:

If human tissue were affected by magnets, one would expect the massive fields generated by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to have profound effects. Yet the much higher magnetic fields of MRI show neither ill nor healing effects.

Even so, I predict that sales of magnetic devices will increase in 2006. It is only a matter of time before we find psychic surgeons using magnets to remove tumors bloodlessly.

January 5, 2006. Sylvia Browne, the clown princess of psychics, has some predictions for 2006.

She made them late in the a.m. on the George Noory show, as news of the mining disaster in West Virginia was emerging. She predicts:



  1. The weather will be worse.
  2. Two large quakes will occur in Asia and smaller ones in Washington and California.
  3. There will not be a worldwide bird flu pandemic.
  4. New health treatments include an insulin replacement for diabetes, a vaccine for stomach-related cancers, a breakthrough in MS involving the hypothalamus gland, and a vaccine that blocks the need for nicotine.
  5. Gold and property remain good investments.
  6. The popularity of Pres. Bush and Gov. Schwarzenegger will continue to slide downwards, and Congress and the Bush administration will be embroiled in more scandals.
  7. Troops will begin returning from Iraq.
  8. Trains and trucks continue to concern her as far as safety and terrorism.
  9. The 2008 election will be between Kerry and McCain, and Kerry will win in a close vote.

It must not take much to entertain Mr. Noory's late night crowd, though I do like the bit about a "vaccine" to block the need for nicotine. Apparently, Browne has an addiction to cigarettes.

Anyway, according to Roger Friedman, Browne had just announced that McCain would run against Kerry in the next presidential campaign, when Noory announced that all but one of the miners was alive. Browne's response was "I knew they were going to be found." She gave no indication at the time that she had any idea that all but one would be found dead. Later in the show, Noory announced that "there were new reports that all but one of the miners was dead." According to Friedman:

Browne—who was still in the studio taking questions from listeners—had to say something. Now she was just riffing: "I don’t think there’s anybody alive, maybe one. How crazy for them to report that they were alive when they weren’t!" Then she added: "I just don’t think they are alive."

NIce try, Sylvia! Noory didn't even call her on it. He went to commercial and when they were back live on the radio, according to Friedman:

She blurted: "I didn’t believe that they were alive."

Noory: "What’s that, the miners?"

Browne: "Yeah, I didn’t think — and see, I’ve been on the show with you, but I don’t think there’s any that are going to make it."

Noory: "They say there are 12 gone. I think we threw you a curveball, we were telling you after the fact."

Browne: "Yeah, no, I did believe that they were gone."

Sylvia should be gone, but I doubt this little wrinkle will ruffle the feathers of her flock of admirers. After all, remember that she never said she was perfect!

Consider that Browne has a spirit guide she calls Francine. Her real name is Iena but Browne likes Francine better. Iena was born in Colombia in 1500 and was murdered by Spaniards. Browne says Francine gives her information from the other side. Maybe Francine gets her information from the radio.

Browne says she's been hearing Francine's voice since she was eight years old. Iena says she was in training for about 400 years to become a "communicating guide," which allows her to escape the wheel of rebirth. According to Browne, she met Iena shortly after she "went down the tunnel into a fetus."

People who believe such fantasies are not going to be put off by a little faux pas on the George Noory show.

December 31, 2005. What were the best stories of 2005? According to the BBC, the following were a few of the more odd stories last year:

Chewing gum can 'enhance breasts'

In North Korea, long hair has a "negative effect" on intelligence

Woman gives birth to 17lb.(8kg) baby

Python explodes while eating alligator

We should add one more to the list:

Intelligent design movement ruled a hoax

The best television channel for 2005 was the National Geographic Channel. NGC should win an award for its "Is It Real?" and its "Naked Science" programs. The worst channel goes to Court TV for its Psychic Detectives program. Court TV makes no effort to be critical or skeptical. Psychic vulture Carla Baron is the "official psychic spokeswoman for Court TV" and will star in a new series called "Haunting Evidence." Eight months ago Centre County (PA) District Attorney Ray Gricar disappeared without a trace. Almost immediately,  Baron swooped in to offer a lending beak to break open the case. After months of squawking, Gricar is still missing and nobody seems to know what happened to him. (Although some people are not deterred in their belief in psychic detectives by Baron's failure to find Gricar.) We're still waiting for one of these psychics to find JonBenet Ramsey, Osama bin Laden, Jimmy Hoffa's body, or to predict where the next terrorist attack will occur.

Unlike Court TV, NCG's shows are scientific, critical, and skeptical. All TV is selective in its presentation of evidence but Court TV's "Psychic Detectives" makes no effort to investigate non-psychic explanations for what they "report." Their programs can be quite convincing because they don't tell the whole story and they don't bother to investigate the reliability of self-validation on the part of the psychics or the accuracy on the part of the police who work with them.

One of the lowest lights of the year was the discovery of the unethical and fraudulent work of scientist Woo Suk Hwang, who now claims he was framed.

December 30, 2005. Judge John Jones's 139-page decision in the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District is available online. An overview and analysis of the highlights of the decision by Jason Rosenhouse is also available online. Another analysis by Burt Humburg & Ed Brayton is also online. The judge, a conservative Republican appointed by President George W. Bush, ruled that the Dover policy on intelligent design (ID) "violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and Art. I, § 3 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." The Dover ID policy stated:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.

Judge Jones ruled that the policy violates the Establishment Clause because "the religious nature of ID would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child." The defenders of ID are crying foul because they thought the beauty of their clever hoax was that they do not mention God or the Book of Genesis in their published defenses of ID, though if you hear them talk in person (as I have), they make it clear they believe the God of the Bible is the intelligent designer. The judge, however, was not deceived. Although expert witnesses like Michael Behe "occasionally suggest that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist, no serious alternative to God as the designer has been proposed" by the ID folks.

Jones referred to the "breathtaking inanity” of the Dover ID ploy and claimed that

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID policy.

Judge Jones goes into great detail explaining and defending his conclusion that ID is a religious argument and that the plaintiffs are correct in saying that "ID is creationism re-labeled" and that "an objective student would view the disclaimer as a strong official endorsement of religion."

While the judge makes it clear that ID is not a scientific theory, he does not go so far as to identify ID as an anti-scientific philosophical idea, which is what it is. ID asserts that there are some things in nature that can't be explained scientifically. They are irreducibly complex or demonstrate specified complexity and can best be explained by positing an intelligent designer rather than some natural process as yet not completely understood. Wherever there are such gaps, say the Behes and Demskis of the world, give up science, fall to your knees, and cry halleluiah!

Real scientists, however, don't cut and run when the problems get tough. They look for ways to uncover more evidence. They search their knowledge and their intellects for deeper understanding of the ways of nature. They develop research programs to try to fill the gaps in our scientific knowledge. Real scientists are not quitters. They persist in their investigation, even when the problems facing them seem insurmountable. They leave it to lazy thinkers to declare certain mountains unclimbable. They leave it to religious dogmatists—who claim to know the truth before anyone does any investigation at all—to revert to magical thinking and miracles when the science gets difficult.

December 19, 2005. Smoking and passive smoking significantly increase the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), according to a report in the British Journal of Ophthalmology. Regularly smoking a pack of cigarettes or more a day for 40 years almost tripled the risk, while living with a smoker for at least five years doubled it. The good news is that people who had given up smoking for 20 years or more cut the risk to levels comparable to non-smokers.

* AmeriCares *

Other Languages

Print versions available in Estonian , Russian , Japanese , Korean , and (soon) Spanish .

This page was designed by Cristian Popa.