Mass Media Funk is a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.

Robert Todd Carroll

©copyright 2007







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June 17, 2000. According to, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "public schools cannot allow student-led prayer before high school football games." The case was brought to the court because the Sante Fe Independent School District in Galveston, Texas, had tried the ruse of allowing students to initiate a  vote for a student "speaker" to address the crowd via a public address system before football games. The speaker, in theory, is allowed to say anything he or she wants. In practice, the elected "speaker" is expected to lead a prayer.

The school district knew the "speakers" would lead a "Christian" prayer and were full participants in encouraging the students to use what they all thought was a loophole in the law against religious proselytizing in public schools. School officials encouraged lawless behavior in the name of religion, even though the case has about as much to do with freedom of religion as whether you should be allowed to pray through a portable loudspeaker at McDonalds before biting into a fast food burger. The school officials also knew that students or parents who opposed the ruse would be intimidated by fear of charges of being irreligious. However, a Mormon and a Catholic family objected to the practice and, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, charged in court that the practice violated the First Amendment prohibition of making laws "respecting an establishment of religion." The United States Supreme Court agreed, though the vote was 6-3.

During opening arguments last March, Justice Antonin Scalia indicated that he thought the ruse was pretty clever and that he was going to vote to keep the loophole open. He said "You can't say that in every case [the practice is] going to produce a prayer." Just because it always has produced a prayer and just because the policy was created in order to introduce prayers onto the public school's football field doesn't mean it will always be used that way.

Justice David Souter had indicated early on that he did not agree with Scalia, having commented that the policy "requires these students to sit there while a prayer is going on."

According to the NandoTimes, John Paul Stevens, who wrote the decision for the Court, said

School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.

The delivery of such a message - over the school's public address system by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer - is not properly characterized as private speech.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who wants to be president of the United States, had filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the policy of allowing student-led prayer.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in dissenting from Justices Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. Rehnquist wrote that the decision "bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life." He, Scalia and Thomas failed to note that most theologians agree that the Supreme Creator of the Universe does not watch high school football games and has not since the creation of the World Wrestling Federation. They were perhaps swayed by the musings of an unknown commentator who noted that in Texas high school football is a form of worship.

A public opinion poll conducted by, involving more than 1,000 interviews, found that 67 percent of those asked favored student-led prayers, though ABC did not reveal exactly how they worded the question or what kind of priming they did before asking it. The poll’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points. I guess we should be thankful that the Constitution protects us from the tyranny of the majority, at least as long as a majority of the Supreme Court do not think like Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas. These three Justices were also the only ones who opposed the Court's decision to let stand rulings that struck down a Louisiana school board policy requiring that the teaching of evolution be accompanied by a disclaimer mentioning “the biblical version of creation” and other teachings on life’s origin. In 1994, the Tangipahoa Parish school board, under the guise of promoting "critical thinking", required teachers to tell students about to study evolution that evolution is "presented to inform students of the scientific concept and not intended to influence or dissuade the biblical version of creation or any other concept." This requirement was thrown out by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last August.
[thanks to Mary Fairchild and Jon Henry Gilhuus]

June 13, 2000. Last year, actress Jane Seymour testified before a Congressional committee on the benefits of such things as homeopathy, which the actress claims she knows from experience "works." This year's actress to testify before a Congressional committee is Catherine Bell. She's a Scientologist and "has been exposed to a variety of religious experiences," thus qualifying her as an expert on religious persecution. She is testifying before the House International Relations Committee on the persecution of Scientology in Germany where Scientology is classified as a business rather than a religion.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

June 13, 2000. Florsheim is jumping on the magnet therapy bandwagon. With absolutely no scientific evidence to back him up, David Sanguinetti, chief operating officer of Florsheim, said "With a flexible magnetic sheet strategically placed in the insole of the shoe, men will enjoy the health benefits associated with biomagnetics which have been known to increase circulation, range of motion, energy and vitality." They'll also enjoy the $125-$140 price tag.

Magnets in shoes is not new for Florsheim. They already have a golf shoe with magnetic insoles. Marketing must have discovered that golfers are not very good critical thinkers when it comes to anything they think will give them an edge or improve their golf game. Only those who buy exercise gadgets are more hopeful that they can achieve their goal with a gimmick and no effort.

According to Reuters, "worldwide sales of magnets for therapeutic use have been estimated at $5 billion."
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

June 12, 2000. According to, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) has been sued for $400 million by 44 people who claim they were raped, sexually abused, physically tortured and emotionally terrorized as children in Hare Krishna boarding schools.

Hare Krishna leaders acknowledge the abuse in the boarding schools and say they have worked to provide counseling and financial support to victims.

