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






vertline.gif (1078 bytes)


July 26, 2001.
Every time I see a TV ad for the ubiquitous Miss Cleo, the phony Tarot psychic with the phony Jamaican accent, I wonder why she isn't in prison. Fraud is illegal, as far I know. False and misleading advertising are illegal, I think. If a fellow goes to prison for falsely claiming he made millions in real estate using his special program and for running TV ads with testimonials from "actors" claiming they too made millions by following the first liar's advice, then why is Miss Cleo free? It is not even worthwhile to expose her; she should be prosecuted. The phony testimonials from people who have just been told their lovers are unfaithful may be amusing but they're lies intended to get the viewer to call her psychic hotline and spend $4.99 a minute for "advice." These lines are open 24 hours a day and handled by a coven of hirelings who are probably making minimum wage. Just because her ads note that her services are "for entertainment purposes only" shouldn't absolve her from charges of fraud. If a gangster put a gun to your ribs and demanded your cash while holding up a sign that says "for entertainment purposes only," you'd still call it armed robbery.

Cleo also uses the Internet to perpetrate her psychic scam: she sends strangers e-mail claiming she's had a dream about them and that they need to contact her immediately. Or is it Access Resources Services Inc.'s scam? That's the name of the company which promotes Miss Cleo. Access Resources Services, Inc. was located in Delaware last year when they were sued by the attorney general of Oklahoma. The company has also had enough complaints made against them in the state of Michigan to warrant being listed in the dropdown menu of companies listed on the complaints page of the Michigan Public Services Commission. (Eleven complaints have been filed since January 1997.)

Today, Miss Cleo and Access Resources Services Inc. (now based in Florida) were sued in Missouri by Attorney General Jay Nixon who said: `"It doesn't take a crystal ball to realize that ripping off consumers isn't without consequences." Unfortunately, neither one is being charged with the kind of fraud that involves lying about knowing the future from Tarot cards. No, they're being charged with violating a "no call" law which prohibits a telemarketing company from calling people who have requested to be put on a "no call" list. The state of Missouri claims Miss Cleo violated this law 94 times and could be fined nearly half a million dollars. They were also sued for customer fraud because customers "were billed for free services" and "the company misrepresented reduced rates and waiver fees." There were other billing irregularities, such as deceased people being billed for calls to Miss Cleo and minors calling in without parental consent. This is not exactly what I have in mind when I envision the police knocking on Miss Cleo's door. Did the customer really get her full three free minutes as promised? Who cares? What has happened to law enforcement in this country? Are they so afraid of Access Resources Services Inc.'s lawyers that they won't arrest these people for fraud? Or are they afraid that if they go after the psychics they'll be pressured to go after the TV evangelists who extort money from their flocks by phony stories of miracle cures and blessings? Or is the law just too bloody complicated?

The way I look at it, every day that passes and Miss Cleo is free to advertise her Tarot psychic claims, using her phony testimonials and cheap tricks, the more reasonable it will be for people to think that maybe she's legitimate. After all, if she and her cohorts were really lying about all the stuff they say, wouldn't the police arrest them?

Apparently not.

further reading

[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus, Chuck Kistler and Joe Littrell]

July 12, 2001. Law enforcement practices are featured almost daily in the mass media, so much so that we often forget how irrational some of these practices are. Lately, congressman Gary Condit's conduct with women has been much in the news. Condit, a co-sponsor of legislation that would encourage posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, has been accused by a woman and the father of another woman of trying to intimidate the women  into not revealing his affairs with them. A third woman the married Condit had an affair with went missing shortly after their affair ended. What do the police want to do? Give him a "lie detector" test! Does the media choke at this request and show the least hint of skepticism about the polygraph's reliability at detecting lies? No, instead they insinuate that if Condit doesn't submit to a "lie detector" test then he must be guilty of something.

The President of the United States and most members of Congress believe that we can ferret out spies and potential traitors with the polygraph. Does the media cry out that belief in this pseudoscientific device is unjustified? Does it even remind us that only by lying can the continued use of this contraption be defended? One exception can be found in the Skeptical Inquirer (July/August 2001) in an article by Alan P. Zelicoff, a senior scientist in the Center for National Security and Arms Control at Sandia National Laboratories. "Many innocent people have had their lives and careers ruined by thoughtless interrogation initiated during polygraphy," says Zelicoff.  And what about all the tax dollars and work hours wasted on these machines and other questionable devices? Does the government care? Does the mass media care?

