From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 9 No. 4
9 April 2010
"A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing." --Alexander Hamilton
In this issue
--Is Benedict XVI the Antichrist?
--The 2010 (not prestigious) Templeton Prize Winner is....
--The Real Winner of the Templeton Prize
--Spontaneous National Destruction
--Woo Even Oprah Couldn't Sell: shocking news about electrohypersensitivity
What's the harm? 1. Religious group blamed for hundreds of deaths of children from measles; 2. More dowsing for bombs and drugs.
Many files were updated. A complete list with links to the updates may be found at skepdic.com/updates.html.
For the past 15 years or so, I've been blogging about the media's treatment of the paranormal, the supernatural, and the pseudoscientific. I started with two blogs, Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. In December of 2007, I stopped those blogs and started Skeptimedia. Recently, I finished archiving and indexing Funk and Bunk. (I've been archiving and indexing Skeptimedia since its inception.) I think this will be helpful to anyone researching the recent history of how the mass media deals with woo. For example, in the mid-90s the media was all over satanic ritual abuse. There are still people in prison who were unjustly charged and found guilty of heinous crimes due to the witch hunt and media frenzy over alleged ritual abuse. The frenzy lasted several years, but it eventually faded away. CSI fellow Elizabeth Loftus and others expended a lot of time and energy educating parents, journalists, the public, and law enforcement folks on the pliability and unreliability of memory and the proper way to interrogate children.
During that same time frame, repressed memory therapy led to the imprisonment of some people and the ruin of many families, as charges of child abuse—allegedly buried in the subconscious mind—were evoked during therapeutic sessions. Again, several leaders in the skeptical movement acted as a corrective to not only this particular bogus therapy, but to several others as well.
Unfortunately, the false charges of child abuse have been replaced with thousands of apparently accurate charges of abuse inflicted by clergymen.
The archives show that alternative medicine and the paranormal continue to grow unabated. The activities of psychics, mediums, and ghost hunters continue to win over the hearts and minds of millions of people. Irrational exuberance in some areas, however, may be on the decline, e.g., UFOs, astrology, young Earth creationism, and graphology. Atheism seems to be on the rise, and atheists are no longer made to sit in the back of the media bus. Atheists are even making strong statements in traditionally Catholic Ireland.
Why does the public still have doubts about MMR? asks William Reville, University College Cork’s associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer. In the US, a recent poll found that about 25% of adults think vaccines cause autism, despite the overwhelming evidence that there is no causal connection. In his attempt to answer the question, Reville writes:
The public no longer automatically trusts the guidance given by official authorities as it did in the past. For example, if medicine introduced a new vaccine for children 50 years ago the vast majority of people would accept it. This new attitude also applies to many other areas apart from medicine – the public is very wary of official reassurances about mobile phone transmission masts, genetically modified food, low level radiation, and so on.
He applauds the skepticism of the public, noting that public trust has to be earned. A problem arises, however, when advice based on sound science is rejected "out of fears based on misunderstanding." Often these fears are fueled by propaganda from biased parties and celebrities. We know, for example, that Andrew Wakefield, who started the vaccine scare, was receiving money from lawyers wanting to file lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers two years before he published his work on a small sample of children claiming a connection between vaccines, autism, and bowel problems. The media reported on the study, even though it wasn't large enough to warrant much coverage, and the fear engine was up and running. Reville chides the media slightly by noting:
The media tends to give all voices equal weight and unjustified fears promoted by amateur groups easily take root in the public mind.
Pseudosymmetry may be true of the news media, but it isn't true of the entertainment media, which heavily favors quacks, mavericks, and exuberant celebrities. It's not the media's fault, however, that the public finds Suzanne Somers or Jenny McCarthy credible medical sources. The public has to accept some of the responsibility for its irrational beliefs. Reville doesn't chide the public for being too lazy to get good information for themselves. If we don't trust our scientists, physicians, and health authorities, then why would we put our trust in the media or celebrities? The public should recognize that the media is less trustworthy than our scientists and physicians when it comes to science and medicine. Celebrities are even less trustworthy than the media when it comes to science and medicine, as are the quacks and pseudoscientists who plague the World Wide Web, our National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and our medical schools catering to the energy healers.
