From Abracadabra to Zombies
Mass Media Funk 21
a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.
June 22, 2001. Two years ago, in a review of a Fox network pseudo-documentary, I suggested that the alleged stigmatic Catalina ("Catia" or "Katya") Rivas was either deranged or a pious fraud or both. Now she is accused of being a plagiarist. Catia claims she gets messages from God and these have been published, causing amazement among her followers that such an illiterate woman could write such literate prose. Guadalajaran writer José H. Prado Flores claims Katya's messages are photocopies of his book Formacion de pedicadores (Training preachers), published six years before Catia's "messages." She was scheduled to speak in Guadalajara a couple of weeks ago, but the show was cancelled by Juan Cardenal Sandoval Iñiguez, the bishop of Guadalajara, after Prado Flores and a friend showed the bishop his work and the book Catia was claiming to have written from divine inspiration.
Unrepentant, Catia has accused Prado Flores of stealing her visions. (Perhaps he dipped into the Akashic record!)
Well, at least that is the story of Prado Flores, a Catholic writer who described himself in an e-mail to me as "a writer of books oriented to forming leaders in the Catholic Church."
June 20, 2001. USA Today features an article on psychics that doesn't pander to the gullible and even presents some criticisms of James Randi and Paul Kurtz of those claiming to get messages from the dead, such as John Edward.
The article by Greg Barrett of Gannett News Service is entitled "Can the living talk to the dead? Psychics say they connect with the spirit world, but skeptics respond: 'Prove it'." (The Seattle Times also picked up the article.)
This is old ground and I've covered it so much I think I may be getting close to the people living in the center of the earth, so I won't comment extensively. I agree with Randi that many people have an emotional need to believe in life after death and communication with dead parents, children, friends, etc. Perhaps that explains why they are not ashamed to present evidence for their belief that is weaker than what the same people would probably require before spending $20 on a new garden hose.
For example, "in 1981 psychic Noreen Renier was lecturing on ESP at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., when she warned that President Reagan would soon receive an injury to the upper chest. Two months later, the name John Hinckley was notorious." She didn't say someone would try to assassinate Reagan, but since Hinckley tried to kill Reagan, Renier's claim is interpreted to fit a belief in psychic prophecy. If I could see that someone was going to shoot G.W. Bush in the head, I don't think I'd say "President Bush will soon receive a head injury." Simply put, thousands of events could have happened to Reagan that could have been interpreted after the fact to be what Renier "really meant."
Here's another example: "Maxine Weaver believes her evidence, if not extraordinary, is extrasensory. Ten years after her daughter, Lindy, shot herself in the head, [Cyndi] Wallace, a Maryland psychic, described her perfectly to Weaver and said Lindy was attempting to talk to her.
''Do you remember the tea bags?'' Wallace asked Weaver, who then began to cry. Six months after Lindy's 1974 suicide, Weaver had found a note penned by her that read, ''I love you, Mommy.'' It was buried in a canister that held Weaver's tea bags.
''No one else knew about that other than my husband. How can it be fake?'' asks Weaver, 77, a faithful Methodist who attends her childhood church in Humboldt, Neb. ''Now when I go to church and hear the minister talk about some things, I realize we agree on a lot, but my thoughts at this moment go just a step further.''
Why didn't Wallace mention the note? If she had, why wouldn't Weaver wonder if her husband had told her about it? What if Wallace has asked: "Remember the red wagon?" Who knows what association Weaver might have made. If her daughter wanted to contact her, why didn't she call direct instead of using a party-line shared by a total stranger?
June 19, 2001. Two therapists, Connell Watkins, 54, and Julie Ponder, 40, who smothered to death a 10-year-old girl during a "rebirthing" therapy session, were given 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." (See Funk 12 and Funk 20.)
The therapists' assistants, Brita St. Clair and Jack McDaniel, will be tried in September on child abuse charges.
The child had been diagnosed with "reactive attachment disorder."
