Mass Media Bunk is a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.

Robert Todd Carroll

©copyright 2006





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June 23, 2001. The Learning Channel's "Atlantis in the Andes" followed the vision of a former British military cartographer who reads Plato's myth of Atlantis as a literal depiction of a country (rather than as a story with a moral message) and who has found a place in the Andes that matches, more or less, the description. He was able to make things fit, more or less, by dividing Plato's unit of measurement in half and offering an explanation of this alteration in terms of different latitudes and longitudes justifying it. Things that didn't fit, he ignored. For instance, he made no effort to explain why philosophers and classicists understand the Timaeus and Critias as another of Plato's stories used to discuss the issue of the ideal society. He doesn't explain the nine thousand year gap during which nobody in Greece or Egypt (where the story allegedly originated) mentions the battle of Athens with Atlantis. He did hint at an explanation as to how Plato's source could have such detailed knowledge of a country across the Atlantic Ocean: he suggests the ancient South Americans sailed to Egypt in reed boats, similar to those used on lake Titicaca today. In fact, he claims that the ancient "Atlanteans" had an inland port and were masters of the high seas some nine-thousand years ago. The fact that there is little supportive evidence for this notion was ignored. (A native of the  Titicaca region who believes his ancestors were masters of the high seas and who will one day build a reed boat and do a Thor Heyerdahl does not count as strong supportive evidence.) The show was a great study in confirmation bias and how, if you are clever enough, you can find evidence to support the literal truth of just about any story. Those who produced the show were no doubt influenced by the fact that speculative or "alternative" archaeology sells. It was mentioned, but little was made of it, that evidence of cocaine and tobacco have been found during exams of mummified pharaohs, yet those products did not originate in Egypt. No mention was made that these findings are controversial and could be due to contamination by earlier examiners or could represent chemicals from products available in Egypt or to Egypt via one of the trade routes, which most likely did not include sailing across the Pacific Ocean to South America.

If the Pharaohs or other Egyptians did use cocaine or tobacco, it is odd that no depiction is made of it in their tombs or on their papyrus sheets.

I look forward to the next program in this series: The Discovery of Plato's Cave in Aboriginal Australia.

reader comments

Thanks for your review of TLC's programs. I did see them in the TV listings, but declined the opportunity to view them. I have found many of TLC's programs touching on "paranormal" subjects to lack almost any kind of skepticism. I wonder how many other viewers missed a good program because they've grown to mistrust TLC. The fact that they follow the good with the bad doesn't help inspire new confidence either.

Do you think that the market for good, honest, skeptical shows about "paranormal" subjects is really too small to merit the time and money spent on un-skeptical shows, or do you think it is cowardice on the part of the programming directors that prevents them from making less credulous programs the norm? Do you think that The Skeptic's Network (TSN) could be a viable channel someday if someone were brave enough to pitch it?

take care,


reply: TSN, The Skeptic's Network a viable channel? I doubt it, but we shouldn't be cynical as well as skeptical. Michael Shermer's "Exploring the Unknown" series has been picked up by Fox Family Channel (Friday 10 pm). Randi has had a few specials shown on public television, where he debunks psychics, paranormal researchers and fraudulent preachers. And Scientific American Frontiers (also on public television) debunked alien autopsies, dowsing and a few other items. If the programs are entertaining, skeptical programs can compete with unskeptical shows on paranormal or occult subjects. However, producers don't want to offend large numbers of viewers and any program which demonstrates that millions of people are irrational or idiots for believing in alien abductions, ESP, miracle cures from ancient China or ghosts talking to charlatans, is considered a bit offensive. I don't consider it offensive but some others do. Unfortunately, they're the ones who watch TV several hours a day. 

March 14, 2001. The headline at reads: Experiment supports Freud's theory of repression. The article is from the Associated Press and no author is listed. It begins: 

An experiment found that people can push an unwanted memory out of their minds, lending credence to Sigmund Freud's theory of repression. 

In the study, college students who had memorized pairs of words were later shown half of the pair and were asked to either say the corresponding word or try to forget the second word.

The more the participants were asked to put words out of their minds, the less likely they were to recall the word later, even when paid to remember the word.

