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 2006





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December 6, 2006. 'Tis the season to be jolly! And to fire the first shots in this season's War on the War on Christmas.

A group calling itself "Young Conservatives of Texas" wants the bigots of the world to know that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is their worst enemy. The ACLU has defended the Constitution of the United States, thereby preventing Christians from putting crosses and crèches on government property. The Young Conservatives think Christians should be free to put up representations of their religious stories wherever they want. They are not satisfied with being allowed to put up Nativity scenes or crosses on their church properties or on the lawns of their homes. They want their religion represented at City Hall. If that is truly their desire, they should move to some other country where there is no separation between City Hall and religion. They could then do whatever they want in the name of their religion. They could forbid women to drive or be seen in public without a male escort. They could forbid women from getting an education. They could stone to death homosexuals and anyone else who offends their religious sensibilities. If the Young Conservatives decide to stay in America, however, thanks to the ACLU they are free to set up mock Nativity scenes like the one they erected on the the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

Their clever little bit of bigotry features Gary and Joseph standing in for Joseph and Mary, a terrorist as an angel, and Lenin, Stalin, and Marx as the three wise men. The Young Conservatives call their creation the "ACLU Nativity scene." They should call it "the Conservative Christian Bigotry & Ignorance scene."

The freedom to express the bigotry that the Young Conservatives enjoy is made possible by groups like the ACLU. In theocracies, which the Young Conservatives seem to admire, they would be allowed to express their bigotry only if it coincided with the bigotry of those in power. Otherwise, they would be dead.

The ACLU defends even bigots like the Young Conservatives and their colleagues. Last summer, the Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist in Kansas, led an anti-homosexual protest at the funerals of two Tennessee soldiers killed in Iraq. The reverend contends that American soldiers are being killed in Iraq as vengeance from God for protecting a country that harbors homosexuals. His family, which makes up most of his congregation, carried signs that read "God hates you" and "God hates fags."* The ACLU argued against a new state law in Tennessee that was intended to prevent such protesters from their bigoted and ignorant protest.*

Democracy, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech are ugly sometimes because people are ugly sometimes. The alternative is to eliminate democracy and freedom, and elevate bigotry to the status of law, which is what the Young Conservatives are striving for, even if they don't know it.

Still, it's nice to see that the Young Conservatives of Texas have a sense of humor and at least they seem to know who Marx, Lenin, and Stalin were. They've learned something in their history classes. But they seem to have been absent from the classes in their American history course where it was explained why the Founders did not support the notion of a state church, did not mention God in the Constitution, and explicitly rejected the notion of any religious test for public service. The brief version is that it was to prevent any faction of bigots from tyrannizing the rest of us. For the long version, read Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby (Owl Books 2004). It would make a nice Christmas present to your favorite religious bigot.


November 11, 2006. This just in from Penn State!

A&E begins filming paranormal show

Cameras focused on members of the Penn State Paranormal Research Society (PRS) yesterday as they taped the first scenes of their reality television show.

The show, currently called Paranormal U, will follow PRS members as they conduct interviews and use video cameras and thermometers to generate evidence of ghosts and demons.

The only question I have is "oral or rectal?"

November 3, 2006. "Pastor Ted" Haggard has resigned his leadership of the  National Association of Evangelicals (30 million members) after Mike Jones, a male prostitute, alleged he's been having sex with the allegedly homophobic reverend every month for the past three years. The gay prostitute also alleges that Pastor Ted used amphetamines to heighten his sexual pleasure. Haggard, a man of faith who has five children, says he "never had a gay relationship with anybody" and that he has been faithful to his wife. Pastor Ted also stepped down as head of his 14,000-strong New Life Church.

Haggard is one of America's most influential religious leaders and has close ties to the Bush White House* and can be counted on to promote conservative positions on political issues. However, he recently asserted that the environment should be considered a values issue among Evangelicals,* which may not have gone over too well with the Bush folks.

According to the BBC, the resignation "comes as a blow for Republicans, who are hoping to energise a demoralised Christian base ahead of mid-term elections." Pastor Ted admits that he bought amphetamines for himself and was tempted to use them but he resisted Satan and threw them away! Halleluiah! He also admits that he got a massage from the male prostitute but that was all. Who are you going to believe? The pastor or the prostitute?

update Nov. 5, 2006: The pastor now admits the prostitute was telling the truth and that he himself is "a deceiver and a liar."* In a letter to the New Life Church, which fired him yesterday, Haggard wrote: "There is a part of my life that is so repulsive and dark and I've been warring against it my entire adult life." He didn't say whether he was referring to his ministry or to his sexual proclivities.

