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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August 27, 2000. The South rebels again. Throughout the South yesterday high school football games centered on "voluntary" and "spontaneous" Christian prayer ("The Lord's Prayer" a.k.a. "The Our Father") in defiance of the law. The teachers and administrators who are leading and teaching the young are turning the other cheek on this one, claiming it's a free speech and freedom of religion issue. That 's how the issue has been framed by the disc jockey (Paul Ott) who seems to be the leader of this movement to defy the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that organized prayer before public high school football games is an attempt to bring a particular religion into the public schools. The leaders and followers in this football prayer movement seem to really believe that the issue is freedom of speech (theirs) and freedom of religion (theirs). I can understand why the students don't grasp the significance of keeping private religious groups from co-opting public school programs. They're young, inexperienced, and ignorant of our history and its institutions. But the adults should be teaching their children about the "tyranny of the majority" and the function of the Constitution to protect individuals from bullies who would trample their rights in an instant while waving the flag in one hand and the Bill of Rights in the other.

In this country, the Constitution protects us against such things as requiring us to belong to a particular religion even if the majority of citizens wanted us to. The majority can't have its way in matters of religion unless an amendment to the Constitution is passed that would impose the majority's will on all citizens. The majority might want us to say a Christian prayer at public school functions, in our public courtrooms, at NFL games, etc., but the Constitution protects us against such an imposition. The teachers and administrators who are encouraging their students to defy the law or find phony loopholes in the law (planned spontaneity!) ought to be teaching their children that our democracy does not allow majorities to tyrannize minorities in matters of religion.

There is a good reason for not allowing organized religious services during public school functions. There is a good reason for not letting majorities tyrannize minorities. No one would ever think it reasonable to play football in a synagogue, mosque or church. And anyone can pray at any time anywhere in the world. The right to pray does not include the right to pray wherever you want in any fashion you want. Today, the ruse is prayer at high school football games. Tomorrow will they be demanding the right to pray with loudspeakers at the shopping mall? Even if it's voluntary and spontaneous?

The leaders should be teaching their children that by joining with their fellow Christians in a public display of prayer at a public high school football game they are creating an atmosphere of hostility and fear among non-Christians, and even among some Christians who don't say Protestant prayers. And, if they had any sense at all, the leaders would be teaching their children that the Eternal Almighty Creator of the Infinite Universe doesn't give a fiddler's fart about high school football in America or any other country in the universe. They ought to be taught that to ask God to intervene in their football game is the height of moronic behavior and bound to irritate the Lord to no end. They should be teaching their children that this is not a free speech issue, for they can pray in their churches if they like organized prayer or silently if that suits them. No one is hindering their right to pray, for the right to pray does not include the right to pray wherever you want in whatever way you want. The adults should be teaching the children that this is a freedom of religion issue. Every student in a public school should be able to go to school and participate in school activities without having anyone impose their religious practices on him or her involuntarily. Religious freedom means the right to be protected from religious people or groups imposing their beliefs and practices on others in public institutions.

To behave the way these children and their leaders are behaving is disgraceful. It's unpatriotic, un-American and an offense to any self-respecting Infinite Being. These "leaders" are teaching their children to defy the law when it suits them. They're breeding a new generation of religious fanatics who think they are above the law when it comes to matters of conscience. Worse, they are being taught to masquerade their attempt to impose their religious practices on others as a matter of conscience. The whole issue is phony. Nobody is persecuting these people; nobody is forcing them to do anything immoral. No religion requires its adherents to engage in organized prayer at public school games. Even if it did, we'd rightly restrict such a cult for the benefit of true freedom of religion, which, if it means anything else, means the freedom from being subjected to other people's forms of worship in public places. I know, Joe Lieberman disagrees.

further reading

reader comments

30 Aug 2000

Being an agnostic for a number of years, I do not think a high school football game prayer objectionable. Though it seems to breach the separation of church and state, does it really? No one is forcing the members of the audience to say the prayer. They need not sit down and listen, even. They can get up and stretch, or say their own prayers, or mumble to themselves, or go to the bathroom. More to the point, however, when we nonbelievers start objecting to basically innocuous expressions of religiosity, we seem insecure, defensive, and uncertain to believers. It makes us look afraid. Our pursuit of the truth will, in the end, speak for itself.

