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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December 10, 1999. That anguished howl heard round the world was none other than the "Church" of Scientology in Britain responding to the bad news that, according to the British government, Scientology is neither a charity nor of public benefit. So says the Independent News, which uncharitably notes that "One of the group's main teachings is that the human race's problems are due to disembodied souls brought to the planet millions of years ago." L. Ron Hubbard must be turning over in his grave.

December 8, 1999. The Dalai Lama says that religious leaders should stop relying on prayer and meditation to bring about world peace. They should do something instead. "Change," he says, "only takes place through action, not through meditation and prayer." I wonder how they took the news in Damascus, where President Hafez al-Assad has all of Muslim Syria praying for rain even though he knows words are not enough for some things.

The Dalai Lama also says that the new millennium is "nothing special."

His remarks were made before some 7,000 delegates from 70 countries at the Parliament of the World's Religions held in Capetown, South Africa.  "We need to ask, 'How can I make a contribution (to world peace)?', not 'How can I further my own religion?'" he said.

While on a tour promoting his new book in the U.S. recently, he was asked what Buddhists would do if science discovered that something they'd been teaching were proved false. He said that if the scientists were right, the Buddhists would change their teaching.

[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

December 6, 1999. "I am so scared that sometimes I stay awake on purpose so the day won't end," says 6 foot 4/220 pound, Jeffrey Modahl, recently released after fifteen years in prison for being wrongly accused of sexually abusing his stepdaughter during the witch hunt for satanic baby killers in the mid-1980s. According to Sacramento Bee reporter Laura Mecoy, Modahl had gone to Kern County welfare workers in Bakersfield, California, because he learned that a pair of male baby sitters might have molested his daughter. (Modahl's wife died three years after marrying her in 1976 and he was raising her two daughters.) In a familiar story (there are about 50 other similar cases in Bakersfield alone, with about half resulting in prison sentences), his 10-year-old daughter was interrogated by officials and the girl claimed her father and six others had molested her. Carla Jo Owen, now married with children of her own, says she lied under pressure from investigators and that only the babysitters abused her. She said so within three months of her father's conviction. Last May, a judge overturned Modahl's conviction. 

Craig Phillips, the prosecutor in Modahl's case, says that investigators could have done a better job, but he has not changed his mind about Modahl's guilt. "If the claims were false," he says, "that is attributable to Carla." However, a 1986 report by the attorney general's office in Bakersfield criticized "poorly trained county investigators for taking children from their homes, interviewing them repeatedly, using leading questions and verbally rewarding those who made accusations."

"We were lied to so much and we were abused so much by the system that we don't know who to believe anymore," said Modahl.

Carla Jo has had a drug and alcohol problem most of her life since she was put in foster care (in 23 homes by the time she was sixteen). She says she's tried to kill herself eight times. Her sister, who still blames her for ruining her father's life, has also had drug and alcohol problems, has never married but has four children by two abusive boyfriends.

Modahl's family has been given a life sentence, as have many others who were caught up in the hysteria fueled by the likes of Geraldo Rivera who played up the satanic cult myth on his talk show years ago.

November 28, 1999. Avoid shopping at Gurnee Mills unless you want to support belief in psychics. According to, they've hired a "psychic" to help shoppers pick out the perfect gift. (I wish I was kidding.)
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

November 27, 1999. Donna Bryson of the Associated Press in Cairo provides a reminder that this year is not only not the end of the millennium for those of us on the Gregorian calendar, but that the Gregorian is not even the calendar of choice for billions of people on the planet. In fact, some people still prefer lunar years to solar years. For example, it is 1420 according the Egyptian Muslim (lunar) calendar, which marks the beginning of historical time from the day the Prophet Mohammed fled Mecca. The few Jews still living in Egypt consider this 5760. They use a Hebrew calendar.

According to one group of Hindus in India, it is 2056. According to another group, it is 1921. And, in Iran, Shiite Muslims are in the year 1378.

Others accept the Gregorian calendar but don't celebrate New Years Eve on December 31. The Copts (Egyptian Christians), for example, consider September 11 to be New Years Day.

