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.
July 17, 1998. "Revealing Penmanship - Handwriting analyst offers insight into potential employees," by Dave McNary, Los Angeles Daily News (distributed by the Associated Press and reprinted without comment in The Davis Enterprise).The article is a promotional piece for Sheila Lowe, "one of the nation's most prominent experts in the field" of graphology. Lowe hires herself out to companies hoping for some magical way to determine if an applicant is likely to be reliable, honest, motivated, able to get along with fellow workers or customers, etc. Lowe eliminates the costly and timely process of the thorough interview, the detailed background check, etc. Instead, she does a "personality analysis" of the applicant based on a handwriting sample. Her fee ranges from $95 to $250. She also peddles a computer program to do the analysis. It sells for $395 and is being bought especially by human resource specialists and psychotherapists, according to McNary.
There is no evidence that graphology is a valid instrument for evaluating character traits, yet employers in Europe and Israel, for example, commonly use graphologists. The practice is apparently growing in the U.S. According to McNary, there are hundreds of graphologists in Southern California and there are two organizations that certify graphologists (the International Graphoanalysis Society in Chicago and the American Handwriting Analysis Foundation in San Jose, California).
Lowe admits that what she does is "fairly intuitive" rather than scientific, which makes it difficult to challenge her results. If she says that your handwriting reveals that you are basically dishonest, what recourse do you have? Should you bring in another graphologist who will testify that your handwriting actually reveals that you are scrupulously honest, so honest that you might appear to be dishonest?
No evidence is given that Lowe has passed a fair and impartial test of her ability to accurately assess character by analyzing handwriting. Graphologists routinely fail such tests. Her accuracy is vouched for by the testimonial of Cheryl Nichols, who hired Lowe to evaluate employees of her accounting firm. Says Nichols: "Sheila's been spot-on about her evaluations." Such subjective validation is typical of the kind of support given in lieu of scientific validation for pseudosciences such as graphology . Lowe may be as good as most personnel managers in picking good employees, but graphology may have nothing to do with it. For example, she is quoted as saying: "I'm always looking for red flags, such as someone being extremely sarcastic." Evaluating the content of a writing sample is not evaluating the handwriting. In fact,"in properly controlled, blind studies, where the handwriting samples contain no content that could provide non-graphological information upon which to base a prediction (e.g., a piece copied from a magazine), graphologists do no better than chance at predicting...personality traits...." [The Use of Graphology as a Tool for Employee Hiring and Evaluation ]
July 20, 1998. "Science Finds God," Newsweek, by Sharon Begley. This article is primarily a soapbox for the argument from design, still attractive to certain romantic minds, including eminent scientists such as Allan Sandage. Three skeptics are mentioned. Carl Sagan is quoted as saying that since the laws of physics alone could explain the universe there is "nothing for a Creator to do." Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg's 1977 pronouncement is passed on: the more the universe has become comprehensible through cosmology, the more it seems pointless. And Michael Shermer is quoted as saying "Science is a method, not a body of knowledge" and science "can have nothing to say either way about whether there is a God." (For the record, I would say that science is both a body of knowledge and a set of logical and empirical.methods, and science has a lot to say about God, though science is irrelevant to proving the existence of any non-empirical entity.) Most of the article has a reasonable, though hardly newsworthy, point: science and religion need not be opposed to one another. In short, one can believe in God without being a fundamentalist with a two-digit I.Q. and one does not have to be an atheist to be a scientist.
The author will probably be attacked by the Christian right, who think anyone who believes in the big bang and evolution is on the same path to hell as the sodomites. But she gives comfort to the New Age "energy" folks who think that quantum mechanics means anything goes. That light can appear as both wave and particle is taken to support the possibility of the Incarnation (the divine and human nature joined in one person, Jesus of Nazareth). One physicist turned theologian (Robert John Russell) thinks that quantum mechanics "allows us to think of special divine action," i.e., miracles without violation of the laws of physics. Sure, but can quantum mechanics explain turning wine into water? Frankly, I like the old-time religion with its magical miracles. It has a kind of charm that seems lacking in the overintellectualization of religion.
June 29, 1998. "Inside Business," a weekly section in the Sacramento Bee, contains an article touting the wonders of magnetic therapy. Under the guise of an investigative report on an invention and its business potential, the article by Dale Kasler describes how a bankrupt building contractor, Rick Jones, is trying to cash in on the current boom in alternative therapies. He has formed a company called Optimum Health Technologies, Inc. to market his "Magnassager."
Magnets are especially hot right now among those seeking alternative ways to relieve pain or improve their golf game. Terry Gage, the company's marketing director says "we're here at the right time. People are looking for this type of product. Traditional medicine isn't answering everything." So true. There's probably never a wrong time to enter the alternative health care market, but right now seems especially attractive. Newsweek recently featured an article by Ellyn E. Spragins proclaiming "the days when alternative medicine meant quackery are waning" ("How to find the right doctor for alternative care," June 29, 1998). (See below for more about this gem.) Spragins cites an "alternative-care credentialing company" called Landmark Healthcare to support her claim that "nearly half of the adults in this country dabbled with unconventional therapies last year." That's a lot of dabbling, although how scientific this statistic is may be as spurious as many of the claims of the practitioners Landmark Healthcare credentials.