(Coincidentally, when I returned from a recent 3-week trip to Australia, where New Age therapies and psychics are to be found in abundance, waiting for me was a copy of Careers for New Agers & Other Cosmic Types by Blythe Camenson. Excerpts from my review of Crazy Therapies by Margaret Thaler Singer and Janja Lalich can be found on p. 39. Camenson calls Crazy Therapies "a must-read for any open-minded future therapist." The final chapter of Camenson's book is devoted mostly to Joe Nickell as an example of a person pursuing a career as a Paranormal Investigator. Most of the book, however, is devoted to advice for those thinking about such careers as psychic, herbalist or merchandiser of metaphysical paratrinkets.)
June 8, 2001. I have been looking for the silver lining in the cloud of the latest Gallup poll on Americans' Beliefs in Psychic and Paranormal Phenomena. While about half of Americans believe in ESP, 62% percent do not believe in channeling. And, while 42% believe in haunted houses, 46% do not believe that people like James Van Praagh or John Edward can get messages from the dead. Furthermore, 38% don't believe extraterrestrials have visited the earth, more than half of us don't believe in astrology and 59% reject belief in witches. Unfortunately, belief in haunted houses, ghosts, witches and getting messages from the dead are all up more than 10% from a decade ago.
May 24, 2001. The New England Journal of Medicine (Vol. 344, No. 21) published an article today which calls into question the validity of the placebo effect. "Is the Placebo Powerless? An Analysis of Clinical Trials Comparing Placebo with No Treatment" by Danish researchers Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Peter C. Gotzsche "found little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects." Their meta-study of 114 studies found that "compared with no treatment, placebo had no significant effect on binary outcomes, regardless of whether these outcomes were subjective or objective. For the trials with continuous outcomes, placebo had a beneficial effect, but the effect decreased with increasing sample size, indicating a possible bias related to the effects of small trials."
"The high levels of placebo effect which have been repeatedly reported in many articles, in our mind are the result of flawed research methodology," said Dr. Hrobjartsson, professor of medical philosophy and research methodology at University of Copenhagen.*
Typical of the kind of flawed research methodology Hrobjartsson is referring to would be that of surgeon J. Bruce Moseley who performed fake knee surgery on eight of ten patients. Six months after the surgery all the patients were satisfied customers. Rather than conclude that the patients didn't need surgery or that the surgery was useless because in time the patients would have healed on their own, he and others concluded that the healing of the eight who did not have surgery was due to the placebo effect, while the two who had real surgery were better because of having had the operation. Irving Kirsch and Guy Sapirstein made the same kind of methodological error in their controversial meta-study which found that anti-depressants work by the placebo effect, rather than that anti-depressants are unnecessary and useless. Hrobjartsson would probably claim that the observed results of controlled studies on anti-depressants were actually due to regression.
Many researchers have avoided this kind of flaw by having a third group, who receive no treatment at all, to compare to the other two. If the placebo group shows better results than the group getting nothing, then surely the placebo is effective. Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche think most of these studies, too, are flawed, mainly due to having samples that were too small or due to patients who make reports aimed at pleasing the researcher. Thus, to those researchers who have found that depressed patients on a waiting list did not do as well as those on a placebo,* Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche might claim that the studies were too small or that the improvement was due to subjective and biased evaluations of either the would-be patients or the researchers.
The placebo effect is commonly asserted to be very strong: one-third of placebo patients getting better is a typical claim in textbooks and studies.* It is unlikely that the textbooks will be immediately revised to reflect the claims of Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche, but as Dr. John C. Bailar III said: "The shoe is on the other foot now. The people who claim there are placebo effects are going to have to show it." (Bailar wrote the editorial accompanying the new study.) The need is for large, rigorously designed studies which clearly define and measure effects of drugs and therapies versus placebos versus no intervention at all. These studies will have to clearly distinguish objective measurements (such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, etc.) and subjective measurements (such as reports of pain or evaluative sensory observations by researchers, e.g., "I can see your tumor is smaller" or "I can see you are not as depressed as before"). The new studies must avoid confirmation bias, selective perception, and subjective validation.
