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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May 10, 2002. The biggest scam on television these days is the psychic scam and I'm not talking about Miss Cleo. The fact that George Anderson, John Edward and James Van Praagh each has his own show watched by millions of Americans is almost enough to make any self-respecting skeptic throw in the towel. If we can't topple obvious charlatans with our dazzling explanations of how cold reading works, how wishful thinking operates, how confirmation bias prevents us from thinking critically, etc., then what good are we? You would think that demonstrating the foolishness of believing these characters are really getting encrypted messages from the dead would be like shooting fish in a barrel with a machine gun. Not so. Instead of diminishing in popularity as they expose themselves, they are expanding exponentially.

The late Bonny Lee Bakley (her husband, the actor Robert Blake, has been accused of murdering her) purportedly instructs George Anderson to tell her sister that, "We'll always be bosom buddies." The sister is in the room, so one has to wonder why Bonny Lee doesn't speak to her directly.  The sister proclaims she knows it is Bonny "talking" because "We had breast reduction surgery together!" What am I missing here?

I've written about John Edward many times and can't think of anything more to say that wouldn't be repetitious. I've written about four times as much stuff about James Van Praagh. I have nothing to add except that Ted Danson would be my second choice to play James in "Living With the Dead." Charles Grodin would have been my first choice.

I know some will criticize my complaint about TV shows that exploit human gullibility and vulnerability because they think I am advocating censorship. I'm not. However, I am not in complete agreement with USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco who said he has no objection to shows featuring psychic mediums purporting to hear auditory fragments from dead people. Bianco is quoted as saying, "I will say up front that everybody has intelligence lines they won't cross and mine is I believe people don't speak to the dead especially on a 'will call' basis." First of all, even though I characterize as stupid the shows and the performances of these so-called mediums, I don't believe the people who watch and support these shows are all stupid. To say so would be stupid. My guess is that the viewers of Dead Can Talk TV run the gamut of intelligence levels from stupid to genius. When I call the shows stupid I can only mean that they cross my intelligence line. I've analyzed this twaddle dozens of times before, so I am not going to bother repeating myself.

Unlike Bianco, I do have objections to these shows. We have laws against fraud: deceiving people to relieve them of their money. The only thing that seems to protect "psychics" from prosecution is the fact that it is impossible to prove that they are not hearing voices of the dead. Yet, what if one them were to appear in court and offer as testimony information they received from the dead, privy only to them, offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, with no guarantee that it is true much less that anyone knows for sure what it means? He'd be carted away for immediate psychiatric evaluation. It seems to me that our courts require minimal standards of what kind of testimony is reasonable, yet TV producers and audiences won't even apply such standards to the programs they promote and watch. We're not talking about fiction or drama here. These people are claiming their performances do not involve trickery or chicanery.

One of my main gripes about these shows is that they make my job as a teacher more difficult. Who can blame students for taking these "psychics" seriously when they have seen their deceptions and delusions validated repeatedly by alleged news reporters like Paula Zahn on CNN, or by talk show hosts like Larry King and Charles Grodin, or influential entertainers like Oprah and Montel Williams? I suppose it wouldn't be so bad if occasionally there were a skeptical critique given equal time and credibility. Free speech is obviously better than censorship, but self-regulation of this pornography for the mind seems to be contributing to our growing irrationality as a nation. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it is a matter of national security that we get these frauds off the air. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, but I can't help the way I feel when I see a grown man claim he hears a voice from the dead telling him that somebody's nickname is Miss Piggy, or that a dog is angry that another dog is now using his dish, and millions of Americans ooooh and aaaaah at his spiritual prowess.

October 14, 2001.  According to the Berlin bureau of Reuters, the American illusionist David Copperfield claims he predicted on February 17, 2001, what the winning numbers in the German national lottery would be on October 13, 2001. Copperfield agrees with this part of the Reuters story. However, the report also claims that Copperfield said, "It wasn't a trick." Copperfield says what he actually said was "This is not a trick like making the Statue of Liberty disappear."