"We believe the facts as they are developed will reveal more than a 1,000 child victims, many of whom have already taken their own lives or are today emotionally and socially dysfunctional," said WindleTurley, attorney for the plaintiffs.
[thanks to John Collin, Mary Fairchild, and Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

June 10, 2000. "A few years ago, spending $15 million to investigate an herbal supplement would have been labeled by many a waste of taxpayer money, a foolish exploration into the realm of hocus-pocus." So writes Bruce Taylor Seeman in "Testing the claims for Gingko." Now that Americans spend some $15 billion a year ($300 million on Gingko alone) on "supplements" it has become fashionable to spend tax dollars investigating folk remedies such as Ginkgo to improve memory. The National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine, part of our national Institutes of Health, has launched a five-year, $15 million test of Ginkgo as a preventative for Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps some politician saw the ad on television featuring an actor who plays a doctor on TV touting the benefits of Ginkgo. I know that when I saw the ad my first thought was "we ought to be spending millions to investigate this matter."

In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which deregulated the herbal products industry. Dietary supplements do not have to be proven effective before putting them on the market. They are, however, forbidden to exaggerate benefits--whatever that means. Sellers of Ginkgo have claimed that it increases the flow of blood to the brain, which it does, and that therefore it improves memory and cognitive functions, which is speculation. Gingko has also been touted as a cure for depression, hepatitis, asthma, tinnitus, hardening of the arteries and impotence.

Dr. Steven DeKosky, a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh is leading the Gingko study. He characterizes Ginkgo is as "a mild blood thinner and an antioxidant." Antioxidants are readily available in many fruits and vegetables and there are many strong blood thinners already available, so why study Gingko? Other than the fact that it is a fashionable herb?  Because it might be cheaper than food or drugs to perform whatever useful function it might perform? I don't know. Gaia Herbs sells their Extra Strength Ginkgo Leaf for about $16 an ounce (regular strength is about half as much as the extra strength). That doesn't sound cheap to me. Maybe it will be safer? Safer than raisins or berries, which also are good sources or antioxidants? Until the law is changed, there is no requirement that such "supplements" as Gingko be safe, much less useful.

It is hoped, of course, that something useful will be learned about Alzheimer's disease while studying the effects of  Gingko.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

June 9, 2000. United Press International (UPI) has been sold to New World
Communications Inc, publisher of The Washington Times, both of which are owned by the Rev. Sun Myong Moon's Unification Church. (Pat Robertson, owner of the Christian Broadcasting Network, offered $6 million for UPI in 1992.) According to David Lee,

Even if the church somehow manages to keep their noses out of UPI's content, the damage has already been done. The bottom line is that as long as New World controls UPI, the public and the media alike will have no faith in the stories UPI puts out because of lingering doubts.

UPI's senior reporter, Helen Thomas, known as the "dean of the White House Press Corp, quit UPI the day after the sale was announced. The 79-year-old Thomas is not retiring, however. It was announced that she "has joined an illustrious world class group of presenters scheduled for World Television Journalism conference to be held in Las Vegas at the Tropicana Hotel on Tuesday and Wednesday, June 27-28."

June 7, 2000. The difference between ji and chi has meant kidney failure or cancer to at least 70 Belgians who took a weight loss supplement mixed with Chinese herbs. It is noted by WebMD that the Chinese have had little use for weight loss herbs, but somebody in the West got the idea to add Stephania tetrandra (called fangji in Chinese) to an appetite suppressant and a diuretic as a "weight loss" pill. Unfortunately, they were shipped Aristolochia fangchi (fangchi in Chinese). Such a problem would not even be discoverable in America, however, since we do not require a prescription for herbal remedies. Belgium does, and was thus able to trace the kidney failures and cancers back to the diet pill. FDA commissioner David Kessler, MD, has asked that  Congress "enact greater protections against potentially harmful supplements."

further reading

Cancer and Herbs - New England Journal of Medicine

June 5, 2000. Desiring hearts need to believe, it seems. Despite assurances from the pastor to the contrary, many still insist that a crucifix is miraculously bleeding in St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Berlin, New Hampshire, according to the Boston Globe.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

June 3, 2000. John and Patsy Ramsey think the late Dorothy Allison can help find the killer of their daughter, Jon Benet Ramsey. Allison claimed to be able to solve crimes through her psychic powers. During a 1998 television appearance, Allison claimed to have a "vision" of the killer. A sketch has been made based on her "vision" and the Ramsey's have posted the sketch on their Web site. Read all about it at
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

June 1, 2000. Yahoo! reports that thousands of fish fell from the sky in Ethiopia. "Saloto Sodoro, a fish expert in the region, attributed the phenomenon to heavy storms in the Indian Ocean which swept up the fish before shedding them on the unsuspecting farmers." Religious farmers were reportedly in a panic. Perhaps they thought this was God's way of telling them to quit their whining: You thought the drought was bad! Try dealing with these stinking fish!
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

May 31, 2000. Love in Action, a 12-step program aimed at curing people of homosexuality recently examined on ABC's 20/20, is featured in a story by The American Psychiatric Association considers the therapy harmful because homosexuality is not something that needs to be overcome like alcoholism. But defenders claim that "homosexuality is overcome by building a relationship with Jesus Christ."

