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.
November 25, 2000. Dr. James Watson, who shared a Nobel Prize for his role in discovering the structure of DNA nearly fifty years ago, was accused by some female observers of "inappropriate" remarks at a public speech called "The Pursuit of Happiness: Lessons from pom-C."
More hormones means more sex drive, according to Watson. His link of skin color to sex drive was supported by slides of bikini-clad women and references to Latin lovers and English patients. Apparently, Watson made few scientific references to support his claims. He did mention "an experiment at the University of Arizona where male patients were injected with a melanin extract. The test was designed to see if skin could be darkened to prevent skin cancer, but found that as a side effect the men became sexually aroused."
To spice up his talk, Watson claimed that fat people are happy and thin people are ambitious.
The Sacramento Bee reported that some were so offended that they walked out.
November 21, 2000. Scientific American Frontiers once again gives us a reason for not blowing up our TVs. Alan Alda doesn't just narrate; he's truly interested in the science the programs explore. Tonight's episode explored basic research in the neurosciences, including a visit with Daniel Schacter where Alda participated in an experiment on how the brain creates memories, both true and false. We learn that some research has found a difference in brain activity when it recalls true rather than false memories.
Another segment found Alda wired up at Harvard University's sleep lab where Dr. Robert Stickgold is trying to show a connection between the brain's ability to associate related words and the ability to make some sort of sense out of the random signals emitted during REM sleep. Dreams, according to Stickgold, are constructed out of random neuronal firings. Rather than seek the meaning of dreams, Stickgold seeks to understand the brain's seemingly incessant drive to make sense out of everything, even completely unrelated fragments of experience.
Other segments dealt with examining the brains of people with extraordinary memories, like London cabbies who must know something like 25,000 streets and 1,400 landmarks of London. Their brains are larger than the average person. What's more, they may not have been born that way. Their brains may have grown after they reached adulthood and began developing their memories. Neuroscientists have discovered that the adult brain is very malleable, even to the point of growing new brain cells. Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone and other neuroscientists have shown that the visual cortex processes the sense of touch in people born blind. In this program a young woman was blindfolded for five days and it was discovered that her visual cortex started to take over tasks related to touch.
The most dramatic example of how malleable the brain is involved a young woman who was born with half a brain, the right half. Tasks usually taken on by the left hemisphere such as language and object recognition have been taken up by her right hemisphere. There has been a price, however, as her visual-spatial abilities are compromised. "It's as if the two abilities, linguistic and visual-spatial, had to duke it out for space in Michelle's brain- and language won."*
The final segment profiled Gerry Edelman, Director of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, winner of the Nobel prize for his work in immunology, and now working on understanding the brain and consciousness.
The next program will be shown November 28th (8 pm EST) and will feature Super People. One segment will feature memory training and Frank Felberbaum, president of Memory Training Systems, one of the world's leading memory experts. We'll also learn about the 2000 Memoriad, a national memory championship contest held each year in New York City, and meet two-time champion Tatiana Cooley.
The December 19th program is titled "Life's Really Big Questions" and will explore our origins, our planet's history, life on other planets, robots, and a conversation with Daniel Dennett on the nature of consciousness.
November 21, 2000. The December 2000 issue of Consumer Reports (CR) says that tests on St. John's wort were "reassuring." They tested 13 brands and all "contained a reasonably standardized dose of dianthrones." St. John's wort is a mood modifier popular among self-medicators who are looking for a pick-me-up with minimum side-effects. There is "fairly solid" evidence, says CR, that St. John's wort "can help people with clinically significant mood disorders." And the only major side effect is increased sensitivity to sunlight. CR does note that "self-treatment can be dangerous, particularly with depression, which causes some 20,000 reported suicides a year in the U.S." CR also notes that St. John's wort "decreases the effectiveness of a host of medications, including oral contraceptives, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, beta-blockers, and calcium-channel blockers for high blood pressure and coronary heart disease, protease inhibitors for HIV infection, and many other prescription drugs."
CR also tested 12 brands of SAM-e (s-adenosyl-methionine) and found that "manufacturers are generally producing a reasonably stable standardized product," though they found four examples of misleading labeling. SAM-e "helps cells regulate the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin" and is also used by self-medicators as a mood elevator. CR notes that the side effects of SAM-e can include upset stomach, insomnia and mania. And it is not cheap, costing $55-$260/month for 400-mg daily dose.
Finally, CR reports that 13 of 15 brands of kava pills contained approximately the amount of kavalactones that their label said. Extract of the root of the kava plant has long been used by Pacific islanders. It allegedly relieves anxiety and elevates mood. "Kava can magnify the potency of other antianxiety medicines and reduce the effectiveness of several other drugs, notably Parkinson's drugs containing levodopa." Side effects include blurred vision and impaired coordination.