One of the oldest tricks in the mentalist's bag is the sealed envelope reading trick. The Reuters writer, or his or her editor, apparently spiced up the Copperfield story with a deliberately misleading quote. The illusionist described his psychic prediction in exactly the terms one would expect a mentalist to use in describing his trick. Copperfield claims that his prediction was "sealed by a notary and locked in a box that was kept under round-the-clock surveillance." According to Reuters, "One hour after the winning numbers were drawn, the box was opened on a live television broadcast and the numbers on the slip of paper matched the winning draw: 2, 9, 10, 15, 25, 38, 4." By claiming Copperfield said it wasn't a trick, the writer made Copperfield out to be a liar.

If you are wondering how to do this conjuring trick, James Randi demonstrated it years ago. You can see for yourself by ordering a remastered CD for $15 from Hank Lee.

The story also claimed that when asked why he doesn't use his psychic powers to win lotteries, Copperfield said, "I find them boring. I'm not a gambler." This could be an accurate quote, but in the context of the misquote, it is very misleading. The Reuter's writer also claims that Copperfield said he can only "see" the numbers when he keeps them secret, and that whenever he gave out the numbers to friends, he was wrong. But when he doesn't tell anyone the numbers, he is right.

I asked magician/writer Bob Steiner about the sealed envelope trick and he sent me a copy of two news clippings from the Contra Costa Times. One was dated June 8, 1991 and the other was dated June 21, 1991. On the 8th he had predicted the headlines of the 20th. The story on the 8th detailed how his predictions were sealed and stored. Bob, a former national president of the Society of American Magicians, delivered his list of predictions to the newspaper's office.

The slip of paper was placed inside a small plastic box, about 2 inches long. That was rolled inside a plastic baggie and dropped into a paper bag, which  was stapled and initialed by the reporter.

That was rolled up and placed in a mayonnaise jar, which was put into another baggie.

Steiner then mixed a bucket of plaster of paris, some of which was deposited into the bottom of an orange juice carton. The mayonnaise jar was put inside and the rest of the plaster of paris dumped on top of it.

The reporter initialed the carton, which was handed over to Mike Farnam, a security representative for burns International Security Services.

Farnam took the sealed predictions to a Wells Fargo bank vault....

The story on the 21st (about the unveiling of the predictions the day before) noted that Bob got two of the headlines right, but the third prediction was "Giants/25" and there was no such headline. However on the sport's page there was a photo of a ballplayer wearing number 25 sliding into a base at a Giant's game.

How did he do it?  Bob cannot tell a lie. In fact, he won't tell anything. But the story on the 21st noted that before opening the predictions "Steiner called for four volunteers, including Concord Mayor Byron Campbell. Each volunteer took turns unsealing the predictions, which were given to Campbell to be read."

Bob is quoted as saying "anyone who studies magic can do this." Even so, it's still great entertainment.

Bob Steiner is the author of Don't Get Taken: Bunco & Bunkum Exposed -  How to Protect Yourself and a founder of the Bay Area Skeptics. He spends a good deal of his time exposing "psychic" frauds.

[This entry was revised on July 5, 2002, after being alerted by Florin Clapa of a James Randi retraction. Both Randi and I did not question the Reuter's article and falsely accused Copperfield of lying about this not being a trick. Mea culpa. I deserve 666 lashes with the wet noodle.]
[thanks to Glen Green......and Bob Steiner]

October 4, 2001. Last month, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine Online (vol 46. no. 9, September 2001) featured an article called "Does Prayer Influence the Success of in Vitro Fertilization–Embryo Transfer? Report of a Masked, Randomized Trial" by Kwang Y. Cha, M.D., Daniel P. Wirth, J.D., M.S., and Rogerio A. Lobo, M.D. The answer, say the authors, is "yes, quite a bit." For example, "The IP [intercessory prayer] group had a higher pregnancy rate as compared to the no-IP rate (50% vs. 26%, P=.0013)." The story has been in the news lately, in newspapers, on television, and, on the Internet where one can find a fair and reasonable account by Dr. Tim Johnson for of something that shouldn't be science much less news. We expect this kind of stuff from the "alternative" health/energy medicine folks, but not from "real" scientists.