So when does the new millennium begin? (This is important for those predicting the end of the world as we know it.)

November 24, 1999.  Italy may be a Catholic country, but the Italians have some strange superstitions regarding priests and nuns, according to Passing either on the street is considered bad luck.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

November 23, 1999. Erica Good of the New York Times (reprinted in the Sacramento Bee today, p. A9) reports that a coalition made of of the National Education Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have taken aim at the anti-homosexual religious movement, particularly the Love Won Out campaign to introduce reparative therapy (also called conversion therapy) into the schools. Reparative therapy is therapy directed specifically at changing sexual orientation. Most psychologists disapprove of such therapy.

The coalition's concern is with the growing anti-gay movement by people such as Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition, Bridges Across the Divide, and Focus on the Family, a Colorado Christian group which sponsors Love Won Out conferences where participants are taught how to recognize and combat "pro-gay" messages and encouraged to endorse reparative therapy in public schools. The movement is seen as furthering the hostile environment gays find themselves in.

The coalition, in an effort to promote a safe environment for gays, has announced that it will be sending a 12-page booklet to the nation's 14,700 school superintendents entitled "Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation & Youth." The booklet states that "there is no support among health and mental health professional organizations" that being gay is abnormal or unhealthy.

Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council condemned the pamphlet. "If they're going to talk about 'the facts,' then here's a fact: All the major religions of the world consider homosexuality wrong," said Parshall. 

Here's another 'fact': all the major religions of the world are wrong about this and about almost everything else they talk about.

November 17, 1999. The November issue of Charisma magazine has a skeptical article about a weird phenomenon that apparently began in Toronto several years ago and has spread to revival meetings in several countries. Some revivalists believe that God is doing dentistry and transforming amalgam fillings into gold. In Brazil, gold dust is said to fall from the head of Silvania Machado when she prays. In When the Glory Comes Down Elizabeth Moll Stalcup examines the claim of certain pastors in North and South America and Europe who say that gold dust is falling in revival services. She questions whether what is appearing is really gold and wonders if it really comes from God.

When the charismatics are skeptical of miraculous signs, I suppose the hardened skeptics should take note.

In "Gold Dust Phenomenon Stirs Up Questions Among Charismatics," Andy Butcher notes that John Arnott of the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship (TACF) canceled a scheduled four-day appearance by Machado after a geochemist at the University of Toronto, who examined some "gold" flecks that fell from her head during a revival meeting, concluded the specks did not contain any gold but were some type of plastic film.

In "From base metal to gold: theological reflections on the gold teeth filling phenomenon," Andrew Walker traces the history of the God the Dentist movement from the Toronto Blessing in 1994 and casts doubt upon the veracity of the claim that God is replacing base metal fillings and crowns with gold at revival meetings. "Doing divine dentistry, like doing a turn at a party, seems to be a form of showing off, the self-indulgence of a mischievous sprite," according to Walker. 

"I do not know who or what is behind the gold tooth phenomenon," says Walker, "but I do know that if God is behind it, then this is not a God I want to follow."

[thanks to Bob Liichow and Jez Smith]

November 10, 1999. The Associated Press reports that Oklahoma has joined Illinois, Kansas, and Kentucky in the effort to have evolution demoted from the foundation of modern biology to 'just another theory.' (Kanawha County, West Virginia, is considering joining the pack.) The Oklahoma State Textbook Committee voted to require that all new biology textbooks carry a disclaimer saying evolution is a “controversial theory.”

“Some of us on the committee wanted to send a strong statement to the publishers that we are fed up with textbooks that only present one side of the story,” said John Dickmann, a middle school teacher who introduced the disclaimer. According to Mr. Dickmann, biology texts do not give enough attention to alternate explanations of the development of life (such as the Genesis myth?).