PS: If a president wanted us all to say the "Our Father," then I'd have a problem, I assure you.

J. Negrete

reply: I have no problem with the president wanting us to say the "Our Father" or any other prayer. I wouldn't even have a problem if the president, while speaking at a public school graduation, asked everybody to join him in the Lord's Prayer, unless he had been told not to use the podium as a pulpit. If you tell him he can't use the podium as a pulpit, he can refuse to speak to your school if he cannot accept that restriction. But if you invite him to speak to the school and you put no restrictions on what he can say, then, if he asks people to pray, it's his prerogative. The people can walk out or stand mute or otherwise refuse to participate. They could even boo if they felt strongly enough about it. They can join him in prayer if they feel like it.

Letting a student lead a prayer over the public address system at a public school function is in a different category. The issue isn't whether those present are forced to pray or not, since of course they are not forced to participate. But those who belong to minority religions or who are agnostics or atheists are made to feel inferior and alienated by the fact that their teachers and most of the other students are joining together in solidarity. It may be true, as you say, that "They need not sit down and listen....They can get up and stretch, or say their own prayers, or mumble to themselves, or go to the bathroom." But what they can't do is avoid being identified as non-participants. Furthermore, even though the minorities might respect the right of the majority to worship in whatever way they see fit, by virtue of not participating the minorities appear to be rejecting the religious practice of the majority. The minority is forced into being in opposition to the majority. If you don't think being labeled an outsider is a big deal, you've probably never been an outsider. 

Witness what happened to 16-year-old Jordan Kupersmith of Potomac Falls High School in Loudoun County, Virginia, when he walk out of class to protest the state's new minute-of-silence law. He was summoned to the principal's office and given detention and told he would face further disciplinary action if he continues to leave class during the daily minute of silence.

To characterize this kind of bullying as "innocuous" is wrong. It's pernicious. I have no understanding of your belief that objecting to these pray-in-your face bullies makes us "seem insecure, defensive, and uncertain to believers. It makes us look afraid. Our pursuit of the truth will, in the end, speak for itself." The truth never speaks for itself. Somebody has to hammer it home and keep reminding us of the obvious. The Republic cannot tolerate self-righteous bullies who think they only have to obey the laws they agree with, who can isolate people and create an aura of intolerance against those who don't join them, and who can make even their leaders afraid to admonish them for their indecency. If I seem to be afraid to you that may be because I am afraid. I am afraid that the Yahoos are taking over the asylum.

[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus and Joe Littrell]

August 20, 2000. In today's New York Times, Natalie Angier reviews what has been learned from the genome project about the Race/IQ issue. She concludes that "the more closely that researchers examine the human genome -- the complement of genetic material encased in the heart of almost every cell of the body -- the more most of them are convinced that the standard labels used to distinguish people by "race" have little or no biological meaning."

"Race is a social concept, not a scientific one," said Dr. J. Craig Venter, head of the Celera Genomics Corporation in Rockville, Md. "We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world."

"If you ask what percentage of your genes is reflected in your external appearance, the basis by which we talk about race, the answer seems to be in the range of .01 percent," said Dr. Harold P. Freeman, the chief executive, president and director of surgery at North General Hospital in Manhattan, who has studied the issue of biology and race. "This is a very, very minimal reflection of your genetic makeup."

According to Angier, a very small number of genes determine skin color, nose and eye shape, and the other visible features used to identify the races. On the other hand "traits like intelligence, artistic talent and social skills are likely to be shaped by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of the 80,000 or so genes in the human genome, all working in complex combinatorial fashion."