Another practice of law enforcement was in the news today as well. This one involves a search for two missing children in the Chicago area. Some minister claimed he had a psychic vision of their bodies at the bottom of a lagoon, so the police brought in divers and searched the lagoon. They didn't find the little girls. When the police use psychics, do the media howl about how absurd this is? No. They are more likely to rouse up some old story about Sylvia Browne who seems to have fabricated some whoppers about her crime-solving psychic powers. (One exception is Brill's Content.) Or they make some reference to Jeane Dixon and her alleged clairvoyance regarding Kennedy's assassination.

The ease with which law enforcement can prove to a jury that just about anybody is guilty of just about anything, especially if the mass media goes along for the ride and the issue feeds on the community's fears, was brought home by the news that Gerald Amirault could be freed after spending 15 years in prison for child abuse. Amirault worked at the Fell's Acres daycare center in Massachusetts when the witch hunts for Satanists who were abusing and murdering children was at its height. Last week, the Massachusetts's state Parole Board unanimously found that the evidence presented (and not presented) at his trial left "real and substantial doubt" as to his guilt. He would not be the first person falsely charged and imprisoned during the frenzied search for people who were bringing in zebras and giraffes to have sex with children who had had sharp knifes inserted into their private orifices after taking airplane rides to the desert to eat other children before returning to the underground tunnels where they were forced to eat feces and drink urine. Did the media wonder about the validity of "repressed memory therapy," a hodgepodge of pseudoscientific techniques allegedly able to root out the truth hidden in children's subconscious minds? Did they challenge the accuracy of these memories or the methods used to evoke them? Did they wonder what harm might be done to a child, or adult for that matter, if horrible "memories" were implanted by so-called therapists? Did they care whether innocent people would be sent to prison? For the most part, it doesn't seem so.

This same point about convicting innocent people is brought home frequently these days as more and more men are freed from prison when DNA evidence is used to prove they couldn't have committed the crimes they were accused of.

Finally, there is the matter of police brutality and use of excessive force. I have no idea how much of this goes on, but all it takes is a couple of cases like that of  Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima to set back police/community relations by a century or two.  Diallo is the West African immigrant who, though unarmed, was shot 41 times by the police. Louima is the Haitian immigrant sodomized by a cop with a broken broomstick in a police station bathroom. Louima recently settled his lawsuit for $8.7 million. Here the media does make sure its voice is heard, but how much courage does it take to say it's irrational and immoral to use torture and shoot anything that moves and is black?

July 11, 2001. The current issue of JAMA (vol 286 no 2) has an article warning patients about to have surgery of the dangers of taking herbs before surgery.  I find this interesting since many people take herbs as an alternative to surgery. They think herbs like ginkgo biloba and ginseng can prevent diseases which might require surgery otherwise. The main danger is that the herbs might lead to excessive bleeding. The authors are not campaigning to eliminate herbs from the diets of millions of Americans, which would be fruitless since the numbers who believe in the magical nutritional and healing power of their herbs is growing exponentially, it seems. Rather, the authors are encouraging patients to inform their doctors of any herbs they might be taking. Many patients are not telling their doctors about their herbal intake, either because they don't realize that herbs contain chemicals that might react with anesthesia or other drugs given before or after surgery or because they don't want their doctor to know that they are hedging their bets with alternative medicine. For purposes of the law, herbs are called "dietary supplements" and are not subject to the same kind of scientific scrutiny as prescription or non-prescription drugs. So, perhaps herb users think of their herbs as "alternative vitamins and minerals."

The concern is not new and was reported on over a year ago by CNN, ABC,  and HealthCentral. I reported on this concern last October. WebMD took up the issue last September. A report on the JAMA study can be found at the CNN site.

The mystical belief in the power of herbs has carried over from consenting adults who should be allowed to ingest whatever useless remedy they wish, to marketing herbs for our children and our dogs and cats. Andrea Candee, MH, i.e., "master herbalist", claims to know what herbs are "child-friendly." You can find out what they are if you buy her book. I can understand an Aborigine, with 40,000 years of tradition behind him or her, claiming to be a master herbalist. But I wonder where Candee got her title. The fact is that herbs have pharmacological properties, have been used in traditional drugs for years, and are being used by millions of self-medicators today. Those who produce and market herbs should do less to make people think their products are safe just because they are natural, and do more to inform people that herbs are drugs. When one's doctor asks what drugs you or your children or pets are taking, one should list not just prescription drugs but herbs as well. Your life or the life of those you love may depend on it.