Dr. Duff Wright, a staff psychologist at Love in Action, is quoted as saying that “God has, in his infinite wisdom, decided that things like slander and adultery and homosexuality and murder and rape probably won’t work well in a civilized society.” Lumping homosexuality with murder and rape indicates that Dr. Wright has a pretty low opinion of human intelligence and God's infinite wisdom.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

May 24, 2000. reports that an Australian woman drowned her 3-year old son in an attempt to exorcize demons she believed had possessed the little boy. She then put his body in scalding water to resurrect him. A court found her innocent of any crime, due to mental illness.

How was the mental illness identified, by her beliefs or her actions? By her actions, of course. But her religious beliefs were essential to her actions. Without her religious beliefs in demons or exorcism, she would not have performed the lethal ritual.

When will she be released? When "she is no longer considered a danger to herself or the public." How will that be determined, by her beliefs or her actions? By her beliefs, most likely. There is no particular action she could ever do that would lead a psychiatrist to declare her mentally fit. As long as she doesn't try to kill herself or the staff, her fitness will most likely be determined by her beliefs. Will she have to abandon her belief in demons or exorcism in order to be declared no longer a danger to herself or the public? Why should she, since these are considered normal religious beliefs.

I suppose as long as she agrees to let the proper religious authorities perform any future exorcisms on her children or husband, she can be considered to be no longer a threat to herself or the public.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

May 21, 2000. Herbalife founder Mark Reynolds Hughes is dead at the age of 44, apparently of natural causes. Herbalife sells weight management, personal care and nutritional products. Last year sales totaled nearly a billion dollars. On his website Hughes says:

I've dedicated my life to bringing the finest Weight-Loss, Nutritional and Personal-Care Products to everyone around the world! Millions of people have already lost weight safely and effectively while vastly improving their health thanks to the Herbalife Products.

It is not known whether Hughes used his own products.

Update (June 17): Hughes died from an accidental lethal combination of alcohol and drugs. He founded his company because his own mother had died of an overdose of prescription diet pills. It was reported that he was taking Sinequan for a sleep disorder and that his blood-alcohol level was .21 percent at the time of death. (In California, it is illegal to drive with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or higher.) 

May 20, 2000. Traditional medical doctors may not be the uncaring automatons portrayed by defenders of "alternative" health practitioners, according to the NandoTimes. One explanation for the popularity of "alternative" medicine is that the practitioners are "caring" whereas traditional medical doctors are not. Apparently, at least half of this explanation is wrong.

May 18, 2000. Therapists Brita St. Clair, Jack McDaniel, Connell Watkins and Julie Ponder were arrested for "child abuse resulting in death," according to Reuters. They smothered a ten-year-old girl to death during "rebirthing," a crazy therapy practiced by Connell Watkins and Associates in Evergreen, Colorado, which specialized in "attachment therapy for children." In her mother's presence, the child was smothered in a blanket representing the womb because she could not or would not pretend to push her way out of the "birth canal" so she could be "reborn." Watkins and Ponder were practicing illegally. However, Colorado does not require a license to practice psycho-therapy. There is a movement in Colorado to outlaw rebirthing therapy.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

update: Two of the therapists, Connell Watkins, 54, and Julie Ponder, 40, were sentenced to the minimum sentence for their crime: 16 years in prison.  Jefferson County Judge Jane Tidball did not sentence the pair to the maximum of 48 years because "there was no evidence that the therapists intended to harm the child."

The therapists' assistants in the fatal session, Brita St. Clair and Jack McDaniel, will be tried in September (2001) on child abuse charges.

May 18, 2000. Scientists warn people with pacemakers or implanted defibrillators not to use magnet-laced mattress pads because the magnets could temporarily shut off the heart devices, according to the NandoTimes. Although there is no scientific evidence supporting the belief in the usefulness of magnets to ease pain, many manufacturers are putting magnets in all sorts of products from golf shoes to bracelets to mattresses "to ease pain."

May 11, 2000. The May/June issue of the Skeptical Inquirer has a report about a study done by Daniel Yankelovich for People for the American Way on the attitudes of Americans towards the teaching of evolution in public schools. Contrary to what we may have been led to believe by media coverage of "creation science" some "83% of Americans say Darwin’s theory of evolution belongs in the nation’s science classes." Furthermore, some 70% of Americans don't see evolution and creationism as necessarily in conflict.

The poll [PDF format] was based on a sample of 1,500 in a representative telephone survey done during the period of November 3-12, 1999. The sampling error was plus or minus 2.6%.






©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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