Table of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll

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In Mass Media Funk, you will find articles about news stories, magazine articles or TV programs of interest to skeptics, which do not pander to the public's appetite for the occult and supernatural.

Note: because many of the sites linked to here are newspapers or magazines, it is impossible to maintain the links.

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July 11, 2000. According to the Sacramento Bee, scientists believe that 25 million people have AIDS and that 15 million have already died of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa. Yesterday, in Durban, South Africa, hundreds of delegates at the 13th International AIDS Conference walked out when South African President Thabo Mbeki said

The world's biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill health and suffering across the globe, including south Africa, is extreme poverty. As I listened and heard the whole story about our own country, it seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single virus.

A Genevan delegate, Dr. Alexdra Calmy, said that Mbeki "blames AIDS on capitalism and imperialism."

Dr. Jennifer Ann Geel, who works with AIDS patients in South Africa, said that Mbeki's comments have made patients skeptical of such things as wearing condoms.

further reading

[thanks to Alison Garcia]

update (July 9, 2002). Dr. James McIntyre, director of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at the University of Witwatersrand in Soweto, estimates there are 250,000 HIV-infected women who give birth annually in South Africa. Yet, the minister of health for South Africa called drugs used to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child poison. (Newsday)

July 6, 2000. Neuroscientist Peter Brugger of University Hospital in Zurich claims that paranormal experiences, including out-of-body experiences, seeing ghosts or seeing one's double (doppelganger), can be due to brain damage or to intense emotion.

Phantoms could be the result of damaged pariental lobes, which help the brain distinguish between the body and the space surrounding it, but they can also occur in people with 'normal brains' due to powerful emotions such as intense fear, sadness, or euphoria, according to Brugger.

(Apparently, it is not uncommon for extreme mountain climbers to feel invisible presences and even to have OBEs, probably because of oxygen deprivation.)

According to, Brugger plans to test his theory using a “virtual reality box,” which has been used to treat people experiencing phantom limbs.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus and Joe Littrell]

July 5, 2000. The Journal of the American Medical Association has dueling  articles today regarding an issue reported on here last November: death by medical error. One argues the numbers are greatly exaggerated, the other argues they are not, An analysis of the disagreement is given by Rick Weiss of the Washington Post.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

July 1, 2000. We noted last February that the Indiana House voted 92-7 in support of a law that would allow posting the Ten Commandments in schools, courthouses and on other government property, as long as they are displayed with "other documents of historical significance that have formed and influenced the U.S. legal system." Today, the Orange County courthouse became the first in the state to use the new law. Officials posted the Ten Commandments in a glass case between a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

Renditions of "God Bless America" and scripture readings echoed from the steps of the county courthouse Saturday as nearly 300 people who began gathering just before midnight watched officials unveil a plaque with the religious tenets the moment the new law went into effect.

"You talk about being moved. Those people were really full of spirit - they were just so excited that it was happening," County Commissioner Charles W. Hall said. (Nando Times)

The government officials and citizen supporters of this type of religious bullying are hypocrites, every one of them. They claim that they are not being allowed to pray, that religion is being squashed by the state, but in fact they don't want religion to be free or openly practiced, because that would mean that Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Scientologists, etc., would be equal with them (i.e., the militant fundamentalist Christians). These people are also illogical because they have posted and gone wild over contradictory documents. The First Commandment says "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me." But the First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."  The Fourteenth Amendment forbids the States from doing what the First Amendment forbids Congress from doing. Americans are free to believe in the God of the ancient Jews, but we are also free to violate the First Commandment and have other gods we worship instead of the God of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. In short, the First Amendment says that no American has to accept the First Commandment, while the First Commandment implies that the First Amendment is contrary to one God's will.

I could go on ranting about the other commandments and their conflict with the Bill of Rights, but what good would it do? The Supreme Court will eventually toss this Indiana ruse onto the trash heap of hypocritical documents along with the Texas prayer law.

July 1, 2000. Li Hongzhi, leader of the Falun Gong cult, now claims that the persecution of his followers in China is the fulfillment of a prophecy of Nostradamus, according to John Leicester of the Associated Press (Sacramento Bee). The same lines that other believers in Nostradamus's prophetic powers have cited as predicting the plane crash of John F. Kennedy Jr. are cited by Li as applying to his group. Maybe Nossie gave the world a twofer here. The words are 

L'an mil neuf cens nonante neuf sept mois Du ciel viendra grand Roy deffraieur Resusciter le grand Roy d'Angolmois. Avant apres Mars regner par bon heur.

The year 1999 seven months From the sky will come the great King of Terror. To resuscitate the great king of the Mongols. Before and after Mars reigns by good luck. (X-72)*

Read all about it.