October 27, 2006. The psychic sleuth without a clue, Phil Jordan, has been invited to help solve the mysterious death of 86-year-old Regene Helen McPherson of Indian River county in Florida. The widow McPherson was found beaten and strangled to death beside her bed last July. The cops are clueless regarding the case. So, on the recommendation of another cop, detective Todd Finnegan asked Jordan to help. Jordan lives in New York and owns the Candor Funeral Parlour in Candor, N.Y. He thinks he has a psychic gift and has convinced some local cops of his abilities. They were especially impressed with his work in the 1975 Tommy Kennedy case, although Ken Feder and Michael Park, who investigated the case (see Psychic Sleuths, chapter 8, "The Mythologized Psychic Detective: Phil Jordan") call Jordan's version of the story a "myth." Joe Nickell summed up the case against Jordan's psychic abilities in the National Geographic program "Psychic Detectives" in the "Is It Real?" series. As Ben Radford says in that same program: the psychics never solve any crime cases but they always take credit and often manage to get credit from others for what they never do.

Finnegan said he learned about Jordan from a former police officer who is a consultant for Court TV. Finnegan also said: "I feel pretty confident that through DNA we may be able to solve this, and if it doesn't go down that road, I truly believe somebody out there knows something and will pick up phone and call us." In the meantime, Finnegan will let Phil Jordan try to crack the case while the detective waits by the phone.

October 16, 2006. Advocates of critical thinking probably don't usually think of Oprah Winfrey as an ally. Yet, last week she did a program featuring Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina and turned it into an advocacy program for critical thinking. The show was called Truth in America. Her website features an encouragement to "Start recognizing the truth in government and media with seven ways to start thinking critically." Dr. Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute is quoted on the website and he was in the front row during the program to answer questions like "how can we get back to critical thinking?" Of course, the question assumes we were once there and have lost our way. I'm not so sure we've ever been there, but you know the nation is in deep doo doo when Oprah starts worrying about our ability to think critically.

Oprah Winfrey is the master of the good story, the anecdote that substitutes for serious analysis. In less than an hour, she can turn a minor tale of something like "road rage" into a candidate for admission into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Of course, she is just one of many in the mass media who play on fear and use questionable authorities and statistics to back up allegations of plagues and epidemics of everything from road rage to internet addiction. But she has a lot more influence than Barbara Walters or the Los Angeles Times. When Oprah speaks, the nation listens. So, it was with both amusement and pleasure that I watched her program on truth and critical thinking.

The Poynter Institute is a school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalists. Dr. Clark answered questions such as "Are you getting the truth about major events such as September 11, the War in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina?" His response: "The truth is being distorted from all corners, and Americans don't see it, or if they do, too many don't seem to care." He offers some sensible advice to help people develop critical literacy. for example, he advises that we:

Be a skeptic, but not a cynic. A skeptic doubts knowledge. A cynic doubts moral goodness. The cynic says, "All politicians are liars," or "all journalists have a secret bias." The skeptic says, "That doesn't sound right to me. Show me the evidence."

Whatever else the program accomplished, it demonstrated the value of asking questions and promoting debate. It also demonstrated the difficulty of asking some questions. They might seem rude and insensitive. For example, when a young man stood up and declared that he had served in Iraq, the audience gave him a standing ovation. They don't know who this young man is, whether he served in Iraq or at Starbucks. All they have is his word for it. He could have been a plant from the Bush administration. He could have spontaneously made up his story because he'd heard others tell it and he believes it's true and he wanted to say something to support our troops. The young man complained that the media only tells the bad news and they don't see the Iraqis coming up to him and his buddies and thanking them for what they are doing for their country. Maybe he's telling the truth, but does he expect Iraqis to behave otherwise toward the man with the gun? I say he might be a plant because it was brought up on the program that the Bush administration has used plants (Armstrong Williams was mentioned) to pose as journalists. They also used actors to portray jubilant Iraqi-Americans allegedly celebrating the fall of Baghdad in a video made by the State Department and distributed to news agencies as if it were news (New York Times, March 13, 2005).