CR does warn those taking prescription drugs to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before self-medicating with herbs. There may be drug interactions and some of these could be serious, even life-threatening.
November 17, 2000. Dateline (NBC) featured "Waking the Dead" with John Edward, a James Van Praagh clone. In an attempt to be fair and complete in their open-minded evaluation of Edward's ability to channel "symbols" from the dead, correspondent John Hockenberry interviewed a "Harvard-trained" professor who is doing "scientific" studies of psychics, and Joe Nickell, CSICOP point man for all things supernatural and occult. Nickell was clear and concise, as usual, as he went through a brief litany of cold reading techniques used by Edward. Talk fast, ask a lot of questions (i.e., go fishing for details), be vague and suggestive ("I'm getting 'July' here. Anything significant about July? What about 8, the number 8, the 8th of the month, August, something."), know that most people die of heart disease or cancer and that jewelry is likely to be significant for most people ("I'm getting a ring here, anything important about a ring? I sense a watch, a bracelet, something on the wrist or arm."). In short, let the subjects reveal information and let them be the ones to fix something significant to your questions, phrases, words, etc. Watching Edward or Van Praagh is like watching someone throw feed to starving animals. These people are so desperate to make contact with their deceased loved ones that they'll bite at almost anything the "medium" throws at them. The misses, the questions and remarks that don't resonate with anyone, are quickly forgotten as the rapid fire continues without missing a beat even though the medium couldn't tell a male from a female or a dog from a person.
The "scientist" in this feature did a controlled study where he compared the abilities of alleged psychics, including Edward, and students from his university in Arizona. The "psychics" in the test did their routine with subjects trying to make contact with the dead, while the students were given a set list of questions to ask the subjects. The psychics performed significantly better than the students in getting "accurate" information. What did the "scientist" prove? He proved that the "psychics" were very good at cold reading, while the students weren't. When asked what he thought, the "scientist" said something to the effect that the data are not inconsistent with the hypothesis that the psychics were making contact with the dead. Brilliant!
Hockenberry tried to be fair and open-minded. He gave Edward every opportunity to demonstrate his stuff, but he also raised some serious doubts. For example, everybody in the group of subjects trying to make contact through Edward was blown away when Edward apparently started getting messages from the father of one of the NBC camera operators. Edward named the father and got the cameraman to cry when he asked about "a ring." The cameraman had put his ring in his dad's coffin. The surprise element was overwhelming for the subjects. What the subjects didn't know, and what the cameraman apparently didn't even remember, was that earlier that day he had been shooting footage of Edward doing ballroom dancing and had talked with the cameraman. Under questioning, Edward admitted that the cameraman had told him about his father's death. Rather than be embarrassed, Edward acted nonplussed and seemed to wonder what the big deal was. So he gathers information for his "readings". What's the big deal? He did get the ring part didn't he? Well, not exactly. He went fishing with the jewelry symbol, in this case the word 'ring', but the cameraman filled in all the details.
I have to admit that I was more impressed with Edward's cold reading abilities than with Van Praagh whom I've seen perform on television several times. And like Van Praagh, Edwards leaves many satisfied customers, which raises the question asked on the program: what's the harm in this charade, if so many people are grateful and have their grief alleviated? Edward says he is not a grief counselor, but he is. He knows he couldn't keep his audience nor his paying customers if he started hearing bad things and left people more uncomfortable than when they came in. True, he is not as blatantly mushy as Van Praagh, but he obviously provided a great deal of comfort to some of the subjects in the program. So, where's the harm and why should skeptics criticize such work?
It is hard to convince the beneficiaries of a benevolent fraud that despite their satisfaction something wrong has gone on. Just because everybody leaves satisfied with few or no complaints does not make the activity proper. I think we can all probably justify lying once in a while to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to give them a lift. But systematic fraud for the benefit of people who can't accept that death is final or that the guilt they feel may be deserved is quite different. The idea that truth may be bent when it is unpleasant, or when a lie will have a less detrimental effect than the truth, is not a healthy one. The notion that truth is subjective and that there is no harm in letting some things be true for some people while they are false for others is not a healthy one.