June 29, 2000. Sister Lucia dos Santos, who claimed the Virgin Mary appeared to her and two other kids at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 was a person who lived in a "delirious world of infantile fantasies" and suffered "religious hallucinations". That is how a friar, Mario de Oliveira, describes her (Sunday-Times, UK, June 29, 2000). The Vatican's top theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said that Lucia, now a 93-year-old cloistered Carmelite nun, might have conjured her vision from devotional books. Skeptics are not so charitable. According to the Sunday-Times (UK, June 29, 2000), a lot of people are angry in Portugal and beyond because the recently revealed third secret of Fatima was not a doomsday prophecy, making their recent penitence and contributions unnecessary at this time. Lucia didn't write down the prophecy until 1944, and she's had a cult following ever since who have beaten their way to Fatima to pray, do penance and leave money, some hoping for a miracle, others hoping for forgiveness before the world ends. To skeptics, Lucia is just another liar for Jesus, a pious fraud. Whether she was deranged or just liked the attention, who can say?

Some say she predicted the end of the world would happen before 1960. Some also say that the 3rd prophecy is a forgery.
[thanks to Joe Littrell and Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

June 29, 2000. The First Amendment Center released the results of their latest poll of our opinions. As a nation we have had over 200 years to inculcate the values of the Constitution in our people. Where did we go wrong? Here is an excerpt from their press release:

From 1997 to 2000, the percentage of people who agreed teachers and public school officials should lead prayers increased from 56% to 65%. In addition, a majority of respondents, 56%, said a public school teacher should be allowed to use the Bible as factual text in a history or social studies class.

More than half (51%) of the respondents said the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, compared to 53% in 1999.

The full report is available in PDF format. The full report states that 40% (not 51%) said the press has too much freedom. Are we becoming a nation of polite hypocrites? Majorities oppose allowing speech which is racially offensive (77%) or religiously offensive (53%), and 51% would ban public displays of potentially offensive art.

Only 48% of those surveyed strongly disagreed with the statement "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees." 65% think that giving money to a political candidate is an act of free speech that should be protected by the Constitution. Only 18% disagreed when asked whether a prayer should be said at high school graduation if the majority favors it. Only 35% disagreed that students at public schools should be allowed to lead prayers over a public address system at such events as a football game.

"The survey was based on telephone interviews conducted by The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut with 1,015 adults, ages 18 or older, conducted April 13-26, 2000. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points."

I generally find opinion polls to be useless. Uninformed people are asked for their opinions, which are then reported to us. Thus, the uninformed are informed by the uninformed. I'd rather see the media provide information about a subject that might help us become informed in our opinions. However, I found this poll to be of value precisely because it gives us some sort of gauge as to what people really think about freedom, majority rule, and the Constitution. What I get out of this survey is that there are an awful lot of Americans who think the majority should be able to bully minorities in matters of religion and other values. They do not grasp the fact that the First Amendment (and the Fourteenth Amendment) are there to protect our rights from being abused by Congress, the States, and our fellow citizens. They do not seem to understand that even if everybody but one person agreed that it should be illegal to say "Pluff" or read Little Boy Blue, that one person is protected by the U.S. Constitution against the tyranny of any majority in such matters.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

June 28, 2000. Head warden Keith Harris of the Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire (England) had a wounded rhino. The cow's shoulder and foot had been injured by a bull trying to mount her. Traditional medicine did not help the limping rhino, so he decided to try an alternative approach. "I had heard about copper neck chains being used to treat horses with arthritis and thought that if that works for them, there's no reason why it shouldn't also be able to help rhinos." Good thinking, Keith, if it really works for horses. The rhino now sports custom-made copper bracelets. "Thelma's keeper says the treatment appears to be working, as she is now walking more easily," according to BBC News.

Of course, one can find many testimonials based upon personal observations like the zookeeper's that copper bracelets are effective in reducing the pain of arthritis or rheumatism. Some defenders of copper jewelry theorize that the magnetic property of copper is making "energy" and blood flow more freely to the affected areas. Others speculate that copper permeates the skin and enters the bloodstream where it is needed to combat arthritis, osteoporis and other diseases. Some don't care about theories; they just know it works for them. Neither the magnetic nor the permeation theory is supported by scientific evidence, according to WebMD. (Dr. Helmar Dollwet's 1981 book, The Copper Bracelet and Arthritis did not take the medical world by storm though it still intrigues the "alternative" community.) The felt effectiveness of such devices may be due to self-deception and selective thinking, the regressive fallacy or the placebo effect.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

June 26, 2000. Tonight ABC's Peter Jennings will narrate a program on the life of Jesus "the man." The program has upset Tom Shales of the Washington Post because Peter Jennings gets top billing over the Messiah...yes, Shales calls Jesus "the Messiah" in a secular newspaper. Actually, Shales is upset about a lot of things, but mainly he doesn't seem to like the idea of treating his Messiah as if he were a human being of interest to historians in the same way as, say, well, anybody else. However, besides noting that Jennings says there "is a wide range of opinions" on the resurrection--which, I must admit, is a pretty shallow comment--I don't find Shales' complaints very compelling. Jennings apparently shows some skepticism, not only about the resurrection but about the other alleged miracles of Jesus.