Freud's theory of repression is not centered on the notion that people can and do consciously forget things. Freud's theory is that the mind unconsciously forgets unpleasant, traumatic events such as sexual abuse. These repressed memories, according to Freud, can unconsciously affect a person's thoughts, desires and actions, and lead to neuroses. I thought that the journalist didn't know Freud's theory and so this piece of bunk about finding experimental support for it was due to the ignorance of some journalist. Apparently not.

The article is based on a study published in the March 16, 2001, issue of Nature: "Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control" by Michael C. Anderson and Collin Green. Their article begins

Freud proposed that unwanted memories can be forgotten by pushing them into the unconscious, a process called repression. The existence of repression has remained controversial for more than a century....*

I think these claims are misleading. Freud emphasized the unconscious repression of unpleasant memories. That theory is controversial because there is only weak empirical evidence for it. (See Daniel Schacter's Searching for Memory, chapter 9, for a discussion of the research in this area. Most research supports the notion that the stronger the emotional experience, the more likely it is that one will remember it.) But there is a large amount of anecdotal and scientific evidence in support of the notion that we consciously repress unpleasant memories (as there is that we unconsciously forget pleasant things that unconsciously affect our thoughts and actions).

Another article in the same issue of Nature is called "Cognitive neuroscience: Repression revisited" by Martin A. Conway, a psychologist at the University of Bristol in England. According to, Conway claims that

....the Oregon research supports Freud's theory about the mind's ability to repress thoughts, especially painful or disturbing ones.

Even more surprising is that this occurs for unrelated pairs of words. How much stronger must this inhibition be for objects central to our thoughts and emotions.

I'd say this is an empirical matter, not to be decided by projection. The ability to consciously forget words isn't even of the same type as unconsciously forgetting painful emotional experiences. The research doesn't support Freud's theory; it supports a minor and uncontroversial part of that theory. Anderson, at least, recognized this. He is quoted by as saying "What we really need to do is see if the same effect occurs for emotionally more significant material....That's a very important step we have to take. I wouldn't really say we've solved the repression problem here. It's just a good start."

A third article in the same issue--"Neurobiology: New memories from new neurons" by  Jeffrey D. Macklis--and a fourth--"Neurogenesis in the adult is involved in the formation of trace memories" by  Tracey J. Shors et al.--seem to have been confused by the AP writer or a editor. The article credits Shors with the Macklis study which dealt with rats who "were not as likely to remember the connection between two events separated by time if given a drug that cuts the production of neurons in the hippocampus, an area of the brain used in the formation of some types of memory."

For those who might not be aware of it, the AP story notes that "the brains of both rats and humans have a hippocampus" and claims that "the study is the first to show in mammals that new neurons are used in memory formation, though previous work has shown the connection in birds." What this has to do with supporting Freud's theory of repression is anybody's guess.

March 6, 2001. I wasted an hour tonight watching Larry King Live, whose guests included three so-called psychics who claim they get messages from spirits of the dead. The most obnoxious guest was Sylvia Browne, who claimed she solved the N.Y. Trade Center bombing and many other crimes. She's made the same claims several times on the Montel Williams show. Paul Kurtz of CSICOP, also on the "panel" (as Larry referred to his guests), noted that whenever Browne's claims as a psychic detective have been checked out they don't check out. No mention was made, however, of the Brill's Content investigation of Browne: 

Brill's Content has examined ten recent Montel Williams programs that highlighted Browne's work as a psychic detective (as opposed to her ideas about "the afterlife," for example), spanning 35 cases. In 21, the details were too vague to be verified. Of the remaining 14, law-enforcement officials or family members involved in the investigations say that Browne had played no useful role.

"These guys don't solve cases, and the media consistently gets it wrong," says Michael Corn, an investigative producer for Inside Edition who produced a story last May debunking psychic detectives. Moreover, the FBI and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children maintain that to their knowledge, psychic detectives have never helped solve a single missing-person case.

"Zero. They go on TV and I see how things go and what they claim but no, zero," says FBI agent Chris Whitcomb. "They may be remarkable in other ways, but the FBI does not use them."