I don't question that the researchers were able to establish a "statistically significant difference" between the IP and no-IP groups. The researchers went to quite a bit of trouble to do their controlled, double-blind experiment. They even had the one's doing the praying in a different country from those getting the in vitro fertilization. One thing they didn't do, however, was define "prayer" or explain how it might influence anything in the universe, much less the outcome of their little experiment. Nor did they address an even more serious issue. If prayer works by influencing God to influence the outcome of an experiment, then God can interfere with the laws of nature at any time. If God can interfere with the laws of nature at any time, then no controlled, double-blind study can be sure of the meaning of whatever outcome results. Any result could be the result of direct influence by God. In other words, the assumption the study is based on is self-defeating. No science at all would be possible if God could be interfering with the laws of nature at will. Science requires a backdrop of lawfulness in Nature in order to discover any causal connection between anything and anything else.

I'm sure other devoted scientists will try to duplicate this experiment. When they do, I suggest that they try a couple of things. One, I suggest they do the same experiment, except that nobody prays for anybody. Pretend that one group had prayers said for them and call that group the IP group. Compare it to the other group, which we can call the no-IP group even though both groups are no-IP. Do this five or six times to see if you can get a statistically significant difference between the two groups. You shouldn't, of course. But if you do, that would strengthen the probability that there was some methodological, procedural or mathematical error in the first study. I would also do a few studies where one group, instead of being prayed for, would be arbitrarily associated with a group of people who point their butts towards the East at dawn and say "yabba dabba doo doo." We can call the group associated with this irrational activity the YDDD group. Compare them to the no-YDDD group. There should be no statistically significant difference between the groups. If we find statistically significant differences when we do not expect to we can conclude that God interfered with the normal course of nature. Though we probably should conclude something else; for example, we might conclude that sometimes statistically significant differences are not indicative of causal connections but should be expected to occur occasionally even when there is no causal event. Or we might conclude that some sort of error has occurred in our methodology or calculations.

On the other hand, we suggest that instead of wasting everyone's time on this kind of non-sense, even if the non-sense is dressed up in clean white coats and replete with scientific and statistical jargon, we do some meaningful research like that reported in a recent issue of Nature regarding a gene that has been identified as being responsible for a specific human language disorder. Something useful might actually come of such research, but nothing of use will come of studies trying to see if strangers praying for strangers can help them get pregnant.

What has happened to scientific research when magical thinking is considered within the bounds of reasonable empirical study?
[thanks to Karl Jennings]

further reading

update: February 23, 2007

On May 30, 2004, it was reported that one of the study's authors is “a conman obsessed with the paranormal who has admitted to a multi-million-dollar scam. Daniel Wirth pleaded guilty to conspiracy in connection with a $2 million business fraud in Pennsylvania. [He was sent to federal prison.] Wirth has used a series of false identities for several decades, including that of a dead child.” According to The Observer, “Wirth is at the centre of a network of bizarre scientific research.”

Dr. Bruce Flamm of the University of California commented that he is “concerned this study could be totally fraudulent.”

Wirth has a law degree and a master’s in parapsychology from John F. Kennedy University, but has no medical qualifications. He has co-authored numerous pieces of research claiming to prove paranormal activities. He headed something called Healing Sciences Research International, which appears to have been nothing but a mailing address.

Dale Beyerstein of the University of British Columbia has been investigating the work of Wirth and his frequent partner in crime, Joseph Horvath, for several years. He likens them to a pair of conmen.

The Observer reports that shortly after the prayer and fertility study was published, the Department of Health began an investigation into Columbia University's research. “It found numerous ethical problems. [Rogerio A.] Lobo, a respected scientist who was named initially as the lead author of the research, had only provided 'editorial review and assistance with publication' on the study.”

Nevertheless, “No evidence of manipulation has yet surfaced, and the study's authors stand behind their data” (Carey). Still suspicions remain. Wirth was the one who provided Dr. Kwang Cha, a Korean fertility specialist, with “a roster of the women he said had been prayed for” when they met at a Starbucks on the Upper West Side [New York City]. Allegedly, Wirth had not seen Cha’s pregnancy results yet. Lobo’s name was added to the study, though he admits he made no contribution to it and received it as a “fait accompli.” Lobo admits the data could have been manipulated but he says he doesn’t see how (Carey).

We now know how Dr. Cha manipulated data on another paper he published. The Los Angeles Times reports that the data were plagiarized:

Dr. Kwang-Yul Cha, whose company also owns fertility clinics and a large hospital in Seoul, is listed as the primary author on a medical paper that appeared in December 2005 in the U.S. medical journal Fertility and Sterility.