One should expect the program to be superficial. It's television, for Christ's sake. If you want to know something in depth about Jesus as an historical figure rather than as a mythical god-man, read something like The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

June 26, 2000. Three weeks ago, Joe Littrell sent me an e-mail with a link to an article in the New York Times. It was about some religious novel becoming number one on the fiction best-seller list. I brushed it off as another example of not being able to account for bad taste. My mistake. Today's Sacramento Bee has an article by Bill Lindelof, which notes that "a conservative Christian potboiler" has been number one on the New York Times best-seller fiction list for three weeks. The book is the seventh in a series where "readers will experience the horrors of God's judgment and the hope of salvation as they follow Rayford, Buck, Chloe, and the rest of the Tribulation Force in heart-stopping action."* The book is called The Indwelling and it has sold two million copies. The authors are Tim LaHaye, a "retired" evangelist, and writer Jerry B. Jenkins. Altogether, the series has sold 15.1 million copies (Bee) or 17 million copies (NYTimes). According to critics, one of the objectionable messages that runs through the books is that the only way to salvation is to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior. Other themes include The Anti-Christ, the Apocalypse, Prophecy, and other topics of interest mainly to conservative Christians.

Skeptics might find this disconcerting, that millions of Christians are finding spiritual succor in novels. However, outside of the fact that many people don't seem to treat fiction differently than non-fiction (witness the success of of the Celestine Prophecy and all religions), I don't know what the concern should be. If people are turning to novels for religious guidance, it is because they are not getting that guidance elsewhere, like at football games or before school starts. (The ACLU is challenging Virginia's law requiring public schools to begin each day with a minute of silence, a ruse to get them to pray together.)

Those who want to get Jesus onto the football field or into the classroom ought to consider requiring students to read the number one bestseller on the NYT's fiction list. They might have a better chance of success.

June 26, 2000. President Bill Clinton, never one to pass up an opportunity to lie to the world, announced

Today we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift.

He was not referring to the success of works of religious fiction, but to the completion of "a rough draft of the human genetic code" by scientists, according to the NandoTimes.

Investors were not as impressed as Mr. Clinton was. Shares of Celera Genomics (CRA), a private firm involved in the mapping, were down $16.69 (13.14%)  to $110.31 in trading today at about noon PDT.

Clinton compared the genetic mapping to the mapping of the explorers Lewis and Clark

Not to be outdone by Clinton's strange comparison, Tony Blair, the prime minister of Great Britain said

Let us be in no doubt about what we are witnessing today: A revolution in medical science whose implications far surpass even the discovery of antibiotics, the first great technological triumph of the 21st century.

Maybe they were banking on most of us not knowing what  'map' or 'technological triumph' mean. The complete genetic map will certainly open the door to possible revolutions in medical science, but the technological triumphs are mere hopes at this point. How our scientists and society will use and abuse this new information remains to be seen.

Maybe there should be some sort of science IQ test given to those who want to become leaders of major nations. At least Clinton should know that it was Al Gore who discovered jeans while mapping our Interstate highway system after George W. Bush invented the hypodermic needle.

reader comments

30 Jun 2000
In response to your June 26th article about the political side-show over the rough draft of the human genome: While there were many things to be cynical about, the two items you picked out are in fact not really humbug.

First, while a genome map does not resemble anything Rand-McNally would publish, to a geneticist it serves the same purpose. For a researcher in the biological sciences, trying to find a single gene in the human genome is akin to wandering through untracked wilderness, and the creation of the genome map is no less an aid to our early genome explorations than Lewis and Clark's effort was to early settlers.

Second, Mr. Blair was dead on when he called it a technological triumph. Twenty years ago, a PhD could be had after spending four or five years at the lab bench to sequence 400 - 500 bases worth of DNA. Today, even a modest sequencing laboratory can sequence that in less than half a day. The major sequencing centers can do thousands more than that. The reason is because of the incredible automation technology that has been applied to the problem of sequencing DNA. The Human Genome Project has been referred to as biology's Apollo program, and hyperbole aside, it is an apt analogy. And while the practical benefits are still a few years in advance, it is clear to most researchers that the HGP in and of itself is the technological triumph that Mr. Blair declared.

From a scientist's point of view there was more than a bit of stock puffery going on by Celera. We can celebrate the fact that investors actually looked at the numbers announced (80% coverage, 55% finished) and questioned the announcement. Further, as a scientist, it is more than a bit sad for me to see the political capital being grabbed by people who wouldn't know which end of the microscope to put where. But that is simply politicians being politicians, and it shouldn't detract from the importance of the science.
D. Curtis Jamison, Ph.D.

further reading

June 19, 2000. Time magazine has an article about the pros and cons of coning, i.e., ear candling. Janice Horowitz writes "there's no proof candling works." She also mentions the harm that can be done by the process and notes that it is a good thing to have ear wax, despite the urge to get rid of it.

Coning has been in the top ten hits on the Skeptic's Dictionary for many months.
[thanks to Mary Fairchild]

June 18, 2000. Last year, in the United States more priests died than were ordained, leaving 12% of all parishes without a resident pastor, according to the two-year study presented last week in Milwaukee at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. notes that as the number of priests dwindles the number of Catholics increases.

©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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