November 8, 1999. Time magazine devotes this issue to articles predicting what will happen in the year 2000. While waiting in the dentist's office I read an article by Leon Jaroff who predicts that the next century will see the end of the "alternative" medicine fad. He notes that the term 'alternative medicine' is just a politically correct term for quackery and claims that once people realize that homeopathic remedies are nothing but water and that those nurses waving their hands over your body are moving air not "energy," they will revolt. The Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health will be abandoned, says Jaroff. I wish I saw the same things when I look into my crystal ball.

While reading the article I started to envision a new movement devoted to alternative dentistry. 

November 5, 1999. The Electronic Telegraph (UK) reports that a Kansas teacher has been sacked for telling a student that her parents have been teaching her "crap" about the creation of the universe. I can understand how exasperating it must be for a teacher to have to deal with hordes of infallible children who have been encouraged to believe that science is a bunch of crap, especially when school boards, government agencies, presidents and would-be presidents of the United States encourage the students in their notion. Still...a teacher must show respect for even for the least of his or her minions and their guardians.
[thanks to Rachel Henderson]

further reading: Washington Post and Cyberlearning.

reader comments: 

11 Nov 1999 

I regularly visit your Skeptic's Refuge, but this is the first time I actually feel the need to respond to something I found there. This concerns one of your most recent entries in the Mass Media Funk column, dated Nov 5, about a Kansas teacher who got sacked. You write, "a teacher must show respect for even for the least of his or her minions and their guardians."

Well, you see, I agree with you 100%, except on one point: I think said teacher's anger over what his young student was being taught at home proves that he showed a great deal more respect towards this child's developing mind than the student's parents did...

Thanks for a great Web site!

Viktor T. Toth

November 2, 1999. Will the Eastern Seaboard replace the Bermuda Triangle as the place where mysterious crashes occur in exceptional numbers? Not if John Allen Poulos has his way. In "Fear, Logic and Tragedy - Looking for Meaning in Coincidences," on, Poulos tries to ward off the tabloids with some mathematical logic. He explores the human "tendency to attribute significance to anomalies and coincidences" and encourages a rational look at statistics and events in light of several recent air crashes. He reminds us that "a passenger who daily and randomly takes a jet flight between American cities would, on average, go 19,000 years before dying in a crash."
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

November 1, 1999. On, John Allen Poulos revisits the Bible Code and summarizes its uselessness while reviewing the latest critique by Brendan McKay, published in the same journal as the original article that started all the fuss.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

November 1, 1999. "There was no exodus from Egypt, Joshua didn’t bring down the walls of Jericho, and Solomon’s kingdom was a small, tribal dynasty, an Israeli archaeologist says in a new article," according to Zeev Herzog’s archaeological evidence brings into question the accuracy of "the national myths that are the basis of Jewish claims to the land of Israel. "

October 29, 1999. James Redfield is joining other New Age healers in asking that "In the last moments of 1999, just as everybody focuses on the clock no matter where they are...join with everyone else and pray in their own way for a better world in the next century and millennium, for an increase in peace and freedom, and a general uplifting in the human race." That should do the trick. And if it doesn't usher in a new paradigm at least it might increase sales of his latest book, The Secret of Shambhala. Not that he needs the publicity. His latest is already a "runaway bestseller."
[Jon Henrik Gilhuus, who alerted us to this nonsense, says it reminds him of Ambrose Beirce's definition of pray: "To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy."]

October 29, 1999. Reuters reports that today Erich von Däniken called upon investors to buy shares in a Mystery Park he hopes to open in Interlaken, Switzerland, on a site that used to be a military airfield. The park, he told Reuters, "will let visitors explore unexplained phenomena such as how the great Egyptian pyramids in Giza were made or what caused the strange, miles-long Nazca drawings in Peru's desert." It is to be expected that von Däniken will emphasize the mystery part of his park. He says the park will provide more questions than answers to its visitors. People don't have "the time or money to visit the mysteries of this world themselves," he said, so he is bringing the mysteries of the world to them....if they live in Switzerland.

In his spiel to entice investors, von Däniken says that his park will present "the wonders and mysteries related to such questions as where our civilization came from and where it is going." Historians please do not bother to offer your assistance. This group has no interest in traditional explanations of the origins of civilization. They are not mysterious enough because they don't involve stories of aliens and spaceships. And who better to tell us about the future than a group of visionaries who think history should be created out of the imagination.