But that paper appears to be nearly a paragraph-for-paragraph, chart-for-chart copy of a junior researcher's doctoral thesis, which appeared in a Korean medical journal nearly two years earlier, according to a Times review of both papers and the findings of a Korean medical society.

There seems to be no reason left for trusting anything in this published paper that allegedly found a significant correlation between prayer and success in a fertility clinic.

October 4, 2001. senior writer Janelle Brown's "Mystery Cure" is little more than a puff piece for Francine Shapiro's allegedly miraculous technique for curing post-traumatic stress disorder: EMDR (eye movement desensitization processing). All of Brown's data seem to have been provided by Shapiro herself and another interested party, practitioner Uri Bergmann. Brown writes:

It looks quite simple, even simplistic, to the observer: A patient recalls memories of a traumatic event -- over and over -- while watching a doctor's fingers move back and forth, or while listening to repetitive sounds in a headset. That's it -- a drill that looks a bit like a nightclub hypnotism. Yet after just a few sessions, this methodology has helped the survivors of hugely traumatic events, including the Columbine school shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Bosnian war and floods in Bangladesh.

Helped survivors? How? Helps and its cognates are the most empty terms in the handbag of doublespeak. The great success of EMDR is touted throughout the article--including it's imminent success in helping thousands of survivors of the September 11th horrors. But no effort was made by Brown to speak to even a single patient who allegedly has been miraculously cured by EMDR. She seems to have simply taken the word for it of the one who invented it and another who profits by it. No mention is made of any of the many criticisms that have been made of EMDR. Nor does Brown note that the treatment is not recognized by the American Psychological Association.

Brown does, however, quote Shapiro in an attempt to explain how EMDR works. 

"The 'why' of EMDR is not known, because there's not enough known in the area of brain physiology to know what the underpinnings of any form of psychotherapy are," says Shapiro. One popular theory is that EMDR forces the same kind of rapid eye movements (or REM) that occur when you sleep; and the function of REM is to process emotion. Others believe that the constant sensory stimulation basically bombards the brain, and activates the frontal areas that have shut down.

No mention was made of the fact that Shapiro backed off on the significance of the hand movements being followed by the eyes of patients when it was discovered that the therapy worked just as well with blind patients (where tones and hand-snapping were used) as with sighted ones. Many critics think that EMDR is just a type of cognitive therapy wrapped in new ornaments and jargon. Shapiro at one time had admitted that eye movement is not essential to eye movement desensitization processing.

Brown concludes:

The aftershocks of the World Trade Center will resonate in the minds and hearts of its survivors for months or even years; and this, say EMDR researchers, is why EMDR will play a key role in their recovery -- now and later.

The first part of her statement is undoubtedly true. The need for counseling and support is going to be great, especially for all the children affected. The second part remains to be seen. In the meantime, how about some balanced journalism?
[thanks to Joe Littrell & Barry Karr]

September 17, 2001. President Bush has declared himself "a good guy" and vows to "rid the world of evil-doers." (He's done this before. Last May he gave $43 million to the Taliban because they were "good guys" too. They banned opium growing as against the will of God. Maybe Bush didn't realize that the Taliban considers just about everything to be against the will of God.) I believe there were 19 people who thought the same thing last week. Let's hope our President doesn't believe that the murder of thousands of innocent people is justified in the name of doing God's work or ridding the world of evil. He has promised us a long war and the end of terrorism. Perhaps he means to continue the policies of his father, also a good man who wanted to rid the world of evil. According to UNICEF, the economic sanctions against Iraq are a major contributing factor to the deaths of thousands of children every year. George Galloway, the Labour MP for Glasgow Kelvin, claims that for the past eleven years some 60,000 children a year have died in Iraq. To people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the deaths of these children is God's way of punishing evil and warning the Iraqis to be good. The World Council of Churches sees it differently, but what do they know?