Dr. Aravinda Chakravarti, a geneticist at Case Western University in Cleveland, claims that "race" is "a bogus idea" because "the differences that we see in skin color do not translate into widespread biological differences that are unique to groups."

Dr. Jurgen K. Naggert, a geneticist at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Me., said: "These big groups that we characterize as races are too heterogeneous to lump together in a scientific way."

Of course, not all scientists agree. Dr. Alan Rogers, a population geneticist and professor of anthropology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, for example, thinks that racial classifications are useful. "We may believe that most differences between races are superficial, but the differences are there, and they are informative about the origins and migrations of our species. To do my work, I have to get genetic data from different parts of the world, and look at differences within groups and between groups, so it helps to have labels for groups."

Dr. J. Philippe Rushton is not likely to be persuaded by the latest research to change his mind about race and IQ. He has maintained for years that east Asians have the largest average brain size and intelligence scores, African descendents have the smallest average brains and I.Q.'s, and Europeans are in the middle. He also believes he has evidence of a link between race, IQ and propensity towards criminal behavior.

Angier notes that many scientists have objected to Rushton's methods and interpretations. The "link between total brain size and intelligence is far from clear. Women, for example, have smaller brains than men do, even when adjusted for their comparatively smaller body mass, yet average male and female I.Q. scores are the same." 

The current scientific theory about human migrations and evolution must stick in the craw of anyone who wants to convince himself that his race is the master race or superior to any other. Homo sapiens originated in Africa some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Thus, we all are descendents of Africans; even neo-Nazi's and white supremacists have Africa running through their veins. The migrations out of Africa began about 7,000 generations ago and seems to have involved a relatively small number of people. 

"As a result of that combination -- a limited founder population and a short time since dispersal -- humans are strikingly homogeneous, differing from one another only once in a thousand subunits of the genome," says Angier.

further reading

August 14, 2000. In Mexico, seven people are dead because of a botched exorcism and police are looking for a priest who burnt someone with candle wax in another botched exorcism. So says Yahoo.News.

August 9, 2000. More bad news for religious people: they live longer and will not get to see their Creator or Great Spirit as soon as they would if they were atheists. The title of an article by Denise Mann of WebMD Medical News tells it all: "Religious People Live Longer Than Nonbelievers" - Healthy Beliefs, Support Network May Be Part of the Reason Why." According to the article, more than 90% of American adults are affiliated with some type of formal religion, and nearly 96% believe in God or a "Universal Spirit". Unfortunately, that means that to get, say, 1000 atheists in a random sample you'd have to have a sample of about 25,000. Since most studies have considerably smaller samples, it would be difficult to do a meaningful study comparing the longevity of believers with non-believers that had an adequate number of non-believers in it. No problem. Do a meta-study, a study of studies, which is exactly what Michael E. McCullough of the National Institute for Healthcare Research et al. did. According to the abstract of their article published in Health Psychology (May 2000 Vol. 19, No. 3, 211-222) they did a

meta-analysis of data from 42 independent samples [representing 125,826 participants] examining the association of a measure of religious involvement and all-cause mortality.... Religious involvement was significantly associated with lower mortality (odds ratio = 1.29; 95% confidence interval: 1.20—1.39), indicating that people high in religious involvement were more likely to be alive at follow-up than people lower in religious involvement. Although the strength of the religious involvement/mortality association varied as a function of several moderator variables, the association of religious involvement and mortality was robust and on the order of magnitude that has come to be expected for psychosocial factors. Conclusions did not appear to be due to publication bias.

The article is not for non-statisticians. Publication bias refers to the fact that published studies tend to be biased towards positive results. Four separate checks were done to measure for publication bias; all tended to indicate that this was not a problem.

I have a couple of comments. The WebMD article claims that the study shows that 

people who were most involved in their religions were 29% more likely to be alive when the various studies were completed than were their nonreligious counterparts.

This makes it sound like religious people live 29% longer than nonreligious people. However, the Health Psychology article says something quite different. It says

highly religious individuals had odds of survival approximately 29% higher than those of less religious individuals.

