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

İcopyright 2007





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January 23, 2007. Report on TAM5. The 5th Amaz!ng Meeting of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) is over. Randi announced that the 6th Amaz!ng Meeting will be held in June 2008 in Las Vegas once again. Next January some sort of mini-meeting will be held in Ft. Lauderdale and will include a tour of the JREF headquarters.

Diane Swanson, Ray Hall, and I put on a critical thinking workshop on Thursday afternoon for about 80 people. I have posted my handout for the workshop and one of Ray's handouts. Links to two of the workshop participants' critical thinking pages are also posted.

For teachers of grades 4-8, I highly recommend Diane's books and the Teacher's Guides that go with them. Links to the Guides, which are free, and to Amazon for purchasing the books are on our CT website. I hope to add more material soon.

One of the topics that Ray and I covered was the importance of teaching students that memory is a constructive process and that knowing this can help in designing such things as police line-ups and in evaluating the accuracy of our own and other people's memories, including the memories of eyewitnesses to events. As we were testing our PowerPoint programs, Ray asked me if I'd heard that memory and eyewitness testimony expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus had testified in the preliminary hearing of the "Scooter" Libby trial and that the prosecutor had ripped her to shreds. I hadn't but was interested because Loftus is one of the darlings of the skeptical community, known for her work on false memories, among other things. A quick check of my files shows that I cite her on sixteen different web pages, including my bibliography and bookstore page, where she has her own room. Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has charged Libby with lying to investigators and obstructing justice. According to Carol D. Leonnig of the Washington Post:

Libby is relying on the "memory defense" against Fitzgerald's charges that he obstructed justice and lied to investigators about his role in the leaking of a CIA operative's identity to the media. Libby's attorneys argue that he did not lie -- that he was just really busy with national security matters and forgot some of his conversations.*

Loftus was called in by the Libby defense team to support this claim by testifying about the nature of memory and misunderstanding that typical jurors have regarding memory.

For more than an hour of the pretrial hearing, Loftus calmly explained to Judge Reggie B. Walton her three decades of expertise in human memory and witness testimony. Loftus asserted that, after copious scientific research, she has found that many potential jurors do not understand the limits of memory and that Libby should be allowed to call an expert to make that clear to them.

But when Fitzgerald got his chance to cross-examine Loftus about her findings, he had her stuttering to explain her own writings and backpedaling from her earlier assertions. Citing several of her publications, footnotes and the work of her peers, Fitzgerald got Loftus to acknowledge that the methodology she had used at times in her long academic career was not that scientific, that her conclusions about memory were conflicting, and that she had exaggerated a figure and a statement from her survey of D.C. jurors that favored the defense.

Not a good start for the defense. Fitzgerald even found a line in one of Loftus's own books that raised doubts about research she had cited on the stand.

Joel Seidman of NBC News writes:

Quoting from her own book "Witness for the Defense," Fitzgerald also confronted Loftus about how she might sway a jury if called to testify at trial. She had written that, "using my arsenal of subtle psychological tools" Loftus could make an impression on a jury about her perception about guilt or innocence....

Throughout the hearing Judge Walton expressed skepticism on the findings of Dr. Loftus, suggesting that juries would not be able to use simple common sense in determining the effect of memory on the testimony of trial witnesses.

One finding in the work of memory experts is that, when interviewed as a group, jury's understanding of how memory is involved in trials actually improves. Walton asked, "could the jury deliberations make it more right?" Loftus reluctantly admitted to the judge that it could.*

Loftus was called to testify in support of a motion by Libby's attorney that Dr. Robert A. Bjork, the chairman of UCLA'S psychology department, be admitted as an expert witness at trial. I'll go out on a limb and predict that the judge is going to agree with Fitzgerald that a memory expert would be "confusing, misleading and prejudicial." What is it that experts says about sleeping with the devil?


Now, on to a report on TAM. The highlight of the weekend for me was working with Diane Swanson and Ray Hall. Not only are they brilliant professionals but they are two of the nicest people I've ever met. Another highlight was having dinner at the same table with Randi and Jerry Andrus at the top of the Riviera. I also got to meet many people I'd known before only through e-mail or the telephone: Derrick and Swoopy from Skepticality, Rich Herren who was the first of several volunteer online editors of The Skeptic's Dictionary, David Glück of The Skeptic Friends Network and the Kil report, and Reggie Finley, the Infidel Guy.

