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

ęcopyright 2006
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26

March 10, 2006. Georgi Parvanov, the President of Bulgaria, gaveVanga the President's medal of honor to Vera Kochovska, a  61-year-old woman who has been Bulgaria's most famous clairvoyant since sightless prophetess Evangelia "Vanga" Dimitrova died in 1996. Parvanov acknowledged Kochovska's supernatural powers and charity efforts. According to a website promoting travel to Bulgaria, Vera made the following prophecy for the friends of Bulgaria: "If step into Bulgaria soil, God will bless you! If you come in contact with Bulgarian nature you will take away with you health and good spirits!"* Makes me want to step right into it!

Kochovska's paranormal powers reportedly emerged after awakening from a two-month-long coma brought on by severe injuries suffered in a car crash when she was 12. Now we know the origin of the South Park storyline for Cartman's Psychic Ability (episode 813).

[update 8 Aug 2010. Baba Vanga's psychic powers allegedly emerged after a windstorm blew her into a field and blinded her with dust and sand. She awoke with the gift of second sight! Vanga's abilities were studied by Dr. Georgi Lozanov (b. 1926), the inventor of a teaching method he called suggestopedia. According to Jeffrey Mishlove, Lozanov applied his techniques to "mental healing and dermal vision," (The Roots of Consciousness, available for $1 from Amazon). Mishlove also reports, without critical commentary: "Studies are reported to have shown that Dimitrova's predictive abilities - particularly strong in terms of finding lost relatives and friends - are about eighty percent accurate." Bulgaria, apparently, is a hotbed of superstition and magical thinking. Lozanov had an institute where he studied telepathy, ESP, and Vanga (among other things). He had a staff of thirty and was supported by the Bulgarian government.

According to a news report:

August 11 will mark the 14th anniversary of Vanga's death and scores gathered at the "Rupite" site in Bulgaria's southwestern town of Petrich, sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. The crowd included not only Bulgarian intellectuals, artists, and common Bulgarian people, but pilgrims from Russia, France, and as far away as China.

After posting this update, I received the following e-mail from a Bulgarian:

I have been reading skepdic.com for about a year. Thank you for the excellent articles. I read the article about Vera Kochovska (grandma Vanga as we call her ). You wrote "Bulgaria, apparently, is a hotbed of superstition and magical thinking". I couldn't say it more clearly.

The Bulgarians aren't very religious, but superstitions have a great influence over us. There are many fortune tellers, astrologers, tea leave readers, faith healers, numerologists, and the like. I have a second cousin who is an astrologer; her mother is also an astrologer. And they are not the only ones. I know that they believe in what they "see" in the order of stars and planets. The sad (or maybe fortunate?) thing is that the superstitions belong predominately to women and the older population. Also there is the media and the numerology (because after  the new millennium there are many dates that look odd - 20.01.2001; 20.02.2002; 20.03.2003 etc. and they "jump at the lagoon" without even contemplating the fact that these dates are utterly artificial and they don't indicate anything cosmological. And we have from time to time the occasional religious clergy who claim that certain tragedies are the result of god's condemnation for our nonbelief (or something like that). One personal problem that I have is with my mother who, despite being quite intelligent and a smart woman, is prone to believe everything that she hears on the TV. One example is evolution--she claims that evolution is not true and uses the same arguments that creationists use--but instead of God and Adam and Eve and a 6000 year-old-earth she says extraterrestrials populated the earth and we are their descendants. I tried everything to show her that this is an utterly useless explanation and there are numerous examples of evolution. I had no success in changing her mind.

 

I hope that some day we will get rid of  superstitions and move toward skeptical thinking.

I wrote back that there is hope that the younger generation will overcome the superstitions of the past and take Bulgaria into the 21st century. But even if it does, America should be a lesson to all: no matter how much progress is made to advance scientific, non-superstitious thinking, there will always be resistance from a large segment of society who love their gods, spirits, and magical thinking.