Von Däniken's group is selling shares in the Park to raise some $3.5 million (5.5 million Swiss Francs). I don't know why he doesn't just give Joe Firmage a call.
[thanks to Neil Winder]

October 29, 1999. A Gallup poll found that only about 12% of American adults object to Halloween on religious grounds. However, the poll also found that belief in ghosts and witches is going strong. Belief in ghosts is up 200% over twenty years ago and belief in witches is up 100%. What is most scary is that "belief in ghosts is much higher among younger Americans than among older Americans. In fact, over half -- 54% -- of those 18-29 say they believe in ghosts, compared to only 8% of senior citizens 65 and older." We're going the wrong way, baby!
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

October 25, 1999. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Illinois Board of Education beat Kansas by two years in eliminating evolution from the state school standards. In July 1997, Illinois replaced references to evolution with "change over time."

A Christian conservative group affiliated with Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer is taking credit for influencing the state's decision to exclude the language, otherwise the quietly made decision might have continued to go unnoticed.

The bowdlerized Illinois Standards Achievement Test, to be administered for the first time next February, will not use the term 'evolution'.

The National Center for Science Education issued a report,  "Evolution Too 'Controversial' for Illinois Schools" by Molleen Matsumura, on the proposed changes two years ago, but the media has not paid much attention either to the report or to the Illinois Board's decision.
[Thanks to Roy W. Mumaw]

October 21, 1999. Blair Anthony Robertson's "Speed-reading between the lines," (Sacramento Bee, October 21, front page) exposes one of the many scam artists in the speed-reading trade, Howard Berg, who claims to be able to read 25,000 words a minute by reading "15 lines at a time backwards and forwards." That's about 80-90 pages a minute. Tolstoy's War and Peace should take Berg about 15 minutes to read, Robertson calculated. If Berg's claims were true, he would be, as he boldly asserts, the fastest reader in the world. Robertson, however, read Berg like a book, and was not fooled by the peppy personality or the hype. The first clue came at lunch when the reporter noticed that the world's fastest reader took twice as much time as he did to read the menu.

Robertson contacted Anne Cunningham, a University of California at Berkeley education professor and an expert on reading. She told him that tests measuring saccades (small rapid jerky movement of the eye as it jumps from fixation on one point to another) while reading have determined that the maximum number of words a person can accurately read is about 300 a minute. "People who purport to read 10,000 words a minute are doing what we call skimming," she said. Speed in reading is mainly determined by how fast a reader can understand the words and expressions one is reading. The fastest readers are those with excellent "recognition vocabularies." Faster readers can see words and understand them faster than slower readers. To improve one's speed at reading, she says, one should work on comprehension and study strategies.

Robertson did not skim over Berg's exaggerated claims or his credentials. He checked with Berg's alma mater and discovered that Berg was not telling the truth about his academic degrees. He noted that Berg had simply repackaged the Evelyn Woods Reading Dynamics course, one popular several decades ago with people like John F. Kennedy. Robertson noted that in his five-hour course, Berg hadn't said much about comprehension, except to suggest that it would come with practice. This did not deter several of the 35 students, who had paid $51 each for the class from the Learning Exchange in Sacramento, from purchasing audio tapes for $65.

The students would have done better to have enrolled in a community college course devoted to building study skills, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. It would have cost them less, and they would not end up wasting their time trying to read 10 lines at a time, backward and forward. They would also avoid the frustration that will be inevitable when they find that while they can skim through material at a greater rate than they can read it, the utility of such a skill is limited (good for most of what's likely to be in the daily newspaper, for example). Skimming makes both comprehension and taking pleasure in words or ideas next to impossible. Why read fiction at all if you don't want to enjoy the language and the ideas? Who would want to hire a physician or lawyer who skimmed rather than studied? Does anyone really need someone like Berg to teach them to skim the sports pages?

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©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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