Thus, according to the researchers, the contrast is not between religious and non-religious people, but between highly religious people and less religious people (including, presumably, non-religious people). Thus, even many religious people have greater mortality rates than other, more, religious people. However, I could not find any definition of "highly religious" in the article. The authors do mention "religious involvement" as being measured by such things as "religious attendance, membership in religious kibbutzim, finding strength and comfort from one's religious beliefs, and religious orthodoxy." They also state that 

measures of public religious involvement (i.e., religious attendance) may be more strongly related to health outcomes than are measures of private religiousness (e.g., self-rated religiousness, frequency of private prayer, or use of religion as a coping resource).

This belief is based upon

a century of sociological theory and research [which] suggests that the association of religious involvement and physical health might be more closely tied to the psychosocial resources that religion provides rather than any positive psychological states engendered specifically by more private forms of religious expression.

In short, the authors conclude that it is not just because religiously involved people tend to smoke and drink less that non-religious people (we are also "slightly less obese"--I love that expression!). According to McCullough, religious people "receive a lot of positive social support that helps them to cope with stress." Also, "religion helps people to develop a coherent set of beliefs about the world that help them to make sense of their stress and suffering." This may be true and it does seem intuitively correct to think that communal baptisms, bar mitzvahs, circumcisions, weddings and funerals would be good for the health of people going through some of life's major causes of stress. But this was not something his group studied scientifically. "All of these factors are probably at least partially responsible for the links between religious involvement and health," he says. He may be right. Thus, if you want to put off meeting your Maker as long as possible, get more religiously involved.

reader comments

11 Aug 2000 
Your skepticism on this particular issue is misbegotten - and I say this as one nonbeliever to another. Let me give you an example: My blood pressure rises every time I hear some evangelist politico sponsor legislation recognizing creationism as a scientific theory (or characterizing evolution as "just" a theory). So of course nonbelievers are dying young - the believers are killing us.
Mike Drake

reply: It will get worse before it gets better. Religion used to be the bailiwick of the Republicans. Gore and Lieberman are already praying together publicly and invoking God to bless their party, as if an omnipotent, omniscient being would be more interested in politics than high school football games. Anyway, this is just one more way the media and the candidates can avoid dealing with issues that matter and can entertain themselves and us with another diversion.

11 Aug 2000
One source of systematic error: people who are really sick can no longer attend services. People who are healthy can still attend services. Sick people are more likely to die, etc. So being sick causes you to stop attending church or anything else. How much of the 29% does this account for?

John Farley

reply: The researchers are aware of the problem, mention it, and say it should be taken into account. They write

Healthy persons might be more likely than unhealthy persons to attend public religious activities. Thus, the association between religious involvement and mortality is likely to be stronger for measures of public as compared with private religiousness, and effect sizes for studies using public measures of religious involvement should be moderated also by statistical control of physical health.

What I found most interesting was their comment on the results of two studies of cancer patients that found that "religious involvement was not associated with mortality."

Because the health benefits of religiousness may be mediated in part by lifestyle choices and coping behaviors that have their effects over a number of years, the association of religious involvement and mortality might be stronger in basically healthy, community-dwelling samples than in samples of clinical patients.

In other words, had the cancer patients been more religious they would have made better lifestyle choices and they wouldn't be dying of cancer; they'd be playing bingo in the church hall or attending somebody else's funeral.

The authors also note that when doing this kind of study one must remember that women tend to be more religiously involved than men and samples might be skewed to include too many women, whom, we already know, live longer than men. The authors also note that a number of factors are relevant to mortality, such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, general social support, psychological well-being, exercise, smoking, and physical health. Studies which don't control for such things may be biased.

However, the only studies they systematically excluded were those that "used religious affiliation or denomination (e.g., Christian, Jewish) as the sole measure of religion."