Most of the studies evaluated by Hrobjartsson and Gotzsche were small (for 82 of the studies the median size was 27, and for the other 32 studies the median was 51). Thus, even the seemingly positive effect of placebos for pain, may be illusionary. ("In 27 trials involving the treatment of pain, placebo had a beneficial effect, as indicated by a reduction in the intensity of pain of 6.5 mm on a 100-mm visual-analogue scale.")
One of the more disturbing aspects of this research is that it reminds us that placebos are widely prescribed. The authors of the article recommend that this practice be stopped. Dr. Bailar, on the other hand, thinks that "there should be a sharp reduction in the prescription of placebos," but he is opposed to the wholesale condemnation of placebo prescription. "The evidence that placebos might contribute to pain relief may merit their continued therapeutic use when there is reason to think that a patient may benefit." He may or may not be right about that.
The power of nothing by Geoff Watts (New Scientist), a medical and science journalist, and author of Pleasing the Patient, a book on the placebo effect.
- Researchers Debunk Placebo Effect, Saying It's Only a Myth by Gina Kolata (NY Times)
May 11, 2001. ABCNews.com has a story today about the Disclosure Project (see below), complete with photo from an "alien" on display in Roswell. James Oberg, an ABCNEWS space consultant and retired NASA engineer, is quoted as saying that Stephen Greer, who is orchestrating the Disclosure Project, has long argued "there's this bizarre theory that there is a worldwide real X-file cabal that is using UFO technology....People see strange things they can't understand, and that can't be explained either then or in hindsight, and it's good to keep documenting these, because often the mysterious sightings are things of interest, to military intelligence or even to science....Often, I've seen people jump to conclusions about what they saw, because, after all, to have been scared by a distant fireball can be embarrassing but to have encountered an alien space ship is more exciting."
The WashingtonPost.com also covered the event. The article, authored by Joel Achenbach, begins
A group of people who believe in UFOs held a news conference yesterday morning that established beyond the shadow of a doubt -- that reached levels of credibility so high as to constitute actual proof -- that there really do exist people who believe in UFOs.
Achenbach says of Greer that
He arranged an impressive venue, the main ballroom of the National Press Club. Upward of a hundred people were there, along with more than a dozen TV cameras. At a long table up front sat 20 witnesses, most of them gray-haired men who'd served in the military.
The event was "old-fashioned," according to Achenbach, since it involved mostly a discussion of aerial anomalies and nothing about abductions or reproductive experimentation.
Achenbach noted a couple of items that are likely to hinder this project from being very successful: (1) Greer's insistence that the U.S. government possesses alien technology that could provide unlimited energy and has helped them build vehicles that travel faster than the speed of light, and (2) testimony from people like Clifford Stone, a retired Army sergeant, who claims that there are 57 alien species and he's seen them all, dead and alive.
May 9, 2001. Today was supposed to be the big day for UFOlogists but so far the great Disclosure Project hasn't ruffled any feathers. A group of UFOers, led by Dr. Stephen Greer, a founder of CSETI who gave up his position in medicine to pursue aliens full-time, has lined up several hundred motley "witnesses" to pour forth their heartfelt testimonies regarding various experiences with UFOs, aliens and government agencies. For those who missed the earthshaking press conference, videos of the event are for sale and a couple of clips viewable on Real Audio are available online.
As far as I can tell, the only thing new about this project is that Greer has brought disparate elements together, no doubt thinking that the sheer quantity of the testimony and quality of the witnesses should convince even the most hardened skeptic. The alleged hope is to get enough popular support to force Congress to hold hearings on the issue. Each of the those who testified asserted that he or she is ready to testify before Congress that what they say is the truth. I say that this is an alleged hope because it seems unlikely that Greer really thinks Congress is going to let several hundred people testify before Congress that the United States Government has conspired to keep the truth about aliens and UFOs from the American public for over fifty years. Now, if ex-President Clinton is accused of having had sex with an alien, Congress might agree to the hearings, but barring anything of that nature, these testimonies are likely to remain right where they are.