While it's true that the news media's pseudosymmetry makes it appear that one quack's view (or the views of a few hired guns for some special interest) is equal to the consensus viewpoint, it's not the media's fault that many members of the public can't tell a real blonde from a fake.
Satan's been busy lately. He's been tempting priests to rape children. He's been tempting the media to write stories critical of the current Roman Catholic pope. And, he's infected the Vatican, according to the Vatican's chief exorcist. Now it appears Satan has invaded the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Leonard Pitts has the story.
Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq in 2006. He was 20 years old. Fred Phelps and family showed up at his funeral, not to pay their respects, but to disrupt the services. They had nothing against Snyder personally—they try to disrupt as many soldiers' funerals as possible—but a half-dozen or so of Phelps's gang showed up carrying large signs with slogans like "God Hates Fags" and "Semper Fi Fags." The Phelps family wasn't protesting Snyder's sexual orientation, and they weren't at all concerned about the grief they would cause Snyder's loved ones.
The Phelps clan protests at the funerals of soldiers, according to Fred Phelps, because God is punishing America for not being anti-homosexual by having our soldiers die. Never mind that there is no logical connection between what the Phelps family do and what they believe. It is unlikely that these folks would understand what you meant if you told them they were guilty of a non sequitur. They probably think that a non sequitur is some kind of sexual act forbidden in the Old Testament. They call themselves the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), but this group "is no more a church than is your average gas station toilet," to use Pitts's apt description.
Anyway, Snyder's father sued Phelps for invasion of privacy and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. He won a judgment against Phelps of $10.9 million. Enter Satan. Last September, the appeals court overturned the judgment and ordered Mr. Snyder to pay Phelps $16,510 for legal costs.
Margie Phelps, the daughter of Fred Phelps and the attorney representing the WBC in its appeals, said the money that it receives from Snyder will be used to finance further demonstrations. "Mr. Snyder and his attorneys have engaged the legal system; there are some rules to that legal engagement," said Ms. Phelps. "They wanted to shut down the picketing so now they're going to finance it," she said.
A legal fund has been started to help Mr. Snyder pay court costs and to file an appeal with the United States Supreme Court. A website has been set up where you can donate to the Al Snyder legal fund. Bill O'Reilly of Fox News has pledged to pay the $16,510 bill,* but there are still legal costs involved with the appeal.
In an unrelated story about Nate Phelps it was reported that the Phelps clan has held nearly 43,000 demonstrations, mostly in the U.S., a few in Canada, and one in Iraq. Nate is one of Fred Phelps's children who left the "church" and is now an atheist. In addition to disrupting the funerals of American soldiers, the clan has picketed synagogues and Holocaust memorials. After the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake, WBC issued a press release thanking God for the heavy loss of life in China, and praying "for many more earthquakes to kill many more thousands of impudent and ungrateful Chinese Communists."*
In my book Becoming a Critical Thinker (2005, pages 59 and 67), I write:
Much of the information presented in the mass media is not the result of investigative or eyewitness reporting. It is handed to the media in the form of press releases by people representing those who have a stake in the public’s response to the information. The worst part of this is not that opinions are sometimes presented as facts or that outright lies are sometimes leaked to the press to misinform the public about some political enemy. The worst part is that only part of the story gets reported—at least initially—the part that favors the way of looking at things held by the source of the information....
A Video News Release is the video equivalent of printed propaganda provided by interested parties to newspapers and magazines....About 80 percent of the country’s news directors say they use VNR material at least several times a month. The opportunity for manipulation of the TV news media is perhaps better than that for print media being influenced by press releases simply because the value of video footage can be completely independent of its news value. The image, not the information, will capture the audience.
Last month Crikey, in conjunction with the University of Technology (UTS) Sydney, announced the results of an investigation into the role PR plays in driving the news reported by the Australian media. They found that 55% of the stories during a five-day working week in 19 hard-copy newspapers were driven by some sort of public relations. The Daily Telegraph led the pack with 70% of the stories analyzed being triggered by public relations. The Sydney Morning Herald had the lowest percentage of PR-driven stories for that week with 42%.