August 9, 2000. A motivational firewalking at the American Association for Nude Recreation's 69th annual convention in San Diego backfired and seven naked disciples with scorched feet had to be hospitalized last Saturday night. Noted firewalker and peak performance coach Tolly Burkan said such mishaps are exceptions to the rule. He's only had a few dozen of his followers burn their feet, he says. No mishaps were reported by the nudists in other activities, however, including bocci ball, ping pong, skydiving, salsa-making, and line dancing.

August 4, 2000. Michael Shermer has joined forces with Holocaust scholar Alex Grobman for a new book on the Holocaust deniers. The book is reviewed by Charles Austin in The Record Online. The title is Denying History : Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? One review says that the "book refutes, in detail, the Holocaust deniers' claims, and it demonstrates conclusively that the Holocaust did happen. It also explores the fundamental historical issue in all debates over the truth of the Holocaust: the question of 'how we know that any past event happened.'"
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

July 26, 2000. reports on a National Science Foundation survey which found that 

Only 21 percent of those surveyed were able to explain what it means to study something scientifically, just over half understood probability, and only a third knew how an experiment is conducted.

The survey is a reminder of two factors which should never be overlooked in trying to explain why people believe weird things: ignorance and incompetence. Those who think the Internet has greatly reduced ignorance should note that only 16% of those surveyed could even define the Internet. That's an increase of 5% over the past 5 years. At that rate, we'll all know what the Internet is by the year 2084.

On the other hand, the survey is part of a larger project, and this part only concerns public self-assessment, not actual knowledge or lack of it.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

July 19, 2000. "Are 'functional foods' dangerous? Opponents renew call for stricter FDA regulations," is a story about cashing in on the growing fascination with "alternative" medicine and "natural" drugs. Manufacturers of ice cream, cereal, teas, soft drinks, etc. are adding herbs along with unsubstantiated claims about improving memory and enhancing immune systems. The so-called nutraceuticals are popular with consumers, despite the lack of evidence in support of the claims being made.

"According to the General Accounting Office, the investigative division of the U.S. Congress, American consumers spent about $31 billion last year on dietary supplements and herbal food products."
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

July 14, 2000. Nelson Mandela "brought the XIII International AIDS Conference to an emotional close on Friday with a call to battle against what he called the 'terrible scourge' of AIDS," according to YahooNews. He called the controversy surrounding the current President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki's indirect support for the theory that HIV might not be the cause of AIDS a ''distraction."

July 12, 2000. Last June, Joe Firmage announced that he was joining forces with Ann Druyan and the Carl Sagan Foundation (CSF) in a $23 million venture called Project Voyager. According to the Project Voyager website, they will create 

a new type of visionary alliance of partners in finance, science, learning, media, and entertainment to create an "integrated experience network." Our canvas is an Internet portal, a studio, and a press. With them, we aspire to demonstrate convergence of remarkable and responsible learning and entertainment.

Our success will be measured in three ways: commercially in return to our employees and shareholders, ideologically in our commitment to the intellectual and spiritual nourishment of humanity, and in the remarkable things the founders will do with their personal equity.

Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post expresses his concerns with the merger in "Sagan and Firmage: Not So Perfect Together." For her part, Druyan dismisses criticism of joining forces with a man who claims to have many weird beliefs based on some weird experiences. She and Carl worked with some conventional religious people, she says, and their beliefs were no weirder than Firmages' notions. Of course, unlike her religious friends, Firmage gave Druyan a million dollars last year for her not-for profit CSF.

According to Achenbach, SETI turned Firmage down when he offered to throw money their way and form an alliance. Frank Drake, head of the SETI Institute, thinks that to hook up with Firmage, "no matter what disclaimers you put on your site," would lead people to take it as an endorsement of his views. SETI did find other generous supporters, however. It's accepted $12.5 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan P. Myhrvold.

Firmge and Druyan will have competition, however. Deepak Chopra is starting a company later this year, to be run by his daughter, which will develop "Web, television and radio programming, services and products." He's recently signed on Kathryn M. Downing, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, as chief executive of






©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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