[/update]

[update: 12 Feb 2010] Vera Kochovska has died at the age of 66. [/update]

February 23, 2006. Nine months ago, Centre County, Pennsylvania, district attorney Ray Gricar disappeared from the face of the earth. Carla Baron turned up a few month later and offered her "renowned" psychic services to help find Gricar. Needless to say, she provided nothing of value and wasted everybody's time. Gricar is still missing. There's no success like failure, I guess, because now Baron is coming to Ocilla, Georgia, to "help" in the search for Tara Grinstead, a high school teacher and former beauty queen who disappeared four months ago. Baron's also there to tape segments for her show "Haunting Evidence" that will air on Court TV in June. I predict that whatever happens, Baron will declare success and put another undeserved feather in her cap. According to Court TV:

In the months since Tara vanished, police and investigators from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation have conducted scores of interviews, focusing often on key men in Tara's life, including a former Ocilla police officer and Iraq War veteran from whom she had recently parted after a tempestuous, six-year relationship. Authorities have also quizzed, among others, a former student who, by all accounts, had developed a crush on the teacher, and a cop from a nearby community who had been close to her.

Tara's brother-in-law Larry Gattis and his wife Anita have been leading an aggressive hunt for the missing 31-year-old. They're  bringing in not only Baron but also a respected criminology professor who "does a lot with statistical analysis and computer profiles." Good luck to them. Maybe they should read a little piece by Nancy Maes about her trips to the psychics: Psychic readings offer insights, lure of guidance.

Am I seeing things or is there a family resemblance between Carla Baron, Carla Mae, and Allison Dubois?

   

Actually, the more I look at these photos the more I realize that I could easily be persuaded to give up my skepticism and become a true believer without much nudging! That is, until I come to my senses and realize that in a few years each of these lovely ladies will look like this:

January 17, 2006. In what is most likely another publicity stunt, the Raelians have offered disgraced Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk a job at Clonaid, their alleged human cloning research program, according to english.chosun.com.

January 7, 2006. What should we make of a columnist who writes "No wonder atheists are angry: they seem ready to believe anything" and then proceeds to attack Richard Dawkins's views on religion for using "sweeping generalisations"?

The Guardian's Madeleine Bunting cites G. K. Chesterton, a master of sweeping generalizations, to suggest that atheists will believe anything. She rips into Dawkins for oversimplifying matters when he talks about ethics or religion, yet she doesn't hesitate to oversimplify herself: "the Rwandan tragedy was about ethnicity, the Holocaust about a racist political ideology." Yes, and Freud's the one who said everything is sex and Darwin says we come from monkeys.

She then uses Dawkins as a straw man for atheism and secular humanism (which she treats as identical) and criticizes Dawkins for knocking down straw men in his latest rant against the evils of religion. Bunting's view of history is that secular humanists (whom she calls atheistic rationalists) are frustrated and angry that religion is still around and as popular as ever. Maybe someone should inform her that atheists, rationalists, and secular humanists are not evangelical missionaries. We aren't gurus or saviors and we don't recruit disciples. We don't threaten people with eternal suffering if they disagree with us or promise them eternal bliss if they join our ranks.

Here's a taste of Ms. Bunting's rant:

There's an underlying anxiety that atheist humanism has failed. Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence. Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires. Not knowing how to answer the big questions of life, we shelve them - we certainly don't develop the awe towards and reverence for the natural world that Dawkins would want. So the atheist humanists have been betrayed by the irrational, credulous nature of human beings; a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers.

Humanism hasn't "failed" any more than religion has "failed." Human beings have failed to create a world where people can live in peace. Thousands of years of religious propaganda hasn't been able to restrain human nature. Nor have a couple of hundred years of rationalism and science. Nobody's been betrayed by anybody. I would say that both secular humanism and a few religious groups have created compelling narratives of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos, but obviously no narrative whose central feature is non-violence has achieved universal acceptance. That's not likely ever to happen.

When she sticks to criticizing Dawkins on specific points, Bunting hits the mark on occasion, but she misses completely when tries to cast a wider net and bring down atheism and secular humanism while pricking Dawkins on this or that. (I should note that her critique is of a television program called "The Root of All Evil?" that is to air Jan. 9 and 16 on Channel 4. Who knows what's been edited out of Dawkins's views?)

I particularly dislike her concluding paragraph:

Dawkins seems to want to magic religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience - sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins's, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilised by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on.

I wrote to Ms. Bunting and asked her where Mill makes such a claim but as yet I have not had a reply. I've read some Mill but don't recall this particular desire being expressed. Even if he said such a thing, it's irrelevant. Or does she think that if there are two eminent atheist humanists who have had irrational desires, then Chesterton-and she by association-is vindicated? Dream on.

***

Episode 1 of "The Root of All Evil?" is called "The God Delusion" and episode 2 is called "The Virus of Faith."

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