None of the testimony is new, nor is anyone holding a smoking gun. These are just hundreds of people who have had various experiences they believe are suspicious and have interpreted as evidence of an alien presence. (They are not, however, the stereotypical country bumpkins walking the dog near swamp gas on the bayou.) The group claims that one of its goals is to stop the building of weapons systems to be used in space. I applaud them for that, but in a world where the daily news brings reports of the army's new lead-free bullets for a cleaner environment and executions that are carried out with dignity and professionalism, I have to be a bit skeptical of the chances of their success.
I looked for news reports on the Disclosure Project's big press conference, but found nothing on the websites for ABC, CBS, or NandoTimes. Even Fox News seems to have passed on this one. Maybe the networks were too busy following up on Tina Wesson and Survivor stories to be bothered with a mere UFO/alien press conference.
May 1, 2001. Harvard Medical school (John Mack, Andrew Weil) announced it has received a $10 million gift from the Bernard Osher Foundation to study non-traditional medicine. The money should help sustain the medical school's fledgling Division for Research and Education in Complementary and Integrative Medicine. The head of the "alternative" program at Harvard is Dr. David M. Eisenberg, who became hooked on the stuff while visiting China. (I wonder if he noticed that only about 10% of China's population is over age 60, while about 17% of the U.S. population is over 60. On the other hand, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Greece and Denmark all have more people living longer than the U.S. does.* Maybe they have some secret "alternative" medicine our government is conspiring to conceal. I also wonder if he thinks that China's doubling its lifespan since 1949 is due to the increase in traditional Chinese medicine. How effective does Dr. Eisenberg think acupuncture or mugwort was in treating malaria or tuberculosis? Maybe he wants to close the gap between China's and the U.S.'s longevity rates: Americans now live an average of about 5 years longer than the Chinese.)
There would be merit if the money were used for basic
scientific research into the effectiveness and dangers of herbal therapies.
The first of the money spent, however, is going to establish the Bernard
Osher Chair in Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies, a tenured
[thanks to Joe Littrell]
April 24, 2001. The Journal of the American Medical Association has published the results of a six-week study of medication errors at Children's Hospital Boston and Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. The researchers found an error rate of 5.7 percent: 616 medication errors out of 10,778 orders written for 1,120 patients.
The researchers found 115 potential adverse drug effecs (ADEs), i.e., 1.1%. and 26 ADEs (0.24%). "Of the 26 ADEs, 5 (19%) were preventable. While the preventable ADE rate was similar to that of a previous adult hospital study, the potential ADE rate was 3 times higher. The rate of potential ADEs was significantly higher in neonates in the neonatal intensive care unit. Most potential ADEs occurred at the stage of drug ordering (79%) and involved incorrect dosing (34%), anti-infective drugs (28%), and intravenous medications (54%)."
The researchers believe that computerized physician order entry could have prevented most of the potential adverse drug effects.*
April 22, 2001. Citylinkonline features James Randi in an article by Art Levine. The article details Randi's pursuit of John Edward and describes the 72-year old magician and debunker as "basking in the limelight while going on the warpath against psychics." Randi's challenge--a million dollars to anyone who can prove they possess psychic or paranormal abilities--is described as a publicity stunt and not offered in good faith by people like Ray Hyman and Marcello Truzzi. The latter describes Randi as someone "who shoots from the lip." Randi denies the charges and calls Truzzi a "fence-sitter." (Truzzi seems to think that true skeptics should suspend judgment on just about everything.)
Randi also criticizes the work of Gary Schwartz, a Harvard-trained professor of psychology and director of the Human Energy Systems Laboratory in Tucson. Schwartz claims to have proof of Edward's and others psychic abilities. "Harvard-trained" seems to impress some people, but we should remember a few others who are either Harvard-trained or who train others at Harvard: Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil and John Mack.
* AmeriCares *