I hope before our good President begins in earnest to ferret out evil around the globe that he takes some time to reflect on why any group of people would have so much hatred for the United States that they would blow up our marine's barracks in Beirut, bomb our embassies in Africa and hijack passenger planes to use as armed missiles against civilian targets in the United States? What would possess anyone to kill themselves for such a cause? It seems too simple to say that these are fanatics who think a jihad justifies suicide-murders and that Allah has reserved a special place in heaven for such "martyrs." It seems too simple to think that these terrorists are zombies who do anything Osama bin Laden tells them to do. As one professor (As'ad AbuKhalil, associate professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus) put it: "No average, pious Muslim, even if he or she is promised all sorts of delight in heaven, will do something crazy."* For over two years, the FBI has had a standing offer of $5 million for information leading to the arrest of Osam bin Laden, to no avail.

I hope that the rest of us will not give our good leader a free ticket to do whatever he thinks necessary to rid the world of evil, i.e., Al Qaeda and its associates. Blind patriotism is as dangerous as blind religious fanaticism. Both can be little more than excuses to abdicate responsibility. This is not a time for pounding anyone who disagrees with you or who doesn't wave his flag as vigorously as you do. This is a time for reflection. This isn't a time for killing more children, bombing more civilians, or harassing our neighbors who don't fit our idea of "true Americans." This is not a time for inflaming hatred or ignoring the voice of reason. It is a time to mourn and reflect. This is not the time for shouting. It is time to listen.

The President has declared that we are at war and will consider anyone who harbors our enemy to be our enemy as well. I assume that means we are at war with Al Qaeda, other terrorist groups associated with Al Qaeda, and any nation that gives refuge to members of those terrorist organizations. The actions of the suicide-mass murderers last Tuesday have given him no other option. How we carry out this war will determine not only our own destiny but the destiny of our planet. 

addendum (9/22/01): A reader wanted to know why I waste my time on "nutcases" like Jerry Falwell. I concern myself with Falwell and his delusions because they are shared by millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world. These people believe the stories in the Bible about Sodom and Gomorrah and Noah's Ark. They don't just believe that the cities were destroyed in fire and brimstone or that there was a great flood. They believe these and other events of mass destruction were the direct work of their Creator to show His anger at people who would dare to enjoy this life and have a good time rather than spend all their time worshipping the Almighty. For thousands of years, people of these religions have used this belief in Divine Vengeance to justify every imaginable atrocity against those they deem to be God's enemies. This view's dangerousness is only surpassed by its inanity. Yet, millions of people have adhered to it and adhere to it still. They despise liberty and the pursuit of happiness, unless it fits with their ideas of how to worship their God.

They think an Omnipotent, Perfect Being needs to be worshipped. How much more foolish can one get? As Epicurus pointed out a couple of thousand years ago: if the gods are perfect, they can't depend on us for their happiness. If our behavior can upset them, they're not perfect. If they need us to tell them we love them, they're not perfect. No perfect being would have to depend on other beings for anything.

These true believers think they have to do God's dirty work and punish those who don't worship their God the way they think He should be worshipped. Why would an Omnipotent Being need any of His creations to do anything for Him, especially since, according to the belief of most of these worshippers, eternal punishment awaits those who don't obey God's rules?

It does not take a great deal of thinking or deep analysis to recognize that the God they believe in, an Omnipotent Creator, could not logically require either worship or justice. Such a Being would of necessity be indifferent towards us. We could be no more significant that any grain of sand from the point of view of an Omnipotent Being. But these religions have anthropomorphized God and rationalized their deception by claiming that we are made in God's image instead of the other way around. So they think that God needs to have His power affirmed the way we do. God needs to be loved, the way we do. God gets angry, the way we do. God seeks vengeance, the way we do. God hates evil, the way we do. God is good, like us. God want us to strike down evil, like he does. Those who aren't like us are evil, so God wants us to strike them down. The absurdity and self-deception of these views is apparent when we see that millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims see themselves as good with God on their side and the others as enemies, evil and on the side of Satan.

About the only good thing I can find in these religions is the comfort they give people in times of trouble. People think that even when disaster strikes, God cares about them and will smite their enemies in the end. They think that even the most inexplicable and horrible events must be part of some divine purpose, so they can somehow live with them and be comforted by the thought that there is a reason for everything. No matter how bad things seem, they can look forward to eternal bliss, a continuous never-ending worshipping of the One who made it all possible and whom they think will know them by their first name.





©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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