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.
December 10, 1997. Larry King Live. Just when I thought Larry was doing some good! (He had a very fine show on depression last week, featuring Art Buchwald, Margo Kidder, Marianne Hartmann (?) and Dr. Kay Jamison.) Tonight Larry featured an alleged psychic named James van Praagh. This guy was special. All the billions and billions and billions of dead people are just waiting for someone to give James their names. That's all it takes. Give him the name and presto! the dead contact him in words, fragments of sentences or feelings of appearances. He could "feel" Larry's dead parents and even pointed out where in the room these feelings were coming from. James took phone calls on the air and, once given a name, he started telling the audience what he was "hearing" or "feeling". He fished for positive feedback and got it, indicating that he really was being contacted by spirits who wanted to tell their loved ones that being dead ain't so bad when you've got a guy like James to talk to on Larry King Live.
Of course, James has a book out with a can't-miss title: Talking to Heaven. (Talking to God and Talking to Angels have already been taken.) And he has a great fan who has put up a WWW site to keep us informed of James' books, tapes, upcoming products, tours and appearances. I predict continued success for James, as long as he never gets a bad message from any of the billions and billions of dead people who never get a busy signal when they call Mr. van Praagh.
November 30, 1997. "Acupuncture goes mainstream" by Brenda Biondo in USA Weekend (Nov. 30, 1997) contained very little skepticism about this controversial medical method. (The AMA is highly skeptical of acupuncture, it said.) The author passed on a few anecdotes and testimonials about how after acupuncture "the pain was gone." Little concern was shown either by the author or those giving the testimonials for such things as the possibility that the end of the pain had little or nothing to do with the acupuncture. It was enough to find support from "a federal panel of experts," i.e., the quacks who stack the National Institutes of Health Alternative Medicine division. They're claiming that there is "clear evidence" (whatever that means) that acupuncture is "effective" (whatever that means) for treating nausea caused by anesthesia, chemotherapy or pregnancy. (Why it wouldn't work for nausea from other causes remains a mystery.) Acupuncture is also said to be "effective" "for pain after dental surgery."
In addition to the self-interested testimony of the NIH alternative medicine panel, Biondo quoted another self-interested party, Janet Konefal of the University of Miami's Center for Complementary Medicine, as saying that physicians are "definitely warming up to acupuncture." Now that is a scientific statement based, no doubt, on at least two conversations with her fellow researchers. If, as the Medical Acupuncture Association says, there are only about 4,000 American doctors using acupuncture, then I would say that not too many are warming up to it.
Throughout her article, the author implied that acupuncture may be effective in treating such diseases as cystic fibrosis, cancer, drug addiction and Parkinson's disease. In a strange twist as to what ought to drive medical research, it is claimed that "public interest" in acupuncture is what is motivating hospitals, research centers and insurance companies to take acupuncture seriously. What next? Psychic surgery because the public demands it?
A sidebar to the panegyric for acupuncture stated that there are two main theories as to how it works, but it did not seem concerned to note that one of the theories is a metaphysical theory which can never be tested scientifically, while the other is an empirical theory and falsifiable. It is doubtful the author knows the difference between an empirical and a metaphysical theory, or what 'falsifiability" means. In any case, the empirical theory noted speculates that the needle pricks stimulate the release of endorphins and other "chemicals and hormones" but the likelihood that these chemicals and hormones will cure cystic fibrosis or cancer seems near zero.
Finally, in other sidebars several WWW sties were listed where one could "learn more about acupuncture," but of course none of the sites are skeptical, such as the following sites: the National Council Against Health Fraud, Stephen Barrett, M.D.'s site, or The Skeptic's Dictionary entry on acupuncture or pathological science.
July 5, 1997. On the front page of the "Family, Religion & Ethics" section of the Sacramento Bee, past life regression therapy for children was featured. "Can echoes of past lives haunt kids? Reincarnation is topic of book for parents," reads the headline. The article is by Edward Colimore of Knight-Ridder Newspapers and pretends to be a review of Carol Bowman's book, Children's Past Lives: How Past Life Memories Affect Your Child. Colimore's article is actually an uncritical presentation of a metaphysical belief in reincarnation and its application by hypnotherapists.
Nowhere in the article is it mentioned that many hypnotherapists have no formal training in psychology or medicine and that often attendance at a weekend training seminar is all one needs to become a certificated hypnotherapist. According to Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich,
The only voice of opposition to Bowman's thesis that the behavioral problems of children are due to past life memories was a short paragraph noting that the Catholic Church does not accept the doctrine of reincarnation. In another context, this matter-of-fact juxtaposition of opposing metaphysical views would be acceptable. In the context of an article aimed at encouraging parents of children with problems to seek out a hypnotherapist to find out what past life is harming their child, the comment about Catholic disbelief appears out-of-place at best, and at worst could be taken as an attempt to portray Catholics as hopelessly out-of-touch with New Age ideas.