Of course, there is no way to test her other claims because they are about spirits or are too vague. For example, one caller wanted some info on her parents' parents. Her parents were both adopted. Browne said she was getting the message "B-U-R-G-E-S-S" and Memphis. Nobody could use such data to test anything meaningful.

My favorite line of the night came from James Van Praagh, who does not take criticism well. Skeptics, including rabbi Shmuley Boteach who joined Kurtz and former Time magazine chief science writer Leon Jaroff, were out to destroy people, said Van Praagh, while psychics were bringing good things to life. Well, skeptics are certainly out to destroy frauds like those on Larry King's show, and with good reason. The rabbi--friend of and co-author with Uri Geller--noted that the information the psychics were claiming to get from spirits was trivial, banal and demeaning. Van Praagh disagreed because such "messages" prove there is an afterlife, which he takes to be a good thing. To tell the truth, I wouldn't mind an afterlife if it did not include characters like Van Praagh or Sylvia Browne, but it would be hell to have to spend eternity in the presence of such uninspiring charlatans.

The least obnoxious of the charlatans was John Edward, which is not to say that he was not obnoxious. He has reduced the debate between true believers and skeptics to one of choosing your belief system. He doesn't care what criticism you throw at him because he doesn't respond to criticism, which, he believes, is  just part of your belief system, which isn't his or his fans' belief system. He says he isn't interested in proving his powers but he agreed to be tested by a scientist in Arizona who, as Jaroff put it, believes in the tooth fairy (clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry Dr. Gary Schwartz of the University of Arizona in Tucson, director of something called Human Energy Systems Laboratory). None would agree to be tested by James Randi because, as Browne put it, it would be a set up. (She claims she was set up by Randi before who tested her psychic powers some ten years ago. She said the subjects whose minds she was supposed to read were "Germanic" and didn't speak English. Why should that matter to a psychic? Anyway, Randi has posted a reply, denying that Browne was set up and claiming she lied about the Germans. According to Randi, "Only one member of that audience of 140 persons was German, and [Browne] spent a full one minute and seven seconds rattling off guesses for him, then found out he was German, only after he told [her].")

I don't see how these three stooges (Browne, Van Praagh and Edward) could be tested, since they all claimed that just because the message they get from the spirit doesn't make sense doesn't mean it doesn't make sense. The subject might figure it out later or it might be a message from a different spirit! There is no way in hell anyone could prove these messages didn't come from somebody in heaven!

Other than a bit of self-promotion and name-calling, the program provided nothing but a minimum of entertainment and even less enlightenment. For good measure, Larry brought in Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI agent and profiler, who stumbled his way around to say that psychics have never helped solve a case but he wouldn't rule out using them because you should pursue every avenue yada yada yada. Van Zandt said he'd use psychics even though they're useless:

....if you exhaust law enforcement investigation, if you exhaust psychological profiling, if the victim's family or the police say, "I would like to try a psychic," I would say, anything that can help, and anything that would help a victim's family, I would not stand in the way.

Van Zandt was the chief negotiator in the Waco fiasco. He even admitted that he had someone say the word 'Beelzebub' to Koresh over the phone because some psychic advised him to do so.

King also brought in Dale Graff, a retired physicist who worked with the military on Stargate, a program devoted to the investigation of remote viewing. 

The ostensible reason for having this show was to discuss Jaroff's recent article in Time magazine, "Talking to the Dead," an article inspired by James Randi's exposé of Edward in a recent issue of Skeptic magazine. Like Randi and Shermer, Jaroff has no kind words for frauds. The article mentions that Inside Edition is planning an exposé of Edward by James Randi to be aired later this week. There is no mention of such on the Randi homepage. (Inside Edition's website is a major waste of bandwidth requiring Flash 4.)