Another highlight was having breakfast at the same table as Robert Lancaster. The evening before I watched TV in my room as CNN's Anderson Cooper went after Sylvia "I never said I was God" Browne for telling Pam and Craig Akers, the mother and stepfather of Shawn Hornbeck, that their son was dead. Browne made her claim on the Montel Williams show on February 12, 2003. Shawn was recently found alive and living with Michael J. Devlin. Browne told the Akers that Shawn was "no longer with us" and that his body would be found beneath two large boulders that "seem out of place in that area." She said he was taken by a "dark-skinned man" who wasn't black but Hispanic and who wore dreadlocks and was "really tall." Devlin, a pizza parlor manager, is not dark-skinned and doesn't wear dreadlocks. Robert Lancaster, who runs the StopSylviaBrowne website [I removed the link to this site, as it appears to have been hijacked], was at the Amazing Meeting and was interviewed by Anderson Cooper, as was Randi. It was nice to see that Cooper did not feel obligated to be "fair and balanced" by interviewing people who would attest to how accurate and wonderful Sylvia Browne is. He did invite her on but she declined to appear.  Browne is receiving some much-deserved negative press, but I predict that this too will pass. Her rehab starts tomorrow, January 24th, as she resumes her career on the Montel show.

Neil Gershenfeld's talk on Fab Labs was most interesting. He works at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA). I'm not sure exactly what these folks are up to but it has something to do with exploring how the content of information relates to its physical representation. They have connections around the world and design machines that can improve people's lives. Click here to read a description of what a Fab Lab is.

Michael Shermer outlined a book he is working on and expects to be out next year on the topic of complex adaptive systems. He thinks the moral sense ethics of people like Adam Smith and Darwin's theory of natural selection are both examples of the same thing. I'm interested because the moral sense school has never really gotten the press it deserves. The modern moral sense school begins with the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), who took direct aim at Thomas Hobbes's view of human nature. According to Hobbes, we are driven solely by self-interest and if left to our own devices life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." According to Hobbes, we are only social because it is in our own interest to be social. Shaftesbury and those who followed him like Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), Joseph Butler (1692-1752), Adam Smith (1723-1790), and David Hume (1711-1776) didn't deny that we are selfish by nature, but they denied that we are only selfish by nature. The moral sense folks recognized that humans are also social by nature and that we are naturally driven to act in ways that are beneficial to the species. In short, the notion that morality or law must be imposed on us as something unnatural that goes against the grain of human nature is rejected by the moral sense school. Shermer seems to think that evolutionary psychology provides ample support for the position of the moral sense school. In short, our moral values emerge out of our innate affections and social nature and are as natural as our instinct to survive.


Speaking of what is natural. Dr. Steven Novella gave a short talk on the use of the term 'natural' to market and sell products by implying or asserting that being natural is somehow superior to being artificial. Dr. Novella stated that there is no legal definition of 'natural.' I commented, incorrectly, that the FDA has a legal definition of 'organic' that is 4,500 words long. That's not true. The definition of 'organic' is only 3,000 words long. I misremembered. It is the FDA's attempt to describe the difference between 'natural' and 'artificial' that is 4,500 words long.* Needless to say, both government instructions are confusing. [See the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 2, Parts 100 to 169, Revised as of April 1, 1998.] The FDA had to resort to obscurity to avoid being vague or ambiguous.

I also enjoyed Harriet Hall's presentation on teaching pigs to sing, a description of what it's like for a skeptic who tries to enlighten her neighbors about such things as astrology and medical quackery like applied kinesiology. It's frustrating to discover that many people are not interested in the truth and they don't appreciate people who try to instruct them in the error of their ways. On the other hand, while you can't go into the horse's stable, take her out, and make her drink just by leading her to water, if you provide the water and make it attractive enough, the horse will sometimes come to you. Once in a while, the horse will even take a drink. But this may be a horse thing and may not work on pigs.

Another interesting talk was given by David Green, a Senior Patent Examiner with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. He explained how the process of applying for and getting a patent for "perpetual motion machines" is somewhat rigged in favor of the applicant. The applicant has to give a description of the item being patented and must make some claims about the item. The patent is on the claims, not the description. Applicants can go wild, more or less, in their descriptions but make only modest claims. Disputes are not to be decided by patent examiners but by judges in legal proceedings. The bottom line is the applicant does not have to have a working device to get a patent and even though the patent itself is only on the claims made in the application, which may be quite modest, investors can be sought with the lure of the patent and the amazing description.

Rebecca Watson, the body and brains behind, has quite a following and is very savvy in ways to get attention and publicity, including calendars with at least one hilarious photo of a skepdude. I won't say more, as the calendars are for sale and you might want to buy one. She talked about her own experiences building up an audience on the web, on podcasts, and by having a forum. I've read some of her blog postings. She's quite an accomplished writer and worth reading.

Ben Radford showed an animated movie, mocking the world of TV news casting and news viewing. It was hilarious and he promises to post it on the CSI website soon. I hope so.

Lee Graham talked about the computer program he developed that simulates natural selection and leads to irreducible complexity, which Behe and Dembski say can't be done.

There was way too much going on for me to comment on everything, but I appreciated the fact that Christopher Hitchens kept his commentary short, even though he didn't have much to say. Anyway, the way he says things makes even the story you've heard before seem interesting.

