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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35

September 28, 2007. I was almost asleep when I heard the last question asked by moderator Tim Russert of NBC News of the Democratic presidential hopefuls: What is your favorite Bible verse? Christ, what are these people running for: class president of their Christian high school? Just when you think American journalism can't sink any lower, some wise guy asks another stupid question. None of the candidates had the guts to tell Russert to stick his question where the sun don't shine. Instead, they dutifully rattled off some drivel about good Samaritans or sermons while mounted. Except for Joe Biden. He told us to watch out for the Pharisees, which I take to mean look out for the hypocritical fundamentalists who want to cram their way of thinking down our throats whether we accept their fairy tales or not.

Anyway, if I had been on the panel, I would have said that my favorite Bible verse is Judges 19:15-30. That's the story of the old man who gives up his concubine to a group of men who rape her all night so they won't sodomize him. The next day he slices her up with his knife.* There's a moral lesson in there that must tickle the heart of many a politician. I can't say that I learned of this story by studiously going through the Bible. I was raised Catholic and we didn't read the Bible in my family. Too many dirty stories. Besides, we had the Roman pope to tell us what is infallibly true. I learned of this story by reading Richard Dawkins, whose moral lessons seem to be based on a higher standard than most religions. Maybe we can bring in Dawkins to moderate the next presidential debate. If this is a contest over Bible verses, the Republicans might just have a chance. Wouldn't you love to see a debate between Rudy Giuliani and Mike Gravel moderated by Oprah? What a country!

June 8, 2007. You've seen the headline: Vitamin D Cuts Cancer Risk: Study. Forbes opened its story on this study as follows:  "(HealthDay News) Boosting your vitamin D intake can dramatically reduce your risk of breast and other cancers, a new study found (italics added)." The lead author of the study had this to say: "What we can say from our study is that 1,100 international units (IU) a day of vitamin D3 [cholecalciferol] definitely decreased the incidence of cancer."* If you take the time to find out what the study actually found, you'll get a quick lesson in media and medical journal hype. Before you run out and buy vitamin D supplements, however, consider the following: according to Lenntech.com, which gets its information from BBC Health and the Linus Pauling Institute:

Calcium deficits may lead to a lack of vitamin D adsorption and vice versa. Vitamin D increases bone calcium mobilization and calcium readsoption by the kidneys....People taking heart medication may not take vitamin D.

According to the Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board:

Vitamin D toxicity can cause nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, and weight loss. It can also raise blood levels of calcium, causing mental status changes such as confusion. High blood levels of calcium also can cause heart rhythm abnormalities. Calcinosis, the deposition of calcium and phosphate in the body's soft tissues such as the kidney, can also be caused by vitamin D toxicity.*

According to Forbes, "Marji McCullough, strategic director of nutritional epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, who is familiar with the new study and other similar research, said in a prepared statement that the society doesn't currently recommend taking vitamin or mineral supplements to reduce cancer risk." The Canadian Cancer Society, however, recommends that "adults living in Canada should consider taking vitamin D supplementation of 1,000 international units (IU) a day during the fall and winter." High-risk adults (older people, people with dark skin, or those who don't get much exposure to sunlight) "should consider taking vitamin D supplementation of 1,000 IU/day all year round."*

Now, on to the study. There were 1,179 participants in the double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study, all of them postmenopausal women (average age = 67) living in rural Nebraska. They were free of known cancers for the 10 years preceding the study. They were assigned to one of three groups and followed for four years.

One group took 1,400 to 1,500 milligrams of supplementary calcium a day, another group took that same amount of calcium plus 1,100 International Units (IU) of vitamin D daily, while the third group took a daily placebo. For this age group, 400 IU of vitamin D* and 1,200 milligrams of calcium* are the recommended daily intakes.

The Forbes story reported that 50 women got non-skin cancers during the study but gave the results in percentages, which makes the study look strong. The absolute numbers reveal a different story, however.

The combo group (D3 and calcium supplements) "had a 60 percent lower risk of developing cancer, compared to the placebo group. The calcium-only group had a 47 percent reduced risk."

"When the researchers looked at results from just the last three years of the trial, they found the combination calcium-and-vitamin D group had a 77 percent reduced risk of cancers, compared to the placebo group. The risk for the calcium-only group was essentially unchanged." It could, of course, have been a fluke that a good number of the cancers in the vitamin D group occurred in the first year of the study, while most of the cancers occurred in the last three years for the other groups.