June 27, 2001. John Derbyshire, a columnist for the National Review, has posted his July 9, 2001, column entitled "Stars Above!" in which he laments the rise of astrology and ponders what it all means. He begins by noting that Kepler College is in its second year. We lamented the founding of this college, devoted exclusively to astrology, in this column a couple of years ago. Derbyshire then notes that Mme. Elizabeth Teissier, astrologer to the late French socialist president François Mitterrand, has been granted a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne sociology department for a 900-page thesis on astrology. And India plans to create astrology departments in 24 public universities next year.

Derbyshire does not mince words in his wholesale condemnation of astrology.

It hardly needs saying, I hope, to a readership as intelligent as NR's that astrology is twaddle. An astrologer can tell you nothing useful, though one with a good bedside manner can, of course, cheer you up a bit. The perfect emptiness of astrology has been demonstrated countless times. The Dutch investigator Rob Nanninga, for example, took seven subjects, extracted from them all the information necessary for an astrologer to make up a full horoscope, and gave that information to 50 astrologers. He then administered to the same seven subjects a set of questions, supplied by the astrologers themselves, about their personality and life experiences. The completed questionnaires were passed to the astrologers, who were then asked to match horoscope to questionnaire. Their failure to do so was total: results were exactly what one would expect from a random pairing of horoscopes with questionnaires. If you don't like that experiment, any number of others have been done, with different methods but identical results - Skeptical Inquirer magazine can supply a full list. Astrology is pure flapdoodle.

Ah, if only intelligence were the key here! I'd love to see what kind of reader response Derbyshire gets.

Derbyshire even goes after Valerie Vaughan, a professional astrologer we ripped into a couple of years ago. She wants astrology in the public schools as part of the multi-cultural curriculum. Derbyshire thinks that the rise of astrology is a symptom of our loss of reverence for reason. Liberals think the election of George W. Bush is a similar symptom. I disagree. Valerie Vaughan is probably as intelligent as Derbyshire or Dubbya and she uses her reason in a way that indicates she has as much respect for reason as either of them does. What she lacks is skepticism and an understanding of the workings of science, controlled experiments, confirmation bias, communal reinforcement, the pragmatic fallacy and self-deception. In short, she is ignorant. Such ignorance will not be replaced by knowledge as long as politicians and academics grant degree-giving power and degrees to astrologers.

Somebody should have slapped her up the side of the head and told her to shut up when she first spouted one of her astrological confirmations. Instead of encouraging the girl to delve deeper into the mystical drivel of astrology by either agreeing with her or telling her she might just be right, her friends and family should have stopped her in her tracks and set her straight. On the other hand, her family and friends, and I daresay Mr. Derbyshire himself, probably believe equally ridiculous gibberish about angels and devils, Incarnations and Trinities, and who knows what else. One person's flapdoodle is another's Truth. Our President says he can look into a man's eyes and see his soul. As long as there are enough people who don't whack you silly for saying such stupid things, you are probably going to believe you make sense and continue to be enamored of your own twaddle and flapdoodle.

Just think of how different the world would be if G.W.'s parents had hit him with a cane when he told them that he could see their dog's soul by looking into her eyes. Instead, they probably humored him, thinking that if they didn't he might grow up weird or troubled. Or, perhaps they wondered along with their prodigy if it might not be auntie Hildy in there.

June 27, 2001. "The Thirty Years' War" is the title of an article by Jerome Groopman  in the June 4, 2001, issue of "The New Yorker (52-63)." The article is essentially about the failures of the war against cancer declared by President Richard M. Nixon at the behest (mainly) of Mary Lasker. Despite the frequent headlines over the years claiming that the cure is here, about all we know for sure today is that the best way to beat cancer is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Well, we also know that DNA replication has a high error rate and that mutations in genes are probably the main reason cells start dividing rapidly and destructively. (Maybe the Intelligent Design proponents will explain that little quirk in divine engineering. If a human engineer created something with as a high an error rate as DNA replication, we'd fire him.) In 1972, the cancer mortality rate in the U.S. was 163 per 100,000 population.  In 1992, it was 172 per 100,000.* Today, it is about 190 per 100,000.

