Robert Todd Carroll
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.
September 28, 1996. The Discovery Channel, 9pm PDT, "Psychic Powers".
This was an hour-long pseudo-documentary on precognition, dreams, remote viewing,
auras, Kirlian photography, etc., with only one skeptical comment thrown in for balance at
the end of the program when the viewer is given the three logical options: (a) believe in
the paranormal as many intelligent people do (b) be open-minded and wait for the evidence
to come in before making up your mind, or (c) be a stupid skeptic and miss out on all the
fun. The show was little more than a rehash of claims that have been made before with a
few more anecdotes to add to the "proof" of psychic powers. The only attempt at
explaining how these powers might work was by reference to the "possibility of a
fifth dimension." Right. Which brings to mind a new motto: The Discovery Channel -
Enter the Fifth Dimension!
September 26, 1996. ABC, 9pm PDT, Chariots of the Gods? Again? Yes, it is that phoenix Eric von Daniken back on the trail of extraterrestrials teaching engineering to ancient Egyptians, Mayans and anyone else who would listen. This time, however, he is given legitimacy by the narrator, that great intellectual historian and archaeologist, Richard Karne, who has a day job as co-host on "Tool Time." There was little new in this round with theories of aliens in ancient times. Well, you might consider his claim that the aliens may have taught the Egyptians how to use electricity, a "startling new discovery." This claim was based on a find of a jar which "can't be explained as a regular jar" except by skeptics such as those who write for the Skeptical Inquirer. The claim of Egyptian knowledge of electricity was also supported by a tomb painting showing what looked like a flower and a snake which von Daniken says may be symbols for electricity. Maybe. A Freudian might view these symbols differently. Indeed, a car mechanic might see them as proof that the Egyptians "may possibly" have had dipsticks and the hieroglyph was a warning to change your oil every 7,000 cubits. It's bad enough to speculate on such flimsy "evidence" that the Egyptians has electrical power, but von Daniken has to go one step further and claim that if the ancients had such knowledge they must have been given it by smarter beings from another planet. Right. And no doubt we will see a new book from this master charlatan claiming that the pyramids were ancient power stations and colossal statues were actually poles holding up a vast network of power lines. It will probably be a bestseller.
September 2, 1996. The Discovery Channel, 9pm PDT, "Sci Tek - The Real X-Files". For those who think the Discovery Channel shows nothing but NOVA quality programs, this advertisement for Puthoff and & Targ's Stanford Research Institute, and their star psychic, Ingo Swann, should change their minds. In this program with nearly no skeptical questions asked and very few skeptical comments made, Jim Schnabel narrates and interviews an array of military officers who were involved in the U.S. Army's twenty year waste of taxpayer dollars on "remote viewing" and other psychic garbage. At the end of the program, the credits noted that Mr. Schnabel has a book on remote viewing forthcoming. He has learned one trick from the "psychics": there's gold in them thar hills!
The program even featured Mr. Schnabel undergoing a remote viewing training session with Swann in which Mr. Schnabel correctly identifies the pictorial contents of a folder. With such irrefutable visible evidence, how could anyone doubt the truth about remote viewing? Easy. As someone once said, anyone who doesn't think the camera lies, doesn't think.
I suppose we could say that doubts were raised about remote viewing by the fact that the show noted that one Army officer had been booted out for his too intense interest in psychic phenomena, another's wife left him when he became obsessed with extraterrestrials, another was married to a psychiatrist who believes she was abducted by aliens, another was shown as a cross-dresser in Native American garb, another thought his target was a building when it was actually a train station but he convinced himself and others that what he had seen was a Masonic temple near the train station;plus, these assorted psychics were depicted as being skeptical of the channelers and fortune tellers that the Army brought into the program. But the overall impression and obvious intention of the program was to suggest in very strong terms that there it is very likely that there is something of value in remote viewing, which suggest further that places such as the Stanford Research Institute and people such as Ingo Swann are legitimate and deserving of public support. Let them do their "research" but let them fund it on their own. Furthermore, let the Discovery Channel show programs on remote viewing, but don't let those programs be thinly veiled advertisements for new books. Let the Puthoffs, Targs and Swanns have their say, but let their critics speak also. Encourage the general public to be critical and skeptical, rather than gullible, when dealing with paranormal claims. Maybe the people at the Discovery Channel think that encouraging critical and skeptical thinking about the paranormal wouldn't be good for business.We'll probably never know.
