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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Anybody can have an out-of-body experience,
scientists claim

August 23, 2007. The latest issue of Science magazine has two reports on inducing out-of-body experiences. One is called "The Experimental Induction of Out-of-Body Experiences" and it is written by H. Henrik Ehrsson. He writes:

I report an illusion in which individuals experience that they are located outside their physical bodies and looking at their bodies from this perspective. This demonstrates that the experience of being localized within the physical body can be determined by the visual perspective in conjunction with correlated multisensory information from the body.

The other is called "Video Ergo Sum: Manipulating Bodily Self-Consciousness" and it is written by Bigna Lenggenhager, Tej Tadi, Thomas Metzinger, and Olaf Blanke. They write:

Humans normally experience the conscious self as localized within their bodily borders. This spatial unity may break down in certain neurological conditions such as out-of-body experiences, leading to a striking disturbance of bodily self-consciousness. On the basis of these clinical data, we designed an experiment that uses conflicting visual-somatosensory input in virtual reality to disrupt the spatial unity between the self and the body. We found that during multisensory conflict, participants felt as if a virtual body seen in front of them was their own body and mislocalized themselves toward the virtual body, to a position outside their bodily borders. Our results indicate that spatial unity and bodily self-consciousness can be studied experimentally and are based on multisensory and cognitive processing of bodily information.

We seem to be hardwired to perceive our 'self' as a homunculus residing in our body behind our eyes. The experimenters used virtual reality goggles to trick the brain into thinking the body was located elsewhere and thus that the self was not in the body. The visual illusion created by the goggles plus feeling their bodies being touched gave the subjects in the experiments the sense that they had moved outside of their physical bodies.

The scientists doing the experiments think that there may be a disconnect between the brain circuits that process visual and touch sensory information that is responsible for some OBEs. There were two teams of researchers working on these experiments, one from University College London in the UK and the other from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

In the Swiss experiments, the researchers asked volunteers to stand in front of a camera while wearing video-display goggles.

Through these goggles, the volunteers could see a camera view of their own back - a three-dimensional "virtual own body" that appeared to be standing in front of them.

When the researchers stroked the back of the volunteer with a pen, the volunteer could see their virtual back being stroked either simultaneously or with a time lag.

The volunteers reported that the sensation seemed to be caused by the pen on their virtual back, rather than their real back, making them feel as if the virtual body was their own rather than a hologram.

Even when the camera was switched to film the back of a mannequin being stroked rather than their own back, the volunteers still reported feeling as if the virtual mannequin body was their own.

And when the researchers switched off the goggles, guided the volunteers back a few paces, and then asked them to walk back to where they had been standing, the volunteers overshot the target, returning nearer to the position of their "virtual self".

Dr Henrik Ehrsson, who led the UCL research, used a similar set-up in his tests and found volunteers had a physiological response - increased skin sweating - when they felt their virtual self was being threatened - appearing to be hit with a hammer. (BBC News)

If we could only get world leaders to wear these goggles and program them so that their virtual selves will appear inside of wherever they are thinking about doing harm....

Sandra Blakeslee of The New York Times has a very informative article about this research (Aug. 24). She also had an article on the topic in yesterday's Science section.

Lies, damned lies, and polygraphs

August 15, 2007. The polygraph produces too many false results to be reliable. The reason is simple. The polygraph is used to detect deception by measuring various physiological responses to questions asked by a polygrapher but the physiological responses measured are not uniquely related to deception. Liars can go undetected because some physiological responses that indicate deception can be consciously controlled. Truthful persons can appear to be lying because a variety of emotional states can produce physiological responses identified with deception. Furthermore, some of the responses measured (e.g., change in resistance) don't require any physiological changes. A change in moisture can affect the measurement. Thus, even plants might "react" to a polygraph test, as Cleve Backster discovered, though he misinterpreted his discovery as evidence that plants can feel.