So, over four years, 4.2% of the women in the study developed cancer. I have no idea whether this percentage is what would be expected (or is larger or smaller than expected) for any randomly selected group of this size, gender, and age. The story in the Sacramento Bee from the Associated Press (by Timberly Ross and Jeff Donn) gives the absolute numbers. There were 13 cancers in the double dose group, 17 cancers in the calcium group, and 20 cancers in the placebo group. The groups, however, were not evenly assigned: there were 446 in each of the supplement groups and only 288 in the placebo group (which adds up to 1,180, so one person is unaccounted for). Thus, only 3% of the double dose group developed cancers, versus 4.2% overall and 3.8% for the calcium only group and 6.9% for the placebo group.

The data certainly support the hypothesis that vitamin D and calcium are beneficial for older women, but because of the small size of the study and its focus on older women, we should wait until further, larger, studies replicate it before we advise anyone to take supplements as a cancer prevention measure. (According to the Associate Press, the study was designed to monitor how calcium and vitamin D improve bone health. The online journal that published the study says otherwise: "The purpose of this analysis was to determine the efficacy of calcium alone and calcium plus vitamin D in reducing incident cancer risk of all types."*

The major function of vitamin D is to maintain normal blood levels of calcium and phosphorus, necessary for the maintenance of strong bones. Vitamin D may help regulate cell growth.*

May 14, 2007. Nearly a decade ago, John Stossel narrated a very good skeptical program called the Power of Belief. Last Friday he fell from grace and lent his name to a piece of junk journalism called  "The Power of Faith" by ABC's 20/20. It started with a puff piece on the "hugging saint," an Indian woman by the name of Amma (mother) who travels around the world giving hugs and collecting donations. John Quinones, who completely botched a story on Brazilian faith healer Jo„o Teixeira de Faria, tells us that Amma really does help the poor. Who knows what part of the story he ignored or was left on the editing-room floor?

The most enraging piece of journalism, however, involved Audrey Santo's mother. Audrey was in a state of akinetic mutism for twenty years, during which time her mother turned her into a living relic. The editors left the viewer believing that oil that mysteriously appeared on statues and paintings in the Santo home was perhaps of divine origin. A bearded priest was brought in to give credence to the hoax. A Catholic investigator into miracles also indicated that there might be something miraculous going on. However, 20/20 did a piece on Audrey on June 1, 1999, in which they claimed that they had the oil analyzed and found it to be 75% olive oil and 25% unknown. The Washington Post (July 19, 1998) also commissioned a test of the oil. Their sample was found to be "80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent chicken fat." The concoction could be prepared in any kitchen, according to the chemist who did the test. The latest program didn't even mention that in 1999 there had been claims of blood appearing in the eyes of paintings. 20/20 had the blood analyzed and found it to be human, but not from anyone in the Santos' immediate family.*

The Friday night special showed no skepticism about Audrey's mother's behavior. The program also featured some old news about brain scans of monks who meditate and a woman who speaks in tongues.

The saddest piece of journalism, though, was Stossel interviewing an atheist in Hardesty, Oklahoma. "How do you know God doesn't exist?" he asked a rather inarticulate man. A logic teacher would have reminded Stossel that the question was loaded. I might have said to him that if he was really interested in my opinion on God he might do me the favor of telling me what he means by the word. Or, I might have asked him a loaded question in return: Do you believe in an invisible guy in the sky who watches high school basketball games and listens to players' prayers, like these upright citizens of Hardesty do? Stossel also quoted statistics from the flawed Baylor study regarding how few non-believers there are.

Lucky for me, my TiVo only recorded the first hour of the two-hour "special," so I didn't have to suffer through a second hour of junk journalism.

February 17, 2007. Sandy, who blogs at Junkfood Science, posted the following yesterday:

Steven Milloy, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and publisher of JunkScience.com has written a thoughtful article in the New York Post that urges us to think critically about scary things in the news as, far more often than not, they're driven by political agendas and their claims are way ahead of the facts....

Milloy should know. His career is built on writing articles driven by a political agenda. He truly is the Junk Man, a libertarian contrarian. But he comes up with good names: how could you be against a swell-sounding outfit like the Competitive Enterprise Institute?

On the other hand, Sandy has posted a very good article on the so-called autism epidemic. Sandy reviews and comments on "Three Reasons Not to Believe in an Autism Epidemic" by  Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Michelle Dawson, and H. Hill Goldsmith published by the American Psychological Society.

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