Nevertheless, even if somewhat less than half of us are dabbling in alternative therapies, the market is huge and easy to exploit with the right gimmick. Right now magnets are the gimmick of choice of chiropractors and other "pain specialists." Mr. Jones hopes to cash in with his hand-held vibrator with magnets retailing for $489. Jones claims his invention "isn't just another massage device." He says it uses an electromagnetic field to help circulate blood while it's massaging the muscles. Bee staff writer Kasler comments: "That's particularly noteworthy at a time when the use of magnets is gaining acceptance among chiropractors, massage therapists and health professionals." Kasler's lack of skepticism is understandable since his job is to write positive pieces promoting local business ventures. Many readers, however, may not realize that journalists are often little more than vehicles of free publicity for potential advertisers and clever entrepreneurs who know how to manage the media. The final paragraph of the article should be a tip-off to the careful reader. It is a quote from Optimum Health's vice president of finance: "We need more capital to really ramp up.We're one of those hungry companies looking for people to invest."
Kasler notes that Jones already has spent about $300,000 of a single investor's money. Where was the money spent? Not on double-blind controlled tests, which not only would be easy to devise and implement, but would quickly determine whether there is any significant difference between the Magnassager and other vibrating massage devices. No, the money was spent on "product development and marketing." How do we know the magnets have anything to do with the alleged benefits from the Magnassager? We are told that "a massage therapist" told Ms. Gage that the Magnassager "is easing the pain from carpal tunnel syndrome." We are told that Jones spent $20,000 to have the product evaluated by a physiologist "to make sure that it was not gimmicky." That's it. What did the unnamed physiologist do? We are not told. But we are assured by Jones that "the product is real" and that the company plans to have more extensive evaluations done later this year.
The greatest laugher of the article is a quote from Ms. Gage, the marketing director of Optimum: "The real challenge of our marketing is to educate the public."
(note: The most recent issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (July/August1998) features an article by James D. Livingston, author of Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets. The article is called "Magnetic Therapy: Plausible Attraction?" Livingston teaches at M.I.T. in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Outside of testimonials to the effectiveness of magnets to have permanent therapeutic effects, most of which can be attributed to "placebo effects and other effects accompanying their use," there is almost no scientific evidence supporting magnetic therapy. One highly publicized exception is a study done at Baylor College of Medicine that claims magnets reduce pain in post-polio patients.)
June 29, 1998. Newsweek promotes alternative therapies in a section
called "Focus on Your Health," with headings of "Patient Power" and
"Frontier Medicine." The article, "How to find the right doctor for
alternative care" by Ellyn E. Spragins, is especially deceptive since it mixes
promotion of alternative therapies with advice to be skeptical because of the lack of
research and regulation. Spragins describes nontraditional medicine as "still a mix
of the good, the bad and the outlandish" and gives advice on how to select the good.
Her advice? Contact the
No mention is made of skeptical resources such as
May 14, 1998. NBC announces plans to do a miniseries on Noah's Ark.
April 15, 1998. The New York Times reports, as did many other news agencies, that "Reactions to Prescribed Drugs Kill Thousands Annually, Study Finds." The study appeared in Journal of the American Medical Association. The news will no doubt bring smiles to the "alternative" medicine folks. To say the least, the news is misleading. Dr. Bruce Pomeranz, professor of neuroscience at the University of Toronto, claims that more than 100,000 people a year die in American hospitals from adverse reactions to medication. His conclusion is not an inference from a large prospective study, but rather is based on a meta-study, a method which lumps together a number of studies whose samples are small and whose significance varies. The authors of the study emphasized that its conclusions should be viewed with caution, but caution is a word the mass media no longer seems to recognize. The study did not examine a representative cross section of the hospital patient population. Most of those in the study came from large teaching hospitals with the sickest patients, where there is more drug use and where higher rates of drug reactions would be expected than in smaller community hospitals, according to Dr. David Bates, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard University who wrote an editorial in the journal about the study. The average person who is taking prescription drugs should not be frightened by the results of this study.
April 4, 1998. On March 21, 1998, the Sacramento Bee displayed a picture of an egg standing on end and reported "Credit for this balancing act goes to ... the equinox." Bob Callahan of Chico, CA, knew better. Today, Callahan's letter to the editor was published: "This is a persistent cultural myth and a great example of bogus science. Nothing occurs during the equinox that allows an egg to stand on end any better than on any other day. Think about it: The myth is essentially claiming that there is some change in the nature of gravitational force on that day. The bogus reasoning is that an equalizing of day and night causes an equalizing of gravitational forces. That no one at The Bee was able to reason this through and that many readers accept this blatant falsehood is ample evidence that we need to improve the quality of science instruction."
March 5, 1998. Charles Grodin, CNBC. Charles Grodin demonstrated
how open-minded and gullible he is when he fawned over the man who talks to heaven, James
Van Praagh, whom Michael Shermer calls "the master of cold-reading in the psychic world." Van Praagh has been
making the talk show circuit plugging his new book about how all the dead people in the
world are contacting him to talk to their living loved ones. His performance on Grodin's
show was less than heavenly, but it was enough to satisfy Grodin and at least one couple
in the audience who seemed to believe that their dead daughter was talking to Van Praagh.
The only skepticism shown by Grodin was in wondering whether Van Praagh wasn't really
reading the minds of the audience and the callers, rather than getting his messages from
"the other side". The only person on the show who stated her doubts about the
authenticity of Van Praagh's contact was a woman who lost a daughter to murder by
terrorist Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing. She stated that nothing Van
Praagh said rang true about her daughter except some generalities. The woman claimed that
her daughter communicates to her directly.
Robert Todd Carroll
|Last updated 03/30/10|