It seems that professional polygraphers know that the polygraph is not a magical machine for distinguishing lies from truth but a pseudoscientific device that can sometimes scare criminals into confessing their crimes or prospective employees into revealing things about themselves that they would rather conceal. Despite its known faults, the polygraph is widely used by law enforcement and employers. (The U.S. Congress banned the use of the polygraph for most employment matters in 1988. They exempted the government and a few security firms.) Many people volunteer to take a polygraph because they believe it will exonerate them. The fact is, however, that the scientific evidence regarding the polygraph is overwhelmingly negative. Its validity as a truth-detecting device is not even controversial.* Why do so many people use and believe in the polygraph as a lie detector? You'll have to ask them but it may simply be that either they don't know any better, or they just like the idea of such a device working, or they are unable to admit that they've been wrong about it and sent people to jail or fired people for unjustifiable reasons. They're ignorant, they're guilty of wishful thinking, or they're trying to save face.

Now the word is that coming soon to a Fox channel near you is a program whose central gimmick is the polygraph. The show is called "Nothing But the Truth" and it has already found a large audience in Colombia.* The show format is very simple: people are asked increasingly invasive personal questions and if they get through 21 of them they win $50,000. They are declared to be lying if their answer isn't corroborated by polygraph test they took backstage. Apparently, the show is good for the polygraph business. Since it began airing in Colombia, True Test, one of about 200 companies in Colombia that charge about $65 for a polygraph reading, has seen a big surge in customers, which include airlines, banks, multinational companies, and "the occasional bickering couple."

I hope Fox will invite President Bush on the program and ask him if it's true that two-thirds of Iraqis oppose the Iraqi Oil Bill, one of his "benchmarks" for success. I'd ask him also if it's true that 419 Iraqi Intellectuals have signed a document stating their opposition to the proposed oil law.* Maybe if we gave a polygraph test to every Iraqi we could find out why they are so ungrateful that they won't give up most of their oil to thank us for all we have done for their country.

Dawkins's latest attack on the enemies of reason

August 6, 2007. Richard Dawkins has launched another attack on the enemies of reason. No, he is not attacking religious believers again. This time he aims his barbed missiles at the world of woo-woo: acupuncture, angel therapy, astrology, aura photographers, crystal power, dowsing, the e-meter, faith healing, homeopathy, quantum healing, spirit mediums and other psychics, tarot card readers, and-I can only imagine- a host of other New Age twaddle and superstition. I have to imagine what else Dawkins will raise his eyebrows at because his work won't be shown in the U.S. when it premiers on August 13 on Channel Four in the U.K. Part two will air a week later. I know about the program because of a preview in TimesOnLine (thanks to the North Texas Skeptics). The also previews "Enemies of Reason."

Dawkins's attack on the irrationality of religion, The God Delusion, has sold over one million copies. The book is now out in paperback. You can view Dawkins reading the new preface, a response to his critics, by clicking here. "Growing Up in the Universe," a 2-disc DVD set aimed at educating children, is available for purchase from A preview is available on YouTube. "Growing Up in the Universe" was originally made in 1991 as one of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Children, which were founded by Michael Faraday in 1825.

I don't think his documentary on religion, "The Root of All Evil?", has been shown on American television. I suspect that if I want to see "The Enemies of Reason" I'll have to wait for the DVD to come out and buy it from the Skeptics Society as I did with "The Root of All Evil?".

No, we won't have to wait. Thanks to Google! Click here to see part 1 of "The Enemies of Reason" and here to see part 2. Dawkins shows how beliefs affect the lives of people, how people rationalize to support their beliefs when it is obvious that they lack any good reasons for holding them, and how such things as Barnum statements, cold reading, wishful thinking, and self-deception work in concrete situations. He laments the fact that so many people reject, misunderstand, and abuse science in favor of a pathetic narcissism anchored by unassailable beliefs in various superstitions. That such irrationality is part of our evolutionary heritage is noted but not excused. The harmfulness of the enemies of reason is exposed: billions spent on useless or frivolous practices, children exposed to risk from measles by parents who buy into quack notions presented on the Internet and in the media, millions buying into 9/11 conspiracy theories, science education diminished, and society fractured by the incessant catering to irrational preferences.