You might think that the blogosphere would be clear of this kind of influence peddling by press release or video news release. Not so. The influence peddlers have already invaded the blogosphere and sites like YouTube. They have their spin doctors spewing propaganda as if it were coming from disinterested parties. The democratization of information that is the World Wide Web has made having a fine-tuned crap detector more important than ever.
Most of you have probably heard by now that Republicans on the State Board of Education in Texas are rewriting history for the state's children because, they say, history has a liberal bias. No longer will students study the Bill of Rights and learn why the framers did not want the state to meddle in the religious lives of its citizens. Now they will learn that the framers didn't want separation of church and state at all. The students of Texas will also learn that Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin had an important influence on political revolutions from 1750 to the present, but Thomas Jefferson won't be mentioned in that context. Texans will also be required to learn about the importance of Phyllis Shlafly and the Heritage Foundation.
Steven Thomma notes that the school board in Texas isn't the only one "righting" American history. Former House of Representatives majority leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said recently that the people who settled Jamestown in 1607 were socialists and that their ideology doomed them. Historians must have been smoking illegal agricultural products, then, because they've been telling us that Jamestown was a capitalist venture financed by the Virginia Company of London. "It was never socialistic. In fact, in 1619, Jamestown planters imported the first African slaves to the 13 colonies that later formed the United States."
Armey also advised people to read the Federalist Papers if they want to find out what's driving the tea party movement. "The small-government conservative movement, which includes people who call themselves the tea party patriots and so forth, is about the principles of liberty as embodied in the Constitution, the understanding of which is fleshed out if you read things like the Federalist Papers," Armey said. The Federalist Papers were written largely by Alexander Hamilton, an advocate of a strong central government.
An admirer of British political systems, Hamilton was a nationalist who emphasized strong central government and successfully argued that the implied powers of the Constitution could be used to fund the national debt, assume state debts, and create the government-owned Bank of the United States. These programs were funded primarily by a tariff on imports and a highly controversial whiskey tax.*
Armey called those who disagreed with his view of Hamilton "ill informed."
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., is one of several prominent conservatives claiming that Franklin D. Roosevelt caused the Great Depression. "FDR took office in the midst of a recession," Bachmann told the Conservative Political Action Conference. "He decided to choose massive government spending and the creation of monstrous bureaucracies. Do we detect a Democrat pattern here in all of this? He took what was a manageable recession and turned it into a 10-year depression." Thomma writes: "The facts show that the country was in something far worse than a "manageable recession" in March 1933 when Roosevelt took office. Stocks had lost 90 percent of their value since the crash of 1929. Thousands of banks had failed. Unemployment reached an all-time high of 24.9 percent just before Roosevelt was inaugurated."
Even Joe McCarthy is being rehabilitated by the right. Phyllis Schlafly, whom Texas schoolchildren now must study, asserts: "Almost everything about McCarthy in current history books is a lie and will have to be revised." Ann Coulter agrees: "Everything you think you know about McCarthy is a hegemonic lie. Liberals denounced McCarthy because they were afraid of getting caught, so they fought back like animals to hide their own collaboration with a regime as evil as the Nazis." These folks believe in the blank slate view of history: history is a blank slate on which you can write anything you want to promote your ideology.
This list could go on as long as Rush Limbaugh does on our socialist government, but we'll stop with Glenn Beck and his hero David Barton, both of whom make a living "righting" history:
So what? you might say. History is always written from some point of view, so why not from a conservative political perspective? Sure, and why not from a fundamentalist Biblical or theocratic perspective? Why not just make stuff up to fit with the way you want things to be? Is this what facts and truth have become in a postmodern world?
If you want an accurate assessment of current thinking on evolution, don't go to the Texas school board or any of the other conservatives who are rewriting history. Go to the Smithsonian.
Just because you can't visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in person is no reason to deprive yourself of the learning opportunities afforded by this national treasure. In its ongoing commitment to expanding the public understanding of human evolution, the Smithsonian has created a wonderful website dedicated to presenting the latest findings and exploring the profound implications of our origins. The developers of this website are to be commended for creating a state-of-the-art series of exhibits that make science and learning fun.