August 19, 1996. The Davis Enterprise, reprinted an UPI story on with the headline
The article stated that "residents of the San Francisco Bay area's Peninsula can put away any sadness over losing their 415 area code." The San Francisco Examiner consulted a psychic about the change to area code 650. Mary Kara, psychic and bookshop owner, claims the new number has "spiritual significance." Indeed. Here is her psychic reasoning: "take the number five and six and that totals 11." This has spiritual significance because Ms. Kara owns 11 bookshops. "That's a power number. That's a destiny number," says Ms. Kara, ambiguously, referring either to 650 or 11. Continuing on in the same psychic tone, she says that "It's a new-millennium number. It's like realizing a potential. It's very strong in a spiritual way."
I'm sure this is all very amusing to some readers, but I have to admit that I started to realize that maybe she was on to something when she noted that 415 is not so great. "It's different than 11, in that it's more self-absorbed." Stories like this should be deep sixed. That's a power number, better than 11 any day.
July 1, 1996. The Sacramento Bee (front page), "Retired UCD professor looks for what none see," by Gary Delsohn, recalls Charles Tart's quest for ESP and God through psychology, drugs and Buddhism. Tart retired from the nearby University of California at Davis over a year ago, so the article wasn't a farewell to the area's best known parapsychologist. He still hasn't found what he's looking for, so it wasn't to tout his discovery of the true religion or God in the loins of an LSD capsule. It was just a story about Tart and his "long and controversial career." Why now? Perhaps because of Hillary Clinton's meetings with Jean Houston. Perhaps because of all the alien movies which are now playing or about to be playing at your local theater. Maybe the Bee just wants to get on the bandwagon of the weird and wonderful.
Though the article had no apparent purpose other than to pander to the public's taste for the paranormal, there were a few interesting claims made. For example, Willis Harmon, a former Stanford professor of engineering systems was quoted as saying that "Charlie" insists on asking taboo questions such as "What happens after death?" and "What is the meaning of psychic phenomena?" Taboo questions?
Tart himself is quoted as saying that atheists think "'Hey, what do I give a damn about the ecology? I'll be long dead and gone before it all goes bad.' So we live only for the material, only for ourselves." He claims that atheists don't care about the environment and that all those who deny the existence of spirits (metaphysical materialists) are egoistic, selfish materialists (who only care about money, power, material possessions). He has as much evidence for these claims as he does for ESP, namely, none. One might as well claim that theists don't give a damn about the environment because the environment is part of the physical world and the only world that really matters is the spiritual one. The spirit will still be here when the world is long gone, so why give a damn about the world?
Tart was a tenured professor at UC Davis, where he taught for some twenty years. His first big book was On Being Stoned (1971). He is called "a rigorous scientist" by Delsohn, though his rigor has been characterized as mortis by the likes of Martin Gardner and James Randi. I'm sure he was very popular with the students who think that LSD is a holy sacrament and gateway to the divine. Tart is praised in the article by a colleague of mine who teaches his psychology students to read his aura. My colleague is quoted as saying that it is our narcissism which leads us to dismiss the paranormal and the spiritual. Yes, and I suppose we are in denial about it, too.
I wonder if Tart or Houston or others who have found phenomenological similarities, if not identities, between drug, paranormal and mystical experiences have ever considered that this indicates a strong probability that such experiences are materially based and probably are best explained by bio- and neurochemistry?