There were several people who asked speakers about being censored by their networks or publishers, and every one of the speakers from Adam Savage to Penn to Trey Parker and Matt Stone to Scott Dikkers indicated that not only was there nearly no censorship but that the more obnoxious their claims, the more money people seem to throw at them. (It should be obvious that Parker and Stone are not censored.) Atheists shouldn't be whining about how badly they're being treated, said Penn. He cited his essay "There is no god" on NPR, which has done nothing but enhance his popularity and make him richer.

Ginger Switzer offered some interesting comments on communication. For example, she agrees with George Lakoff's notion that how we frame issues is most important. The problem I have with Lakoff is that his examples of how Republicans frame things in successful ways doesn't really provide any guidance for how to frame ideas so that they will get widespread play and approval in the future. His own idea about Democrats framing taxation in terms of country club dues seems absurd to me. Even the advice to avoid 'liberal' and use 'progressive' might not work. When Bill O'Reilly divides the world into traditionalists like himself and secular progressives, what's going to be the outcome with these words? I have no idea but 'secular progressive' sounds positive to me, though he means it in a negative way.

Kylie Sturgess was one of many Australians who attended TAM5. She gave a talk on Sunday and told us that what she really wants to do is prove that teaching critical thinking works by seeing it tested. I can say that I see some problems with this idea even if you can devise a valid testing instrument. Testing specific instruction over the short haul is almost impossible because there are too many factors you can't control for. The kids might take your 16-week course in becoming a critical thinker and you can test them before and after. You can compare their scores to the scores of kids who don't take your course. But you have to have really large samples to make it possible to get statistically significant results. Even then, there are so many factors you can't control for that might affect how students answer the test questions. Influences from parents, peers, the media, preachers, teachers, etc. could be affecting your outcomes. Hence, the need for huge samples to cancel out these other factors that might be significantly affecting the way test questions are answered.

Another, perhaps more invasive problem, is that when you do what we've done in California and require that children pass standardized tests at various grade levels or they don't move on or graduate, we end up teaching to the test. There is a critical thinking component to the test and teachers know what is expected and teach to that component. But critical thinking is much broader than the few components that are going to be tested for. Those other components won't get taught because they won't be tested for. I'd rather take my chances that I'm not getting through to most of my students by Socratic modeling and instructing them in the importance of being open-minded, skeptical, and willing to hold beliefs tentatively. I'd rather take my chances that my students aren't going to grasp the importance of learning about perceptual and cognitive biases, than focus my teaching on a set of testable skills.

On the other hand, if all Kylie is talking about is devising meaningful tests to see if your students learned the lessons about, say, evaluating causal claims, then I'm all for it and have been doing it for more than thirty years.

There was some discussion of bias in the media and some agreement that the main bias is the bias of the good story. Significance or importance of the issue takes a back seat to whether there is a good story to be told. Somebody from the audience commented that stories that focus on immediate dangers or negative consequences are much easier to see and write than stories about possible future benefits of some policy or action.

The best thing about TAM, though, is that it lifts my spirits to meet people from all over the country and the world, some of whom never heard of The Skeptic's Dictionary, some of whom tell me they've been readers for years, and a few others that I've met at previous TAMs and was delighted to see again.

Eighteen months is a long time to wait for another meeting of the minds. But, not to worry, in only seven months (August 9-12, 2007) The Skeptics' Toolbox crew will be conducting another intimate workshop at the University of Oregon at Eugene. There won't be 800 people there, as there were at TAM. There may not even be 80 as there were in our workshop on critical thinking. You'll be in an intimate setting with some of the best critical thinkers in the world. Of all the events put on by all the skeptical organizations I know of, this one is the best value.

See also John Rennie's post, Steven Novella's post, Rebecca the Skepchick's post, and the Bad Astronomer's posts.

January 1, 2007. As we start a new year, I thought I would remind myself that there is another breed of journalist besides the one who promotes belief in psychics, rational parrots, miracles, spooks, and various forms of pseudoscience-the kind I write about on my Mass Media Bunk blog. Few bloggers do what these other journalists do: risk their lives for a story. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), in 2006 there were at least 155 murders, assassinations, and unexplained deaths of reporters and media staff. Another 22 died in accidents while on duty. In Iraq alone, where media have become prime targets of terror attacks, 68 media staff were killed last year, bringing to 170 the number killed in the country since the U.S. invasion in April 2003. In Latin America, 37 media were killed last year, while in Asia (mostly the Philippines and Sri Lanka) the number was 34.

There is nothing more necessary for knowledge than information, and without journalists willing to go places where the rest of us wouldn't dare go, we'd be much more ignorant of what's going on in the world.

So, I'd like to express my gratitude to the men and women in the media who bring us the news from dangerous places.

We also owe a debt of gratitude to those in safer places who use their positions in the media to encourage skepticism, e.g., people like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the folks who bring us the Onion with our morning cup of hot tea. Here's wishing you all a very good year!



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