It is an exaggeration to say there was a "fall from truth" after 9/11. It's true that The New York Times apologized to its readers for not being skeptical or critical of information provided to it by the Pentagon. The Times admits it was manipulated by the Bush administration in promoting the idea of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It seems the people are now expected to be the watchdogs of the media. In any case, there's no evidence that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11 or that they were a serious threat to our security. We don't really know what motivated Bush and his team to engage Iraq. Attacking Afghanistan seemed defensible since al-Qaeda was training there, it was Osama bin Laden's base, the evidence was strong that his group was behind the attacks on 9/11, and the Taliban clearly was doing nothing to stop al-Qaeda. In any case, the reasons the administration now gives for attacking Iraq are not the same ones they gave to justify going to war in the first place. But Bush's father was also less than truthful with the nation when he took us to war. That war was also sold to us. Here is an excerpt from my Becoming a Critical Thinker (p. 65):

One of the more egregious examples of TV news manipulation is the work done by the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Hill and Knowlton worked for Citizens for a Free Kuwait, funded by the emir of Kuwait. Hill and Knowlton ignited public opinion to go to war in Iraq by coaching the daughter of Kuwait's ambassador to the U.S. to lie about herself to a Congressional committee (she said she was Nayirah, a Kuwaiti refugee) and claim that she had witnessed atrocities against babies by Iraqi soldiers. She claimed the soldiers stormed a hospital in Kuwait and pulled premature babies from their incubators, leaving them to die. President Bush cited the infants' deaths as an example of the kind of brutal aggression these modern day Nazis would continue to engage in if they were not stopped.1  Hill and Knowlton also made available to news agencies videotapes of Kuwaiti refugees whose stories served their client's interests. At the time, Craig Fuller, President Bush's former chief of staff, headed Hill and Knowlton. The public relations firm had unrestricted travel privileges in Saudi Arabia, while journalists were severely limited in where they could travel to. The PR firm also was the source for many amateur videos shot inside Kuwait and smuggled out to be edited and distributed by Hill and Knowlton on behalf of their client. These videotapes were widely used by TV news networks. The PR firm also coached Fatima Fahed for her lying testimony before the United Nations Security Council about atrocities she alleged she had witnessed in Kuwait. Morgan Strong interviewed Fahed, a close relative of a senior Kuwaiti official and the wife of Kuwait's minister of planning, in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, before her UN testimony and she told him she had no firsthand knowledge of atrocities.2  Says Strong, "It is an inescapable fact that much of what Americans saw on their news broadcasts, especially leading up to the Allied offensive against Iraqi-occupied Kuwait, was in large measure the contrivance of a public-relations firm."3

        1 After the war ended, ABC television reported (March 15, 1991) that it was true that 312 babies had died in a maternity hospital but they had not died because Iraqi soldiers killed them or stole their incubators. The babies died because the doctors and nurses abandoned the hospital. Dr. Mohammed Matar and his wife, Dr. Fayeza Youssef, who ran the hospital, said that the babies died because "no one stayed to care for them" after the invasion. Matar admitted that the reports on Iraqi atrocities about the babies were "for propaganda." See Sacramento Bee, "Iraqis didn't kill babies, ABC says," March 16, 1991, p. A-19.

        2 "Portions of the GULF WAR were brought to you by...the folks at Hill and Knowlton," Morgan Strong, TV Guide, February 22, 1992, p. 11.

        3 ibid., p. 13.

In any case, it is encouraging that Oprah is promoting critical thinking and skepticism, at least about politics. Now, if she would just extend her skepticism to irrational faith-based beliefs and fear-mongering by self-anointed experts.....

September 18, 2006. According to The Sacramento Bee (9/16/06 p. A6), "the tax code bars nonprofit organizations, including churches, from endorsing or campaigning against candidates in an election." Is giving an anti-war speech that criticized President Bush and the United States invasion of Iraq "campaigning"? The IRS has asked for documents from the congregation of All Saints Episcopal Church in southern California as part of its investigation of a sermon given two days before the November 2004 presidential election. The sermon was given by former rector George Regas and was critical of Bush's policies on the Iraq war, abortion, and poverty. Regas did not endorse Kerry or any other presidential candidate, however. Nor did he tell people not to vote for Bush.

The current rector, the Rev. Ed Bacon, considers the IRS summons to be an attack on freedom of religion and expression. If the church is found guilty of campaigning by the IRS, it will lose its tax-exempt status.

Is criticizing a candidate's war policies and views on abortion and poverty equivalent to campaigning against that candidate? These days much campaigning consists of little more than criticism of or vicious attacks on opponents, so why wouldn't giving a sermon that stops short of advocating not voting for Bush or endorsing Kerry or others (who may have been planning to implement even worse policies that President Bush has set into action) be considered campaigning?