This year alone, more than a million new diagnoses of major cancers will be made and about five hundred and fifty thousand Americans will die of cancer, an average of fifteen hundred a day. [One of every four deaths is due to cancer.]

Why has the war on cancer failed as miserably as the war on drugs? Groopman's view is that we've failed precisely because we declared war. Nixon and his conservative allies were able to see that throwing money at social problems like poverty were doomed to fail. Why couldn't they see that throwing money at medical research was also doomed to fail? If you open the public coffers at point X in time to "solve this problem" you invite leadership from those who are currently using methods and working from theories that are wrong or failures. Researchers spent years looking for the cancer virus and trying cures on patients that were little more than unscientific tortures. Groopman's view is that we'd probably be a lot farther ahead in cancer research had the process not been politicized and centralized. Scientific research might need cooperation but advances in medical research are more likely to be made according to what Groopman thinks might be called "the law of unintended consequences." Even the search for a cancer cure has led to unintended consequences that have been beneficial for other areas of medical health.

By the nineteen-eighties, a huge superstructure had resulted from the government's war on cancer. Some eight billion dollars had been spent. About thirty government-funded comprehensive cancer centers and major regional cooperative treatment groups linked virtually all university hospitals and community-based specialists. 

This wasteful approach to research could not have happened without the support of both our elected officials in Washington and the medical establishment. The former are to be forgiven because they are generally ignorant of matters on which they legislate. They like to look good to the voters at home as staunch fighters in the war on crime, indecency, drugs, cancer, whatever. But the medical establishment should have fought against a bureaucracy for basic research. Too much money, big egos, desire for fame and fortune, the usual list of suspects, can be listed to explain why it did not make it clear to the nation that progress was much more likely to occur if independent basic research was supported and success rewarded. Instead, we have encouraged hype and hoopla.

If you had demanded that the N.I.H. solve the problem of polio not through independent, investigator-driven discovery research but by means of a centrally directed program, the odds are very strong that you would get the very best iron lungs in the world--portable iron lungs, transistorized iron lungs--but you wouldn't get the vaccine that eradicated polio. --Samuel Broder

Things are changing, however. The current director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Richard Klausner, believes it is time to call off the war on cancer, quit claiming that a new miracle cure has just been discovered, and get off that phony pony that claims cancer is a single disease. He thinks of cancer "as an intricate puzzle--one that we currently lack both the knowledge and the tools to solve." He also believes that clues to solving the puzzle could come from any field. "The only people who now are saying we know enough," says Klausner, "are people who don't know enough."

June 23, 2001. The Learning Channel aired "Atlantis Uncovered" last night and it was excellent. The BBC program debunks the Atlantis myth (as well as von Daniken's myth) in what should satisfy most rational people as definitive. The program exposed the selective use of evidence by supporters of theories that ancient Atlanteans or aliens taught primitive peoples how to build monumental structures such as pyramids or how to plant crops and other basic features of civilization. To give plausibility to theories that are universally rejected in academia one must ignore any refuting evidence. For example, anything that would indicate slow and incremental development, rather than sudden and unprecedented work, is ignored. Hundreds of years of experimentation with building large pyramidal structures are ignored by "alternative archaeology." The failures of the Egyptians in their early attempts at pyramid building indicates that they arrived at the Giza level of construction through trial and error. The thousands of underground tombs with many chambers antedates the patterns used in the pyramids. Ignore their history, and you can make a case that the people who build Giza needed help from Atlantis or outer space. Then, of course, there is the problem that the pyramids in Mexico are all step pyramids and had a totally different purpose from those in Egypt. Furthermore, intimate knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics will not help you read the pictoglyphs on a Mayan temple. Why would the aliens not teach the Egyptians and the Meso-Americans the same form of writing or give them the same plans and purpose for their buildings?

The evidence is overwhelming that things like agriculture, writing, architecture, etc., developed independently in several parts of the world. The evidence is underwhelming that a single source, either earthly or extraterrestrial, led to the various ancient civilizations.

However, after an hour of debunking myths and providing empirical evidence for the view that ancient peoples created their own civilizations, The Learning Channel aired a program called "Atlantis in the Andes." A review of this program may be found in Mass Media Bunk.





©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

larrow.gif (1051 bytes) The Skeptic's Refuge

More Mass Media Funk rarrow.gif (1048 bytes)