Anyway, I think I wait in vain if I wait for the Bee to run a gratuitous article about the wonders and beauties of science, or a day in the life of a skeptic.
April 29, 1996. ABC Television: Put to the Test II - Billed as a test of psychic powers, this show demonstrated little more than the lengths to which ABC will go to pander to gullible and credulous prime time television viewers. James Randi of the Amazing Randi Hotline sent out a missive blasting ABC. He wrote:
He wasn't exaggerating. There was little effort to put anyone or anything to the test, except the patience of skeptics and honest people everywhere. The evening's entertainment consisted of three stooges acting as "objective" evaluators of (a) a "psychic detective," (b) a hypnotherapist who "cured" a woman of her fear of flying in an 18 minute session, and (c) a Russian human x-ray machine who claims to be able to diagnose diseased or injured organs and bones by "seeing" through clothes, tissue, etc., right into and through the body. He can even do this when the body he is "seeing" through is not present.
I will admit that the three stooges hosting the program did, at times, pretend to know what a real test of a psychic would involve, as when one of the stooges said to the other: "she wasn't fishing, was she?" We had all witnessed the fishing but the other stooge assured us that there had been no fishing. How did they fail to do any real testing? Let me count the ways.
The first to be tested was a woman who describes herself as a psychic detective. She claims that she can solve a crime, committed anywhere in the world, without leaving her armchair. All she needs is the name of the victim and some article from the victim. The so-called test of her powers consisted of trying to see if should retrosolve three crimes that had already been solved. The cop who had solved the crimes appeared on the show as a kind of fourth stooge. Instead of letting the "psychic" ramble on and on, the detective kept notes in front of her and let her know when she was on or not on by telling her "I can confirm that" or "I can't confirm that." Obviously, the tape was edited, not that it much matters, for there is little likelihood the ABC stooges had any interest in tallying up her hits and misses. They seemed satisfied to place a photo of the criminal next to a drawing based on the "psychic's" description and declare that they looked very similar when in fact they didn't look alike at all to me. They might have had a non-stooge, who had no idea what they were doing, compare the photo with several drawings, including the one based on psychic visions. Or they might have had several non-stooges examine several photos, one of which would be that of the criminal, and compare them to the psychic drawing. But to let the eager ABC stooge and the cop stooge be the judges of whether there was any resemblance defies all logical testing methods. One of the stooges finished off this segment of the 3-ring circus with a hopeful note that such psychics would soon be testifying in courtrooms as their methods become more accepted!
I'll let somebody else comment on the sideshow involving the hypnotherapist "curing" the phobia of the Chino housewife. All I'll say is that I wanted to push her out of the airplane when she started acting like Rocky. I'm sure others were filled with joy at the heartwarming story of a woman who overcame her fears (on such short notice, too!). According to her hypnotherapist, she had been "reprogrammed." I'm sure she was. Plus, she was on national television. (The best part of this segment of the show was the claim by one of the stooges that the viewing audience would not witness the 18 minute session to prevent us from becoming hypnotized!)
The best test of all, though, was the test of the Russian x-ray machine. This guy claims to be an M.D., though no mention was made of where he was trained or got his degree. We were told, however, that he is not allowed to practice medicine in the U.S. Even so, this is such a great country that he is allowed to do psychic diagnoses of anyone he pleases. ( I wonder if there are warnings when he does performances: this is for entertainment purposes only!) Anyway, this guy is so good that you do not need to be present to get diagnosed. The test consisted of having some middle-aged guy examined by a chiropractor (!), and two other guys who claimed to be doctors of some sort. Their evaluations were to be used as a standard against which to measure the "diagnosis" of the psychic who was doing his work in another room without ever having met the "patient." All he knew was the patient's name and age. Again, the psychic's evaluations were edited, but no interest was displayed in establishing some way to measure what counted as a hit and what was a miss, much less any concern at doing the actual counting. One of the stooges did tell us that a 70% accuracy rate is considered good and that in another session the psychic was only right 20% of the time, but I don't think even the stooge knew what that meant. Even more fascinating to me is the fact that none of the stooges showed the slightest interest in explaining how someone might solve a crime by feeling a victim's hearing aid or how a man might see through clothes and skin into organs and bones. I think they showed no interest because they realize such claims are ridiculous on their face and explaining them would involve preposterous assumptions. This was a show, pure and simple, not a test of psychic powers. It was bunk, pure bunk.