No mention is made in the article that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that past life regression therapy works. There is ample evidence that many people can "recall" past lives, whether hypnotized or not. Fantasizing about having lived before is not difficult. There is ample evidence that some people have very vivid and detailed "recollections." And there are numerous anecdotes about people "feeling better" after having fantasized about a past life. But there is no evidence that (1) the memories are of previous incarnations or that (2) any improvement in health has been caused by remembering anything from this or a previous life, except perhaps remembering to take one's medications.
No mention was made that past-life regression therapy is considered "pure quackery" by the American Psychiatric Association. No mention of critics of regression techniques, such as Singer and Lalich, was mentioned. In their evaluation of several New Age therapies, Singer and Lalich write:
Colimore's article provides several of Bowman's anecdotes. She claims she was healed of a severe lung ailment after learning that she had died of consumption in the 19th century and then died again in a Nazi gas chamber. A year after her "healing," her 5-year old son, Chase, was cured of his fear of loud noises by discovering that he had been a black soldier during the Civil War. Bowman offers as evidence of the wondrous nature of past-life regression therapy the fact that her son, now 14, is a drummer. Finally, Bowman's daughter, Sarah, was cured of her fear of house fires when she discovered she had previously died in one.
A skeptic would say that all of these remembered events are from this life, not a past one. Their source is probably television, movies, stories heard or books read. A critic might reply: Who cares? As long as her lungs got better, the boy overcame his fear of noise and the girl overcame her fear of fire, what difference does it make whether their memories are of past lives or not? They got better. Isn't that all that matters? What harm is there in a little fiction if it helps?
The harm is in the method and the claim that it has broader application. The method makes a mockery out of science and the quest for knowledge. Science is not built on anecdotes and metaphysical notions of the soul. It is built upon observation and controlled studies. The claim that these anecdotes have broader application is likely to have the effect of harming children whose parents will be convinced that their children's behavior, which is caused by a brain disorder or hyperthyroidism, etc., is actually due to a past life experience. Such gullible parents will take their children to a hypnotherapist instead of to a physician. As a result, some children may very well die because they did not receive proper treatment early enough.
Instead of comparing the claims of Bowman to the work of a real scientist and psychologist (such as Aaron Beck) or psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg, Colimore reinforces Bowman's claims by quoting Barbara Lane, another past-life regressionist. Lane is even cited for her theory that "regression experiences...could be genetic memories. The life experiences of ancestors imprinted on genes and passed down." No genetic scientist and no neurobiologist would admit such a possibility for the workings of memory. Yet, Colimore leaves the reader without mentioning the absurdity of this theory of memory, much less without describing how memories are created by neural connections in complex ways unfathomable by the likes of Bowman and Lane. He simply notes that Lane says that "some people" believe the stories are based on memories of things read, etc., but whose source is forgotten and "others" think that past life memories are the result of imagination and knowledge of the past. No attempt is made to evaluate these different explanations, giving the impression they are of equal value and weight.
In any case, Colimore simply counterbalances the notions of skeptics and Catholics with Bowman's assertion that nothing but reincarnation adequately explains the anecdotes of children's past life regressions she recounts in her book. Bowman demonstrates her ignorance of children when she claims that some of her cases involve children who are "too young to read or watch serious TV documentaries." They may be too young to read, but if their hearing is not impaired, they can hear stories and listen to TV. If their vision is not impaired they can watch TV at a very early age. Bowman also seems unfamiliar with the vividness and pliability of children's capacity to perceive, imagine, confabulate and remember.
Bowman's claim that some of her subjects have birthmarks or birth defects which correspond to fatal wounds received in an earlier life is especially unconvincing. Colimore cites the research of professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia as supporting this hypothesis. A similar claim is made by those who claim they've been abducted by aliens: unaccounted for marks on their bodies are taken as proof they've been abducted and experimented on. Maybe alien abductees should consider the possibility that their marks come from previous lifetimes!
In all fairness, it should be noted that Bowman does indicate that it would be scientifically useful to extract from her anecdotes some general principles. She provides the following four signs as evidence that a child's past life story has "substance."
And if they did not talk about them in a matter-of-fact tone, I guess that was proof that the memories did not have "substance." This claim says little more than "I believe the stories are true when the kids use a certain tone." Very scientific.
This says little more than "I believe stories which are consistent and detailed." (A reasonable person might consider a few other qualities as being essential to a believable story, such as whether the story is likely to be true or not.)
This says little more than "I believe a child's past life story is true if I also believe the child could not have gotten this information from any other source. Logicians call this begging the question.
This says little more than "I believe a child's past life story is true if I can find some behavior, trait, phobia, birth mark or physical condition to relate to the story. In other words, the limits of my credulity are the limits of my imagination.
The main appeal of such notions is to the desire to live forever. If you know the four signs, says Bowman, "you can catch the magic moment." For, "when a child speaks so innocently and knowingly about living before....it is firsthand testimony to the truth that our souls never die." Perhaps. On the other hand, Children's Past Lives may also be firsthand testimony to ignorance of science, to gullibility and, above all, to wishful thinking.
I guess I should be grateful, however, for the small relief from the barrage of articles and television "documentaries" on this "Roswell Anniversary Weekend."
Robert Todd Carroll
|Last updated 03/30/10|