I have written a lot in these pages about bad psychotherapy, bad medicine and pious frauds. Many of the therapies and "alternative" treatments I have attacked have been based on the premise that objective truth does not matter or that there is no such thing as objective truth. These therapists and "alternative healers" make no effort to separate fact from fiction, history from delusion, in their patients' stories. Some of the therapists even encourage fantasy and delusion as part of their treatment! They encourage their patients to dig for memories of events that may never have happened. The patients "remember" things that didn't occur. The patients are often satisfied customers when they are told that they have discovered the source of their problem. The therapists don't care whether the memories are accurate. These are the patients' truths even if they are false! And the "alternative healers" don't care if the testimonials of their happy clients are based upon scientific evidence that the "alternative" treatment was a real causal factor in their relief. What matters is that the client believes. Such thinking seems behind the pious frauds who claim to be stigmatic or have statues that weep blood, etc. The end justifies the means is a principle for a world with little or no respect for reason and careful thought. It is a principle for people who don't care about the truth unless it makes them feel good. I get a good amount of mail from such people. They rage at me because I won't validate their belief in an afterlife where they will be rejoined with mommy, daddy and their beloved dog or cat. The skeptic is the ultimate party pooper. If I lied to these people, they'd love me.
By encouraging "psychics" and belief in their extraordinary powers we encourage delusion for the sake of its benefits. That is quite different from acknowledging that delusions can sometimes have benefits. To encourage delusion is to increase the probability for more delusion, more fraud, more self-deception. It is to chip away at what little rationality is left in the world.
November 14, 2000. ABC.News reports that scientists, not cryptozoologists, in Madagascar have discovered three previously unknown species of mouse lemurs, the world’s smallest primate. Meanwhile, cryptozoologists were busy hunting down Bigfoot and Nessie, both last spotted traveling through the Bermuda Triangle, heading for Atlantis.
November 7, 2000. Crop circle prankster Matthew Williams, a 29-year old pagan, was fined £100 and ordered to pay £40 costs for damaging a corn crop which he decorated with a seven-point star. He said he did it "to prove wrong an academic who said only aliens could make such elaborate designs."
Williams accused "academics" of trying to cash in on people's gullibility by claiming that aliens are making the circles. However, Williams is cashing in on the craze himself. "Williams set up his own magazine, Truthseekers Review, devoted to crop circles and has now opened a sister website. He has also appeared on television to talk about the subject and is suspected of being responsible for the creation of several circles."
"The general public are being conned," said Williams. "The
majority of crop circles are man-made, although I do believe some are the
work of the paranormal." Right.
November 2, 2000. A Cook County judge warned an
8-year old girl and her 12-year old sister that they would go to Hell if
they lied. He didn't do this at Sunday school, but from the bench in a
secular, not an ecclesiastical, courtroom. Judge James T. Ryan was no
doubt referring to the secular, rather than the religious, Hell. The
girl's mother, Diane Tuzzolino, lost a wrongful death suit involving her
poodle but she seemed more upset with the judge scaring her children. "Never in my life,"
she said, "have I heard a judge say that, even to an adult."
November 2, 2000. Italian scientists studying the effects of exposure to extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF-EMF) have found that ovarian follicles in mice fail to develop properly in many cases. The results of their study are published in the November issue of Human Reproduction:
The authors concluded
In America, electronic devices and circuits commonly run
October 31, 2000. A federal judge upheld Virginia's
"minute of silence" law, ruling that it does not violate the
First Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union argued unsuccessfully
that the law, which requires a minute of silence of public school students
at the beginning of the school day, was an attempt to introduce religion
into the public schools. Judge Claude Hilton said the law has a secular
purpose. Apparently, the students are free to worship the devil or to
think about murdering their teacher, raping a nun, or molesting their
neighbors during the mandatory minute of silence. The law does not provide
that any guidance be given in how to use the mandatory minute. It is up to
the student. The ruling will be appealed and is likely to go to the U.S.
Supreme Court, which lately has not looked favorably upon sneaky attempts
to inject religion into public school activities.
update: July 24, 2001. U.S. Circuit Court upholds the decision.
October 30, 2000. CNN.com has an article in their "career" section on occult occupations. The article features a "psychic" and a skeptic. The psychic tells her story and how she's had this "gift" since she was a child, yada yada yada. The skeptic, Louis Manza, is a tenured faculty member with Lebanon Valley College (LVC) in Annville, Pennsylvania. He has a Ph.D. from City University of New York (CUNY) and a master's degree from CUNY's Brooklyn College, both in experimental psychology. Manza teaches a course at LVC called "Paranormal Phenomena -- A Critical Examination." In the course, he explains cold reading and mentalism. He dismisses many psychics as frauds and explains the psychological mechanisms that motivate people to seek out such frauds. Dr. Manza also discusses the potential for harm from occultists:
Sounds like the course should be a requirement.
Robert Todd Carroll
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