In my opinion, the rabbi came off as being the most rational and thoughtful. Jaroff and Kurtz seemed cynical, the former calling the psychics names and the latter asking for the television equivalent of a strip search of his unscientific opponents. (There is something unbecoming about a person asking a psychic to be reasonable and scientific. Would Kurtz be baffled if the psychics required him to be spiritual in order to engage them in dialogue?) Browne and Van Praagh came off as bitter and arrogant, though the latter provided the best hoot of the evening when he claimed that Michael Shermer said on Oprah that Van Praagh has a computer hooked up to every home in America. Van Zandt waffled whilst Graff waxed poetic about the powers of remote viewing and forces out there that are unknown to modern physics. I'm surprised he didn't have to leave early to catch his UFO home. Larry remained calm throughout and to his credit did not appear to be favoring one side or the other. (Not everyone agrees with my assessment.) He gave the skeptics every opportunity to respond to the true believers. But it became clear about thirty seconds into the program that nothing very interesting or important was going to happen in the next hour. If the psychics truly are either suffering from delusions or are frauds, as I believe is most probably the case, how else could they respond to challenges from skeptics except with bitterness (Browne and Van Praagh) or indifference (Edward)? Any hope of a meaningful dialogue is as remote as the likelihood that the FBI knows who amongst them is spying for the enemy.

The rabbi simply noted that the psychics make pointless observation after pointless observation: if these psychics are truly getting messages from the dead then life truly is pointless because these messages prove life after death is for the terminally silly.

February 15, 2001. "If there's really a sucker born every minute, shouldn't Fox be America's No. 1 [network] by now?" I wish I had written that line, but I didn't. It comes from Ellen Gray of the Philadelphia Daily News in an article entitled "One false step for man? Fox dredges up 'conspiracy' that 1969 lunar landing was faked." This Fox program was much worse than the so-called Alien Autopsy film the network showed several years ago. Words like "shameless" and "despicable" come to mind to describe this latest panegyric to the cognitively challenged. The Fox show was little more than a soapbox for Bill Kaysing's moronic speculations (We Never Went to the Moon, 1976). Kaysing thinks NASA intentionally burned to death astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. He says NASA won't come clean about the deaths because the astronauts were killed because "they knew too much." About what? About how the whole space program was a fake. Right! If I were NASA and wanted my government to continue funding my fake program I'd burn three astronauts to death on the launching pad, too. What else would build more confidence in the program? 

Kaysing's main "evidence" for believing the moon landings were faked prove only the man's ignorance. There are no stars in the NASA photos, notes Kaysing. Of course there aren't, and if Kaysing had any knowledge at all about photography, he'd know why. There are no stars in the moon photos for the same reason you can't photograph stars in the daylight here on earth. For those who care about the truth, see Jim Scotti's page or Phil Plaitt's or NASA's or even the work of the people.

Fox is shameless in its promotion of hoaxes and its encouraging people to take seriously slanderous claptrap and ignorant drivel. They even brought in Mrs. Grissom and her son to insinuate that NASA was hiding something sinister from them regarding the fire that killed Gus Grissom and the other two astronauts.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

January 2, 2001. Acupuncture got a big boost from a couple of football announcers last night who noted during the Oregon State rout of Notre Dame that one of the OSU players had had back or leg pains that went away after acupuncture treatment that had been recommended by his coach. The announcers said that the player said that he never felt better and that he went back for more treatments, he thought so highly of them.

This kind of anecdote is powerful. I don't know how many people watched OSU thump ND, but some of them are probably calling an acupuncturist right now.

Of course, no one will ever hear a coach or an announcer say: Johnny Winwon was treated for pain by an acupuncturist and there was no long-term improvement of his condition.

Before consulting an acupuncturist based on a favorable anecdote, I would advise doing some reading on regression, confirmation bias and the post hoc fallacy.

December 26, 2000. Bob Salsberg of the Associated Press concluded his story about yesterday's partial solar eclipse with a quote from Lauren Likkel, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire: "What are the odds of having a partial eclipse on the last Christmas Day of the millennium?"

I don't know, but they are probably about the same as the odds of 300 Chinese dying in a fire on Christmas and of President-elect Bush's daughter having an appendectomy, both of which happened yesterday.

One might ask what are the odds of having a baby during a partial eclipse on the last Christmas Day of the millennium? I have no idea, but I'll bet it happened.

Just about anything looks odd if you look through the wrong end of the telescope.






©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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