Bacon is going to consult with his lawyers before deciding whether to defy the IRS summons. Either way, this one will probably be decided in court. Let's hope the judge in the case will not be an activist who makes law instead of applies it. Let's hope he or she will apply the strict constructionist meaning to the word "campaigning against," i.e., the meaning intended by the Congress, not the meaning of the muck slingers who run most of today's political campaigns.

August 21, 2006. Even though the universe is only a few thousand years old, some silly astronomers think they have observed a collision that took place 100 million years ago.

One of these heathens even claims that "The kinetic energy of this collision is...enough to completely evaporate and pulverize planet Earth ten trillion trillion times over." Another bragged that "This provides the first direct proof that dark matter must exist and that it must make up the majority of the matter in the Universe."

Silly boys. They should read their Bible and get the facts.

May 28, 2006. The future of the planet may be in the hands of those who believe angels protect and guide them while their bracelets and watches ward off negative energy. In Great Britain, more than half the population believe in psychic powers, according to a poll conducted by Reader's Digest Magazine. More than half of those polled claim to have had clairvoyant dreams or premonitions. Twenty percent have seen a ghost and 29% think that near-death experiences provide good evidence for life after death. I wonder if there are paranormal polls in the afterlife-ghosts polling ghosts about their occult beliefs-or do people suddenly become skeptical when they're dead? Of those polled, 43% say they've tapped into other people's thoughts or have had their own minds read by someone else. Who can contest that some minds are easier to read than others? Many Britons claim to be precognitive but only about 10% think they can influence machinery with their thoughts. These might be the same 10% who think they're psychic.

Contrary to folk wisdom that says the older you get the wiser you become, the survey found that older people were more likely to believe in the paranormal.

Interestingly, 98% of those surveyed said they believe they are above average in intelligence and critical thinking ability. More than 99% of those polled believe they are in the top ten percent of those unlikely to be affected by wishful thinking and self-deception. Two-thirds of these say they know when people are staring at them or are having impure thoughts. [I thank in advance those who are about to e-mail me to inform me that the statistics I cite in the last paragraph are not mentioned in the article and were probably invented as some sort of sick attempt at humor.]

April 19, 2006. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no significant difference in adverse neuropsychological or renal effects between children with mercury dental fillings and those with non-mercury fillings. Even so, because of fear that mercury fillings might be dangerous, there are some 70 million dental amalgam restorations done annually in the United States. That's a lot of unnecessary dental work.

See also Funk 25.

March 30, 2006. CNN and the Washington Post report that researchers have found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients has no effect on their recovery. In the largest study of its kind, patients who knew they were being prayed for actually had a slightly higher rate of complications. Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School was co-principal investigator of the study, which followed about 1,800 patients at six medical centers.  It will be published in the American Heart Journal. The results didn't surprise Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center. Science, he said, "is not designed to study the supernatural." Tell that to the folks at the Discovery Institute who think intelligent design should be taught in biology classes.

Benson's study was financed by the Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion. He joins the class of others who have tried to find scientific evidence for healing at a distance via prayer and ended up failing or cheating: Dr. Mitch Krucoff, Dr. Lobo et al., Dr. William S. Harris, Drs. Sicher and Targ, and Dr. Randolph Byrd.

March 21, 2006. The headline over the story in this morning's Sacramento Bee reads: Thimerosal linked to immune system ills. There should have been two more words in the headline: "in mice."

The subhead may have mitigated some of the aha! I told you so! reaction from the thimerosal-causes-autism crowd: The vaccine component has been suspected in autism, but study is no 'smoking gun' to UCD expert.

Still, it is likely that this study at UC Davis, which found that thimerosal disrupts the normal biological signals occurring in dendritic cells in mice,  will be seen by some as vindicating the belief that thimerosal in vaccines caused their children's autism. (Dendritic cells are responsible for triggering the body's immune response to bacteria, viruses, or other antigens.) Adding fuel to this belief is the fact that many autistic children suffer from immunological disorders "including gut disorders, allergies and frequent infections."*

"This is not a smoking gun," said Isaac Pessah, the University of California, Davis, toxicologist who led the study. "We now understand one of the ways in which thimerosal could adversely impact the immune system," Pessah said.

Future studies must be done to discover "whether dendritic cells from children with autism are particularly sensitive to the effects of thimerosal, various forms of mercury, and other environmental toxicants."*

Previous studies have not found a correlation between vaccines with thimerosal and autism.


Update: July 18, 2006

Another study has found that "There is no relationship between the level of exposure to MMR vaccines and thimerosal-containing vaccines and rates of autism."* The Canadian study was published in the journal Pediatrics.

I have written about this subject several times and will not repeat myself here.

further reading

See also:



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