Later this month, the Sacramento and (San Francisco) Bay Area Skeptics are putting on a conference in Berkeley, California. Speakers include Eugenie C. Scott, Wallace Sampson, Kirsten Sanford, David Morrison, Brian Dunning, Karen Stollznow, and Seth Shostak. The event will take place on Saturday, April 24, from 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM, at the David Brower Center.
Karen Stollznow interviewed me recently. More information on the podcast can be found at Point of Inquiry. It should be available for download next week.
On May 16, 2010, in Washington, D.C., Norm Allen, executive director of African Americans for Humanism, will be exhorting African American humanists to come out of the closet. Allen will also be examining "how religion is having a harmful impact on the social, political, and economic future of African Americans across the nation." Allen will be joined by Johnny Barnes (executive director of ACLU National Capital Area), Christopher Bell (author of The Black Clergy's Misguided Worship Leadership), journalist Jamila Bey, Debbie Goddard (CFI On Campus Field Organizer), and Sikivu Hutchinson (editor of blackfemlens.org).
I've already reported on phone apps that connect you to God, clear up your acne, or interpret your baby's cries for you. Now we have healing ringtones. Matsui Suzuki claims that sound waves from a ringing phone will dislodge pollen in the nose and clear the airway while contributing to weight loss. Right, and then you can trade in the weight loss for a new set of homeopathic false teeth.
You might think that homeopathy awareness week (April 10-16) would amount to little more than shaking our bodies to release our vital spirits so the two can harmonize their memories, but you'd be wrong. "During this week homeopaths and friends of homeopathy will come together to share with the world the miracles of homeopathy." I suppose this means an explanation of mesmerism, the placebo effect, and the proverbial sucker born every minute. Or not.
This minute's award goes to Diamond Water, created by a quantum physicist with help from his spiritual guides. "This is one of the products Kryon was announcing for our evolution and the planet's [sic] Earth healing." What? You don't know who Kryon is? He's an entity channeled by Lee Carroll, author of The Indigo Children.
Coming in a close second is Kirstie Alley's Organic Liaison, a weight management program selling vitamin and mineral water, lists of organic stores and restaurants, and other useless information for people who want to lose weight but don't want to eat less, exercise more, or have a limb amputated. You will notice immediate results if you pay with cash. Using a credit card won't work because the weight you lose when removing the card from your wallet or purse is regained as soon as you replace the card.
Bringing up the rear is the Teslar watch with its special chip "designed to emit a unique 7 to 9 Hz alpha wave signal that interacts with and strengthens your body’s own electromagnetic energy field." The only negative is that your whole body then becomes a magnet for flies. It's comforting to know that the "same technology is used by NASA to have a stabilizing effect on the astronaut’s health in space." According to the people who sell this thing, "the Teslar chip helps your energy field filter out annoying and potentially harmful electromagnetic ‘static’ such that your body can stay closer to its peak performance, both physically and mentally." They also claim that it helps your immune system and with jet lag. Would they lie? Just ask their satisfied customers.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., was the winner for the scientist who did the most to promote woo in ’09. He gets my vote for 2008, too.
Iraq's Interior Ministry was recognized for funding the biggest waste of money on pseudoscience ($85,000,000 on a dowsing rod called the ADE 651 that is supposed to locate IEDs). The ministry should also get the Who Caused the Most Harm with Woo award.
The Oprah Winfrey Show got the award for "the media outlet that reported as fact the most outlandish paranormal claim(s)." I don't know about paranormal claims, but she promoted instinct over evidence as she fawned over several celebrities as if they were medical experts. She gets my vote for greatest big-name promoter of anti-science.
Chip Coffey won for "the psychic who tricked the most people with the least effort." This is a judgment call on who fools the most people while performing really badly. I haven't seen Coffey perform, but I find it hard to believe that he's more inept that James Van Praagh or Sylvia Browne. Those two can burp and fart and have a million people ooh and aah while nodding in agreement.
You'll have to guess at who won the prize for "the group that most ardently refuses to face reality." I'll give you a hint: it wasn't the Republican Party or the Roman Catholic Church.
For more details, click here.
* AmeriCares *