James Randi made the following comments on the show, for those of you who do not subscribe to his hotline:
April 23, 1996. In an article titled "Who's write to be president? Handwriting gives clues," the Kansas City Star reports on the claims of two "handwriting analysts" regarding the suitability of Clinton, Dole and Buchanan to be president. Without a hint of skepticism, the article cites the completely unsubstantiated claims of Royce Smith, a former Marine who has analyzed handwriting for 37 years, and Paula Leighton, a handwriting analyst from Leawood, Kansas. I guess elections bring out the silliness in journalists. I thought the San Francisco Chronicle had hit rock bottom when it published an article based on the "face reading" of mayoral candidates by Rose Rosetree, self-proclaimed phrenologist, in October of 1995 (see the Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1996, p. 5). But the Kansas City Star demonstrates that journalistic promotion of pseudoscience is not limited to the West Coast.
Smith is quoted as saying: "Your handwriting is a printout of your mind." The author of the article gives no indication that this claim is ludicrous, if it is even meaningful. Leighton is said to have earned her master graphological certification from the Institute of Graphological Science in Dallas. No indication is given by the author that such a diploma is meaningless.
According to the article, companies hire Smith to screen prospective employees and lawyers use him to study potential jurors and witnesses. The only thing he does which seems a legitimate use of his handwriting analysis skills is that he testifies in forgery cases. Yet, no mention is made of the potential danger of hiring pseudoscientific graphologists to evaluate people's character or inclinations based on the way they write.
What I found most interesting about the article was that for all their temerity in making outlandish, unprovable claims regarding slants, loops, sizes of letters and how they correlate with this trait or that, neither Smith nor Leighton would say who would make the best president. Leighton said she doesn't like politics. Smith said that Buchanan would be the best president because he's "a people person. He's sharp, he's got intuition. And he's independent." However, Smith also said that "on research and problem-solving, Dole or Clinton would probably be No. 1."
Why was this article written? Why was it published? Who knows, but without a hint of
skepticism regarding the ancient pseudoscience of graphology,
qualifies as pure bunk.
April 7, 1996. The Sacramento Bee headline reads
The FBI profile, undoubtedly the work of master psychologists with help from a few CIA psychics, predicted that the Unabomber would be in his late 30's or early 40's. Kaczynski is 53. The profile was of a white male, 5'10"--6' tall, 165 pounds, with reddish-blond hair, a thin mustache and a ruddy complexion. Kaczynski is a white male, but he is 5'8", weighs 143, has brown hair, is bearded and has pale skin. The profile predicted he would be a blue collar worker with a high school degree. Kaczynski hasn't had a job in the last 25 years and has a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan in addition to being a graduate of Harvard University. The FBI profile predicted the Unabomber would be a meticulously organized person, reclusive and having problems dealing with women. Kaczynski is a recluse who apparently did not deal with women at all, but he is slovenly and unkempt.
Outside of being right about him being a white male and a loner, this profile does not strike me as being "strikingly close to Kaczynski." The FBI profile seems about as accurate as a horoscope or a Myers-Briggs reading. Actually, the FBI profile is about as accurate as the drawing of the Unabomber which the FBI has been circulating for years. Side by side only an FBI agent could possibly see a resemblance between Kaczynski and the FBI drawing.
Robert Todd Carroll
|Last updated 02/17/09|