I haven't checked the entire Channel 4 website, but I did find one problematic claim. On the Facts page I found the following claim: "Astrology was developed in the 2nd century AD by the philosopher Claudius Ptolemy." Some might take this to mean that Ptolemy created astrology. What Dawkins says in the program is that Ptolemy established the Tropical zodiac as the zodiac western astrologers would use. Ptolemy wrote books that summarized the work in astrology done by Sumerians, Babylonians, and other ancients who came before him and those books provided the foundation for western astrology.*

further reading


Ham Land

June 1, 2007. Sometimes our planet seems to be evolving into a collection of theme parks. A few years ago, Erich von Däniken designed an amusement park centering on what he considers "mysteries." Investors poured in about $60 million for his Mystery Park, which featured such themes as the Nazca lines, Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Mayan calendar, and travel to Mars. Mystery Park also featured a pavilion with an exhibit of von Däniken's work.  Antoine Wasserfallen  called the park a "cultural Chernobyl." Despite being located in one of the most beautiful areas on our planet (near Interlaken, Switzerland) the Mystery Park attracted an insufficient number of mystery seekers and is now closed.

Another visionary, Bryan Temmer, Founder and President of Alien Apex Resort, Inc., has promised Roswell, New Mexico, a multi-sensory theme park celebrating the famous UFO non-incident of 1947. "This won't just be a theme park ride," Temmer says  "You will actually believe you have been abducted by aliens."* I don't know what he has in mind but I wonder about the market for such a product. Are there really a significant number of people willing to pay money and stand in line for such an experience?

Johan Huibers of the Netherlands is hoping that at least 100,000 people will pay to visit his hand-built "replica" of Noah's ark, complete with fake farmyard animals. He reckons that's how many visitors he needs to recoup his investment of $1.2 million.* His ark park plan is to sail the boat in the canals of Holland and admit paying visitors on board.

Few theme parks, however, can match the "Love Land" sex park in South Korea.  A landscape dotted with sculptures of sex organs and people in various sex acts would probably not meet the approval of the most recent entrant into the theme park business: Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham.

Ham opened up a Biblical theme park 7 miles west of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport.* He calls his park the "Creation Museum," even though it is not a museum and the only creation it is concerned with is a rather odd reading of Genesis that makes out that the universe is only some 6,000 years old and holds that all species were created directly by a Creator without the mechanism of evolution. The National Secular Society calls Ham's creation "a monument to stupidity."* I call it Ham Land. It features such exhibits as a tableau of Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, and dinosaurs cavorting with buckskin-clad animated children.  A video shows how the Grand Canyon was formed by the great flood plagiarized in Genesis.

I don't know what the motto of Love Land is, but Ham Land's motto is "Prepare to Believe." I'm pretty sure that the only ones who might be led to believe anything based on what they see at Ham Land are the children brought there by their Young Earth-believing parents. Mostly, Ham Land will serve to reinforce the beliefs of those who already think there is nothing odd about maintaining that a band of ancient Hebrews had a pipeline to the one true God, who provided his specially chosen desert people with the true story of how the earth was formed and how life began.

Ham has littered his Land with dinosaurs-apparently because kids are fascinated by them and he thinks that they'll be useful for the propaganda campaign he calls his "ministry."* Ham Land even has a display of finches, Darwin's finches, that proclaims that scientists are "puzzled" by the variety of finches. The only scientists puzzled by such things are those who, like Ham, get their science from the Bible. Those who get their science from nature may be puzzled at the existence of creatures like Ham and his admirers. These "fundies" see no irony in mocking science while taking advantage of the many gadgets made possible by the discoveries of natural scientists. Ham Land uses flat screen TVs, dioramas, and video theaters with special effects. I'll bet Ham uses electronic cash registers and armored cars running on fossil fuel to carry away the day's receipts to the bank.

One critic of Ham Land compared the Bible theme park to Joe Camel, calling it "a crass marketing ploy that cynically preys on the impressionable minds of children."*  Ham's response is "if evolution is so obvious, why are they so worried?" That's just it. Evolution isn't obvious. If millions of children are taught by their parents that God made Adam and Eve and they're taught by their preachers that everything science tells them about the origin of species is wrong and they have these silly stories about creation and floods supported by adults who are running for president of the United States, then we should not be surprised that many people grow up believing ancient mythologies are more reliable than modern scientific theories and knowledge.

Fortunately, for those of us who like our science straight there are thousands of real museums of science, natural history, anthropology, archaeology, technology, history, and so on. One dopey Ham Land is not going to change the world any more than an alien abduction theme park is going to change space travel. The time to worry will be when the local public schools bring busloads of kids to Ham Land for a science outing.

further reading


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