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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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 Office of Alternative Medicine now called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine), Andrew Weil's site, and the Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Columbia University. Ms. Spragin does advise letting your traditional physician know of any alternative treatments you are using and recommends checking credentials and learning how many hours of training it takes to get credentialed. She quotes James Dillard, medical director for alternative medicine at Oxford Health Plans: "If anyone tells you they can cure a wide variety of ailments at a very high success rate, you should turn around and get the hell out of there." On the other hand, Spragin refers to "the new respectability" of alternative medicine and makes claims like "A supernaturopath is likely to know the best massage therapists or acupuncturists in the area." A "supernaturopath"?

No mention is made of skeptical resources such as

Needless to say Spragins makes no mention of the alternative health or any other entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary.

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."

further reading: Tom Burns (Columbus Dispatch): Spring egg myth tough to crack Sunday, March 12, 2000

reader comments

Fri, 24 Mar 2000 
You state that an egg will not stand on its end at the equinox because "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." This statement is untrue. The reasoning is that the sun is closest to the equator at the equinoxes than any other time of the year. The increased gravitational pull of the sun is only felt at the equator of the earth at this time, which allows for an egg to stand on end. The only thing wrong with the statement is that the source did not specify it must be at the equator for this to occur.

Erin Suvada

reply: Sorry, Erin, but if your thinking were correct nothing would ever tip over on the equator at the equinox, which just is not the case. Eggs can be balanced anywhere, anytime, if you have the right egg and know how to balance things. The equinox, the sun, and the equator have nothing to do with it.

For all the astronomical details as to why the balance of eggs is independent of the equinox, see Phil Plait's page on bad astronomy.

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.
    We can understand and sympathize with the woman who believes her dead daughter talks to her, but we have no affection for Mr. Van Praagh. He plays a kind of twenty-questions game with his audience. He goes fishing, rapidly casting his baited questions one after the other until he gets a bite. Then he reels the fish in. Sometimes he falters, but most of the fish don't get away. He just rebaits and goes after the fish again until he rehooks.
    When he can't get a good bite, he reminds us that sometimes the message is in fragments, sometimes he doesn't understand it, sometimes he misinterprets it, etc. If he's wrong, don't blame him since he never claimed to be perfect.
    But on this evening with Grodin, Van Praagh seemed particularly inept to me. Perhaps this is because I was looking for his tricks and already consider him a charlatan. Nevertheless, I think I can still appreciate good art, and he was not very artful. He used his usual bait: questions about girls and grandmothers, changes in the home, unresolved feelings, etc. He claimed to get messages about the usual stuff: angels, cancer, the heart, newspapers. What saves him much of the time are ambiguous questions he asks that end with "am I right?" and the client saying "yes", though we have no idea what the "yes" is in response to.
    More pathetic that Van Praagh, however, was Grodin, who practically asked for his guest's blessing as he thanked him for his wonderful work. I don't know what was wonderful about it. Although it did leave me wondering why there wasn't more skepticism shown. If this is the kind of response Van Praagh gets on a bad night, no wonder he is so popular.
 
March 6, 1998. Sacramento Bee, "She has firm roots -- past and present," by Anita Creamer. Columnist Creamer today wrote a panegyric to local radio personality Gina Miles who previously worked as  a U.S. Air Force mechanic, a security guard and nurse's aide, but currently moonlights as a hypnotherapist specializing in past life regression. These days Miles teaches a course in the local alternative education industry along with others such as Sylvia Browne who teaches a course on Healing Your Body, Mind & Soul. In one two-hour session Ms. Browne will teach anyone "how to directly access the genetic code within each cell, manipulate that code and reprogram the body to a state of normalcy." In an equally short period of time, Ms. Miles will take anyone into their past lives. She claims that she was a twig in a past life, a claim which endeared her to Ms. Creamer since most people claim to have been "Cleopatra or some other fabulous historical figure". In addition to this exciting bit of information about Ms. Miles past, we learn that she believes her husband was her father in a previous life and that she was molested twice in this lifetime.
    Creamer defines hypnotherapy as "therapy that uses hypnosis to unlock the subconscious" but she shows no  interest in exploring the validity of this non-sense.

 

 

 

 

ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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